Am I just nervous?
August 29, 2006 8:57 AM   Subscribe

GradSchoolAnxietyFilter: I have no research experience. How do I describe my research plan?

Please describe in detail the research plan you wish to pursue at Institution including the theme, approach and methods, etc. which you intend to use.

That's just one of the various questions on the application. Problem is, I've never really done any graduate level research, and though I have a few different ideas for a "research plan" rolling around in my brain, I'm not feeling very confident about committing to one in my application, considering I am unfamiliar with the faculty (and have no geographic access to them). I really don't know what they are looking for here, or if whatever research plan I come up with would jive with their experience. I just don't know how to approach this. Writing a statement of purpose doesn't scare me at all, writing this does.

The program is for an MA in international relations at a school that is incredibly attractive to me, but I'm nervous. I have a general feeling of anxiety due mainly to two things: my lack of undergraduate research experience and the fact that an MA in IR will be a somewhat significant departure from my undergraduate studies (I have a BJ in news-editorial and a BA in international studies). My undergraduate education has left me feeling unprepared for grad school, particularly with questions like these on the app. I feel like my lack of independent research experience is going to really hurt me--all I've ever really written has been in the form of term papers.

It feels like they are expecting me to know a lot more than I already do.

So, the question(s)... basically two part:

How should I approach this essay question and what kind of things will the university be looking for here? I'm particularly concerned about the "approach" and "methods" they ask me to describe.


Is my anxiety about school normal, or was my undergraduate education truly bankrupt?

Any general grad school applications advice is also welcome.
posted by anonymous to Education (8 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
they're just looking for something general, not something specific. and it's ok to make changes in your plan when you learn more.

and relax: overall, i found grad school to be not nearly as uptight as undergrad. unlike undergrads, it's more important that you know how to find the right answer as opposed to memorizing the answer itself. almost all of the tests i ever took were open book/note, for example--because in the real world, we do what we have to to get by.
posted by lester at 9:30 AM on August 29, 2006

In my experience, you should talk about themes. So start with your problem, what is it and why is it important to study. Describe why 'the answer' is still unknown. In very broad terms mention some potential avenues of research, then finish with what knowing 'the answer' or furthering the problem would mean to your field / society / whatever.

The university will be looking for someone who is passionate and has excellent, concise, and clear writing. Aside from all this, a good reference letter from someone at the school or their colleague (or friend) will help the most.
posted by maxpower at 9:32 AM on August 29, 2006

If you're interested in corruption and democratic agitation in Iran, great; say so, and then do enough research to tell them what you -don't- know, and, tentatively, how you want to go about filling in the gaps. If you're interested in the nascent African Union and the other pan-African attemtps to police the continent, then go read up on that subject, and tell the admissions people how you'll spend the next (two?) years learning more. Take a look at the curriculum, the courses offered, and think about what you'll take and why. Then explain yourself.

Will you use statistics? Economic forecasting? Computer modeling? Will you read books and then write about them? Will you visit foreign places and chat with the natives? What do you want to learn, and how do you plan to learn it? While I can't speak for Masters programs, graduate programs generally expect that you'll be doing a lot more work on your own. So the question is simply: what will you be working on?

Try to make sure there's actually something interesting about your research interests; it helps to pick sexy fields and topics, and of course you're better off with an innovative approach than a dry and banal one. But it's also an MA program. With few exceptions, these programs are feeders for PhD programs, and cash cows. So long as you won't embarass them, and you're able to pay, they'll take almost anyone. If it's sufficiently prestigious, then they'll be looking to have you differentiate yourself from the other applicants. If MAs in IR tend to feed into gov't jobs or something (sorry, I dunno) and that's your goal, then tell them so, and help them understand why you'll use their education better than the next file they read.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:32 AM on August 29, 2006

Although it's less the case in Masters programs than it is for Ph.D. programs, research is almost always the bedrock of grad programs. Because of that, you need to make sure that you are actually interested in getting involved with the research and researchers at this institution. So it concerns me that you wrote:

"...considering I am unfamiliar with the faculty..."

If you're serious about doing this, you should be sure that you are aware of exactly what the faculty work on and, better, have been in touch with faculty with whom you might like to work. Whether or not you end up doing research, you'll almost certainly take classes that focus on the various interests of the faculty in this program. If you can't make a connection with that material, you won't have a good time in the program.

Presumably your applications are not due for months unless your institution of choice is on a very different schedule from most North American grad schools. So take the next month and send some email or make some calls to faculty you feel might be people you want to work with. If you can make a connection your experience will be vastly better, and you'll have a much better chance of getting into the program.

(ps. I'm a Ph.D. student in Physics, which I realize is quite different than IR, but I think this advice is pretty universal.)
posted by dseaton at 9:53 AM on August 29, 2006


Yes, you are just nervous. The doubt is normal, the waiting is agonizing, and you will not feel "at home" with the process until you're sitting in your first class and realizing that everyone else there feels the same way.

Some advice for "the research question":

1. Be frank: talk about how your background did not include any undergraduate research. But with that admission comes the following: talk about how your double undergraduate degrees *uniquely* prepare you to understand the narratives of, say, human rights rapporteurs, more than your colleagues. Talk about how your experience as a journalist was research - delving into a community's understanding of a topic, choosing a side, defending it.

2. Be clear. Use ordinary, non-jargon filled language to talk about what you'd like to do. Avoid acronyms and canned language.

3. Don't take yourself too seriously. I doubt you're going to be held to the letter of what you wrote on your application to an MA program as your absolute, no-turning-back course of research. Talk about how this feels new, how you're not sure about all the details, how you're eager to explore more - and why that's why they must admit you: so you can figure it out and contribute to the subject. If you come across as a logical human being they can work with and they'd like to have a discussion with, and not a list of accomplishments unwilling to compromise, you're probably in.

I know it's not the same thing, but this article on cover letters I found on craigslist a ways back basically blew away all my old presumptions about how to approach applications of any kind.
posted by mdonley at 10:17 AM on August 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

I just finished a MA in IR.

It is better to know what kind of research you want to do - qualitative, quantitative, etc. and then pick programs that match with your interests.

Figure out which you prefer and go from there.

Find through google searches a basic reading list for IR both in quan and qual and see which you prefer.
posted by k8t at 10:28 AM on August 29, 2006

Tailor your reseacrch statement to the place you're applying. Look at their faculty webpage, see what the faculty do. Maybe even get a sense of someone you might like to work with.

They want to see that you're serious, that you have given some thought to what specifically you're interested in (not something vague like "understanding how people of different cultures interact"), and to why their program would be a good fit for you. If it's anything like the grad programs I know about (in other areas), they're not going to hold you to this plan, and they're not looking for a workable exact project right out of the gate.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:50 AM on August 29, 2006

Get some review articles on the subject of interest. They'll give you a great big-picture idea of what's going on in your field. Read what other people's approaches are and try to incorporate that into your plan. Not sure if that sort of thing applies to IR, but for the sciences it seems to work.
posted by reformedjerk at 2:30 PM on August 30, 2006

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