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IN 2012 I received confirmation of my admission from International University of Japan. My response: restrained excitement with a bout of anxiety. Why? Because I had received such confirmations previously, and I had come to realise that they don’t mean much without a scholarship. Of course, unless you want to self-finance your foreign degree. A lot of students take a loan and enrol in expensive programs abroad. They work part-time jobs to compensate for the lack of stipend. But not everyone can afford. Scholarship is freedom, while self-financing international students are ‘cash cows’ for many European universities.
In February 2012 I received an email from University of London: “We are delighted that you have chosen to study at SOAS and very pleased to make you an offer of admissions to a Taught Masters programme.” I was tempted to take a loan and study one year MSc State, Society and Development at this prestigious British university. But I decided against that after weighing pros and cons of such a move. I received a similar offer of admission from University of Edinburgh for MSc Nationalism Studies. I applied for Principal India Scholarship and Edinburgh Global Masters Scholarship in October 2011 to make it possible for me to study in Edinburgh. However, in June 2012, I received any email from them: “Competition for the awards was intense and I am afraid that I have to inform you that your scholarship application has not been successful.” Earlier in April 2012, Central European University informed me that they will be unable to offer a place of study to me, adding that “Admission to Central European University is highly competitive, with over 5,000 individuals applying for approximately 600 student places for the academic year 2012/2013. As a result, the university is simply unable to offer admission to every qualified applicant.”
It is hard luck sometimes, but I also know that I had made mistakes and taken the process casually. I realised guidance was important to mitigate the errors. Mantra was to pursue the whole thing systematically. My mentors were generous enough to help. They had secured funded PhD admissions in the US and knew what works. I drafted my Research Proposal and Statement of Purpose, emailed these documents to my mentors for their feedback and suggestions. I reworked the weaker areas in my application. In July 2012, I was selected for Konosuke Mastushita Memorial Foundation (KMMF) fellowship to study master’s in international peace studies at Japan. Later, in 2014, I got the prestigious Daniel O’Hare Fellowship to pursue my PhD in Europe.
I recounted my story because some aspirants out there might relate with it. It is to show to those who may embark on this journey soon that failure is part of the game but perseverance pays, that road to scholarship is paved with some hiccups but with right approach and proper guidance you shall reach your destination.
The First Steps
Many undergrad students toy with the idea of studying abroad but most hesitate or feel dread when it comes to starting the process. Unfortunately, colleges in Kashmir do not prepare them for the task and they rely on information available online. Very few are able to find a mentor who can guide them properly. When I began my journey more than a decade ago there were not many resources, but today there are Kashmiri-led initiatives that help and guide aspiring students to apply for scholarships and funded admissions.
I along with my colleagues at Pend Online have conducted workshops about this. We have collaborated with Wath, an educational platform started by Adeeba Tak (University of Pennsylvania) and Moin Khan (Princeton University). Adeeba and Moin have provided many students structured guidance to get admissions in the US colleges. Similarly, KG-Kashmir Guidance, a Facebook group, have similarly mentored dozens of students since last six years. All these initiatives work pro bono.
Before you approach anyone for guidance, you must have basic documentation ready. Also bear in mind that the process will cost money, somewhere between 15000-40000 rupees depending on where you are applying.
First, apply for a passport. If your passport expires in a year, apply for renewal. Second, take English language test, such as IELTS or TOEFL. Third, scan your passport, IELTS/TOEFL certificate, marks cards and degree certificates along with any work experience related documents.
You should prepare well ahead of time. Give yourself at least a year of preparation. Remember securing admission and securing funding are two separate processes (I will come to the latter in a while) and it will consume your energies. If you want to apply for an M.A programme in International University of Japan, the course begins in September (fall-term) and you need to start applying around December a year ahead. The application deadline is January, February and March and the admission results will be announced in March and April 2023. The good thing about IUJ is that Kashmiri students are exempt from IELTS/TOEFL requirement. That will save you at least 15000 rupees. Secondly, there is no interview for international students, except for PhD admissions. However, there is a non-refundable application fee of 5000 yen (roughly 3000 rupees). If you want to study in Europe or the US, most universities will ask for IELTS or TOEFL score as proof of English language proficiency. American universities will require Graduate Record Examination (GRE) which costs $228 (roughly 19000 rupees). You will need to travel outside Kashmir to take this test, nearest centre is in Chandigarh or Delhi. For undergraduate admission in the US you will need to sit for Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) which costs around 10000 rupees. But the good news is that in August 2020, Delhi Public School Srinagar was allotted an SAT centre.
