Going on to graduate school for Japanese Studies

Photo by Futurilla

Wondering if graduate school in Japanese Studies is right for you? Well, we’re here to give you a little info on how and why people make the decision to continue their schooling. 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 (specialization medieval Japanese history). 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. (At least that’s the plan!)


So, do you want go on to graduate school?

Here’s a brief introduction to making that decision. I’ve encountered a lot of different people doing graduate school for a lot of different reasons. Here are some of them.


– want to become a professor or work in education related to Japanese studies
– want to expand linguistic skills to work in a foreign country
– want to research in another language
– have unanswered questions about a topic and a genuine interest in finding the answer
– want expand their general knowledge of a topic
– want to go into the work force and have better job opportunities (some people will stop after their M.A. expressly for this purpose)
– are avoiding the job market in this recession

There are lots of reasons why, though I won’t address them all here. And graduate school isn’t just an extension of college, or a way to avoid the economic troubles at hand. You have to be highly motivated and have ambition. Maybe you don’t know exactly what you want to do, but you know you want to do something and you need to further your education to do it. That’s okay! It took me a long time (right up until the point that I had to write an application essay about it) to sit down and say, “Hey, I think I want to do history and art in the medieval age.” When I was applying, some schools wanted me to have everything already planned out and even already have classical languages under my belt for medieval research. Yikes! Thankfully those were only the most elite of schools and others aren’t so strict.

But remember, you can always change your mind! Maybe you start researching one topic and another jumps out at you. There’s flexibility to change your mind once you’re in a graduate program. That’s the great thing about graduate school: flexibility. Maybe there isn’t a perfect graduate school out there for what you want to do, but it’s very likely that once you’re there people are willing to bend over backwards to help you study what you find interesting. It all depends on the program. Never think that you don’t have options.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you don’t have to jump into graduate school right after college. I did it, and a classmate of mine went straight to Japan for school, but others I know are taking some time out there in the workplace, in JET, etc. to get some experience (and money!) under their belts before they decide if they want to go back. Just as smart a plan! Entering at 22 also made me the youngest individual in my graduate program, if that gives you any idea of when people generally decide to go. Students, on average, were between 25 and 30 years old, but some were in their 50’s, too.

So why go right away?

I went right away because I didn’t want to take a break from the Japanese language. I wanted my skills to be fresh in my mind and keep working on them while I broadened my knowledge in the field. For me, the time period I wanted to study was something I couldn’t get much experience in during undergrad, so it was to my advantage to push on through and get more coursework under my belt and get on the research track. Others, perhaps people in international relations, might find it more beneficial to get a job or internship first. It all depends.

I’ve also considered taking a break after my M.A. and before my Ph.D., as well as going right back to Japan for more language immersion after my M.A. But in the end, I chose to go straight on to Ph.D., mostly for personal and financial reasons. It’s all relative to the type of work you can see yourself doing, if you plan on plunging deeper into research and academia, your individual situation, and the sort of life plan you have laid out.

Also worth mentioning is that M.A. programs aren’t that long. Most graduate programs for master’s degrees are 1 to 3 years, although the average program is 2 years, like mine. Even if I went right after graduation (which some people hate the idea of doing), because I’m a full-time student in the M.A program, it’s wouldn’t be another 4 year endeavor. Once you’ve graduated, you’ll realize that the time goes by very fast.

Escaping the Economy

One thing I have to warn against is going into grad school just to escape the economy. For some, this plan might seem to be ideal. And, granted, for some it might even work. But with the failure our economy over the past few years, schools are struggling, especially humanities and language programs. As a result:

– More students are applying to graduate school to avoid the job market
– Schools are admitting fewer students to cut down on costs
– The budgets of schools are being slashed
– Students are having a harder time obtaining funding

Add these things together and it means more competition for less money. A friend of mine in our sister program is a Ph.D. student, and she recently told me that OSU used to guarantee funding for Ph.D. students for 5 years, and now it may be changed to 3 or even 1. Things are uncertain, and all schools are encountering problems like this. So unless you have faith in your absolutely stellar abilities to obtain grants/fellowships/scholarships and the like, keep in mind that going to graduate school now may mean incurring quite a bit of debt via loans to pay for school.

Deciding if graduate school is the right thing for you may be a painstaking process, but consider it seriously if you think you’ll continue in Japanese studies. Is there more you want to learn? Goals that require additional degrees? Still wondering where you want Japanese to take you and willing to find out where that is? Do you think you could be wrong? So what! Consider the pros and cons carefully and don’t be afraid to take the initiative and see.

