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.