In June 2017, I published an updated template for the Field of Study and Research Program Plan (for either Embassy-recommended or University-recommended application). Click the previous link for that article!
The Field of Study and Research Program Plan is both the most important and most confusing form in your Monbukagakusho (MEXT) Scholarship application. By the end of this article, you’re going to know what it is, why it matters, and how to write it- from what to include to how to approach revisions and outside editing.
Before you start, know that you’re going to need to spend time researching, writing, and revising this form. It is the single-most important tool you have at this point in your application to earn a scholarship that could be worth millions of yen. Other forms in your application will determine if you’re eligible to apply or not, but once you apply, this will decide your success.
Field of Study and Research Program Plan: What it Is
The form is only two pages long, and the instructions seem innocent enough. From the form:
Proposed study program in Japan (State the outline of your major field of study on this side and the details of your study program on the backside of this sheet in concreteness. This section will be used as one of the most important references for selection. Statement must be typewritten or written in block letters. Additional sheets of paper may be attached if necessary.)
If you have Japanese language ability, write in Japanese.
I said it was innocent. I didn’t say it was clear.
Write in the language of the program you are applying for. If you’re applying for an English-taught degree, write in English, even if you have Japanese ability. Be consistent throughout your application.
- Field of Study:
I once saw an applicant write only “Economics” on the first page. Don’t do that.
Your field of study is not just the general field, this is the specific topic that you want to research for your graduation thesis. You don’t necessarily need your thesis statement at this point, but you at least need to have a specific problem in mind.
So, rather than “economics” you’re looking for “comparative impact of large infrastructure economic projects and microfinance on rural community rehabilitation in Indonesia.”
We’ll get into some of the specific elements to cover farther down.
- For Embassy-Recommended Scholars:
There is an extra section on your application to write about your current field of study, as well.
- Research Program Plan:
What you’re looking for here is a detailed timeline of the exact actions you’re going to take during your research. You won’t be covering your research topic so much as the practical process.
Take your hint from the form. You get one page for each section. Yes, you can attach extra sheets, but do so with caution. You want to be concise and to the point.
I would recommend adding no more than 1 sheet to each section. You could go more if your field of study absolutely requires graphs or images, but the rule of thumb is use the minimum length required to get your message across.
Why this Form Matters
If you look at the whole set of application materials, this is the only form that you have control over at this time.
Your grades and GPA are set. Your thesis all-but done. The contents of your letter of recommendation aren’t really significant (more on that in another article).
When universities get in all their applications, the first thing they are going to do is rank applicants by field according to their GPA. After that, your Field of Study and Research Program Plan is your best way to move up that ranking.
Like it or not, the Monbukagakusho Scholarship is a zero-sum game. If you want the scholarship, you have to beat out everyone else that wants it. So, you need to be as high on the applicant ranking as you can before the interviews start.
Field of Study: Page 1
According to an MEXT application FAQ that you can find on several Japanese embassy websites, your Field of Study needs to cover (Question 10):
- “A specific amount of your research topic”
- Methodology (this is page 2)
- How your research fits in to the current research being done in the field
- Why your research must be done at a Japanese university
The FAQ also says that your research plan should be something that you would feel comfortable submitting as a research proposal to a graduate school in [your home country]. This is a huge hint!
You may not have experience in submitting a research proposal, but I guarantee your academic advisor does. You can and absolutely should get advise from academic professionals!
- Intended Research Topic
I put this in quotes above because it is a stereotypical example of Japanese vague instructions. What you need to take away here is that you don’t need to tell us everything about your field, just enough for your intended advisor to understand what problem you want to research as well as how you want to approach it.
By the way, if you’re reading these articles out of order, go back to the Choosing Your University article. I talk there about narrowing down your search to a specific professor at a specific university. As you write your Field of Study, remember you are writing to this professor.
When you give a “specific amount” of your research topic, you should know where your target professor sits in the field of research and pitch your research relative to the professor.
You will go into the practical methodology on page two. For here, it should suffice to explain what approach you will take to the topic: quantitative analysis, experimentation, historical analysis, comparison, field studies, etc. Note that the intent to conduct field studies outside of Japan can be a disqualifying factor.
- How Your Research Fits Into the Field
I once made the mistake of applying for a research grant for a research topic I thought was interesting without checking the literature to learn that it had been done a dozen times before. Don’t do that.
