Want to see what a successful MEXT Scholarship Field of Study and Research Program Plan looks like? James Chabin has generously agreed to share the story of his application and his complete Field of Study and Research Program Plan that won him the scholarship in the 2021-2022 application cycle!
You can find his story below, followed by his Field of Study and Research Program Plan. I have also included my own section-by-section commentary on the FSRPP. Thank you James!
Creating the Field of Study and Research Program Plan: James’ Story
I am a 2021-2022 MEXT scholarship recipient from the United States currently attending Nagoya University’s Graduate School of International Development. This article includes my Field of Study and Research Program Plan (FSRPP) and my advice for future applicants.
Most of the advice below is in Travis’ books and website, which I relied on during the application process. Hopefully, my FSRPP can be a practical example of a successful application!
Choosing a Field of Study
When choosing your field of study, you must consider your experience and goals. Selected candidates are qualified to study in their field but need further education to reach their goals.
Key Point: Great example of finding a degree program when there isn’t an exact match in the field name.
To separate yourself from the competition, you should discuss more than a degree in your application. This can be an internship, work experience, a thesis, or something else. For me, it was one year as an intern at a think-tank that specialized in U.S.- Mexico relations. This experience exposed me to international relations and improved my research skills.
Key Point: You must show why you need more education in Japan in order to accomplish your goals!
At this point, my narrative connects my past, present, and future to international development and the MEXT scholarship.
Choosing a Research Topic
Choosing a research topic was the most challenging part of the application for me. My approach was to find the intersection of all the work I had already done:
- Since my goal was to work in government, my research would be on government international development projects.
- Since I wanted to understand Japan’s approach to international development, I chose Japanese and U.S. projects.
- Since I studied Mexico, I chose to research international development projects in Mexico.
My final proposal was to do a case study comparing USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) projects in Mexico. After research, I found projects by the United States and Japan suitable for the study.
Remember that after passing your interview, you will have to be accepted by a Japanese university. My understanding is that applicants who pass the interview almost always find a school. But, I was rejected by one of the two schools I applied to.
Commentary: Mentioning a specific university in your application as a target is risky, since it can hurt your chances with other universities.
Additionally, I prioritized Nagoya University, even mentioning them in my application. This was a risky move I felt was worth it because Nagoya was my first choice, but I would not do it if I were to apply again.
Key Point: Your FSRPP is not final and it should change later. After all, that’s part of the point of your studies and working with your advisor!
Unless you are a PhD applicant, MEXT is looking for someone who will be a great researcher when they graduate. It is important that your FSRP shows effort and consistency. So enrolling in a Japanese class, learning basic research protocols in your field, and being able to answer questions about your background is more important than having a revolutionary topic.
Writing the FSRPP itself, I used Travis’ articles and books religiously. I would recommend following his advice once you have chosen your topic. In particular, his book, How to Write a Scholarship-Winning Field of Study and Research Program Plan, is worth buying if you are able. I followed his advice down to the details. The fact that you are reading this blog right now is a great sign for you!
James’ Field of Study and Research Program Plan
Here is James’ research proposal. After each section, I have added my comments in italics about the strong and weak points. Of course, this was a successful research proposal, so I don’t mean to be critical, but even the best research proposal has room for improvement and I know you want your proposal to be the best it can be. If James had brought this proposal to me for a review through my coaching service, these are some of the suggestions I would have made. (Although compared to most of my reviews, I had very few weak points to highlight or suggestions to make!)
1. Past and present field of study
I graduated Summa Cum Laude from Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University with a B.A. in Sustainability with an international development track, a minor in Spanish, and a certificate in Latin American Studies. As an undergraduate, I studied sustainable development in Latin America. My thesis, supervised by Dr. Marco Janssen, researched the impact Latin American coffee cooperatives have on community economic development through the lens of dependency theory. My research with Dr. Janssen led me to Kenichi Ohno and Izumi Ohno’s 1998 article, Japanese Views on Economic Development: Diverse Paths to the Market, which inspired me to study Japanese development theory. I am currently involved with Spanish language day to day research activities and research projects that involve Latin America and economic development through my work at the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute.
