Welcome to the second in a four part series of entries about my successful application for a Monbusho Research Scholarship. If you haven’t already, I recommend reading the first part (in particular, the disclaimers contained therein). This entry deals with my process for putting my research proposal together.
The Monbusho Research Scholarship appealed to me for a number of reasons when I first heard about it. On a personal level, I love Japan. I had lived there for three years prior to my application for the Monbusho Scholarship, and have a keen interest in the culture, language, art, food and people.
On a professional/academic level, the idea of studying in Japan appealed to me because of its rich history in the realm of comic books. I’ve wanted to be a cartoonist since I was a kid, and have long believed that the medium of comics are just as capable as film or prose of creating powerful work of real artistic value. It is towards this ideal of creating “literary” comics that I aspire, and I felt confident that studying in Japan would help me in that regard.
Add into the mix that a Monbusho Scholarship would allow me to pursue my research without going severely into debt, and that cemented my desire to go for it.
So when I first resolved to apply for the Monbusho Scholarship, that’s where I stood: I had the vague idea that my research would be geared towards improving the quality of my comics, but exactly how I would spend my time was still very much up in the air.
So my first step was to decide the specific focus of my research proposal. After giving it a lot of thought, I ultimately decided that research focused not on comics, but rather on traditional Japanese line art, would be the best way to go. I won’t go into why I reached that conclusion here, but if you’re interested, see this blog entry.
I started working on my first draft of my research proposal in January 2007; a full six months before the application was to be due. While I was doing this, I started seeking out the advice of people with Monbusho experience. I’d recommend you start networking efforts in earnest at least six months before your application is due; even earlier would be better. One professor I talked to thought a year before the application date would be ideal!
If you already personally know people with Monbusho experience, great, you have a good head start. For the rest of you who don’t know anyone with Monbusho experience, you’re in the same boat that I was. This is where you put the “six degrees of separation” theory to the test. Contact every Japanese person you know who went to a college in Japan and ask if they know anyone who ever got a Monbusho Scholarship, or know any professors who supervised Monbusho Scholars. Contact people you know with links to international exchange programs at the university where you did your undergrad. Network at Japan related organizations in your hometown. Odds are you’ll be able to find a “friend of a friend” who is willing to talk to you.
In my case, I found two people; one who was a former Monbusho Research student, and a professor who had helped his students get the Monbusho Scholarship a few years ago. Both offered useful insight that helped me in my application.
My first attempt at creating a research proposal expressed an intention to research just about every type of Japanese line art under the sun, from hundreds of years ago to the present. I intended to start with calligraphy, move onto ink drawing, then move unto Ukiyo-e style prints, and finally end a few months of studying modern comic book techniques.
There were a number of problems with this proposal. It was arrogantly overambitious for just two years of study, for one. But a bigger problem with it was that it was too broad to be able to find a professor who could competently serve as my advisor for all aspects of it. It’d be like saying you intended to research all facets of “Science” for two years. There would be no professor would be qualified (or willing) to supervise such an unruly, unfocused proposal.
It’s important to keep in mind that you’ll eventually be pitching your research proposal (and yourself) to prospective professors-supervisors, so your proposal should, ideally, be custom tailored to fall under the canopy of a particular academic school found at accredited Japanese universities. A Japanese professor will probably be a little reluctant to supervise a complete stranger for two years anyway; they’ll be even less likely to do so if your research proposal is partially outside of their area of expertise.
In my case, I decided to narrow the focus down to just calligraphy, with a unit of ink drawing thrown in as well. I ultimately sought letters of acceptance for professors in Calligraphy departments. Even with my narrowed focus, some professors expressed concern about the “ink drawing” unit, since that wasn’t related to calligraphy in their minds.
So I started working on a revised research proposal. Once I had a rough draft done, I had various people review it and offer their suggestions. Someone with Monbusho experience would be ideal for this sort of review, but anyone with experience in the world of academia will do (or failing that, anyone whose opinion you trust). Just make sure you let them know you want their unvarnished opinion.
What I kept hearing from many different reviewers was that my proposal should be more detailed and concrete; what would I do, when would I do it, what did I hope to achieve, etc., etc. At first I was a little reluctant to commit to paper exactly what I would be doing in, say, February of 2010. It seemed somewhat arrogant to even imply that I knew that specifically. I mean, there are so many variables that could affect the course of my research over the course of twenty-four months, so how could I know exactly what I’d do when, especially twenty or so months down the road?
But it ultimately occurred to me that what was really important was demonstrating to the people who would be reviewing my application that I had given serious thought to the subject, and had a roadmap for how I would use my time. Sure, some aspects of my research might deviate from that plan, but at least I showed that I had a plan in the first place.
I so continued working on revising and re-revising my research proposal, until I finally had something I was basically happy with. And with that, one major aspect of the application was done.
So finally, here’s a summery of my advice for preparing a research proposal:
- Start early; ideally six months to a year before the application deadline. Try to establish contacts with Monbusho experience, such as professors and current/former Monbusho scholars in your field or from your home country. Seek out their advice. You should continue this networking throughout the application process.
- Formulate a research topic that fits neatly into a particular academic school found at accredited Japanese Universities. Be aware that you’re eventually going to be asking a professor to supervise you, and they might be reluctant to do so if your research proposal is broad and partially outside of their area of expertise.
- Be as specific as possible about how you intend to spend your time; provide a breakdown of what you’ll do, and when. I did a month-by-month breakdown; week-by-week would probably be even better. You may end up deviating from this once you get to Japan, but at least you’ll demonstrate to the people evaluating your application that you’ve given serious thought to exactly how you’ll spend your time. Plus it will reassure professors that they won’t have to hold your hand throughout the two years.
- Research your area of research beforehand. Pepper your research proposal with terms that demonstrate that you know your research area well. But at the same time, make sure a layperson can understand it.
- Make sure your research proposal has clear goals/benefits; both for yourself and for your host university/Japan/the world.
- Have friends and colleagues look over your research proposal, to look for mistakes and offer suggestions.
If anyone out there with prior Monbusho experience has a different take on things than what I’ve written here, please leave a comment to this entry.
I’ll end with a link to the research proposal that I submitted with my application. [Link to Lars’ Research Proposal].
That’s it for now. Check back next Friday for part three.
Part 1 of 4–Introduction/Disclaimers
Part 2 of 4–Writing the Research Proposal
Part 3 of 4–Filling out the Application & Contacting Professors
Part 4 of 4–The Tests, the Interview, & the Long Wait