By Laila M. Lange, Raphael Rifflet and Ennio Mos

Starting to think about the Intensive Programme (IP)

The first semester of the 2022-2024 cohort is coming to an end, which does not only mean that the students are busy finishing the last deadlines, saying goodbye to their classmates, and packing their things to move to a new European city. The end of the first semester also implies that it is time to start thinking about the next semester… And with the second semester, the preparation of the IP Paper comes to mind.

For the Intensive Programme, a seven-day summer school, all Euroculture students have to write a research paper related to the annual IP theme. This might be why the IP is mentioned repeatedly during the first semester as it is one of the few core elements at all universities and, hence, obligatory for all students of the cohort. In Groningen, for example, the first-semester students must submit an annotated bibliography as part of their Eurocompetence I course, and for that, the students have the possibility to work on their IP paper topic. The IP topic? Already? Well, I do not think that the majority of students already knew their IP paper topic back then. Still, it was constantly highlighted that the students should start thinking about the IP paper early on. But who has the time to start thinking about an IP paper, and an IP week, more than half a year away? Correct, few people have the capacity to start brainstorming on the topic of their paper during the first semester. So, no worries, most students have neglected this topic until, indeed, the beginning of the second semester. And since the second semester is about to start at some universities, this article shares the idea-finding process of some of the students from the 2021-2023 cohort. The three students – Raphael (RR), Ennio (EM) and me (LML) – share our IP experiences and hopefully make you understand that you have nothing to worry about regarding the IP and IP paper.

If you don’t have the time to read the full article because, of course, your time may be wholly dedicated to coming up with an IP paper topic, here already some advice from the three students of the 2021-2023 cohort:

  • Read the subthemes thoroughly and have a look at whether a reference (such as a specific concept or case) might give you a concrete idea for your paper.
  • Use the IP to advance your perspective on your thesis.
  • A well-prepared methodology is key for a solid paper. When thinking about a topic that interests you, start also thinking about how you will conduct the research. An interesting topic can become very boring or problematic once you are not familiar with the research strategy, or if you don’t like the methods you will have to use.

Finding a topic for “Dissonant Democracy: Utopias, Dystopias and Backsliding in Democratic Processes”

As emphasised in the introduction article of the IP series, the process of preparing and writing the IP paper is different at each university, and thus, the students get offered different levels of support in coming up with a topic. However, finding a topic that not only interests you, but is also considered relevant by the supervisors, might be a challenging process with ups and downs along the way. So why get devastated alone, when year after year, all Euroculture students are confused and sometimes frustrated coming up with a suitable topic?

The 2024 IP theme – “No Europe for the Young” – is very different to the theme of the 2022 IP, hence, the advice from the 2021-2023 cohort students may not offer you much help in coming up with an idea for the content. Nonetheless, how these students developed their IP topic might give you some inspiration on how to approach the IP paper and the idea-finding process. 

So how did my (LML) idea for the IP paper evolve? When I heard that the theme for the 2022 IP would be “Dissonant Democracy”, the theme did not inspire me instantly, however, in the end, how I came up with the topic was quite straightforward, I would say: I read the three subtheme texts, and subtheme 1 contained a sentence, which caught my attention: “In pluralist societies and larger entities like the EU, should we speak rather of demoicracy – the multifaceted governance of peoples, rather than just one people?”. I had heard that concept during my bachelor’s degree already but was never aware of what this modification of democracy actually means. Considering the European people as many national people instead of one European people? That screams for an analysis of right-wing politics, over which I already had written multiple papers. And with my love for using a theoretical concept and analysing a case study by means of a coding scheme, the idea of linking the concept of demoicracy – explicitly named under one subtheme – and the analysis of the right-wing group in the EP – which are inherently linked to backsliding in democratic processes – was born.

Raphael (RR), who attended the University of Groningen in his first semester and the University of Deusto in the second semester, approached the IP paper with a different attitude.

RR: “Personally, unlike Laila, I already had a theme I knew I wanted to explore. It became more a matter of fitting my subject of predilection into the guidelines. I went into the Euroculture master with the objective of learning more about European foreign policy; especially with Africa. This was clearly reflected in my subject where I focused on EU-AU relations, analysing their evolutions based on the joint agreements published following their six summits as well as earlier treaties such as the Cotonou agreement and Lomé convention. Overall their demands in terms of linking the subject to the theme are relatively lax and discursive and conceptual links seem to be sufficient and grant you the margin required to write on the subject you wish. Democratic reforms tied to conditional aid in my case proved enough of a link, given the propensity of the EU to insert democratisation language in its agreements, angling does the rest of the viability creation.”

In his first semester, Ennio (EM) spent time at the University of Groningen and went to the University of Strasbourg in the second semester. 