- Every detail about his undergraduate study and current work is directly related to his research proposal.
- He describes his thesis topic concisely while displaying knowledge/experience in the theories used in the field of study he is applying for.
- He gives a clear example of how his previous research led to his interest in Japan.
- He demonstrates his proficiency in conducting research in a foreign language, which also helps reviewers see that he can adapt to new cultures and work outside of his own linguistic background.
- He does not describe what problem he wants to address in his future research or why it is significant. Although he covers this later in the FSRPP, I typically recommend bringing it up in the Past and Present Field of Study section so that the reviewers, particularly at the embassy level, will have a clear understanding of the potential impact from the very beginning.
- I would have suggested mentioning a specific research project related to his proposed field in Japan in the reference to the Wilson Center, to give a little more continuity and strengthen the overall impact.
2-1. Research Theme
JICA and USAID in Mexico: The impact of development theory on the Mexican automotive industry
This study investigates how ideological differences between Japanese and American approaches to international development impact United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) initiatives through the example of workforce development projects in the Mexican automotive sector by way of a document review and in‐depth surveys in order to fill the knowledge gap concerning the Japanese development theory in the United States.
- The title clearly shows the field of study and the specific focus area, which would attract the attention of reviewers.
- The theme paragraph builds well on the title to explain his field and specific research target/sample data, as well as the methods that he will use.
- The title doesn’t quite make it clear that he will be comparing the ideologies of the two organizations and their impacts, so I would have suggested rewording it to include the word “comparison” or “comparative” in there.
- The title could have been more specific about workforce development projects being the focus.
- He mentions he wants to research how differences “impact. . . initiatives”, but I would have suggested being more clear about whether he is analyzing the difference in the agencies’ choices in which initiatives to pursue or the difference in the effectiveness (or both). That would help reviewers better understand how the data collection he describes could answer his research question. He actually answers this in the next section, but I would have recommended moving it forward to this part.
- When describing the research methods (document review and surveys), I would have suggested being more specific about the target data for each. As with the comment above, he mentions this in the next section, but I think the level of detail in that section would have been more appropriate here.
- He does not explain how he will analyze the identified data sources or how the information will answer his question. This could be addressed by briefly mentioning the analysis method or the results he expected from each source.
- I would have suggested describing the expected outcomes and importance at the end of this section.
Most of the issues I identified as “weak points” could have been solved by essentially moving some of the details from the first paragraph of his “research goals” section to this paragraph, so it’s not really a “weakness” of the plan as a whole, just a matter of order of content.
2-2. Research Plan
The purpose of this study is to contribute to better understanding how ideological differences between the Japanese and American development communities impact their development agency’s projects. The main research question is as follows: Which development theories are implemented in USAID and JICA’s projects and how do theoretical differences affect the methods and outcomes for each organization? To answer this question, this study will investigate USAID and JICA projects in the el Bajio region of Mexico, where each agency is supporting the automotive industry. This study will analyze documents from USAID, JICA, and the Mexican Agency for International Cooperation for Development (ANEXCID) and conduct a survey of relevant actors using novel mobile phone research methods developed by Elisa Maffioli (2020).
The November 2020 creation of the Japan US Brazil Exchange (JUSBE) and February 2021 meeting of the “Quad” leaders, which resulted in public health cooperation, demonstrate the momentum for soft power cooperation between Japan and the United States. However, there is little academic material on the potential challenges and benefits of such cooperation, as Ohno & Ohno identified in 2014. This study will contribute to filling this research gap by comparing Japanese and American development projects in the field. Along with the academic benefit, this research will be of benefit to policy makers who wish that the growing Japan United States soft power alliance is not hindered by differences in theory and approach.
Although I have more “weak point” comments than “strong point” comments for this section, I want to be clear that I thought the first paragraph was quite good. It was significantly better than most of the research proposals I see in its specificity.
