Graduate School in Japanese Studies

Over the past several years, I have received numerous emails from people asking for advice about applying to graduate school. I have been skeptical of offering any such advice, primarily because the job market has been terrible but also because there has been an air of general malaise surrounding grad school recently. (The blog 100 Reasons Not To Go To Grad School expresses this attitude succinctly.) The more I reflect on my own experiences in grad school, however, the more I realize how valuable they have been to me both on an intellectual level and on a personal level. What I have learned in grad school has lead me to think about the world in an entirely different way, one that encourages diversity, critical thinking, and humanistic compassion. I have therefore decided to stop discouraging people and to instead offer my best advice to anyone thinking of applying to grad school for Japanese Studies:

(1) Spend a significant length of time in Japan before entering grad school.

Deciding to spend the next five to eight years of your life devoted to Japan is a big decision, after all. Some people go to Japan for the first time and realize that they hate it, and others suffer severe culture shock during their first sustained visit to the country. You don’t want to risk becoming one of those people after you’ve already enrolled in a graduate program. Ideally, you’ll spend at least a year doing dissertation research in Japan. This is a commitment that will be difficult to get out of when you realize, for example, that Japan is not vegetarian-friendly and that you can’t eat any of the food there.

Another reason to live in Japan before going to grad school is that it’s helpful to have personal and professional contacts who can help with both study and downtime when you return to the country for dissertation research.

(2) Make sure you know Japanese before applying to grad school.

By “know Japanese,” I mean that you should be able to pick up a book in your area of specialty and read it. You should also be able to translate at a reasonable pace and with reasonable accuracy without the aid of a dictionary. As part of your application to the more competitive programs, you need to be able to prove your language proficiency, either by publishing a translation, passing the JLPT, passing an oral exam, or going through one of the higher levels of a study abroad program like KCJS or the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies. Although doing your coursework in grad school will help improve your language, you won’t have time for rudimentary or refresher courses (for which you more than likely won’t receive credit anyway).

(3) You need to come to grad school with a clear idea of your dissertation topic.

The goal of graduate school is to get out as quickly as possible. You will most likely receive funding for an extremely limited period, and the funding you receive may not be able to cover the cost of living, especially if you don’t have a partner to help support you. Even if you don’t anticipate any financial difficulties, being in grad school traps you in the social role of a student, which seems fine when you’re 22 but becomes somewhat problematic by the time you’re 27.

You therefore need to make the most of the time you have by taking courses with the professors who will become your dissertation advisors and writing papers close to the topic of your dissertation. The best way to do this is to have a dissertation topic already in mind before you walk in the door. This topic will not be carved in stone, but you need to be specific. “The Tale of Genji” is not a dissertation topic. “Gender in The Tale of Genji” is not a dissertation topic. “Contemporary interpretations of homosocial relationships in The Tale of Genji as expressed in X, Y, and Z sources” is the beginning of a good dissertation topic.

(4) You need to be highly literate.

Even in the least competitive programs, grad school is a veritable orgy of reading and writing, and this reading and writing can occasionally be quite difficult. If you read less than forty or fifty books over the course of a year, you probably shouldn’t go to grad school. If you don’t know what a topic sentence is and can’t tell the difference between its and it’s, you definitely shouldn’t go to grad school. This isn’t elitism; it’s a matter of basic survival skills.

(5) You need to have thick skin and a hobby unrelated to your studies.

While you’re in grad school, you will be competing with some of the smartest people you’ve ever met. Each of these people will be better than you at something and know more than you in certain areas. Most of these people will be wonderful, but some of them will go out of their way to make you miserable. Likewise, your professors will hold you to a much higher standard than you dealt with as an undergraduate, and they will criticize your work accordingly. The majority of this criticism will be brilliant, insightful, and helpful, but some of it will be petty and downright vicious. On a broader level, you will sometimes be harshly rejected by fellowship committees, conferences, and academic journals.