– Paula

Money photo by AMagill

About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
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22 Responses to Going on to graduate school for Japanese Studies

  1. Miss_guided_ghost says:

    I’ve been thinking (a rather ridiculous thought) of getting into Law school in Japan. I know TODAI offers Law courses and I kinda know (though I’m not sure) that they offer them in English as well. But without a scholarship program, seems like the TODAI dream is just a dream…so maybe I’d just abandon the whole idea.

    Anyway, I’ll go to Japan in Spring this year to spend a semester. Maybe then my stay there will change my mind.

    In any case, I do find your entry really helpful!

    I wish you all the best!

    • Paura says:

      Glad you found this entry helpful! I’m not familiar with doing Law school for Japanese, so I’m afraid I can’t offer much help there, but if you have a specific type of Law you think about going to, you may be able to frame some scholarship/fellowship proposals using that to find some funding. There are very few people who try to pursue the Japanese/Law track. If you want to ask an expert on what it’s like to do that, please contact the JETs with JDs blog (linked on our site under Blogs). Andrew (who runs the site) does this blog specifically for people interested in Law after being abroad in the JET program (so they have a specific Japanese-oriented skill set). 🙂 Best of luck!

    • Paura says:

      Also, your other comment on the homestay article I couldn’t leave a reply on directly for some reason, so I left it on the comment above yours on that article for you.



      • Miss_guided_ghost says:

        Hi, thank you for the reply! I just checked the blog and I left a message. Your article on homestay really encouraged me to avail one when I go to Japan 😀

        Hope you’re doing well! 😀

  2. wan says:

    Thank you for your posting this. I’m in a state of absolute confusion right now because I don’t know which direction to go. I already have 1 1/2 years of work experience but it is in no way related to my degree or what I’d like to pursue for my MA. It was just one of those, right off from college jobs which I regret doing now because all those time I wasted I should’ve just dedicated it to taking an MA. My university here in the Philippines offers an amazing East Asian studies program which I applied for 1.5 years ago but didn’t get in, that’s why I’d like to try again this year. However, my dilemma is that, just this week, I received my TESOL cert. so that I can teach in Vietnam, so now I don’t know what to do anymore. Pursue MA in Japanese studies or go to Vietnam? So to help me decide, I’d like to know what job opportunities I’d have with an MA in Japanese studies. Will I be able to work for the Philippine Embassy in Japan? The truth is, the reason why I want an MA is just for self-fulfillment and not for any other major purpose, like to conduct research or something. Of course my primary reason is to be able to go to Japan. I’m only 22, but I feel like, if I pursue my MA, but the time I finish, the job opportunities in Vietnam waiting for me will all be gone or filled in with someone else who has the years of experience that can compete with my MA in such an unrelated field like Japanese studies…

    • Paura says:

      Hello Wan,

      This sounds like a very complicated decision and I can see why you’re torn. There are a couple things that you need to consider:

      1) What is your ultimate goal career-wise? Do you want to teach English using your TESOL? Or is there a larger goal you’d like other than that using an MA?

      2) What would you study for your MA and how will that contribute to said goals? An MA will (typically) make you a more attractive and competitive candidate in the job market over someone without one, but if you plan on teaching English as your greater goal, your TESOL may also be enough to achieve that because certification will be just as important a requirement to companies that want to higher you.

      I have to say, I don’t have any ESL type certifications, so I can’t personally speak to how you can use them. But teaching English is something that always has a high turnover rate, so I feel like you may not have to worry TOO much about there not being jobs if you take a year or two to get a degree. That being said, I admittedly know nothing about Vietnam and the job market there, so I’m not sure I can speak to that issue with much accuracy.

      Funding is something else you’ll have to think about- if you go after the MA, are you going to be taking out loans to do it? Would that be an issue for you? Can you get grants or scholarships or fellowships? Not having financial aid like this may not be a big problem if the MA program is only one to two years (as most are), but your personal financial situation may mean that you don’t want to take out the loans. It’s a very personal decision.

      What you can do with an East Asian Studies MA has become harder to define in recent years because of the economy, and it also depends on what sort of expertise this MA will give you based on your own research. It would be hard for me to generalize here. If you pursue the MA, you want to be sure it’s both a topic you want to take the time to study as well as one that will give you some practical skills towards whatever profession your next step may be. But, the financial gratification of going straight into the job market with your TESOL certification is tempting too. Ultimately, what you plan as your larger goal and what works for your living situation now will probably have the biggest effect on your decision.

      I’m not expert in TESOL or Vietnam, but I hope what I’ve said is at least somewhat helpful to you! 🙂 Best of luck!

