April 15th. The dreaded Tax Day. Or, for those hoping to break into academia, also known as Decision Day! If you’re like me, you’ve spent all of March and most of February agonizing over where the rest of your life is going to take you- which institution, which city, which professors.
Most Ph.D. program acceptances and rejections come out between mid February and mid March and you have until April 15th to decide where the next 5 to 8 years of your life are going take you- where you will find yourself poring over books until the wee hours of the morning and knocking back drinks with your cohorts to take the edge off. But how in God’s name do you make such a difficult decision? This is a question I’ve been asking myself (read as: tearing my hair out over) for the last month. And for some people who have decided to try again next year, the process of choosing and applying to programs has already begun again! So today I’d like to offer some points that people in the Japanese field have to consider when they venture into the Ph.D. program selection process.
As a preface, I have to say- I applied to programs in history for medieval Japanese studies. My criteria for selection will likely be somewhat different than a person going into, say, pedagogy or literature. But even so, I think that many of these points are useful for anyone in the Japanese field (or others) planning to commit themselves to a Ph.D. program. Just remember that your own experiences will be unique, as will your decisions also be highly personal. So here we go!
One of the most important, if not the most important part of selecting a program is finding a professor with whom your research interests fit. In my case, the number of schools to which I applied was very few because Japanese medievalists (from the history perspective) are few and far between- only a handful or so in the country at larger institutions. So the first part of my selection process was to look online/ask professors/search scholarly articles for who the top people in the field were and see if their research interests matched my own.
Now, this is not to say that there MUST be a researcher in your field and time period present at the school you choose. One of the schools I applied to is without a medievalist, but someone in Edo period is still qualified to work with me. Why might I choose that school? Because the reputation of the school for producing top-notch scholars is good, and there are lots of professors in supporting fields with whom I could also work. Remember, your exams/thesis committee will in most cases be made of 3 to 4 people, not all necessarily in your discipline. Also important is the approach of the faculty you want to work with. Are they hands on or hands off? Do you want to be micromanaged? Is that better or worse for the type of study you want to do?
Having people in supporting fields who may provide interdisciplinary insight into your work is essential. Just because I am entering a history program does not mean I will work only in history. It’s very likely that my research will have overlap in art history, literature, religion, and any other number of topics. Also, it is likely your research will take a transnational approach as well. So don’t only look at whether or not there is good supporting faculty in other fields, but also in other regions as well. For example, since I’m researching artisans in the late medieval age, I will also look at trade and coin exchange with China (facilitated by many metal casting artisans making progress in mining and minting in Japan!). So when deciding between my schools, I am also considering if there is strong support from China specialists in the same time period. I’ve also checked if there are European medievalists, since it is possible that I do comparative work with craftspeople in the West. (*Note: bringing up these types of transnational areas is really helpful in making a strong application as well!)
Along the same lines, it’s also important to think about whether or not you’ll have a cohort of similar-minded students in your area of study. Is the department competitive or collaborative? Do you like the people you’ve met that are already in the department or coming into it?
This is somewhat of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, having a very collegiate group of students who are also studying similar topics can make for wonderful friends and collaborators, and even help to have seminars formed based around your thematic, regional, or periodic interests. On the other hand, being the only person to enter your department in your area of study can mean that you don’t have to compete with anyone for jobs come graduation, and that your advisor can focus on getting to know you better and more fully supporting your work and your attempt to get employed afterwards. Choosing between these options may depend on what you feel most comfortable with and what you think will be most conducive to your own working style.
It may go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway- with faculty, supporting faculty, and one’s cohort, compatibility is essential. Email these people! Meet them in person if you have the chance! Ask others in the department what working with them has been like. If you find that a professor’s personality, teaching style, or advising style doesn’t sit well with you, don’t force yourself to deal with it. Ph.D. will be one of the most stressful times in your life- you need to know you can work with the people who are there to for you and that they will be adequately supportive when necessary.
There are two aspects to consider here- coming in with the right amount of language work under your belt, and making sure there is support for you to continue your language training.
First off, Ph.D. programs usually want you to be ready to research right off the bat. When it comes to be application time, having a lot of language training and having been to Japan is going to be something that makes you a strong applicant. Why? Because they want you to be ready to jump in! This is beneficial for you both- you won’t have to take extra years out of an already long program to get your language to an adequate level for advanced research, and the school won’t have to figure out how to fund you for those years (and you don’t want to pay for them out of pocket!). So I highly suggest you get as much language training as possible before you enter Ph.D., and if you still need some, inquire as to how high a level the university has for study. They may end up wanting to ship you abroad to get it done anyway.
If you’re in classical, medieval, or early modern Japan, you will definitely want to investigate whether or not your schools teach classical Japanese and/or kanbun regularly. Not only that, but if there are people in linguistics, literature, history, art, etc that are willing to do work with you for independent studies for these early languages, especially if you need to examine something very specialized like hand-written materials. For me, this has been a very important question.
Library and external resources
Of course, having an excellent library or a library that can easily acquire hard to find materials is essential. Ask universities about their special collections and permanent collections alike. Do they have a librarian/bibliographer specifically for Japan and/or China?
Also, some schools/fields support a number of external resources, such as institutes for Japanese Studies or History, etc. They may have a traveling scholars program, or a special research project going on that attracts and/or rotates outside individuals into lecture series or teaching at the school. There are also certain special arrangements like the ability to take courses at other universities for a year if the one you’re attending lacks a specialist in something you want to study. Be sure to ask about these extra options, as they aren’t always advertised.
