Thinking Twice about Grad School

If you are considering graduate study at Penn or another institution, please read the following carefully. It is designed to save you time and anguish and help you craft a competitive application.

First Things First: The Other Path

There are all sorts of ways one can study Japanese religion, history, or pop culture as a hobby without actually entering the academy. You can follow the latest publications on the open-access Japanese Journal of Religious Studies without having an academic affiliation, and you can get updates from academic presses like University of Hawaii Press, Harvard University Asia Center, and others specializing in publications on Asian religions. If you live in or near a town with a major research university, you can easily get put on a mailing list for Asia-related talks and events happening in your area. There are also increasingly public-facing outlets for scholarly research that bypass the relatively constrained, hermetically sealed format of journal publishing. You can find lively book reviews of recent monographs in Asian traditions at the Marginalia Review of Books, and you can find a regularly updated list of new publications on manga and anime here.

Getting paid a decent salary and saving for retirement while reading about Japan or religion in your free time is not so bad, and certainly a better choice than going deeply into debt in pursuit of a teaching and research career that may never materialize. That brings me to…

The Cautionary Statement

Only do a PhD if you absolutely cannot think of doing something—anything!—else with your life. Your undying passion for the material has to sustain you through somewhere between 5 and 10 difficult years in which you make little money and therefore make no contributions to your retirement, with absolutely no guarantee of gainful employment after you finish.

As much as PhD programs are intellectually rewarding (they really are), they are also grueling, time-consuming, stress-inducing, and—even with full-ride scholarships—can be a major blow to whatever personal wealth you might have otherwise accumulated as a gainfully employed adult. A basic rule of thumb is to think twice and then thrice before you apply, because most people who get PhDs don’t get tenure-track jobs.

(The number of people getting tenure-track teaching jobs is small and rapidly dwindling. For reasons that are entirely structural and have very little to do with personal aptitude, many people wind up working as adjuncts, teaching on a course-by-course basis and often living at or below poverty level. This happens after people take out large student loans and after they spend 5–10 years in grad school, during which time they have no opportunity to put money away for retirement. The bottom line is that the math is not good for any but the luckiest individuals.)

A second rule is to have a solid backup plan before you begin. If you don’t get a tenure-track teaching job in academe, what do you plan to do with your PhD? There are jobs for PhDs in government, industry, museums, secondary education, and research institutes. Make sure you know what your options are so that you are not blindsided if and when you don’t get a faculty position.

Also, plan ahead. You can expect to be applying for jobs for at least three years before you land a TT job. It has become common for humanists to do one or two postdocs or visiting assistant professorships (VAPs) before they land something more stable. If you have a family, this gets even more complicated. Kids need stability, and if your partner is also an academic (mine is), then you will also deal with the dreaded “two-body problem” in which one person may pull the other away from good employment opportunities. It can take years for academic couples to work out a way to live in the same place working in equally satisfying positions.

(To give you a sense of how this works, my wife and I work at schools that are 3–4 hours apart. We split our time between two communities and try to maximize our time together, but when you add weekly time apart to the time we usually have to spend apart because of conference and research travel, it really adds up. And speaking of adding up, we have to pay rent/mortgage in two places, plus wear and tear on our car, plus bus fare…)

If you do apply and get accepted to a PhD program, don’t go unless you get a full ride scholarship. Assuming that you do get a full ride, if you discover that it’s not working for you after a year or two, there is absolutely no shame in choosing to do something else.

Finally, choose your program carefully. Most programs will provide placement statistics showing how successful they have been in getting their PhDs into academic positions (see my alma mater’s stats here). In Japanese studies, there are a limited number of schools that will actually make you competitive on the job market.

I’m not saying this is fair. But the reality is that you almost certainly need the name of an Ivy League institution, an Ivy peer (like Chicago or Stanford or Duke), or a top-tier state school (UCLA, Berkeley, UCSB, Michigan) to be competitive. This reflects the overwhelming advantages that these relatively rich schools enjoy in terms of material and prestige. Keep in mind that these schools will also usually only accept PhD students to whom they are willing to offer full-ride scholarships (tuition, some benefits, and a livable stipend), so there is an advantage to aiming for these.

Prior Preparation

If you are considering a PhD in Japanese studies, hold in mind that you will need to have a level of reading comprehension equivalent to being able to read a novel or newspaper article with minimal use of a dictionary before you start; you should also be comfortable having a conversation in Japanese about abstract topics. Being able to order at an izakaya and being able to discuss abstruse philosophical points are quite different skills. You can develop the latter skill while you are in grad school, but keep in mind that you will also need to learn another Asian language (probably Chinese or Korean), will need to master bungo (classical Japanese) and kanbun (Sino-Japanese) and will need to develop reading comprehension in at least one European research language.

For most people (including yours truly), getting the sort of baseline fluency necessary for starting a PhD means living in Japan for an extended period of time (at least a year) prior to entering grad school. It may also mean doing advanced language study at a place like the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies (probably the single best place to study Japanese language in the world, but there are also competitive immersion programs at places like Middlebury).

Getting into a PhD program also means having a clearly articulated research question, which takes time to formulate. The easy solution to this is to do an MA before going to the PhD. I personally think that it is better to do an MA at one institution and a PhD at another just so that you get a sense of different approaches to the field, but this is not strictly necessary. Although they are often expensive (many grad schools make money on MA programs so they can fund their PhD students), MA programs can give you time to develop language skills and refine your research interests.