EM: “When I arrived in Strasbourg, I did not have a topic for the IP yet. I had checked the theme and I was interested in backsliding democracies but, similar to Laila, did not instantly come up with a topic when looking at the three subthemes. At that time, I was reading a book which focused on the concept of happiness which inspired me to write about the idea of putting happiness at the core of policymaking. Once I had that idea in mind, I looked online at what I could find about the World Happiness Report since I knew that the UN publishes this report every year. I was convinced that I wanted to do research on this report as it absolutely fascinates me. I followed the subject of philosophy in high school and had a couple of philosophy courses in my bachelor’s which made me interested in the philosophy behind creating policies to increase happiness. That is how, in the end, I came up with the topic: ‘A moral perspective on the World Happiness Report’. It was the first time that I conducted such a big research analysing philosophical texts. I was already familiar with analysing policy documents and reports, but not with philosophical books by Emanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. Since we have a methodology course in the second semester, you can ask everything you want in case you decide to also use a methodology you are less familiar with. It can help you broaden your skills as a researcher when you try out a different form of research than you are familiar with.”

The experience of writing an IP paper

The IP paper might – looking at how often it is mentioned throughout the programme – seem as if it is this scary term paper presented on a week-long odyssey. At least this is what students feared in the past. We can assure you: it is not! To take some of the pressure around the IP week and IP paper away, have a read through the experiences of students from the 2021-2023 cohort. 

Talking about my own (LML) experiences, I can only say that the second semester, and with that, the preparation of the IP paper, was very doable at the University of Deusto and that I felt very supported. Is the IP paper a special paper? I would say, the paper is nothing more or less than an academic paper you write during your master’s programme, with the exception that we had to present the paper at the end. Neither coming up with a topic, the exchange with the supervisors during the second semester, nor the IP week itself, were exceptionally challenging. If anything, I would say the IP paper prepared us in parts for the process of writing the thesis in the third and fourth semesters since both entailed a relatively long period of working with the topic and both bundle the attention of the Euroculture staff. Therefore, I would describe my IP paper experience as neither very demanding nor very relaxing. After all, it is the process of writing an academic paper, nothing more and nothing  less.

Same as myself, Raphael attended the University of Deusto during the second semester and, thus, received  the same support as me during the IP paper writing process. Raphael and I share the view on the IP paper and its writing process.

RR: “Ultimately, my experience of the IP paper is that it is simply another research paper. No more and no less. The pressure assorted to it is only of interest almost in a role-playing dimension, seeking to place yourself in the conditions of an academic conference. All in all, the IP programme is almost just a stage in which we play a role and for what it is, it is enjoyable. The best thing you can do in my opinion is to tailor the subject of the paper almost as an exploratory piece for the thesis. It allows you to gauge your interest in your topic, the availability of sources and get extra time to exchange with third parties on your angle and perspective on the subject.”

Since he spent his second semester at the University of Strasbourg, Ennio followed the IP writing schedule of the University of Strasbourg.

EM: “In Strasbourg, the first weeks of the semester are very, very calm compared to the last weeks. As a wise, old man I would recommend you to start writing in the beginning already! Don’t be lazy, don’t be yourself, don’t procrastinate and think that miraculously the paper will become easier if you do it later, it doesn’t. The more you do in the beginning, the more you can ask about during your methodology classes which is rather useful. Especially the students in our class who were conducting in-depth interviews were benefiting from contacting interviewees early on so that they could use the classes to learn how to conduct interviews in an academic and professional manner. Since you have to present your research during the IP week, the whole research can feel like a very big hill that you will have to walk. However, it is just another research so don’t let it stress you too much because year after year, Euroculture students have to do it. Stress is not only unhealthy, it is also unpleasant. So look at the IP as an opportunity to do something interesting. Whether you use the IP paper as an option to do research about a very focused interest you already had, or as a way to discover a new interest or research methodology, is totally up to you.”

Advice from the 2021-2023 cohort

You already read about how some students came up with their IP paper topic, as well as how we experienced the writing process throughout the second semester. Implicit, you probably already read the advice we gave you for your own IP journey. And explicitly, you read it in bullet points above. But as Agatha Christie wisely said, “Good advice is always certain to be ignored, but that’s no reason not to give it”, we will still enlighten you with our advice, even if, following the writer, you will ignore it. 

“Read the given text for the IP theme with scrutiny and incorporate what the organisers provide you into your IP paper!” ~ LML

I (LML) came up with a topic after reading the subthemes and literally scrutinising a concept they named in the text, my advice is: Read the different texts thoroughly and have a look at whether there is anything explicit in the text that interests you. If not, not a problem. But if the theme text on the IP website contains a concept, question or anything which explicitly names a concrete direction which catches your attention: Take the time to do some research on it. I know, I know, this sounds very unhelpful because, of course, you would have read the subthemes anyway. BUT: This is, in my experience, a relatively easy and straightforward way of finding a topic. My IP paper profited from being very explicitly linked to the subtheme and this was, you cannot miss the core intention of the IP (as it is written by the organisers on the website). 

