Elizabeth Mekaru is currently a Study Abroad Advisor for the University of Michigan Center for Global and Intercultural Study. She graduated from the University of Michigan in 2005 with a B.A. in Asian Studies, and taught English in Yokohama for two years before returning to U-M to complete her M.A. in Japanese Studies in 2010
I graduated with an M.A. in Japanese Studies in 2010, and since that time I’ve been working as a Study Abroad Advisor. It’s a position that is in many ways my dream job, and even though I don’t sit around talking about Japan all day, I do use my degree in some capacity every day in my professional life. If you had told me this three years ago, I might not have believed you, but now that I have some perspective on the situation, I am able to look back and see how my years in graduate school prepared me perfectly for my current position, even though my position is not directly related to Japanese Studies.
I entered the Japanese Studies master’s program at the University of Michigan knowing a number of very important things. I knew, first and foremost, why I wanted to be there. Unlike my undergraduate experience, I entered graduate school with a level of purpose that I had lacked as an 18-year-old. I knew that I wanted to get a master’s degree for the doors it would potentially open in the job market; I had spent a couple of years teaching English in Japan after graduating with a B.A. in Asian Studies, and I realized very quickly that I was not cut out to be an English teacher in Japan forever; I wanted more from my professional career, and my B.A. was not getting me what I wanted. I also knew, after spending time in Japan, that I wanted to know more about Japan on an academic level. I knew I missed school, and the opportunity to surround myself with and devote energies to the exploration of ideas. I knew also that school was a very safe and fruitful environment in which to cultivate self-reflection, the kind of self-reflection I would need to re-evaluate who I was and what I wanted to do.
“To PhD or Not to PhD,” became the next question, and ultimately I decided against it, in a journey of self-reflection that is worthy of an article unto itself. Suffice it here to say that I was confident in my decision to pursue an M.A. and then move directly on into the professional world. What I was not at all confident about was my ability to make that transition from student to young professional, academic to fill-in-the-blank. I did not know what I wanted to do, nor did I necessarily believe I would have the skills to do it once I figured out what it was.
Students of something as nebulous as Area Studies aren’t necessarily trained to view our education in the context of marketable skills: the academic world asks us, “What do you know?”, while the job market demands, “What can you do?” It can be daunting to come from the academic world into the professional world because it seems like you are leaving academia armed with the answers to the wrong question. It’s an uncertain, and therefore uneasy state of affairs, but having gone through it and come out the other side, I am here to say to you, current or prospective M.A. students of Japanese Studies: you will be able to do a lot with your degree. The time that you’re spending in graduate school is valuable on many levels, and despite the daunting nature of the job market, you are currently honing skills and cultivating a personality that will eventually land you a job.
What follows is a list of some of the ways my M.A. prepared me for my career – you may or may not find it helpful, but I offer it to you because it’s something I would have appreciated knowing when I was starting out.
Strength In Small Numbers
Japanese Studies programs are small, and this is a good thing. It means smaller classes, more intimate discussions, greater access to resources, and the opportunity to have closer relationships. Having a small cohort allows you to be challenged and supported far more than what a large cohort could offer: take advantage of this.
I did not approach my time in graduate school with the intention of “networking” (the term makes me uncomfortable because it implies you are trying to “get something” from people), but I did spend the time to cultivate relationships with the people who were in my life – faculty, other students, program staff, people I met at lectures and events – and these relationships allowed me to make connections that eventually led to employment opportunities. I have my job today because I happened to mention to one of my professors that I was interested in getting into the field of study abroad. Two years later, I ran into him at a guest lecture and he told me that he had heard the study abroad office on campus was looking for a new study abroad advisor. I applied, and I have now been working there for three years.
It is never a bad idea to make yourself known and build relationships within a small community like a Japanese Studies program; someone may know someone who may be hiring for a position that’s perfect for you, so talk to people! Talk to them often, and not necessarily just about what you’re studying; tell them what you’re interested in, where you want to go, what you want to do. Consider yourself lucky to be part of a small community; we are here to support and encourage each other, so don’t miss out.
I look back very fondly on my time in grad school as a privilege: I got to spend every day sitting with some of the most brilliant minds in the country, listening to really smart people talk about really interesting things. And that’s what I did “for a living.”
