Japanese Studies: 5-10-20 – The Last 10 Years

For the fourth article in our Japanese Studies: 5-10-20 series, today we will hear from Abigail MacBain, a Ph.D. student in the East Asian Languages & Cultures department at Columbia University who went the indirect path to graduate school, gaining experience through a variety of jobs. She has some great advice for people just starting out, thinking about how far language will take them and whether or not they want to gain professional experience outside of academia before committing to a Ph.D. Check out what she has to say below!

Previous 5-10-20 articles:


This summer marks two major 10 year milestones in my life: graduating from my undergraduate university and departing for Japan with the JET Program. In some ways, my present role as a graduate student currently participating in a Kyoto-based summer language program is bizarrely similar to where I was a whole decade ago. In the intervening years, though, I have had a variety of experiences and opportunities that make me a markedly different person from the naïve undergrad. Both Japan and the Japanese language have played key roles in my growth through in the past 10 years. Moreover, they have brought me into three career fields relevant for a number of Japan-related scholars: international education, government, and academia.

Photo by Jason Holmberg.

Photo by Jason Holmberg.


Unlike most visitors to this site, I did not actually major in Japanese and barely studied it before I set off to live in rural Japan. It was something of a fluke that I ended up facing senior year without either of my area-related advisors and only able to work with professors with whom I had taken Asian studies courses. However, that advisor crisis coincided with a shift in my interests from the Middle East to East Asia as well as my deciding that I ultimately wanted to become a professor in Japanese religions. Upon choosing this path, I spent a summer attending a Japanese language program near Kobe, and then I filled my last year of college with basic Japanese language studies, Japan-related coursework, and an honor’s thesis focusing on medieval Japanese Shinto-Buddhist syncretism. By the time I graduated, I had gone through an effective “Japan bootcamp” and started preparing for my move to northern Japan as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) with the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program (i.e., the JET Program).

My two years in Aomori were some of the most challenging and rewarding that I have faced so far. I was naïve and inexperienced with a great deal of enthusiasm but not a lot of practical knowledge. Moreover, I had a supervisor who seemed to resent my existence. Figuring out how to harmoniously operate within a foreign working environment while also learning how to stand up for myself and my own well-being was truly life-changing. I also gained some lifelong memories and friends from around the world. Upon finishing my time with JET, I had a strong desire to give back to the program by helping future participants avoid some of the same culture shock I went through. However, I put those thoughts aside and focused on the next stage of my education and career plan: attending a Religious Studies Master’s program in Ontario.

Moving from Japan to Canada was perhaps not as extreme a shift as moving from the US to Japan, but it was nonetheless a little bit jarring. However, I loved my studies, and I continued studying Japanese both at my primary university as well as Middlebury College’s summer intensive program. While I was studying Japanese at a seemingly high level, my skills were still very far from advanced. Realizing that I was not yet proficient enough for the level of graduate work I ultimately wanted to do at the PhD level, I decided to try my hand at finding a job where I could use and develop my Japanese proficiency.

After my Master’s program, I relocated to Washington, D.C. and started working part-time as an application processor in the JET Program office at the Embassy of Japan. After a bit more job searching, I found out about an opening at the Consulate General of Japan in Miami to be the Coordinator for Educational & Cultural Affairs. This job generally entailed teaching about Japan at local schools and becoming the JET Program Coordinator for the state of Florida – both of which I was well-suited for and interested in doing. Fifteen days short of my 5 year anniversary of graduating from my undergraduate university, I started my new job.


My grand plan was to stay one or two years at the consulate, work on my Japanese, and then ultimately go on to a PhD program. However, a rather unexpected thing happened – I ended up really liking my job. Although challenging and frustrating at times, it was ultimately quite rewarding and interesting. I particularly enjoyed interacting with potential JET candidates. I also had the opportunity to write speeches for consuls, greet visiting students and officials, make presentations about Japan at schools and festivals, create PR materials, plan events, and undertake a variety of other tasks.

While I never forgot about the ultimate goal of returning to graduate school, my language skills still were not progressing as I had hoped. Although my speaking and listening skills improved, my little-used reading and writing abilities diminished. I kept putting off graduate school applications by telling myself that I needed to keep studying. However, a conversation with some visiting academics in my field encouraged me to simply apply for PhD programs with the language skills that I currently had and see what happened. I applied to several schools and actually ended up being accepted to most of them, including my top choice of Columbia University. I just finished my first year of study there, and this brings me now to the end of my first post-BA decade.


