Preparing for and Making the Most of Your Research Year(s) Abroad


For those of us pursuing advanced degrees in Japanese, going abroad for graduate research is often an exciting time full of possibilities. If you’re fortunate enough to have obtained substantial funding from a fellowship or your university, finally there is the financial stability to travel to archives or fieldwork areas and, on top of that, the freedom from coursework or teaching to spend the time on your own work. But once you arrive in Japan, the question looms: Where do I get started? And a sense of panic sets in. You have reached the wonderful and terrifying formlessness of your research period abroad, and it can take time to figure out how to navigate both Japanese institutions and your own, self-imposed schedule. In this article, I will lay out some general advice based on my own time abroad that will hopefully be a helpful set of guidelines for thinking about how to get started working in Japan, structure your time, and maximize productivity.

Digitize sources you need before you go

A lot of people I know were stressed out before they left about having many books, especially those in English, that they wanted to use while they were in Japan. While some Japanese universities have decent collections of foreign-language books, this isn’t always the case, and depending on what you research, you may not always have great access to a large institution. Similarly, if you have a very specialized topic, some collections outside of Japan might even be better-equipped in Japanese secondary sources than certain smaller Japan-based institutions.

A photo of 史料編纂所, where I was based.

If you plan on writing a dissertation chapter, a conference presentation, or just needing some reference works at quick hand while abroad, I recommend first checking on the resources available to you in Japan through their online databases, be it your future university library, the National Diet Library, or even libraries held at fellowship sites like the Japan Foundation, and seeing what they have. If what you need isn’t there, dedicate a couple of weeks before you leave to digitizing whatever you think might be useful. Locate the nearest high-speed scanner at your campus library and go wild. Chances are that while you’re abroad you’re going to buy a bunch of books, so you don’t want to be dragging a bunch of books with you to kick off the process.

In terms of Japanese sources, some people I know even went so far as to start looking at those online sources early for the Japanese books they might want, and making a list of call numbers before arriving so that they could jump straight in. It’s never too early!

Make a clear budget (that accounts for apartments and omiyage)

Finances are always a huge concern for people traveling to Japan in the short or long term. Needless to say, it’s important that you have a solid budget figured out, especially for your arrival. Some fellowship programs might not get you your first stipend for a week or two after you arrive, and you may have to pay an extensive amount of money (as much as $4,000) for settling into your own apartment. Then there’s the question omiyage (souvenirs) for these new people in your life. I brought as many as six or seven small gifts (local jam or teas) for people I was already indebted to before I arrived (like my intake professor, another professor I anticipated working with) and those I knew I would eventually be indebted to (like my new landlady and the realtor friend who helped me get my apartment). This can be a lot of upfront costs and space in your suitcase before you even take off.

Furthermore, I can’t recommend enough sitting down and figuring out exactly how much your monthly costs will be vs. your stipend and research funds. I made sure to set a chunk of money aside while on fellowship in case of emergencies, unexpected research costs, or just thinking about the future (who knows if you’ll have to take a sudden trip home?). For some of us with little other support, fellowship years might mean making double what we normally do, and that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Have clear goals about how much you need to and want to spend or save on a monthly basis. You’ll be grateful for it at the end of your stay (and when tax season comes around!).

Make business cards right before you leave or as soon as you arrive

Most people probably did a skit in Japanese 101 where you passed a fake business card back and forth, practiced a bow, and said Kore, watashi no meishi desu! Business cards are essential in both professional and personal situations, whether you’re introducing yourself to a professor at a university or networking with a stranger at a bar. Either order cards with your school’s logo/seal on it before you leave (and take a LOT), or order new cards as soon as you arrive through your affiliate university with their logo/seal. Cards will help you network more smoothly and legitimate your credentials to others. If you go to a conference, meeting, or some other social or professional event, always save cards received and write down on them afterwards who they were so you don’t forget. I once went to a medieval history and archaeology conference and, thanks to a professor who kindly thought I should know every person ever, ended up with about fifty business cards at the end of the night.

You WILL end up with a fat stack of business cards.

Always follow up with emails

That being said, always follow up with emails after you get a card. If you are not going to see that person every day, that is, and maybe even if you are! Following up is incredibly tedious and time-consuming, but it is so important. Find a good balance between formulaic language and specific details as a way of thanking someone you met for making their acquaintance. Even if you don’t remember exactly who everyone was.

