What would seem like a no-brainer to some is an essential skill that needs developing to others. Academia itself is big, but the field of Japanese Studies is not; building and maintaining your relationships with faculty and staff in the field is one of, if not the greatest asset you’ll have in your academic (and perhaps even non-academic!) career. And in a field where everyone knows everyone, you’re going to want to be on the inside of that matrix of connections, getting to know the people who will be your closest colleagues and friends.
Let’s take it step by step: it usually begins in undergrad!
At institutions large or small, your entry into the field of Japanese Studies has to start somewhere. For me, I was at a small liberal arts college, so there weren’t as many professors and definitely little chance of slipping under anyone’s radar–others may have to be more proactive. The connections I made here with my advisors and other professors in Japanese Studies were perhaps closer than one might find at a huge university (this was actually a goal of mine in choosing a small school). I had the chance to speak informally with my professors, go to dinners at their houses, babysit their kids, and even just drop by for a hello.
But, more importantly, I got my first introduction to the usefulness of an inside perspective on the field and where I wanted to go in it. From advice on whether I should enter graduate school at all to tweaking my application essays and the atmospheres of some of the schools I was applying to, my professors were there for me. And in forming a bond with them, my professors got to know me better, a great asset for recommendations. Three years have passed since I graduated, but I’ve run into my undergrad professors at conferences, met up with them while in Japan, and been fortunate enough to have them offer their advice on applying to Ph.D. programs and choosing schools. It would be a shame for anyone to think that undergrad is a time to just breeze through your first four years and not made solid connections with the wonderful people there to support you!
The stakes go up in graduate school. Not only is your future career that much closer, but you enter a much more rigorous and emotionally trying stage of your life, where you feel yourself torn between the regular student you knew yourself to be and the scholar you want to become. Developing a close bond with professors is even more essential, and at times more difficult. Be sure to be present, be attentive, and ask lots of questions. Get things clarified if you don’t understand them, visit professors during their office hours with questions. The important thing is to make yourself visible and known to your professors (in a positive way, of course).
Don’t take things too personally.
I, like millions of other grad students, have found myself frustrated by emails from professors. Or a lack of emails, for that matter. Did they get back to me at all? Did they answer all my questions? Was the reply brief/off-topic/blunt? Our own insecurities often get in the way of us realizing that professors are human, too. They have their teaching responsibilities, department responsibilities, their own research, outside commitments to journals and organizations, etc. etc. Yes, they have a commitment to your education as well, but it might not always be priority one on their list, and not for any fault of your own. Not only that, but some people are just not chatty, especially over the internet. I’ve gotten email replies from professors to three/four paragraph emails that are one- incomplete- sentence long—in the end, you’ve just got to live with it and move on.
Be patient with your professors and try not to be offended by a response that isn’t what you expected it to be. If you don’t understand, send a follow up question. If you don’t get a response within a reasonable amount of time, send another email politely asking again. Time and time again when professors have been late to reply to something and I sent an email to remind them or repeat my questions I have gotten responses like, “Thanks so much for reminding me,” “Thanks for always being on top of things,” and they don’t find it unusual at all that I checked back in. What you should NOT do is be snippy, especially via electronic communications. Nobody appreciates that and it can only brew bad blood between people who will likely have an impact on your future career.
The age of electronic communication is another thing to be careful of. As a graduate student, especially one in Japanese studies, I’m very aware of the professor-student hierarchy. Even with the undergrad professors that I know so well, I just can’t bring myself to call them anything but “sensei,” even if we are joking about sci-fi tv shows via Facebook. In any case, be careful to always address your professors with either “Professor” or “Dr.” per their preference unless they say otherwise. I tend to stick to the standard “Hello” and “Dear,” barring an instance where I’ve got either a long string of emails or rapid fire ones back and forth where my professor has initiated the usage of “Hi” as a greeting. Call me traditional, but better safe than sorry! These points are especially important when contacting professors you don’t personally know.
Get things done ahead of time. Make your own schedules!
With the amount of schedules, to-do lists, and white boards covered with notes to myself that I have on my walls, I wouldn’t be surprised if I have a mild form of OCD. But this is actually a great thing in graduate school, because there’s nothing more important than organization. Professors, who often have so many things on their plate I can’t imagine them keeping it all straight, have consistently been grateful that I come to them and communicated my own schedules for getting things done ahead of time. Professors love to see that you take initiative, consider the schedules of others, and can keep yourself organized and productive. Reducing your own chaos means reducing their chaos, so if you can get a draft of something to them a week before the draft is due, or get your recommendation materials to them at least three weeks before the deadline, do it! It reflects well on your ability to function as an academic and a person, which can only improve their esteem of you and the chances that they’ll have good things to say about you to others.
Scholars in other institutions
Speaking of others- one of the most important things to remember in academia, especially a field as small as Japanese Studies, is that everyone knows everyone. This became extremely clear to me when I had just finished touring Ph.D. programs before the Association for Asian Studies conference in Honolulu. I had just turned down one of the schools, but hadn’t yet written my thank you/apology letter to the researcher there, just the department secretary. Lo and behold, my advisor came back from AAS and said, “So, _______ mentioned to me that you turned them down already.” Cue mild heart attack. They were already talking with each other about me. I got on those emails fast.
As you create closer relationships with your professors, this can be a great asset. When I was looking at other schools to move on to Ph.D., my advisor had suggestions as to what researching with certain people might be like, what they knew about others working in JS, not just history, and his own experiences working with people. But this is a two way street- there’s no doubt in my mind that professors chat about their students and each other. Hey, we’re all human. But this is another reason to remember to be respectful, put a positive image of yourself out there, and avoid burning bridges within the field.
Your career and the internet
You can’t take back the internet!
This is something everyone should already be aware of, but it warrants repeating. Whether it’s a Livejournal, a Twitter, a Facebook page, an online forum/board for graduate students—the internet is forever. Even if you’ve said something about a professor or a program that you later regretted and deleted, it’s quite likely that someone read it, and you never know what might get repeated or to whom. A prospective student, a former student, a current student. You just don’t know. And some things are web-searchable, so typer beware! Don’t be disrespectful or insulting in a public forum, or if you absolutely have to write about it, it’s best not to name names.
Proofreading is another necessity of the digital world. Right now professors are from all different generations, and some have adapted to technology and communicating clearly through technology well. Others, not so much. And as I said before, you can never be sure exactly how to interpret what someone’s tone is via email, so it’s best to be very careful about what you yourself write and keep things formal if possible. When I’m sending out formal emails? I always have my best friend give them a quick read. “Am I asking this too bluntly?” “Does it sound like I’m irritated in this line?” “Do you think I should preface this request with something else?” And just as important, “Do I have any embarrassing typos?” Hey, nobody’s perfect. But the more clearly you get your ideas across without stepping on anyone’s toes, the more effectively you’ll be able to maintain good relationships with your professors.
These are just some of the basic things to think about as you move through your career in Japanese Studies. I hope it’s been a helpful guide for those do (or don’t!) think about how much effort should be put into your social network and relationships with professors and professionals. If you have any other comments or ideas, feel free to email us at email@example.com or leave a comment below!