While the desire to enter a PhD program and become a professor in Japanese religious studies certainly framed the narrative of my past decade, I did not let it keep me from trying new experiences. That certainly delayed my overall career path, but it also enriched my life in a lot of ways. I do not think I could have managed to be where I am now had I not taken the chances and opportunities that I have been presented with. At the same time, I had to work diligently to achieve my career and educational successes. I had to be very practical about what was necessary for each opportunity I pursued and do my best to match them. Even when I graduated with a seemingly useless Master’s degree in Japanese religions right as the job market tanked, I kept myself busy through related part-time and volunteer activities. I also kept myself open to the opportunity of relocation and made sure I had the resources available to do so.

Although this might go against the theme of this website, I do not think that my Japanese language skills were the primary reason for my being hired with the JET Program or at the consulate, although they certainly helped. At least some level of fluency was greatly preferred with each, and had I known more prior to starting each job, I think that it would have greatly aided my adjustment to the positions as well as in my interactions with coworkers. And while I cannot be certain what exactly led to my successes with each application, I believe that the following  probably helped me the most: 1) I had researched and thought about both jobs, and I had a fairly good idea of what was needed from me as well as where I could bring my skills and talents to each, 2) I had a variety of related skills, knowledge, and interests that were well-suited and  useful to my working environment, 3) I demonstrated a willingness to learn new skills and continue studying Japanese, and 4) when I did use Japanese in my interviews, I spoke politely and clearly in standard Japanese (no slang, casual form, or dialects). Similarly, my English was suitably formal for a job interview. This might seem like a minor point, but considering that I was applying to be an English teacher for one job and a public relations representative for the other, I think that demonstrating appropriate speaking skills was actually pretty important.

For my graduate school applications, while I had some very strong qualifications, I think that my statement of purpose may have helped me the most. In addition to giving me a forum to differentiate myself from other candidates, I also used the statement of purpose to clearly state my relevant educational and career experience as well as my research interests. Also, since my language skills were my weakest point, I openly and directly stated my years of study, current fluency, courses that I needed to take, and resources I planned to take advantage of at the university. Having read through a few hundred JET Program statements of purpose, I have developed my own instincts for what makes for a strong statement, and I used that insight to try to hone my own essay. I also tried to think about what I would want to see in a PhD applicant were I on the selection committee. I wanted to convey a sense of independence and competency without sounding pleading or boastful. It is a hard balance to carry off, but I felt like I managed it and was pretty pleased with how it came out.


First, do not let your language skills go to waste. Especially for those majoring in Japanese, you have not only devoted several years to developing your language skills but you are also making a statement to everyone who reads your resume that this is what you chose as your area of specialty. While you may ultimately end up in an unrelated career, do not let your skills go to waste. Find a Japanese language partner, listen to Japanese TV shows, try to read one Japanese article per day or at least per week, keep taking Japanese classes, or maybe even volunteer to teach Japanese a couple of times per week. If you let your skills lapse, do not be afraid to start again. This may mean backpedaling by retaking a low-level class or going back to a basic textbook; as long as you keep learning and reviewing, it is worthwhile. Also, keep in mind that true language acquisition is an active discipline, not passive.

Second, as you are submitting job or graduate school applications, be aware of the strong potential for rejection. The more applications you submit, the greater the chances are that you will encounter rejection. While disappointing, do not let rejection depress you or make you bitter. Acceptances are largely made based upon on who the selection committee wants to choose rather than who it wants to discard. Although the result is the same either way, it is important to keep in mind that you did not necessarily “fail;” more likely, someone else was more successful at conveying their suitability for the opportunity. Or, potentially, your current skills or interests are not the best fit for the company or university. Take each rejection as a chance to focus on how you could improve your application to fit the needs, wants, or environment of the institution to which you applied. This may involve additional studies or experience on your part or it may involve getting outside help in how to better convey your suitability and fit for the job or program. In many cases, such as the JET Program or graduate schools, you may be able to apply again the following year. Do not let your pride and hurt feelings keep you from trying again.

Finally, do not confuse fear with pragmatism. Talking yourself out of applying for something you really want because it is not “practical” or because you think you have no chance at being accepted may actually be fear of failure disguised as a pragmatic decision. It took me far too long to realize that the difference between being pragmatic and being afraid is that the former involves defined goals and a plan of action to attain your goal, whereas the other makes vague promises and excuses with no clear end. There are times where it is not feasible to follow your career goals, but make sure you are delaying or quitting those plans for truly unavoidable reasons and not because you are afraid to try.


Abigail MacBain is a PhD student in the East Asian Languages & Cultures department at Columbia University, where she is focusing on Japanese religions. She spent four years as the Coordinator for Educational and Cultural Affairs as well as the JET Program Coordinator at the Consulate General of Japan and two years as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program in Aomori Prefecture. She has a Master of Arts degree in Religious Studies from McMaster University and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies and History combined with Asian Studies from St. Lawrence University.

About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
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