Coping with Senior Year Decisions

Hello there!

My name is Paula and I’ll be kicking off the blog with our first post. Just a quick introduction: Of those of us who graduated in 2008, I decided to continue immediately into graduate school to acquire my master’s degree. I’m currently attending Ohio State University for a M.A. in East Asian Studies. I graduated from Gettysburg College with my B.A. in Japanese Studies and a minor in Art History. I ultimately plan to get my Ph.D. and work as a professor in the field of Japanese history and/or art history.

As graduates, one of things we often talk to one another about when we look back on college is ‘how crazy senior year was,’ and how a lot of us had no idea how to cope with the stress and figure out how to take the next step. So from the perspective of someone who decided to continue immediately into graduate school after graduation, I’d like to share a bit about how senior year went for me, as it overlapped with the process of applying to graduate school.

I was fortunate enough to have a better idea than some students about what I wanted to do, but when senior year rolled around, I was very anxious about how to proceed. I knew I wanted to teach at a college level, but I had no idea what to expect regarding applications to graduate school. I’d never known anyone who went to grad school for the humanities (outside of professors, that is), and to me it seemed far above my current level of ability. I encountered a number of difficulties and major stressors that plagued me during my senior year. In general, they were the following:

Japanese Studies is a broad degree

This is both a positive and a negative. On the one hand, you know a little bit about a lot, so your general knowledge of Japan can be applied to any field. On the other, there is not necessarily a formal methodology taught in Japanese Studies, so if you want to apply to a program in a field such as history or literature, you may feel that you have an inadequate base of knowledge compared to other students. But remember, this is not always the case, nor the end of the world! You’ll be able to make up for this in your coursework at future programs, and not all programs are looking for someone who came out of the same field (literature B.A. to literature M.A. etc). Diversity of knowledge can actually be to your advantage, as most East Asian Studies related programs are looking for you to be able to do interdisciplinary work.

Picking a field of study

If you don’t know exactly what you want to study, this may make you want to tear your hair out. I literally had to sit down with my roommates and bounce ideas off of them for an hour about how to define what I wanted to study. Literature? No. History? Yes. Modern? No. Pre-modern? Yes.

I came up with something very general (Sengoku period history), applied something a little more specific (reflections of culture in the arts), and called it a day. Generally you can apply to graduate school with something specific in mind or something more broad, depending on the program. As I’ll post about in the future, there’s lots of flexibility when applying to and once in graduate programs.

Deciding where to go

Picking a school can be nerve-wracking. Are you limited by area? Price? Specialists? Grades? I drew up a list of twenty-five schools right off the bat that had reputable programs (regardless of location) and then started to collect information. If they didn’t have anyone even remotely related to my time period/field, I crossed them off the list. I also emailed professors at these schools with the basic question, “Hey, how do my research interests fit with your program?” and was pleasantly surprised by the number of encouraging and helpful emails I received. I’ve found that the Japan field has a number of scholars who will be happy to direct you to other schools if they think those schools might be more helpful to you!

Remember, it takes time to get this organized (and organization is key!). But it will also take a load of stress off your brain if you sort all of this info out in notebooks. I had so many emails flying around that I even started printing off hard copies of emails from different professors and putting them in notebooks (with a section dedicated to each school) for quick reference as well. This really helped me evaluate how to proceed when I was ready to and keep track of the info I already had.

Applications are time consuming

This is senior year. Everyone is insanely busy, we know. Personally, I had two thesis papers I was writing and a full course load during my final year, and applying to graduate school also consumed my life during the fall semester. Plan for this! Cliché as it is, start early and think about your timetable. I was looking up school info in August and September, and boy did it pay off! October was my big grad professor-chat-up month, November my application/statement writing month, and December application time! Remember, most schools have application deadlines for November to January, so you want to be sure you have time to talk to teachers, polish your statements of purpose, writing samples, etc., as well as get in teacher recommendations. The earlier, the better.


