What to think about when you apply

There are many ways to apply to do a masters at Ritsumeikan’s Graduate School of International Relations (GSIR); this site cannot deal with all of them and you will have to look for details of your application process on the department website. On the other hand it is possible to offer some general advice about how to approach the application process, and how to go about coming up with a good research proposal.

Making your application

The centre of your applications will probably be your ‘research proposal’; the sections below will give you some hints on how (and how not ) to write this. However that is not all we look at; also remember to tell us about any of your past academic work that is relevant to your proposal. We also need to have an understanding of your language skills and experience living in Japan. It’s very difficult to carry out research in Japan or on Japan without a degree of ability with the Japanese language, this is especially the case if you are planning to rely on methods which require a high degree of language ability; maybe you need to read material from pre-war archives, carry out interviews on a sensitive subject, or understand the cultural connotations of words and phrases.

It also helps us to understand how a masters degree fits into your larger plans; how do you intend to use it? How will it contribute to your development, either professionally or as a person?

“What” will you study?

Ideally, you should already be fairly well informed on the subject you want to study at masters level, maybe it is an extension of your study at undergraduate level or has emerged from your work or professional activities.

If you are starting out on a subject that is entirely new to you should be aware that you will have to work extra hard to cover the basic knowledge required at masters level of whatever field of study you are moving into. For instance, if you are proposing to work on a project that falls into the realm of ‘sociology’ and you have not done a degree in sociology, you will have to start off by acquainting yourself with the basic concepts, theories and ‘rules’ of the discipline and making sure you are aware of the status of the various debates going on in and around your area. You are unlikely to be able to ask a good research question without this basic knowledge.

It will help you to include a detailed literature review of as many academic works related to the subject you can get access to. Your review should assess their strengths, weaknesses and their value with regards to your proposed topic.

You should also be aware that academics, and university departments, are often arranged by ‘discipline’; make sure you have some kind of idea what disciplinary area your research proposal fits into, this may not be immediately obvious to you so make sure you do some background reading before you make your proposal and choose a potential adviser.

In order to do this it may help to think about the ‘thing’ you are proposing to study, and then about ‘what kind of thing’ it is; for instance, is the question about ‘a certain group of people’, or is it about ‘a certain time period’, or a particular ‘place’? Where will you look, or what will you look at to find the answer to your question?

Depending on your question you may have to look;

  1. into people’s minds (their thoughts, beliefs, opinions etc),
  2. at people’s behaviour and the choices they make in their daily lives,
  3. at people’s communication, the words they choose to use to talk about a certain subject,
  4. certain groups of people within a society
  5. etc etc etc…

When you have an idea of where your question/topic fits in the world of academic activity you will be able to identify the terminology you need to be using. Words can have quite different implications depending on the disciplinary area in which they are used, you need to make sure you are using the right terms for your subject area.

This central part of your proposal will often be formulated in terms of a ‘research question’; this is the central question you will be trying to answer by doing your project.

Your first task is to explain what you will research.

The “So what?” question

After you have decided on the what, you have to deal with the more difficult questions of “why” and “how”. Another thing to take into account is; ‘does this question have an answer, and is that answer interesting?’ Many questions have a simple “yes” or “no” answer, avoid those!

At some point during your studies, someone will ask you what is often the most difficult question to answer, this is, “So what?” In other words, how does answering this question actually help us understand the world around us? Why is it important for us (human beings) to understand this? So, it’s useful (actually, essential!) for you to think about this as you formulate your research project.

It might be somewhat disturbing to hear this but one of the main things we learn from finding out how to do research and to carry out a reliable and valid research project is that (often) we don’t actually know as much as we thought we knew, we don’t understand things as well as we thought we did. We go from often being pretty confident about what we know/understand to being less confident! Eventually, when we are very old and wise and have spent a life thinking and asking ‘good questions’, we end up like Socrates, who is supposed to have said, ‘I know that I know nothing’!

How will you do it?

If accepted you will have two years to carry out your research project. Your application will also be judged on its practicality; that is, given the limits on resources that exist, will it be possible to carry out this research plan within the allotted time span? You should make an honest and informed assessment of the feasibility of your research project. Try to include a detailed plan of how you intend to actually carry out the research including the materials you will potentially use.

Think hard about the resources you will require;

  1. Does the the resource actually exist? - This may seem like an odd things to say but if you want to study, for example, ‘changes in gender representation in Japanese television advertising from the 1990s to the present’, then you will have to somehow view those advertisements… do recordings exist?
  2. Can you get access to these resources? - Once you’ve established that a resource exists you’ll have to work out how/if you can access it: Where is it? Does it require payment? Is it in a language you can handle?
  3. Do you need any training to use the resource? - Does it require any special skills to access? Does it require you to use a particular piece of specialised software or equipment?

