If you got to this page because you are interested in working with me at Penn, I want to thank you for reading my work and for being interested enough in it to consider working with me for the PhD. That’s a real gift, and I don’t take your interest in my research lightly.
That said, the first thing that I’m going to do is to discourage you from even thinking about applying to grad school. This page covers most of the basics of what I tell my own students who are thinking about graduate school as well as the typical stuff I tell prospective students when they first contact me.
First things first: Do you really want to go?
I would not be doing my job if I pretended that all is OK in the academy. It is not. Professorial jobs are scarce and funding for graduate fellowships is dwindling. Normative timelines to completion are shortening even as grad students typically need more time between the moment they deposit their dissertations and the day they finally land satisfying tenure-track (TT) jobs. Many never get TT jobs, many become underpaid and underappreciated contingent faculty, and many sacrifice all sorts of other things along the way.
If you are considering graduate studies at Penn, I want you to know at the outset that going to grad school does not guarantee you a slot in the professoriate. In fact, your chances of landing a TT position straight out of the gate are pretty slim. You must know this, and you must be OK with it. You must have a contingency plan in case your dream of entering the professoriate (or whatever other dream you may have) does not pan out.
This sort of contingency planning will probably be easier for you if you have had some time outside of the academy working “in the real world” for a while, and having some non-academic professional experience under your belt will make the demands of grad school easier, too. While hardly a deal-breaker, I generally encourage prospective students to take time off between undergrad and grad school to get their priorities straight.
Second: Do you know what you are getting into?
Let’s talk about money. Not about how much grad school costs, but rather about the hidden costs of getting an advanced degree. The whole time you are in school you will likely earn a small stipend, but you won’t be buying houses or saving for retirement unless you are either independently wealthy or incredibly frugal. Commiting to a PhD program can deny your future self about 5–10 years of retirement savings. That adds up really quickly.
Also, family planning is different for everyone, but if kids are in your future then you need a plan for how you will pay for it all. You also need to think about the ideal time to start a family. Some people swear by having kids while in grad school. Others put it off until they have stable employment. I’m child-free so I can’t offer much insight on this one, but you need to think about it before you apply.
If you decide to go to grad school, don’t go unless you get a free ride. The only exception to this is that for some students it may make sense to take out loans to get a partially funded MA as a way of getting the chops to get into PhD programs. Indeed, this is exactly what I did.
That brings me to…
Third: Do you have the chops?
If you’re reading this because you are interested in working with me on a subject related to Japanese religion, then you need to have a degree of fluency in Japanese that is equivalent to being able to read a newspaper, a novel, or (ideally) an academic article. You also need to have serious work toward another research language (either another East Asian language or a European research language like French or German). Your writing in English must be clear and you must have a compelling research question. GRE scores are immaterial to me personally, but they are required by the graduate school and there is indeed a minimum score for you to be taken seriously by the administration.
I will be most excited about your proposed project if it demonstrates a nice balance of careful evidentiary research (historical, ethnographic, etc.) with participation in broader theoretical conversations in religious studies or related fields.
Fourth: Do you know how to get in?
There are no guarantees that you will be admitted, even if you are brilliant and even if you have the best research topic in the world. You need lots of things going for you. Only some of these things are in your control. The most important are the personal statement, the writing sample, and the interview.
Your personal statement needs to be based on a clearly stated research question. Autobiographical details should be kept to an absolute minimum. It also needs to show that you have some awareness of the state of the field. (Who has already published on the subject? What did they miss or leave out?) It needs to show that you have a plan for making use of the various resources and people at the institution to which you are applying. (If you are applying to RELS at Penn, you need to demonstrate that at least three faculty on campus can support your project in some way, but they don’t have to be RELS faculty.) Usually the end of the statement will gesture toward your long-term career plans. Don’t simply say that you want to be a professor. Instead, talk about a trend you see in the field that you want to contribute to or change. Talk about a longstanding assumption that you would like to overturn. Talk about yourself as both a future researcher and a future teacher. Finally, the general rule of thumb for every application letter you will ever write is that it is better to show than to tell. If this doesn’t mean anything to you, ask a trusted mentor.
This principle of showing rather than telling also applies to the writing sample. It should be polished, and it should unambiguously demonstrate your research capabilities: Can you read primary sources in an Asian language? Can you construct an original argument that is in conversation with what others in the field have been saying? Have you mastered the basics of academic style and presentation? Do you have a distinctive writing voice? You don’t need to have mastered all of these (grad school is training, after all), but you need at least some of them to be taken seriously by the department.
Fifth: Do others have your back?
Your letters of support need to be unambiguously supportive. When you ask people for letters, don’t push it if the potential referee seems hesitant. A reluctantly written letter will almost certainly work against you. Letter writers are overburdened and it shows in the cut-and-paste letters that they write. You need someone to be excited enough about your application that she is ready to write the best letter ever.
NOTE: A big name is often not enough. A lazy big shot may even tank your application. Get somebody who knows you and the field well, who is willing to write you a tailored letter that includes specific information about the institution, and who can comment on your ability to analyze and who can provide a concrete example or two about how you have learned or improved. Usually this person will have read multiple drafts of the same piece of writing or will have had you in multiple classes. By all means give your letter writers copies of your statement of purpose long before the deadline (weeks, not days). Letters of support from profs who have gotten last-minute requests have a certain tenor to them that never helps the applicant. If you are disorganized about requesting letters, you are probably also going to be unprepared for the rigors of the PhD.
Sixth: Do you know the risks?
Grad school is immensely rewarding. It is also stressful. Mental health issues are common among grad students, and people deal with imposter syndrome, feelings of isolation, and all sorts of challenges related to peer review and satisfying the demands of multiple dissertation committee members. You must be prepared for this. Grad school also puts stresses on romantic relationships, and academic careers often create “two-body problems” where partners feel pulled toward different opportunities.
I say this from experience because I’ve been there. My wife and I have spent years commuting between distant states, Skyping across oceans, and driving back and forth across the state of Pennsylvania just to see each other. We count ourselves fortunate that we were recently able to work out a solution to our own two-body situation, but not everyone is so lucky. Please consider the strain on you and your family before applying.
Seventh: Are you ready to meet?
If you made it this far and you are determined to talk with me more about grad school, please know in advance that I have a policy of not responding to every request. That said, I welcome you to contact me with questions. I usually attend the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and sometimes arrange coffee meetings with prospective students while there.