Needless to say, with all of this on my mind my senior year was a whirlwind of paperwork and mild (and sometimes major) freak-outs. But the stress comes with the territory! Be sure to temper all of this with breaks and fun. Choosing a school and applying to it can take so much time that many people decide to wait a year or two before applying (though with the economy what it is, not as many people have this option anymore). But if you plan on going on to your Ph.D. directly or after your M.A., sometimes the earlier you apply the better, knowing you’re in the long haul for the next 7-8 years. The stress during my senior year was certainly high, but it WAS manageable. This was mostly thanks to friends and professors who helped me through the process (ask a million questions! frequently look to your advisors for advice!).

I applied to 7 graduate schools my senior year (a number which is not for everyone). At times I felt like I was going to lose it, but my professors understood where I was coming from and were kind enough to give me room to get done what had to get done. If you think graduate school is right for you, I suggest you think hard about when you want to go, and how applying to graduate school will affect your final year at college. I had a lot of frustrations, but definitely no regrets!

– Paula

P.S.   Let me remind you that you’re welcome to comment on this blog and ask as many questions as you’d like. We’re all here to help! Just comment or drop us an email.

About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
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4 Responses to Coping with Senior Year Decisions

  1. Saira says:

    This is great thanks for the advice. I see this is a few years old, but I am in the same boat majoring in Japanese studies and minoring in Art History. I wonder how this has panned out for you now or if you have any advice for the long-term? I am more interested in modern Japanese history (Post WWII). Thank you so much for this blog.

    • Paura says:

      Hello there! Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m glad you found it useful. 🙂 Hard to believe I was writing this almost two years ago! As you might be able to tell from the types of articles that’ve been put up on the blog, things have gone fairly well and according to plan, with me completing my MA in East Asian Studies and going on a PhD program in history (for medieval Japan). My subject of study now is artisans, so I’ve brought together my love of history and art history into one place. I’m not sure what kind of advice I can offer for the long-term– are you thinking of continuing to a PhD at this point? If so, we have an article about considering your options for selecting schools, etc.

      If anything from this older article still sticks out to me as really really relevant and helpful, it’s definitely doing things early and keeping great organization while doing it. More than one professor has expressed his or her appreciation to me for always being prompt in my emails, essays, application materials, etc, and helping to keep them in the loop about what I’m doing and how I’m getting there. When working with people with such busy lives, it’s so important to be well-composed and more of a help than a hindrance to their chaos. Do let me know if you have any more specific questions!

      • Saira says:

        Honestly I do have a few questions concerning the ability to find a job in Japanese Studies that can pay my loans incase I cannot financially afford a masters degree. I would love to teach Japanese art history in the future if I could afford grad school. But if I can’t, are there any other options that make a good living? I’ve been experiencing quite a bit of discouragement for choosing this major and have been feeling uneasy about it lately. I was happy to find your blog. Do you have any thoughts on this? I sincerely thank you for your thoughts.

        • Paura says:

          Unfortunately this is a really difficult question to answer. With the economy what it is and the demand for experience high, many higher paying jobs may want you to have a Master’s degree already. However, there are a number of jobs where you could utilize Japanese for an entry-level position, though these are largely in sales and technological fields (see our article on translation as a profession). The financial question is a really important one for people, especially now. MA programs don’t typically fund people, but if you can find fellowships to cover a year or more of your degree, you would be in a much better position than some others to try to go the grad school route. Unless you can find programs that are generous with their funding or you have independent sources of wealth, it may indeed be a very serious undertaking to attempt grad school, knowing how much debt it could put you in (personally, I’ve still got at least $25,000 in loans I’m sitting on from undergrad alone!). Consult with as many people as you can on the matter and get all the facts about finances. Even getting a job after PhD is extremely hard for a lot of people in Japanese Studies right now. If you’re curious about what types of jobs are out there for people with JS degrees, check out some of the sites we have listed in our employment section.

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