At said conference, I was introduced to so many people it was difficult to keep them straight. So I emailed pretty much everyone whose card I received afterwards and said 1) It was wonderful to meet them, 2) the conference was a pleasure and I learned a lot, 3) my time in Japan wasn’t going to be that long, but I would continue to endeavor on my research on X, Y, Z, followed by the standard platitudes one writes in Japanese. This was a way to tell them I enjoyed meeting them, remind them where they met me, and more importantly, remind them what my research was about, in case they were interested in talking to me further. As a result, a number of scholars responded enthusiastically, and one even asked for my address and sent me a stack of books related to my research! Others invited me to email them again if I ever made it out to their prefectures and suggested archives I might want to look at. Maintaining people skills, even via email, is essential. Take the time to do it.

Familiarize yourself with the library system right away and/or find a friend who can help

Every library system in Japan has its own rules and quirks. The decentralized nature of Tokyo University at times made me want to tear my hair out—different rules for access, borrowing, photocopying, different hours of operation by specialist sub-library, random closures for renovations with no access to certain books, different processes and locations for establishing and renewing cards… the list goes on. As soon as you arrive, familiarize yourself with the library or libraries on your campus or in your area and by all means ask a friend or mentor who has gone through it. There’s no reason to endure all the frustrating surprises they already went through if you can help it. Get protips from a pro. It will vastly cut down on your time to accomplish things as well as the resentment you’ll start to feel towards library bureaucracy. For me, this was especially helpful in navigating the National Diet Library, which has a lot of English language guides but can still be at times very opaque in its processes.

Ask the “stupid” questions

Constantly. Every time. Always. Ask. From not being able to find a source in the library to how to find a building (believe me, I’ve been lost a dozen times on Tokyo University’s campus trying to find buildings that seemed to be inside other buildings or hidden underground somehow with no clear access point, etc.), to who the best scholar is to think about for a certain thing, to finding tutors. In my experience, professors, researchers, and staff are always ready to help, and they also know that the systems in place are confusing.

If you’re an anxious person or don’t feel confident in your Japanese ability, it can be a harrowing experience to have to ask something you feel like should be obvious (and yet it isn’t). So my advice is to grin and bear it. No one will think you’re stupid, they’ll just be happy to help. And things will get done SO much faster when you discover you were missing a mysterious form 2734B no one told you about only available from the hidden office on the 3rd floor of the Admin building on north campus that’s open for three hours on every fourth Wednesday… Or some other similar situation. 🙂

Don’t be afraid to lean on mentors as guides

The key to conducting research in Japan will always be people. This is why I say always ask the “stupid” questions. One of the best things you can do to get your research process kickstarted is ask for help from those around you. For me, this began with my intake professor (受け入れ教授) who sponsored my affiliation to research abroad. As soon as I arrived we discussed my project, I asked about courses at the university she thought I might benefit from auditing and how to find a tutor, and she was kind enough to make introductions via email to ask professors if it was alright to sit in on their classes. She also found a graduate student to help me with premodern document reading, whom I met with regularly. I also worked with a Japanese professor I had met at a workshop in the U.S., and he generously tutored me and recommended study groups on campus or other scholars’ work that were relevant to my research.

These people are of the utmost importance—they may not be reading your chapters or vetting your English-language conference paper topics, but they are your advisors away from home, your entryway into academic departments, your go-betweens to contact other people in the field. Be patient and kind to them, always thank them profusely and bring them omiyage. And if you need help, don’t be afraid to send an email or make an appointment to talk and solve problems. I occasionally also asked them to help figure out how to write difficult emails to archives or cold-call favors to people I didn’t know. Mentors are a crucial part of your academic support network in Japan.

Ask Japanese colleagues about local conferences, symposia, or study groups

In the same vein, professors and students in your immediate circle will know best about many events and groups such as conferences, symposia, or research groups. These are typically advertised via email groups you might not have access to, word of mouth only, or on bulletin boards you may have trouble locating. Some are informal in nature and pass by unbeknownst to the visiting foreigner researcher. It was continually frustrating for me to find out things months or years into my stay in Japan—that someone had been holding an unofficial medieval document reading group, or a kuzushiji practice study group that would have been useful to me. Ask about local, prefectural, or national conferences and when they happen. Japanese websites on such events, if they exist, can be hard to penetrate or may be updated infrequently.