(If applying to a school with both MA and PhD programs, apply for the PhD. You may be admitted at the MA level if the faculty decides that you do not have sufficient training for the PhD).

Personally, I took out some expensive loans to supplement the high cost of living in Honolulu where I was partially funded as an MA student. I’ll be paying the loans for a long time, but I would not have gotten accepted at Princeton without the prior training at UH.

The Application

There is a specific strategy to writing successful PhD applications. You will absolutely not want to mistake the “personal statement” for a confessional statement or a statement about “what Japan means to me.” The personal statement is actually asking you to outline a research program, not tell the reader how Shintō (or Buddhism, or anime) changed your life. Very qualified people who adopt what appears to be a confessional or overly personal tone in their applications sometimes get rejected because faculty members fear that they might be inflexible, doctrinaire, or cavalier in their approaches to their research material. So you’ll want to be clear for your reader about what your research question is, what kind of research you plan to do (historical, ethnographic, philological, philosophical), and what prior training you have (time in Asia, linguistic fluency, etc.).

Ideally, your personal statement will express the broader, ultimately unanswerable question that compels you to do research in the first place, and it will also outline the more narrow, answerable question that you plan to answer in a dissertation. The former might be a question like “how can the category of religion be responsibly applied to a place where most people reject the label?” (my ultimately unanswerable question about Japan), while the latter might be something like “how do Japanese people engage with seemingly religious ideas, institutions, and actions in everyday life?” (the question I tried to answer in my 2012 book).

(If you know the field well enough, you can talk about how you think your research might overturn longstanding assumptions or otherwise contribute to the body of knowledge on the subject. Only include a statement of this sort if you know what you are doing. Also, have somebody else look over your statement before you submit it. Your personal statement should reflect your best academic self, so no typos, no infelicitous word choice, no grammatical mistakes.)

By all means do not forget to include a paragraph in your personal statement outlining how you plan to take advantage of the specific human and material resources at the institution to which you are applying. You should know enough about the faculty to say with whom you want to work and why. You should know enough about the institution to say something about a particular library collection, lecture series, or workshop if it is connected to your research interests. You can get some of this information when you contact potential advisors long before you actually submit your application.

Networking and References

You should contact everyone who would be a potential advisor and ask if you could speak with them by Skype or phone about your research interests and whether you would be a good fit for their department. If you can swing it, think about traveling to the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (meets annually in November) or the Association for Asian Studies (meets annually in March) to meet with potential advisors in person. I met with all of my potential advisors in person or by phone when I was applying for PhD programs, and it was certainly instructive in terms of helping me figure out which schools might be good fits for me and vice versa.

(It almost goes without saying, but your initial communication with faculty members should be formal. Briefly introduce yourself and your prior training and mention anybody with whom you have studied that the professor in question may know (they will contact that person privately if they think you are a promising candidate). Explain in one or two sentences what your research interests are, and ask them politely how you might best prepare an application for their department. The general rule of thumb with politeness is that you use more words to say the same thing, but don’t waste the professor’s time with an overly florid missive. Be courteous but to the point. Here are some frank and very helpful tips on how to approach this process from my colleague Anthea Butler in Religious Studies.)

In your conversations with potential advisors, you may find that people encourage you to think about doing other things. Learn to distinguish between a message of “I think you have promise but nobody should enter the academy right now because the job market is terrible and it would be unconscionable for me to admit you” and one of “Looking at your materials, I don’t think that you would survive or thrive in a PhD program at my institution.” Make sure you are hearing the message the person intends to transmit, and make sure that you take it seriously. By all means do not give the impression that you are unteachable by ignoring what the person tells you.

You should contact potential referees early about letters of support. Ask them if they are willing and able to write you a strong letter, not just write you a letter. Don’t be surprised if they try to dissuade you. Your advisor may think that you would be a fantastic teacher or researcher, but might think it would be ethically irresponsible to support an application to grad school. Listen to what she says.

If you are absolutely determined to apply, it is on you to tell the referee that you understand the risks and rewards of doing so. Here, too, it is important to be able to distinguish what message the person is trying to transmit if it seems like she is dragging her feet. If she says that she cannot write you a strong letter, it is time for you to think about doing something else. Hold in mind that your referees need to be excited about your application. If they write their letters begrudgingly, it won’t help you.

A Final Note—Life In The Academy

If you made it this far and you are still determined to apply to grad school, I suggest that you talk with current grad students in programs that you are targeting to find out what their experience is like. From the outside, a program that looks ideal might have some serious problems that are only apparent to people on the inside. The seemingly ideal advisor could be notorious for making onerous demands on her students, for example, or a top-tier university may have structural issues that keep students from finishing.

Also, hold in mind that life in the academy requires lots and lots of writing. If you don’t like writing, don’t go to grad school. You will generate lots of text, and you will throw away most of it. You must be comfortable with this.

Life in the academy also involves teaching. You should be as excited about working with students as you are about sharing your research ideas in publication. If you like research but don’t like teaching, the academy is probably not for you.

If you do like teaching, make sure you know why. Some people are mistakenly attracted to teaching because they relish having authority, not because they genuinely enjoying helping students learn and grow. You may not have a lot of teaching experience at this point, but do your best to make sure that you know what motivates your work in the classroom before you start.