General Advice

Understand your terms

Maybe you have come up with what you think is a good research question. One important check to perform is to make sure you can define all the important words in your question.

One of the main ways that ‘academic writing’ differs from everyday speech/writing is that we try to use words with as exact a meaning as possible; for instance if you write ‘now everyone has internet access’, you are actually saying that you think that every person in the world (this is what ‘everyone’ means) has internet access. So be careful to try to write exactly what you mean. Likewise if you mention ‘the government’ (or ‘the media’!) then it is essential to say which country or region you are referring to.


If you are planning to compare two (or more) things, ask yourself; what will we learn from this comparison? Is this something we couldn’t have guessed at? Or something that is obvious?

To list up some things you should bear in mind:

Generally speaking it’s not very interesting to compare things that are obviously different, unless there are some hidden similarities which you think deeper study would reveal. On the other hand we often find it very useful to compare things which actually seem to be very similar, for instance, studies of twins raised in separate households as a way of understanding the different roles of people’s genetic inheritance and the environment in which they grow up.


The masters in Japan is somewhat different to that in other countries and understanding this will help you apply. As you already know, it is a two-year program. In Japanese these two years are thought of as the preparatory years for progressing to a PhD1. Perhaps because of this there is an ‘originality’ requirement which may not be present in other country’s systems. That is, research at MA level is required to be ‘in some way’ original, this might be the actual topic, the theoretical approach taken, or the methods employed. Your research must make a ‘contribution to knowledge’, it must add something new to the way we understand the world.

Prior research

Having just said that, beware of topics that no-one has researched before! Think for a moment of all the thousands of people (academics) around the world, many with years of research experience, who spend all their time looking for interesting things to write about. If all these people have decided to not write anything at all on the thing you’re thinking of researching, there may be a very good reason for that! It may be that the topic is effectively ‘unresearchable’, that it is a topic where there is no answer, or perhaps, that answering that particular question would not tell us anything very interesting about the world.

For a masters it really helps to be able to be able to use ideas and data which already exist, that is, the publications of researchers who have looked at similar topics to yours.. Otherwise you’ll have to come up with all that yourself, not an easy task!

Depth vs breadth

At masters level we are beginning to specialise, a masters thesis therefore should aim to look at a topic ‘in depth’ and provide analysis and insight, it should not be merely a description or survey of a topic area. You need to start to a) have an accurate understanding of your topic, and b) be able to say what (roughly speaking) it ‘means’. Many proposals are far too ‘broad’ to allow the student to spend time going ‘deep’. Aim to go ‘narrow’ and ‘deep’.

Be concise

The application has a word limit, do not waste words. You should be concentrating on making your proposal as solid as possible; don’t waste words telling us how you feel, how you feel about your project should be expressed through the attention to detail and thoughtfulness you exhibit in your application. If you want us to understand that you are passionate about a certain issue or topic it is better to show us than to simply tell us.

An example

To give you an example of how I might respond to a proposal that doesn’t seem to be particularly well thought through, this is a sentence taken from a proposal I received a few years ago:

Many researchers have proved and indicated the reflection of culture of one country through films and movies. However, there are few researches in the positive impact of films and movies on pushing international relations and cooperation. Therefore, this study will examine how films and movies effect on cultural exchange on the way of international cooperation between [country] and Japan.

It doesn’t make a good impression for a variety of reason; let’s take it apart and see how it should be improved, and what the problems are.

This might seem like nit-picking but if you are intending on embarking on study at masters level you need to get into the habit of focussing on detail, being accurate in your use of language, approaching concepts and information in a ‘critical’3 manner and becoming generally more disciplined in your thinking and expression.

  1. The MA is officially known as the 博士課程前期課程 (hakase-katei zenki-katei), with an actual PhD being the 後期課程 (kōki-katei). 

  2. Here’s a hint; there is no definition of ‘culture’ shared by academia. It either means something like “everything humans do that monkeys don’t”, which makes it far to broad for any one academic discipline to deal with and thus useless as an academic term, OR, we have to draw an arbitrary line around it, including some things and excluding other because we feel like it. This again is a bit rubbish! 

  3. This doesn’t mean ‘negative’ it means not accepting things at face value, not unthinkingly accepting what ‘everyone says’ or ‘everyone knows’ as being accurate or the best understanding possible of something.