As I mentioned in the Eligibility Criteria article, your Field of Study needs to be the same field that you majored in in your previous degree, or a related field. So, at this point, you should have a good grasp of the state of the field. It wouldn’t hurt to check with your current advisor, either.
Know where your target professor sits in the field, as well. You should know the professor’s current research interests and make sure you position your research relative to that professor.
- Why Your Research Must Be Done In Japan
One question I see from a lot of applicants is: how technical should I make my proposal? Are non-specialists going to read it?
Yes, non-specialists will read your proposal. Both faculty members from other departments in your graduate school and admin staff from the university and MEXT. When you cover your research field, you can target that section at people who understand your field, but when you get to the “must be done in Japan” and the impact statement, below, you are addressing everyone outside your field as well.
The best thing you can do here is to talk about practical examples of success in Japan that you want to study and apply to your home country. Flattery doesn’t hurt, either- talk about unique research advances in Japan or the state of the field in Japan as opposed to other countries. Talk about how you want to use your research to strengthen connections between Japan and your home country (this is the purpose of the Monbukagakusho scholarship, after all).
Obviously, “Because I can get a scholarship” is not a good reason.
- Research Impact
Related to the previous item, you should mention the expected outcomes of your research in academic and practical terms, if at all possible. The more relevant it is to forging or strengthening relationships between your home country and Japan, the better.
If you’re concerned that your description of your research topic is too technical and inaccessible for non-experts, this is another area where you can appeal to that crowd.
- Other Requirements
Some universities may require that you specify your advisor by name in the Field of Study, or at least your graduate school and department. If you’re preparing your Field of Study in advance, as you should be, then make sure you check the university’s website when the guidelines are (finally) released to make sure you’re meeting all the requirements.
Tips for Writing Your Study Plan
This is not something you’re going to want to leave until the last minute. Even though it’s only two pages long, take it as seriously as you would a graduate thesis. After all, this single document is going to go a long way toward whether or not you spend the next two-to-five years getting paid to be a grad student in Japan.
One guy who earned the scholarship in the past in art recommended starting 6 months in advance. That’s a great idea, especially combined with networking, if you’re reading this early enough. But if you don’t have that kind of time, you can still help yourself out by moving faster.
I recommend you go through at least two drafts on your own, then take your product around for outside opinions:
- Have your current advisor review it and give feedback. You want the perspective of a career academic and an expert in the field.
- Have a non-expert review it. Ask a professor in an unrelated field or an adult friend with professional working experience. Your goal here is not so much the research as it is the flow of the document and whether it makes any sense at all to a person who doesn’t know what you’re talking about.
- If you’re not a native English speaker, have a native speaker review it. Even if you’re confident in your English communication ability, remember, you’re not writing for a native speaker- you’re writing for Japanese speakers of English. Speaking from experience, they have a very different take on the language, so you want to make sure you have nothing in your Field of Study that could be misinterpreted.
- Have a writing advisor review it, even if you are a native speaker. Your university might have an academic tutorial system that you can ask, or you can ask someone in your department who is known for being a hard-nosed paper grader. You want to make sure that you don’t have any writing idiosyncrasies or mistakes that you’re not aware of.
- Have your target advisor review it. If you’ve successfully connected with your target advisor, you obviously want that professor’s opinion. Make sure to go through the other steps first, though, so you know the document you send the professor is top quality already! You don’t want to make them think less of you.
That’s brainstorming, research, two drafts on your own, as many as five reviews, and edits after each one, so don’t procrastinate. In fact, if you haven’t started yet, don’t read the rest of this blog. Go start your Field of Study now!
Even if you’re reading this after the application period has already started, you do still have time. Make sure that you make this your top priority for the next month or so until it’s complete!
For further, field-specific guidelines, talk to your advisor about structure or google “research plan” and your field. Louisiana Tech, in the US, has a pretty good set of research plan guidelines, but be aware that these are designed for science field graduates seeking an academic job, so they’re more thorough than you need to be.
The most important thing is to avoid “paralysis by analysis.” Don’t overthink and double-question what elements you should have in your proposal. Start writing it and then seek advice. You can always add or cut later.
Research Program Plan
Once you’ve finished the Field of Study, perhaps while you’re waiting for the review, you’ll want to get started on the Research Program Plan. Fortunately, this page should be relatively straightforward.
In terms of length, the one page you’re given on the worksheet should be plenty for this section. I’ve seen many successful plans that were shorter than that. As with the Field of Study, this section should only be as long as it needs to be to get your point across.