  3. Brian Kevin says:

    Though this article was posted way back 2011, I do certainly appreciate your thoughts. I have been aiming to take an MA in Asian Studies, major in Japanese Studies with a social science track here in the Philippines but having a hard time to decide because I am thinking of opportunities related to it during and after I graduate from university. As you’ve mentioned, you need to have a reason on why you want to pursue something, and for me this is because I am interested on it’s language, business culture and international relations particularly in the Philippines. But my experience is related to finance and information technology so I am not sure how can I venture out of it if I decided to apply for a new career.

    There are several options that I can think of: (1) apply for a Japanese company based in the Philippines who specializes in finance or information technology, (2) apply for a company who are looking for Japanese technical support and service Japanese customers and (3) hope to get an opportunity to work in Japan. Even though I have this in mind, my path is still unclear. I hope you can further enlighten me so I can decide before the application starts for the next term.


    • Paura says:

      Hello there Brian! Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. As someone who’s not too familiar with the business world, I’m not sure I have the expertise to sufficiently answer your question. If you’re able to fund it, I certainly don’t think an MA would hurt your career, particularly if it’s an MA that is geared towards relating business, finance, and Japanese, but you may also have job options, as you said. Arguably, you might be a better MA candidate with business experience under your belt, but you might also be a better job applicant with an MA under your belt! This sounds more as if it’s a decision that depends on three things– your financial situation at the moment, your desire to be either in school or out in the job market, and the types of opportunities for employment that you see available. It’s hard to say which is going to be right for you. I wish I could be of more help in this department!

  4. darchi says:

    Hi Paula!! So glad to have come across this post – I’m a junior in undergrad and was thinking about grad school, but whenever I researched my options it seemed like every post was negative and discouraging. The articles usually started with “…don’t go to grad school if A, B, or C” and since I’m not particularly sure of what I want to pursue, and my GPA is barely the minimum GPA requirement to apply for grad schools, I felt like maybe it was just not in the cards for me. However, I really want to go! I’m very confident in my Japanese skills (my major GPA is a 4.0 – my electives and gen eds brought me down quite a bit) and I love learning about it so I’m hoping even someone like me can make it! Your post was super encouraging!! Thanks! 🙂

    • Paura says:

      Hi there! Glad to hear from you. Although I do think that grad school isn’t necessarily for everyone, and that students who want to go face a lot more difficulty now because of the changing standards of universities and general economic hardship, I agree that most of the articles out there as to whether or not to go are extremely negative and discouraging. I’m glad mine could make you feel a little bit better about considering it! One of the best things you can do in making the decision as to whether or not it’s right for you is to really research all your options both grad and non-grad, as well as figure out whether you’re more inclined to attempt an MA first and what sort of funding will be available to you. It can be really dangerous for people nowadays to hop right into grad school without realizing just how deeply it can put you in debt if you don’t play your cards right. But the ability to find funding is also a skill that’s important to develop along the way! Hope there are some other articles on here that will be helpful to you in the process! Best of luck!

  5. Lorena says:

    Hi there!
    This is why I love the internet; you never know what sort of help you will find!
    I did JET 5 years ago, and since have struggled to get my goals straight. I want to teach at the collegiate level but wasn’t so sure which way to go. I received an Honors undergraaduate degree in Politcal Science and enjoy the Asian region. I am wondering if you know if an Asian Studies MA allows you to teach in university, or is it a more terminal degree? Also, and I know this sounds silly, but will universities expect someone who is not Asian to be an expert in the subject. I just feel so useless being 26 and just starting on my goals.

  6. tinakrit says:

    I’m planning to do MA in Japanese Studies next year, too.
    So glad to find this post in such a situation, really really helpful.
    Thanks a lot for the post!!

  7. Joshua says:

    Greetings! I am really thankful for your article, given that I, too, am seriously considering pursuing an MA in Japanese Society and Culture, East Asian Relations or Japanese Interpreting and Translation.

    Presently, I am N1-certified on the JLPT, currently possess a 3.9 GPA (Triple majoring in International Business, Political Science and International Studies (Asian Studies Track). I am also a former military intelligence linguist (Japanese), having graduated from the Japanese Language Program at the Defense Language Institute.

    Since I am graduating from college next year, I would be most grateful to you for any advice you might be able to proffer in regard to the HUGE choice soon before me:

    A. Attend graduate school at the University of Queensland in Japanese Interpreting and Translation (2-year program)

    B. Attend graduate school at the University of Edinburgh in either East Asian Relations or Japanese Society and Culture (1-year program)

    Given my background, which path would you recommend that I take? My future goal is to work for the U.S. government as a Japanese translator/interpreter/region specialist.

