Recommendations for Employment Seekers in and Beyond Academia

Today’s guest post is by Philip C. Brown, Professor of Japanese history at The Ohio State University. This is a complementary article to his submission to Round 2 of the “The ‘Rebirth’ of Japanese Studies” virtual roundtable for the Association for Asian Studies conference 2020. Brown reflects on what kind of training and preparation can be done to prepare graduate students for both academic and non-academic jobs.

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From the perspective of securing academic jobs or institution building, outreach beyond our specialties is critical.

Regardless of which of path you are interested in, open to pursuing, or exploring (institutions of higher education, government, NGO, journalism or business) making the transition from graduate school to a viable career is a challenge for a job applicant as well as the faculty and departments that support of your career. Today’s market for academic jobs means increased competition for the college and university positions that most of us envisioned when we entered graduate school. The pandemic and the financial costs it has engendered will influence the market for Japanese studies Ph.D.s for some time.  To speak frankly, individual professors and graduate departments can only do so much to support the full panoply of career possibilities, even with the best of intents.

Graduate students (but also faculty and departments) can take steps to help in making the transition to a job. Since most people who pursue higher graduate degrees in our field first apply to work in post-secondary education, let me start by suggesting ideas that apply primarily to that sphere. Then I have some thoughts for other career lines.

Two caveats: 1) A number of departments and programs do some or all of what I suggest, so some of these ideas may be familiar, but I also know of a good number that do little to provide guidance and support. 2) This listing is a start; please add further suggestions!!

Thoughts for academic jobs:

– Get on a department faculty search committee as a graduate student representative if you can. It does not need to be in the Japan field. It may even be better if it is not. You will get an inside-the-black-box perspective on the strategies candidates use to connect with people who are not in their specific disciplinary field or sub-field.

– As you watch faculty operate, you may get a sense of how much the discussion might change if there were different people on the committee, a good sense of how people think about the candidate and the department’s needs, what stands out in a CV and letter of application. You can get a feel for the vagaries of the selection process. Who participates at a given time in the decision, issues of personality, issues of loyalty to an advisor or friend, the distinctive characteristics of an applicant pool in a given year, etc. Each of these elements is unpredictable and can change group decisions even when individual judgments are consistent from search to search. A caution: Being a graduate student, you are most likely now at a relatively large research institution; those to which you are likely to apply will not be. A given institution might place more weight on teaching or service than record of publication as they review applicants. Geographical/temporal boundaries of courses you are expected to teach will likely differ. Try to imagine which elements of the process you observe might carry over into other institutional contexts.

– Get teaching experience; and if at all possible, get it beyond your narrow specialty (e.g., for someone in modern Japanese history, beyond that field and beyond even East Asian history). Leading discussions for a class is good, getting some experience taking full responsibility for a standard introductory course is better.  Part-time replacement for a semester at a nearby school as well as work in your own program should be explored as an option.

– Go to job talks (and mock job talks), again, not only in your field but also in other fields in regional/national specialties and departments where you are likely to seek employment. Everyone presenting will have done good research, so look for what they might do in choosing content, presentation techniques and discussion to make their work appealing to a broader audience.

– Find and arrange (ideally, with others such as department graduate student organizations or reading groups, organizations of gender, color, veterans or other interest groups,) to bring to your department or program people in the field from different kinds of institutions (you can probably leave out folks from R1 programs) to talk about a) what they and their colleagues do in their daily work, what’s exciting or dreary, and b) what they look for in job applicants, what characteristics a good CV and letter of application display. This can be done in person (if the department will fund) or via video conference.

– Establish networks with recent graduates of your program that will permit sharing of their experiences in their new work world, at least through digital means.

Thoughts for Non-academic Jobs:

With the possible exception of a small handful of careers (e.g., translation), the first challenge is to get a clear sense of what other careers might be like: museum curator, librarian, public servant, business, journalism, banking and finance and more (I list these because I know people who made the transition from Japanese Studies to these careers). These days, universities no longer operate the summer schools that were called “Ph.D. re-tread programs” such as those offered by the University of Pennsylvania, New York University, or the University of Virginia did during the downturn of the late 1970s and early 1980s. (These programs recognized that unemployed Ph.D.s were a valuable potential resource for non-academic jobs. Business schools at these institutions organized intensive summer programs for a selected group of applicants, provided introductions to the language of business, developed effective resumes, introduced basic skills such as elementary accounting and finance, etc.  As I recall, Columbia University’s School of Journalism did a longer re-training program for potential journalists.)  So initiative in learning about alternative careers lies largely in the hands of individuals or groups of graduate students, although departments might lend support.

– The possible careers are too numerous for any one program to address, but as above, it is possible for departments or groups of graduate students to invite people in to talk about the nature of the work that they do, the qualifications needed to enter a career, what skills are useful to have (Is specialized training needed? If so, how much?)

– As career information gathering proceeds, make some reassessment of the skills you have developed to date. Language is certainly one, but so, too, is cogent writing ability, the capacity to draw reasonable conclusions from incomplete information, understanding the limitations of information sources, adaptability, knowledge of software and information systems of one sort or another, the ability to work in a team, to organize, and more. My bet is that as understanding of particular careers grows, so, too, will your awareness of skills you have to offer.

N.B. Most jobs/careers in government, NGO, business, etc. will not be defined as Japan specific. These organizations look for people with more generally defined characteristics. Some people get jobs directly associated with Japan early on, but in many cases employers will want to be confident of a candidate’s ability to do their work before they put them in a Japan-related position.

All of this is hard work and generates added tensions while you are in graduate school, an educational setting exquisitely designed to make one feel inadequate. So as a final comment, I strongly enjoin you to take very good care of #1. We’re used to using the rational part of our brain, and that is important; but it is also critical to learn how to address the emotional elements of our study and work. This requires some self-awareness. Some people relieve stress with vigorous physical exercise; others with yoga or crafts. Find something that suits you to help you address stress and frustration, to be patient with yourself. You’ll handle your career searches better, I’m sure.

And to faculty, I would urge you to consider in what ways you are lending your support to the students you advise (or those you don’t) in consideration of the above needs of present-day students. We are all in this together.

It would be great if those who have been through these processes recently would share their experiences and lessons learned here.

About Paula

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