The first thing most students ask about (of course) is the financial offer. If you’ve already been to graduate school for your M.A., then you know what it’s like to live the life of a starving grad. Financial packages differ depending on the school’s resources and how they structure their program. You may find yourself with anywhere from no funding to five full years, with various offers for TA work in between. You should read all the info on this very carefully. Also, look into the cost of living in whatever city your university is in (and look up the cost of apartments on the web) and crunch some numbers. Is it doable? What expenses do you have to think about? Ask current students if they’ve found the money to be enough. Even a great financial package will go down the drain if the cost of living is absurdly high. You may find out that an average school and a high ranking school end up giving you roughly the same offer when you compare them!
Is there a guarantee of summer funding or is it competitive? This is especially important for those of us who seek to do language work abroad. If things are competitive, how likely are you to obtain the funds? Ask current students about their experiences. One of the schools I was accepted to told me they don’t guarantee funding, and feel that having to compete for it makes you an even better scholar since you’ll be writing grant and other funding proposals for the rest of your life if you stick with academia. But some students have also told me that not being guaranteed funding isn’t a problem- that the department is so supportive that they make sure they do everything they can help you find the resources. This is the sort of information you need to seek out.
Every school handles their graduate teaching positions differently. Will you be a teaching assistant for a class? A discussion leader? A grader? Get the details! Something else important to consider is how much freedom you will have- are you going to be teaching a course according to set guidelines? Will you, at any point, be allowed the creativity to form your own course and teach it? How much teaching experience you get will not only be important in terms of practical learning, but also in how attractive you are to other institutions when you’re applying for jobs.
Research carefully the city that you might be moving to. What is the atmosphere like? Are there good or bad neighborhoods? What are the most expensive areas/most affordable areas? What is public transportation like? Is there an active night life? Cultural life? Is there an expat population? What’s the weather? The key is to select somewhere livable for you- don’t pick a place you think you might hate if you plan to spend the next 5 to 8 years being stressed out in it. It’s important to know yourself.
The rankings of schools come up a lot on graduate forums and the like, but to be honest, I’ve never paid close attention to them. Maybe you’re the type of person who cares a lot about how the school you choose is ranked, and maybe you aren’t. Unfortunately I can’t give you much advice there. But more importantly, regardless of rank, look at a school’s job placement statistics. How many people graduate with a Ph.D. from your selected program and find employment? Are they tenure or non-tenure track positions? From the day you enter a Ph.D. program you should already be thinking about leaving it.
Current students are an essential resource for figuring out if an institution is right for you. Ask them a zillion questions- don’t hesitate! They have been in your position before and know exactly what it’s like. You could ask them anything, but I think two questions are most vital:
- Are they happy?
- What have been their most frustrating experiences upon entering the program?
These should give you a good gauge as to whether or not the program is working well for and supporting its current students. Of course, the individual experience is different for everyone, so don’t rely on any one students’ response.
Former students are another, often untapped resource, but I found this extremely helpful in my decision process. I managed to get in touch with a former student of one of my potential advisors and ask all about his/her own experience working under that person. Perhaps I might be next!
This is my no means an all-inclusive list of things to consider, but hopefully a starting point for you as you try to figure out which Ph.D. program to apply to or which Ph.D. program to pick amongst your selections. Some people have a lot of choices, and some few. But the decision process is always difficult.
Before I end this lengthy post, I would like to make an additional, highly personal note on the prestige of academic institutions. Ever since I was in high school, I heard constantly about how I just had to go Ivy League. “If you don’t go Ivy League, you won’t get anywhere!” “You won’t meet the right people!” “You won’t get that high paying job!” “People will look at your Ivy League education and go, ‘Wow!’ and hire you!” “You can’t get a job without a degree from a top institution!”
I can’t begin to tell you how frustrated this made me. I didn’t want to go to a school for name alone. I had the option to apply to “the best”, certainly, but I knew I wanted a small liberal arts college where the class size didn’t number in the hundreds. As long as I could learn Japanese and go somewhere that felt right, I’d be happy. And I went! All in the face of “Going to a small place won’t get you into an Ivy League school for grad school!”
When it came time for graduate school? I applied and was accepted to two Ivy League institutions. So much for that argument! In the end, I didn’t go to either one. I chose another reputable program and it’s been wonderful. And even though I’m not at a “top” name school now, either? For Ph.D., I’ve been accepted to every school for which I applied, including the top three ranked schools for my field, the best of both East and West coast among them. What mattered was my effort and single-mindedness for my goals.
I will admit, regretfully, that having a degree from one of the “top” schools still holds some sway on the job market and is something to think about for your career. But I also believe firmly in the idea that it is your accomplishments, regardless of where you make them, that will make your career. What you do where you are (and with whom) does count. As does how far you reach outside of where you are to broaden those accomplishments through organizations, conferences, and other opportunities available in the field. It’s all about effort!
So while you consider whether you absolutely have to get into a top ranking school in order to succeed in life, please remember that although there’s no denying that these institutions do indeed offer fantastic educations and great opportunities, so do many other universities as well, and there is no shame in going somewhere not top ranked. If you closely consider all of the above aspects I have listed, you may find a spectacular school suited to your own work and personality, even if it’s not one of the top three, five, or even ten in the country. Success and happiness can neither be ranked nor judged in a name.
Best of luck to all those choosing their schools!
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