    Thank you soooo very much!!

    • Paula says:

      Hello there Joshua,

      First off, let me say that selecting a school/program/location to relocate yourself into is a highly personal decision, and there are a lot of factors that go in that entirely depend on how comfortable you are with the change, the members of the program, your financial situation, etc. But it sounds like what you’re talking about as your end-goal is more career-oriented than anything else. You will want to ask yourself which of these program get you closer to and offer you more flexibility in your career goals. I don’t know the details of either of these programs (and unfortunately don’t have the time to look into it), but if the first option is specifically attuned to interpreting and translation, it leads me to wonder if the second can offer you similar options that will bring you towards that final aim of translator/interpreter/region specialist. It sounds as if you already have a more than solid background, and you are looking to fine-tune what you know and further expand your skills. So I would suggest weighing your options with that in mind.

      Best of luck with everything!


  8. Akylina says:

    Hello 🙂
    Even though so many years have passed since you made this post, it’s still so relevant to so many people! I, too, am pondering whether or not I should pursue a master’s degree in Japanese Studies. The truth is that I’ve been passionate about Japan, its language, literature and culture for almost 10 years now. However, in my country there has never been an undergraduate department for Japanese Studies, and since I like languages in general too, I decided to follow a BA in English Language and Literature. Doing this degree, I came to love English literature as well, and right now I am curious about quite a few subjects concerning this field of study.
    I definitely want to further my academic studies and, hopefully, acquire a PhD in the future as well. My ideal would be a way to combine English and Japanese studies, but this option is not available to me right now. English is definitely much more popular in my country compared to Japanese, but studying Japanese at an academic level (I already have some knowledge of the language) has always been my dream, even though I seem to have broadened my interests and horizons the past few years.
    Have you managed to do your PhD as you were aspiring to? 🙂
    I’m sorry for the insanely long comment ^^”

    • Paula says:

      Hello Akylina,

      Wonderful to hear about your enthusiasm for Japanese Studies despite such difficulty pursuing it! Yes, I am currently in my fifth year of a PhD program in History, where I study medieval Japan. It has been a wonderful (though trying) experience. We have a guest post scheduled for March on the subject of how pursuing MA degrees and PhD degrees differ, so I hope that, too, will be of use to you as you think about continuing your education in Japanese Studies. Best of luck!


      • Akylina says:

        Thank you so much Paula 🙂 I will keep an eye out for this post, as it looks like it’s going to be really helpful! Best of luck to you and your studies as well!

  9. Pingback: Should I go on to a Ph.D. after my M.A.? Four insights about the differences between being an M.A. and a Ph.D. Student | What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies?

  10. Pingback: Resource: Japan Foundation Directory of Japanese Studies | What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies?

  11. Erin says:


    I know this article was posted some time ago, but I was hoping you might be able to answer my question.
    I minored in Japanese during undergraduate, and I ended up going to Japan to teach English through the JET Program after I graduated. In August, I’ll have been in Japan for three years teaching English. My experience on the JET Program has only strengthened my desire to learn more about Japan, this time on a more academic level, so I’ve started looking into going to graduate school for Japanese Studies. The problem is, I’m not sure whether I should apply to schools back in the USA or here in Japan. Is there any kind of advantage or disadvantage to getting a MA or PhD in Japan vs. going back to the USA to study? I’d like to stay in Japan for now, but I haven’t decided whether I want to pursue my long-term career in Japan or the USA, so I’d like to keep both doors open.
    Thanks for your help!

    • Paula says:

      This is a really tough question to answer because it depends on a whole host of things– what type of career trajectory you be have in mind, where you want to live, where you can afford to live, what type of program you’re thinking of entering… All of these have very specific sets of requirements and expectations. The question of where you want to be should definitely loom large– for example, if you want to work in the US and be in academia, a degree in Japan will likely make it more difficult on the job market, given that US institutions are less familiar with the standards of degree-granting institutions overseas and will want you to have extensive experience in teaching, which you wouldn’t get in Japan. In Japan, however, you will have greater access to research tools and scholars, which might be a priority, but again, both of these assume you want to do something akin to academia with your career. If that’s not the case, then what you’re doing with your PhD might drastically alter. The best thing to do isn’t to assume a graduate degree (MA? PhD?) is necessary and work up, but think long-term about your larger goals and work backwards as you think through the steps that will get you there, keeping in mind your own present skillset, comfort level, and economic position.

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