As a student, you have no real power to combat any of this, so you need to have cultivated an attitude of friendly indifference and assertive self-confidence before you enter grad school. It is enormously helpful to have a hobby like biking, painting, or video games to clear your mind and help slough off any depression and anxiety that you may occasionally feel.


If I have made grad school seem like a daunting enterprise, that’s because it is a daunting enterprise and should not be entered into lightly. As I said at the beginning of this list, however, it’s also a wonderful experience that will change the way you think about the world and give you the potential to change the way other people think about the world. Grad school will equip you with a keen set of intellectual tools and serve as the gateway into a community of highly intelligent, interesting people. It is true that not everyone who enters graduate school graduates, and it is true that not everyone who graduates is able to become a professor. The statistics for employment and attrition rates may drive you away from graduate school, and with good reason. However, if you decide to go ahead and apply anyway, rest assured that the experiences you have and the friends you make will be well worth the trials and hardship you’ll encounter.

8 thoughts on “Graduate School in Japanese Studies

  1. I think this is a really interesting list and you have very valid points. I don’t agree with it completely, though. In particular, I would argue that points 1-3 are not always true; at least they have not been true in my experience. However, 4-5 are *very* true.

    I would add another one: If you do not have a very, very good reason to go to graduate school – ie., because you need the degree for a specific career that you plan to take on – you should not go. A very, very good reason dos not include: because I like Japanese whatever (literature, history, film, geisha); because I like/love Japan (which is why I disagree with point 1); because I like being a student; because I want to be a professor or teach at a college level. My reasoning is that the first and second reasons will not get you anywhere fast (or employable), and the last one is because you’ll only become a professor if you’re very lucky, very well-connected, or attend a very prestigious program.

    I have always been shocked at the number of people who are fellow graduate students whose reasoning is either along those lines, or “I didn’t know what else to do” or “I don’t want to get a job yet.” I want to shake them and say “why do you think that working 70 hours a week for less than $20,000 a year is better than having a real job?” For me it’s something I have to endure and try to work to get out as quickly as I can. I’ve wanted to graduate since I started school, and honestly I think that’s been the most important thing. My goal isn’t graduate school, it’s what I plan to do with my degree. This is the most important advice I would give to any budding student.

    I couldn’t agree with you more that graduate school is a very daunting enterprise. And as you pointed out, it’s imperative that you have a thick skin, that you care about something else outside of school (a hobby as you put it); I’d put “and you have a damn good reason to be there and an even better reason to leave” on the list. That and “what you study isn’t your life.” Some people may differ with me on that one but I’ve found that having to make graduate school my life – or really falling into that trap before realizing what I’d done – has made the past 6 years pretty miserable.

    I really love the way you put it: an attitude of friendly indifference and assertive self-confidence. I couldn’t agree more.

    (And my quick reasoning on points 1-3: I don’t study Japan because I’m in love with or even really like Japan, it’s because I’m interested in my research; many programs will pay for you to go to schools like IUC, although a base level of good proficiency and a willingness to jump in headfirst is necessary (I got stuck with reading a Meiji novel a week in my first course, and there’s no IUC that can prepare you for that shit); and you will find your topic when you come (because no matter what a good idea you have coming in, I will be so arrogant as to say that everyone changes their way of thinking, at a minimum, and will probably change their topic on average.)

    1. Thank you so much for this comment. I know we’ve discussed this before elsewhere, but I think it’s really important to have these sorts of discussions in an open and publicly accessible forum. Like everyone else, I read Getting What You Came For before I started grad school, but I never thought that what the book described would apply to *me.* After all, Japanese Studies is *different,* right? I wish someone had told me…

      I think the point you make about focusing on the job you’ll get after you graduate is supremely important. As a friend’s advisor once put it, you shouldn’t go to grad school to become a professor unless you’d be absolutely miserable doing anything else. Perhaps this wasn’t always the case, but I’ve been reading enough about the academic bubble to come to the conclusion that it’s absolutely true in the current economic climate.