Check the bulletin boards

Bulletin boards are a common alternative to websites or email lists in Japan. The departmental or building bulletin board, while somewhat old-school for our tastes, is an essential source of information on conferences, meetings, exhibitions, and even research trips being sponsored by an academic unit or department. If you can’t locate it on your own, ask where the communal bulletin board is and check it often for new announcements. I sometimes learned about events from the bulletin board that involved people I worked with regularly, but because I was the “foreign researcher,” they dismissed the idea of telling me out of hand and I nearly missed out on some good opportunities. There was no ill-will there, but as foreign researchers we often occupy an ambiguous space on the edges of the academic hierarchies and in-groups that are already well-established.

Show up (even if you don’t feel like you’re contributing much)

How to spend your research time is a big dilemma for many people. If you’re affiliated with a university and/or academic department, you’ll likely have the opportunity to enroll in or audit classes in your field. This can be a fantastic opportunity, but also take away from your own research time. You (or your advisor) might be wary of the time commitment, but I recommend auditing at least one class for a couple of reasons.

First, you’ll get a sense of Japanese academia in your field and understand the methodology through which Japanese scholars are taught and approach their work. Second, you’ll get the chance to establish a bond with a professor, hopefully one you admire, who works in your area of expertise. As I mentioned previously, your connections to people will be a huge asset in conducting your work and open up a lot of opportunities. Third, you’ll get to meet graduate students. Much like your circle of friends in your home country, these are the people who are or will be emerging as young scholars in the field. Fostering relationships with those you’ll potentially be publishing with, inviting to participate on a conference panel, or asking to conduct a workshop is extremely important. Fourth, it’s nice to have friends! Become a part of the departmental social circles, make friends with others in or out of your specialization, learn more about the university or city. It’s good to have a personal support network as well as a professional one.

You will want to have an explicit conversation with a professor before you entire his or her class to make sure you’re both on the same page about your responsibilities. And, it’s commonplace for your intake professor/advisor to initially make the request for your as a go-between. In the class itself, some professors may want you to prepare a presentation as a participant, whereas others may be okay with you just sitting in and contributing to conversation. Balance your own research obligations with the time spent for the course to make sure you can get everything done and your own work doesn’t suffer.

If you do take part in a course, and your responsibilities there are limited, you might not feel like you contribute much (especially if it’s slightly out of your specialization or you don’t want to impose on the classroom discussions). Even so, being present, and a part of that small community and its goings on, can do a lot to integrate you into the social circles of the department that would otherwise be closed off. I found people to be generally welcoming and glad I took an interest in their work, even if I never presented in their seminar.

Reciprocate kindness and help, but learn to say no/negotiate

On your research year(s) you may find yourself the only foreigner in a seminar or department. As such, it’s quite likely someone will ask a favor of you, such as translating something, checking a translation already done, or giving a presentation in English or Japanese on your research. If the department has been kind enough to host you as a researcher and makes such a request, you should do it (again, within reason). A professor whose course I audited, for example, asked me to edit his English-language conference talk for a national conference he was attending, which I did (he did take me to dinner to thank me). I also received a request from the director of my archive to edit an English-language essay for their website (they paid me). The archive also asked me to give a research presentation in Japanese, but I made sure to negotiate with them on the length and depth of the topic covered, since it would have been a huge burden on my time to produce an hour and a half presentation by myself, as they originally suggested. Again, it is important to reciprocate kindness and maintain social relationships amongst your new colleagues, but be careful not to weigh yourself down with obligations to others, such that you can’t get your own work done.

Create a regular schedule and accountability for yourself

Managing time is perhaps the biggest question mark for people going abroad for research. Suddenly there is no structure—you may have no deadlines from advisor, no coursework to shape months of time, and a mentor who is not obligated to read any work in progress. This is why it’s important to set concrete goals for yourself, whether it’s a date by which you get to the archive, a day of the week dedicated only to reading, writing, transcribing, or anything else.