- He makes the importance of his research clear in the first sentence and explains it in terms of the benefits to Japan and his home country of the US.
- He states his specific research subject and makes it clear why it is the ideal research sample for his research in a concise manner.
- He describes his data sources for the research.
- The final two sentences of the second paragraph clearly show the academic and practical significance of his research.
- His research question is actually two questions, so I would have rephrased it to focus on the latter part.
- Building on my comments on the previous section that recommended moving some of the details from this paragraph to the “Research Theme”, I would have suggested more details here about his data sources, such as the types of documents he will analyze (policy white papers? specific project implementation documents?) and who he will interview (aid officials? automotive factory owners? managers? workers?) and how he will use that information to answer his research question.
- The second paragraph could benefit from a stronger opening. The current first sentence does not seem to be connected to the subject of the previous paragraph, so a better transition is required. This could be accomplished by combining the first two sentences and rewording them so that the context (increasing soft power cooperation between the US and Japan) comes first. Irrelevant details, like the dates and the confusing reference to the “Quad” leaders, which is not explained, could be eliminated for a more streamlined and clear description.
It is generally accepted that the East now promotes a unique developmental philosophy, defined by active government support for long term, “real” targets, such as employment and output, while the West continues to argue for limited government intervention while watching macroeconomic targets (Ohno & Ohno, 1998). Tsuyoshi Kikuchi’s work on JICA and the European Union development projects in Tunisia concludes that the different approaches taken complemented each other and positively impacted their recipients. Kikuchi’s conclusion states that each ideology covers for the other’s weakness and that coordinated partnership between Japan and the West is the best path forward for development. To test his conclusion, further research that includes different donor countries, sectors, and recipient countries is necessary.
- He describes the state of research into his field in a concise and understandable manner, giving two relevant references that set the overall state of understanding and one specific reference that is similar to what he intends to study, but also leaves a clear need for his research. Probably one of the most common problems I see with FSRPP drafts is too much information about the research background or existing research. This is an excellent example of how to summarize that information quickly and clearly so that he can focus on the important part: his research proposal.
- It is fine to mention a theory as being “generally accepted” in the field when something is, in fact, generally accepted and that makes it difficult to find a specific citation for it. (In this case, since he has a citation to go with it, though, it would be better to remove the “generally accepted” comment and include this sentence as a reference to Ohno and Ohno’s research).
- The concluding sentence clearly shows the research gap he intends to fill, showing the importance of his research.
- The reference to Kikuchi should have had a citation.
This study will approach the problem through qualitative research by analysis of primary and secondary sources and survey of relevant actors in order to best identify each agency’s motivations, methods, and outcomes. The first step will be the analysis of Spanish and English primary and secondary sources, such as USAID, JICA, and ANEXCID documents, scholarly literature, and local news reports. This information will be used to create a survey that will be disseminated to USAID, JICA, and ANEXCID officials, and workers for companies receiving the aid using phone based research methods. The goal will be to identify the international development theories being applied to each project and how the theories impact methods used. In 2020, Elisa Maffioli published research on phone based research during a pandemic which demonstrates that mobile phone surveys and interviews are cheap, timely, and reliable sources of information. This method will obtain reliable data from Japan, so that I can study Japanese development ideology, react to unpredictable health and travel conditions, and comply with MEXT regulations.
The foremost limit of this method, finding a representative sample, will not be an issue for this study because it targets a specific sample of respondents. However, to obtain access to these stakeholders, it will require compliance from government agencies and businesses. Through the Wilson Center, I have developed connections with El Gran Bajio, an non government organization dedicated to promoting industry in the region. I also have a strong network of academic and political figures throughout Mexico through work.
- He has a clearly defined list of sources for his documentary research.
- He has dropped another reference to his ability to conduct research in multiple languages relevant to his topic as well as how his existing connections give him unique access to the research target population, which strengthens his case for why he is the best candidate to conduct this research.