      In any case, I suppose the requirements are different for MA students, who want the degree for different reasons and will usually deal with a different set of standards (than those imposed on PhD students) in their program. From what I understand, though, applicants who want a PhD but who don’t meet the first three requirements are usually only offered admission into an MA program with no promise of funding or matriculation, which is obviously problematic.

      For people who are really serious about entering a PhD program, however, I think language proficiency is very important. I came into my own program with only four years of college Japanese (one of which was in Japan), and I wasn’t able to handle about fifty percent of my coursework during my first year. If I weren’t already an advanced and dedicated language student with prior experience reading literary and academic material, I probably would have had to drop out.

      As for “loving” Japan, I think we’re on the same page. This is merely anecdotal, but I feel there are a great many undergraduates who are like ZOMG JAPAN without ever having been to the country. Because they’ve never actually lived in Japan (and because they haven’t yet picked up the full set of critical thinking skills you learn in grad school), their interest is somewhat superficial. You’re right; this type of interest will not sustain anyone through a six-year program. I think actually visiting Japan helps to dispel the ZOMG JAPAN factor while simultaneously deepening and sharpening any existing scholarly interest. And I think it’s good to respect and be passionate about what you’re studying, even (especially) if you are simultaneously critical. I feel that grad school is one marriage you don’t want to go into without at least a little love.

      In the end, I think the core of what I’m trying to get at is that it’s good to have had life experience before entering grad school. My undergraduate advisors encouraged me to enter a PhD program immediately after I graduated from college. In retrospect, this was a bit of a mistake. I wish I had spent more time living and working in Japan (or at least in a Japan-related field) before grad school.

      By the way, I wrote this post awhile ago and just transferred it into the main feed of the blog (to make it more searchable), but I should have mentioned the existence of another blog, Adventures in Gradland, that has two excellent essays that had since been posted about making the decision to go to grad school:

      Good Reasons to Go
      Bad Reasons to Go

  2. I’m sort of in your boots from several years ago. I have finished my Japanese degree including studying abroad, and I desperately want to continue my study. I find that studying on my own can make me run up against a brick wall on several occassions. At the moment, I have a job in a field totally unrelated. I would like to continue living in Japan, but I’m worried that living there and going to teach English will change my focus from solely improving my Japanese and not affording me enough opportunities. I’m interested in linguistics and culture in a very academic way, but I’m definitely not as fluent as I need to be (out of a group of us studying abroad, we decided to take the JLPT 2. we all failed, but I had the closest score to passing. ha!) I would definitely like to teach Japanese eventually, but I know that is a lofty goal. Doing it at the high school level would be fine, but I’m not at that level yet. Do you have any recommendations? Is it better to bite the bullet an go teach English for a few years? Japanese linguistics are my specific interest/area of study.

    1. Thank you for your comment, and please forgive me for taking more than a week to respond to you.

      Based on the stories I have heard from friends, I would tend to agree with you that teaching English in Japan might not be the best way to improve your Japanese unless you are exceptionally focused (by which I mean that you are financially self-sufficient enough to be able to sacrifice paid work hours while investing money, time, and emotional energy in language classes).

      You might want to consider enrolling in an intensive Japanese language program. There are several in Japan – like those at Sophia University, International Christian University, and the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies. There are also a few in the States – like those at Middlebury College and the University of California at Berkeley.

      What might be more useful to you for a future career in language teaching is a graduate program like the one they have at the Monterey Institute of International Studies:

      In any case, please do *not* enter into a graduate program without knowing what you’re going to do with your degree. Figure out where you want to live, and start getting in touch with places where you’d like to teach (local high schools, community colleges, or Japanese language schools in Japan). For places like that, you might be surprised at the qualifications they’d like you to have – you might already be more than qualified.