Personally, I’m a type-A calendar-oriented person. I always need a schedule (or three). So I got into a routine of regular work: I picked my coffeeshop of choice, and went there X number of days a week. The morning was split between reading and writing, which I did between 8:00am and 1:00pm (can you tell I’m a morning person?). Then I went home, dropped off my things, hit the university gym, came back, ate, and spent the late afternoon gathering sources in the library. Then in the evening I would organize which sources I had gathered that I wanted to read the next day, prioritize them while I watched TV or relaxed, and make my schedule of tasks for the next day before bed. Obviously, there would be some variation based on how I was feeling, appointments, etc. But having a standard mode of operation was helpful to keep on track. I’d set goals for how much I’d read by when and decided when I’d do archival trips well ahead of time so that any prep for that could be worked into my schedule.

Sake Study Sundays were the best idea.

I also made sure to incorporate friends into this process, too. “Sake Study Sundays” was a regular occurrence once a friend and I found a sake restaurant we loved. Several hours working together in a coffeeshop for the afternoon, then dinner and drinks at our local haunt. Doing this regularly made it fun and kept us motivated.

Another way to keep up the pace was making an online work group. After reading an article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about writing group blogs increasing productivity, I set one of these up with a few friends in Japan and back in the U.S. Having to check in with weekly goals was a great way keep up the pace and get things done that I otherwise would have slacked on. Having this variety of methods for goal-setting outlined above was also good for keeping it fresh.

Depending on your relationship with your advisor and/or committee, checking in with them is another way to maintain productivity. Some people have very hands-off advisors, while others want to know what their students are doing regularly. Either way, you might decide that every month or two months you’re going to summarize what it is you’ve been doing, where you’re struggling, what your plans are for archival trips, etc. and send a little report (you might even tell them you don’t expect a reply, to take the pressure off on their end). This is just another way to formulate self-imposed deadlines that keep up your motivation and also help you get feedback from people who have been where you are and are invested in your success.

Maintain a social group of other foreigners

Isolation is a very real and sometimes intense struggle for scholars abroad for research. Separated from the comfort zone of our usual group of academic colleagues, far from loved ones, and thrown into a new place with new modes of operating in a foreign language, anxiety and frustration levels can be high. Everyone’s experience of work abroad is very different, as is the environment in which they find themselves working. This is why it’s important for you to connect with other foreigners/expats who have similar experiences. Going on trips with friends, trying out new restaurants, or even visiting archives or museums together can make all the difference in boosting your spirits and gaining a sense of solidarity with others who share your struggles.

While abroad, I ran regular monthly happy hours for Japanese Studies researchers in Tokyo, which was a great way to bring together old and new friends, expand social circles, get advice on all of the above, and network with people at other institutions. Outside of attending language schools and conferences, you may never otherwise encounter such a diverse group of scholars from around the globe in the same place. These types of events are important to disengage from the demands of research mode and as a method of self-care for your mental and emotional well-being. Take a break, spend time with friends, and let off steam.

Digitize sources you need while you are there

Everyone warned me before I left: “You’re going to take SO many books home, it’s going to cost a fortune.” This may have been true in the past, but it doesn’t have to be now. In fact, it was a goal of mine not to buy books if I could help it, because the cost of books + cost of shipping to them send home was a prospect I wasn’t looking forward to. Instead, I digitized books or made photocopies and digitized those, scanning them to PDF with scanners or my iPad. In the end, everything was in digital format and there was no need to send home boxes of photocopies either. I think I took home about a dozen books or less over a two-year stint. I also know people who used a book-scanning service that, although they would destroy the books by cutting away their binding, could produce high-quality scans in a very short amount of time. With this, some friends went entirely digital before their return for approximately the same cost as or less than it would have been to ship all the books in the first place. Be practical about your funds and luggage needs.


Although I’ve given a lot of various kinds of advice above, it’s important to remember that everyone’s experience is different. Universities, departments, archives, and even seminars have entirely different atmospheres and diverse rules and practices that might change based on the field’s norms, the school’s environment, or simply the people there at the moment. To best use your extended time abroad, the best thing to do is be as prepared as possible on your end, with a plan to hit the ground running and proactive attitude toward establishing positive relationships with the people within whom you’ll be collaborating or interacting.

Any other advice for people going abroad for their research? Let us know in the comments below or contact us via or on Twitter and Facebook!



About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
This entry was posted in culture, graduate school, living abroad, main posts, study abroad and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Preparing for and Making the Most of Your Research Year(s) Abroad

  1. Jonathan López-Vera says:

    Awesome, Paula.

  2. Pingback: Tips for Your First Visit to the Archives – Christopher S Rose

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s