And your point here is to show the reviewers that you know what you’re doing. One thing a professor is going to think about it how much trouble it’s going to be to supervise your research. They want to see that you have the basics of research down so that their guidance can focus more on your content, rather than fundamentals.
What to Cover
Your Research Program Plan should take the reviewers step-by-step through everything you intend to do on your way to your thesis or dissertation. Of course this is going to change once you get in to the research, but you want to have a framework to return to.
Your research plan should cover two years for a Master’s Degree and three for a Ph.D. You should definitely check your university’s website to find their academic calendar and structure your research along the lines of their semesters (you’ll be working through any breaks as well, of course).
For a little extra, check when they normally schedule their thesis submission and defense in the calendar and make sure the timeline in your Research Program Plan fits their schedule. If this information isn’t available on their website, it’s not worth going out of the way for, but if you can find it, it makes a nice additional touch.
Now that you have your basic calendar down, it’s time to make a timeline of how you will approach your research. The blogger I mentioned above (who earned the scholarship) wrote his as a month-by-month table, and that is certainly a workable solution. Again, the professors reviewing your application are not native English speakers and a table is easier to read.
You will, of course, want to elaborate a little on the contents of the table.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to research plans. If you’re applying in a humanities field, you’re going to need to take different steps than an applicant in engineering would. This is a good place to seek your current academic advisor’s advice, but here are a few of the common characteristics I’ve seen in successful applications in the past:
- Literature review
- Thesis development and review
- Experiment design
- Analysis of results
- Writing, editing, and defense
- Any interim publications you plan to submit or conferences in your field that you plan to present at. (Some degrees require a certain number of publications or conference presentations, but even if it isn’t required, it’s a good thing to have)
- Any other opportunities to present or share your research – basically, ways to work toward the impact of your research that you mentioned in the Field of Study
- Add some community involvement, too. Cultural exchange and creating connections between Japan and your home country is part of the purpose of this scholarship. If there are particular events you plan to participate in (e.g. doing school visits during a particular stage of your research), mentioning that could be helpful to your application, as well!
Formatting, Presentation, and Things to Avoid
Now that you have your content down, make sure that you present it in a way that’s easy to read and scan. Make sure it’s broken up into paragraphs with topic sentences and that the order is logical. Consider tiling your sections in bold, if possible.
Remember your target audience: They are not native English speakers, they have up to dozens of applications to read through in a short amount of time, and frankly many of them are not that interested in your subject material. Your sentences should be concise and not open to grammatical confusion.
Engineers, I say this with only the best intentions: Get a history or English major to review your writing.
- Submit a one-word Field of Study
- Contact the university or professor and tell them you don’t know what a research plan is.
- Ask your target professor to write your research plan. You should at least have a solid idea of your research topic and an outline of your Field of Study.
- Write an overly technical or detailed plan. You should know the details, of course, but they don’t all need to be in this document (you’ll have interviews to follow up)- just enough to let the reviewers know that you know what you’re doing.
- Submit a Field of Study related to military or dual-use technology.
Yes, I’ve seen all of those things.
We’ve covered why this form is important, the elements to include in both questions, and length and content depth guidelines. Hopefully that’s everything you need to start going.
I’ll leave you with a few important reminders:
Don’t Panic: Most people who apply for the Monbukagakusho Scholarship have never written a Field of Study and Research Program Plan before. You’re not at a disadvantage. (I would hope that, having read this article, you have an advantage over much of the field, if you put these ideas into action.)
Get Feedback: There is absolutely no rule saying that you have to do this all on your own. The best ideas and research come from collaboration. Start with your advisor and his or her connections.
Start Early and Revise Often: Right now, as soon as you finish reading this blog, start brainstorming and working on your outline. The more drafts you go through and the more time you have to seek outside opinions, the more polished of a product you’ll have at the end.
Focus on Your Target: Your Field of Study, especially, should be designed to appeal directly to your target advisor. Connect your interest to theirs, your research to theirs.
Now, go get started! Good luck!
Before asking any questions in the comments below, please read through the MEXT Scholarship Application FAQ top page and specific FAQ pages to see what I’ve answered already and to find tips about how to get your questions answered faster.
You can ask your questions in the comments here, on the FAQ page, or by email and I will answer them by updating the FAQ and letting you know when the answers are available.
I’d also recommend signing up for my mailing list to get notified whenever I have updates to any of the FAQs or new articles about the MEXT scholarship!