      In any case, I wish you the best of luck. Japanese is really hard. Everyone feels this way. There is no one in the world who is magically good at Japanese without years and years and even more years of study. As a fellow flunkee of the JLPT 2, I feel your pain. But, as someone who later passed the Level 1, I’d like to encourage you to hang in there. I’m not going to say it gets better, but it does become more rewarding. Good luck!

  3. You write that in order to attend graduate school in Japanese studies, one must spend an adequate amount of years in Japan. How does one go about fulfilling that if they are poor and do not have the means to travel to and live in Japan, seeing how Japan is one of the most expensive countries to live in?

    1. First of all, you do not want to go to grad school if you are poor. Even if you win a fellowship, you need a financial safety net.

      Second, the longer you spend in graduate school, the more expensive it is. If you’re worried about money, you need to come to graduate school with your language training and a moderate amount of fieldwork already completed.

      To answer your question, unless you are extraordinarily wealthy, you need to get a job in Japan in order to live in Japan. A lot of people begin work in Japan through the JET program, and many people teach English with a company like Aeon (although I’ve heard too many horror stories about the latter to recommend it). Other people find “real” jobs through traditional channels, such as college job fairs, job placement agencies, and keeping tabs on the websites of companies based in Japan. The website GaijinPot is also a good place to go to find job listings and advice for applying to jobs in Japan.

      If you’re still an undergrad and want to take a more academic route, you can apply for a Fulbright fellowship, which will send you to Japan for a year. You can also take a shot at a Blakemore fellowship, which will fund a year of language training at the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies in Yokohama. Both programs are extremely competitive, though, and it’s almost impossible to win a Blakemore fellowship if you’re not already in grad school. Also, one can never be sure if the Fulbright program is actually going to be available in any given year.

      Anyway, the website What Can I Do With A B.A. In Japanese Studies is another good resource for how to get to Japan and how to a job that isn’t related to English teaching through some terrible corporation.

      In the end, though, I want to emphasize again that grad school is not something you want to go into if you’re poor. It takes a long time to finish a PhD in the humanities, especially if your chosen field requires you to master a language like Japanese and do research in a place like Japan. You’re looking at seven years minimum (this includes the time it will take you to get an MA), and you’re going to be living below the poverty line for all of those years while trying to figure out how to pay for conference and research travel. Grants and fellowships and part-time teaching positions will help, but not entirely.

      Also, you might want to look at some statistics concerning the attrition and employment rates for PhD students in the humanities. These numbers do not look good for someone who doesn’t have a safety net or a backup plan, and graduate school is not a good option for someone can’t afford not to get a job that pays a living wage. The academic job market has been getting worse for two decades, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better soon.

      When you come in to grad school, it’s all about the joy of learning and the drive to succeed and ambition for the future, but it looks totally different on the other side. You know the famous line from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, where he says “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”? That’s kind of what the academic job market is like these days.

  4. I’m considering going to grad to school now, and this blog just came at the right moment (special thanks to Google search).

    After reading your blog, I began to realize that the grad student life will not be easy as I had expected before, and now I have to think about it more seriously to make sure that I’m not going to make a mistake of decision.

    Actually, I know very well that I am not one of those scholars who will sacrifice their time learning, nor I am expecting to get an academic career like a professor. However, I do really want to continue my study because I really want to know more about Japan, history and literature, and I’m sure that grad school will give me what I cannot have in undergraduate level.

    I’ll take your advice seriously and make sure that when I finally decide to apply to a grad school, I will be ready, and at least meet some of the qualification as advised in this blog.

    Thank you very much.

    1. Thank you for this. I am currently looking at school. I live in Japan and want to do grad school. My issues are related to the fact I have been an English teacher for a couple years and dad. I am worried about how long it will take to travel. The school I like in want to attend is far and I can’t move. I emailed the school to see what research/class time was like.

      Also a major issue is not knowing what to study. My degree is in computer engineering but it has been a long time since I got it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s