- Since the phone research method he describes might not be well known and its effectiveness could be questioned by someone who was not familiar with it, explaining that it is an established method is a good idea. If you are using a method that might not be well known in your research (consider that your reviewers will include bureaucrats at the embassy level who will not have academic expertise in your area), a brief explanation like this can be useful to assuage concerns.
- He should have explained what data he intended to gather from the primary and secondary sources. It is not clear how the documentary research will allow him to create a survey.
- He does not explain how his survey will allow him to identify international development theories. He mentions that it is intended to be a qualitative survey, so that means it would include open-ended questions, but it is not clear what kinds of questions he plans to ask. It would have been better to explain what data he would collect through the survey and how he would then analyze it to identify international development theories and methods.
- Although he mentions that he plans to identify outcomes, there is no methodology step that collects data on them.
This struck me as one of the weakest area of his research proposal because of the lack of description of the data he would collect and how he would analyze it. But on the other hand, that is where his academic advisor in Japan could provide the most help. The important thing is that he has a clear research problem that he wants to address, a target population, and an approach.
I will begin as a research student, during which time, I will prepare for university examinations and familiarize myself with “the Japanese approach” to international development and the relation between international development theory and practice. In my first semester, I will write a focused literature review, including academic materials from my time as a research student, government documents from JICA, USAID, and ANEXID, and take a class on research methods in order to prepare to write and disseminate a survey. My second semester, I will create a document that identifies key conclusions and unanswered questions from the initial literature review. This document will be used to write the survey. Participants in this survey will be identified during this semester, and the survey itself will be disseminated before the start of my third semester. My third semester will be spent collecting and integrating survey responses into a completed thesis draft. My fourth semester will be spent revising and editing my thesis in order to prepare it for publication. After graduation, I will consult with my advisor to determine the appropriate journal to submit my work for publication, such as Kokusai Mondai, the Journal of International Development, or another international development journal.
Before leaving for Japan, I intend to continue taking Japanese classes at the Japan America Society of Washington D.C. and volunteering with Global Launch at Arizona State University in order to increase my understanding of Japanese culture, increase my network in Japan, and improve my Japanese language abilities. Upon arriving in Japan, I plan to be deeply involved in my community through language exchange, participating in both English and Japanese speaking groups. I also hope to use my network in the United States to publish news and blog articles on Japanese international development practices. For more information, please see the attached research timeline, which gives the example of if I were to be placed at Nagoya University for the fall 2022 semester.
- He explains every step of his research in order in an easy-to-understand progression.
- His plans to disseminate his research demonstrate an awareness of the scholarly journals in his field.
- He mentions a specific way that he wants to get involved in the local community in Japan and also how he plans to share his experience with a wider audience.
- The opening sentence, which sets the tone for the section, contains a weak reference to becoming familiar with the Japanese approach to international development without any substantive action. It would have been better to have more concrete actions, such as starting the literature review during that time.
- His research plan still lacks any indication of how he will analyze his data to solve his research question, which could lead a reviewer to suspect that he doesn’t know how to answer the question.
- The description of the research steps could have been more concise. Since he already mentioned the documentary sources for his literature review earlier, there is no need to repeat it here. The following sentences could also be combined and shortened without losing any meaning, which would give him more space to describe meaningful steps in his research and analysis.
- I would not recommend spending time/space in the FSRPP talking about language self-study and networking prior to departing for Japan unless it is specifically related to the research proposal. For example, it would be worth mentioning if he was going to visit the automotive factories described earlier, but otherwise, this space would be better spent on relevant content.
- Mentioning one specific university in the Field of Study and Research Program Plan is very risky. Unless you already have a connection with a professor there who has essentially agreed to accept you and you do not plan to apply anywhere else, I recommend against planning for a specific university in this document. It would hurt your chances of being accepted elsewhere since other universities would see it as an indication that they are not your first choice.