Appreciate how lucky your position is. It’s easy to get stressed about deadlines and kanji strokes, and the bigger question of “what’s next”, but there is incredible value in the ability to recognize and enjoy the present moment. We are wired to always be looking forward, but I found that allowing myself to focus inward, on my daily life as a grad student, helped me to determine my likes and my aptitudes. You can’t figure out what you want to do with your life without a firm understanding of these two things, and I found that graduate school was the place that helped me define them for myself.
Take a look at your daily life in grad school and ask yourself what it is you like about it. This will help you to understand what you’re good at, and ultimately will help inform what it is you do for a job. On a very basic level, I like to read and write, and in my current profession I do both of those things nearly constantly. I enjoyed being around faculty – really smart people who march to their own beat – and in my current profession I get to work with faculty frequently; I get to be around them and hear their ideas, and help them to do their jobs. I also enjoyed being around the younger students, when I would see them at lectures, or at events. The thoughts and concerns of college students are of interest to me; I enjoy helping people who have a lot of questions and are interested in learning and growing, and now I get to work with those people every day.
I was 25 years old when I started graduate school. I shudder to think that at that age I had not yet mastered the basic art of speaking and being spoken to, but I was definitely in the category of social awkwardness. When I really began to examine this, I realized that much of my lack of confidence came from my lack of knowledge. I am the kind of person who does not like to speak for the sake of speaking; if I am going to say something, I want that something to have substance, and being an M.A. student gave me that confidence. Sitting in a class of four students with one of the top scholars in the field, you’re going to be called upon to speak your mind, and when you speak, you’d better say something worthwhile. And here’s the key that I discovered through that experience: you don’t have to know what you’re talking about all the time! True self-confidence comes from ownership of your own knowledge, the ability to speak intelligently about what it is you do know, but also to be able to admit that you don’t know everything.
Once I made that realization, I became much more relaxed, and my ability to engage in intelligent, worthwhile conversations increased, because I was no longer distracted by the worry that people would discover that I don’t have all the answers. I have come out of graduate school a much more eloquent and self-confident person, not only because I can speak with confidence about certain topics, but because I stopped pressuring myself to know everything.
We have all encountered the person who covers up what he or she doesn’t know by using a lot of words, and we all can recognize this as a sign of insecurity. Give yourself permission to not be that person. Take pride in what you know, but don’t feel pressured to act like you know it all. The right people will notice and appreciate this, trust me; I work with undergraduate students every day, and I can tell you for a fact that they are not interested in working with a show-boater who dances around questions and gives complicated explanations in order to cover up the fact that she doesn’t have the information. Students just want the accurate information, even if it takes me a few days to find it, so I have no reason to pretend like I know things that I don’t; my self-confidence allows me to be honest with students, and this helps them have more confidence in me.
I’ve already mentioned that it’s okay not to have all the answers. The other key skill that my M.A. brought me was the ability to find the answers when I don’t have them. Japanese Studies is a lot of reading and writing and looking things up. M.A. students spend countless amounts of time in archives, libraries, and websites, sifting through hundreds of years’ worth of material. It is a daunting task, and learning how to navigate that space is a valuable skill.
For many employers, it is not important that you know everything, but that you are trainable; that you learn fast. This is one thing that Area Studies courses really prepare you to handle: we are information gathers and information synthesizers: we identify a problem, identify where we can find the answers, go and get the materials, read them, summarize the most relevant information and then re-present it in a new way, to explore new ideas and fresh perspective. It may sound obvious, but these skills are 90% of what most jobs entail on a daily basis. The ability to gather and synthesize information is a basic job skill that is applicable to virtually any field you enter as a professional.
Putting It All Together
In summary, my time in the Japanese Studies M.A. program at U of M prepared me for my professional career in a number of significant ways: it helped me build connections (to network without intentionally networking), it helped me to figure out what I’m good at, it bolstered my self-confidence, and it taught me how to be an effective researcher. To put that into “resume speak”, that means I am: great with people, I have strong communication skills (verbal and written), and I have highly-developed critical thinking and problem-solving skills that allow me to learn quickly and adapt to any task that comes my way.
This experience helped me to leave academia and enter the professional world with confidence. I certainly came away from the M.A. program knowing a lot of things about Japan, but additionally (and perhaps even more importantly), I came away from it a more confident person, with a list of tangible and marketable skills that have been invaluable to me as a young professional.
Intercultural Programs Advisor
Center for Global and Intercultural Study, University of Michigan