“Use the IP to advance your perspective on your thesis!” ~ RR

RR: “Ultimately, my advice for the IP is similar to the one I would give for the master overall. A very general and open programme like Euroculture presents risks and opportunities in equal measures in that it provides freedom of choice. The choice to discover a lot of different subjects, but also the risk to fail in properly selecting what you specialize in, which in a way could be seen as the principal objective of a master’s programme. Beyond the IP itself, I would ultimately recommend thinking about what knowledge you wish to obtain from those two years of Euroculture and trying to assign yourself an editorial line, from which you can feel free to more or less deviate. Pick what you love and dig in, explore it thoroughly and crown your two years of efforts with a solid thesis.”

Use the IP to develop new skills regarding your experience with different methodology strategies!” ~ EM

EM: “In general, it is very important to find certain topics that you are most interested in. Often when you think of research you have done before, you know which topics you found interesting and which ones you enjoyed less. So on the one hand, you can use this paper to continue researching your main interest and enhance your knowledge. On the other hand, you can also use this opportunity to try out something new: learn how to do a policy analysis, how to do surveys professionally, or how to do in-depth interviews. You are completely free to choose anything you want as long as you can explain to yourself why it is useful to you.”

Looking beyond the IP week: What remains after the presentation of the IP paper?

For the students who started Euroculture in 2021, it’s now half a year after the IP week took place and one year after starting to think about the IP. Are people still working on their IP paper topic? Are you the odd one out if you realise that you do not want to continue researching your IP topic after the IP week? 

Speaking about my own (LML) experiences, I have to say that once the IP week was over, my IP topic was over as well. According to the German motto Aus den Augen aus dem Sinn (translated to out of sight out of mind), I stopped thinking about my IP topic and neither in my third semester research track nor in my master’s thesis have I picked up the topic. When choosing the IP topic, I knew that I would not continue with it in the future, as I mainly chose it due to the academic work I had done in the past and due to the IP theme. On the other hand, what did stick with me was that during the IP paper writing process, I was told many times that this would be the perfect opportunity to start using a referencing management system in order to prepare for the master’s thesis. Well, I did not do it during the IP paper, but I started using such a system shortly after as I realised, I could have saved a lot of time in the last hours before the deadline. For me personally, instead of the content of the IP paper, what stays with me is the belief of how helpful it is to use a reference management system, and I would describe this as an extremely valuable experience!

Raphael’s take from the IP paper is different to mine since his master thesis and IP paper topic are actually very similar.

RR: “Given that, for me, the IP was just a chance to research something I was interested in anyways, I can’t really relate to Laila’s experience of leaving behind her IP topic. For me, it was a chance to look at an angle of an issue I will continue to be debilitatingly obsessed over for no good reason. As previously mentioned, the format is also an innocent way for them to demystify the world of the conference, which is an interesting element to have. But most of all what remains are the non-work related aspects. Durkheim said religion is a ritualistic celebration of community, the same goes for the IP. In the end, you have already done the work before, and you are here for your friends, I recommend treating it as such.”

Ennio, same as me, did not continue working on his IP paper topic, follwing the motto (again making use of the German saying repertoire) Auf zu neuen Ufern! (translated to heading to new shores).

EM: “In terms of research, I can relate to Laila as I didn’t follow up my research about happiness. I did, however, talk a lot about it since the topic is relatively accessible to most people. This was very nice to encounter because most topics I write about – such as EU law etc. –  don’t always make a great entrance at a party. I liked the philosophical aspect of the study as I still use it in my day-to-day thinking and, after all, I don’t rule out the possibility that I will continue doing research in that field one day.”

To conclude … 

After reading the experiences of Euroculture students who already wrote their IP paper and attended the IP week, you hopefully see that the IP paper is not a scary moment in the Euroculture programme, but rather another academic paper which you prepare during the second semester and present during the summer school. At the beginning of the second semester, it’s your time to slowly start realising that the IP, and all its preparation, is coming closer. Coming up with a topic for the IP paper might be challenging but as you saw from the 2021-2023 cohort, there are many ways of coming up with a paper topic, if it’s the IP or any other academic paper. Just to name three: Whereas I found a suitable topic after scrutinising the text the organisers gave us, Raphael already had a topic in mind which he adjusted to the IP theme, and Ennio got inspired from his free-time activity reading. 

Anyway, in the end, throughout the years, all students came up with a topic (well, not all topics were suitable or normatively speaking good, but that’s another concern). Nonetheless, we are convinced that as every year, the students might have ups and downs along the way, but coming up with an IP paper topic is no magic and have in mind that: In the end, the IP paper is nothing more and nothing less than a 5000 word long academic paper. And since the IP paper is yet another research paper, the IP week is much more than an academic summer school during which you present your paper. But as Ennio (EM) rightly stated: “The IP itself is as fun as you make it. But it is an amazing experience to be in one of the consortium cities with all the students from your cohort. Don’t worry, be happy!”.

Picture Credit: European Commission

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