Attachment: Research Timeline
James attached a one-page research timeline formatted in an easy-to-read table. This is optional and it should never present information that is essential to understanding the research proposal, since it is outside of the 2-page limit, but can serve as an easy reference for reviewers if done well. In this case, I don’t think the table is particularly necessary, given the straightforward nature of his research, which is explained sufficiently in the document itself, and the weaknesses of the table (described below) might do more harm than good.
The following timeline is formatted for a 2 year course of study, with a semester as a student at a Japanese language school and as a research student. To demonstrate the specific classes and organizations I will be involved in, Nagoya University will be used in this example, However, this timeline can be altered as the university I am placed in desires.
- Mentioning that this is just an example and that he is flexible is a good start.
- Overall, his research plan is quite straightforward and this table reinforces it. For applicants with more research steps, such as series of experiments, it would need to be more complex.
- Mentioning his intent to volunteer as a language tutor is a good touch.
- He only mentions classes that are specifically related to his research progression, which is good. There is no need to clutter up the timeline by mentioning every class that you want to take.
- Including his publication goals, future career goal that relates to his studies, and to improving relations between Japan and his home country, is a strong ending.
- The table contains spelling errors and a lack of understanding of how the MEXT Scholarship works, both of which could put off a reviewer even if the rest of the document was perfect. His reference to language study in Summer 2022 was meant to refer to the semester of language study under the MEXT Scholarship, but in this example, it appears to be something he was going to do on his own. That could actually disqualify him from the scholarship if he were to come on his own, so it is important to mention that it is part of the scholarship program.
- The table should only really contain research steps during the MEXT-sponsored studies. As mentioned above, if he planned to conduct research-related activities prior to coming to Japan, that would be worth mentioning, but otherwise, mentioning activities before the start of the scholarship could be confusing.
- During the research student semester, it is expected that students would be attending courses (the credits would transfer later) and conducting their research, so it is important to avoid the perception that you would only be studying for the entrance exam.
- There were some unnecessary details, such as the contents of his literature review (just stating “Complete literature review” would be sufficient), and mentioning when he would graduate.
Thank you very much to James for sharing this FSRPP! Remember, this was a successful application, so even though I have highlighted some weak points in my commentary above, the strong points certainly outweighed them. As you know by now, I offer coaching reviews of Field of Study and Research Program Plans and no matter how excellent a plan is when I first receive it, I will always look for ways to improve it! (Normally, I would go into a lot more detail about potential improvements and recommendations.)
Overall, I think the greatest strengths of this proposal were:
- He identified a research problem that had clear applicability to Japan and USA national interest and to cooperation between the two.
- He identified a research gap and clearly and concisely explained the state of the research field and why his research was necessary.
- He had a very specific and relevant research topic, showing his preparedness.
- He leveraged his experience and connection to position himself as the best candidate for this research.
On the other hand, the most significant weakness was a lack of detail about his data and analysis, but there was enough in this proposal to intrigue reviewers so that he could get to the next stage, the interview, where he could explain in more detail. And, as I mentioned before, those are areas that his advisor in Japan could help most with after his selection, so the weaknesses could be overcome.
If you are interested in a review of your Field of Study and Research Program Plan, you can contact me through the link at the top of the page. If you are interested in sharing your research proposal for a similar article in the future (after your application is successful, if you prefer), particularly if your research is in another field (STEM, business, arts, etc.) there are thousands of readers who would appreciate it, so please let me know in the comments below and I will get back to you right away.
Special thanks to James Chabin, who made this article possible by generously sharing his successful Field of Study and Research Program Plan. You can find out more about James on his Twitter feed.
Thanks also to my supporters on Patreon, who help keep this site running through their generous contributions, especially to my newest Samurai-level patron, Alvin S, Daimyo-level supporter Alessia M, and to everyone who has been supporting the sight for months or years. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for your continued support! If this site has helped you in your application process and you want to “pay it forward” to keep the site running to help future applicants, every contribution helps!
Let me know in the comments below!