Preparing Crucial Documents
Statement of Purpose and Research Proposal are two most crucial documents that largely determine the application outcome at graduate level. Your CV, grades and work experience is important but these two are read first by the selection committee.
Much material is available online on how to write a good research proposal, but surfeit of information creates overwhelming situation for many students. So, let me briefly summarize the key points. When you write your RP, the first paragraph should clearly state what you want to explore. In this paragraph your research question should come out explicitly. Write in simple and formal English. You should tell your reader why your topic is important and what new significant contribution your research will make to the existing literature on the topic. For this you must know what has been already written about the topic and what areas have not been sufficiently covered. Next you should explain which theoretical framework informs your research. You also need to clearly state the methodology you will be employing in your study. For example, semi-structured interviews, surveys or archival research? In other words, how and where you are going to get your data from and how your proposed methodology will enable you to address your research questions. In the final section, you must outline a rough schedule of your research: what will you do in each year of your PhD. Divide years into quarters and fill each quarter with concise description of what you will do. For example, ‘Jan-Apr 2023: Presentation of preliminary research findings at Annual Political Studies Association International Conference’. Be realistic with milestone and deliverables (note: this applies for PhD research proposals).
You can find sample PhD proposals online but remember template for each institution may differ. So be diligent. Choose wisely when searching online. You should be able to separate wheat from the chaff. I would recommend university websites like this one (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe-writing-centre/plan-your-assignment/write-a-research-proposal) or this (https://fass.open.ac.uk/sites/fass.open.ac.uk/files/files/research/sample-research-proposal.pdf)
It is always better to visit the website of your target university, because they usually put guideline documents on how to write a good research proposal. Each university has different word limit requirements. You must strictly follow it. If they ask for 2000 word RP, don’t overwrite. They will see your discipline. You must tailor your RP according to the requirements of your target university.
There are two ways to write your RP. Either you chose your own topic which you really want to do or you develop a topic which matches the research interest of the faculty member at your target department or university. If you decide the former, find a professor with research interest closer to your topic. After all, most professors take those prospective students under their wings who they think would contribute to their own research area.
Once you identified your prospective supervisor, read his/her profile carefully (you will find the details in the ‘People’ or ‘Faculty’ section of their department’s website). Go through a couple of his/her recent articles to see what kind of scholarship he or she has produced and what he or she has been researching lately.
Once you have done the background checking, compose a clear and professional email and send it to that professor (I will get to email etiquettes later). If the professor replies and shows interest in your topic, then you have accomplished an important milestone.
It is always advisable to apply to at least five to six universities, because you will be competing at the international level where far many prospective students apply to the same department. That is why you should keep your options and cast your net wide. For this you will need to spend a great deal on internet looking for the right match in each target university.
Once you have a draft of RP, show it to an experienced person like your professor or your friend or acquaintance who you think can help. Don’t feel shy asking for the feedback. Shyness and inhibition is a big handicap and must be overcome to get things done. There is no harm asking for help, either you get a response or you are ignored. But at least you tried. It is also not inappropriate to remind the person whom you have sent your proposal. Sometimes people forget. Revise your RP by incorporating suggestions. Sometimes not all suggestions can be accepted, that is fine. Include what you think is useful to improve the proposal. Proofread it a couple of times. A polished document reflects well on you.
Preparing Your CV
Some professors may ask for the CV or curriculum vitae (Greek for ‘course of one’s life’). Don’t rush. Send only a latest and polished CV. Understand the difference between an academic CV and a regular job hunting resume (French for ‘a summary’). Academic CV may be two to three pages long where you list all your academic achievements and highlight any work experience relevant to the proposed research. If you have any publications, put them in your CV. But remember only the relevant publications. If you have already accomplished something, such as articles in respected newspapers and magazines and work experience with a reputed organisation, put it there. Overall, your CV should complement and connect with your SOP and RP. It should help you market your candidacy by showing required skills for the position. Be attentive to fonts and alignment. Your CV should look neat and clear. Latest MS Word has ready-made templates but I will recommend this link for you to see how you can frame your academic CV (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/careers/sites/careers/files/phd-applications.pdf) or this one (https://www.ucc.ie/en/media/support/careers/CVGuideforPhDandPostdoctoralResearchers.pdf)
(to be continued…)
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