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. That's not because I'm trying to pull the ladder up behind me. The academy probably needs someone just like you, and I'm particularly interested in continuing to diversify the professoriate by mentoring students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. I am also very committed to ensuring that the academic study of religion (both generally and of Japan specifically) continues for many generations beyond my own. But there are structural issues at play that you must consider when applying to PhD programs.
One of those issues, unfortunately, is that applying to work with an untenured professor like myself comes with real risks. No matter how stellar her teaching evaluations and no matter how robust her research program, there is no guarantee that an assistant professor will be granted tenure. Because I don't go up for tenure until 2020–2021, there is always a chance that any student I accept now will find herself "orphaned" without a primary advisor if Penn decides not to keep me around. That's not an ideal scenario, because it means all sorts of disruption right when you would need an advisor to write letters, read chapters, chase down other committee members, and so forth. Even though I hope to stay at Penn and continue working with students here, you must know that being left in the lurch is a real possibility.
Holding that crucial bit of information in mind, 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.
Do you know what you're 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. I recommend this path for students who need to build up their language skills.
That brings me to...
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).
If you are applying to work with me in Material and Visual Culture, or in our new department subfields of “Politics and Publics,” “Modernities, Secularism, and Science,” or “Childhood, Gender, and Sexuality Studies,” requirements for admission will vary, but at a minimum you will need to have serious work towards a research language other than English.
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 also personally don't care much about TOEIC/TOEFL scores, but if you are a non-native speaker of English and you are applying to work with me, I may ask that we speak by Skype or phone so that I can assess whether your English is proficient enough for grad school.
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. One of the easiest (though not guaranteed) ways of developing these skills is to do an MA in religious studies or Asian studies prior to applying to the PhD.
I’m happy to field questions about good programs in both religious and Asian studies by email. There is no MA in religious studies at Penn, but there is an MA in EALC. For starters, Harvard Divinity School has a relatively affordable MTS program, University of Colorado-Boulder has historically offered some funding to MA students, and the University of Alabama program is aggressively expanding a new MA in religion that includes fierce training in theory, method, and media. The University of Chicago Divinity School is another great place for training at a major American center of robust thinking about religion.
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. (Save those for the interview.) The personal statement 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.
Let me also mention that admissions are never just about the applicant-advisor relationship. Sometimes departments try to build synergy between incoming cohorts based on perceived points of overlap in research interests, for example, and there are complex deals between faculty members to try to spread grad training around. For example, if one faculty member hasn’t had a grad student in a while, she may have “dibs” on a fellowship slot in a particular year. How this plays out in practice varies from department to department, but the point is that applicants can’t control it and their prospective advisors may have minimal say over it, too.
One more thing: Represent yourself and your interests honestly. If you misrepresent what you are interested in working on just to get your foot in the door, you’re setting both of us up for disappointment and frustration.
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.
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.
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. (Unprofessional or sloppy emails won’t get a response—you’re asking for years of my time and energy, so the least you can do is put the time into crafting a professional message.) With 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.
Finally, despite the cautionary note I rang above, I must say that grad training is one of the great joys of my job. I’m only in the fourth year of my professorship, but I’m very proud of my record so far. I have a PhD student in EALC who is currently writing dissertation chapters while on a prestigious fellowship in Japan, I’ve served on two dissertation committees, and I have mentored several MA students through to successful placement in top-tier PhD programs. If you’re curious about what it’s like to work with me, I’ll happily put you in touch with one of my current or former students after we’ve had an initial chat. If you decide to apply after talking with me and my students, I will encourage you to think about an advising “team,” so that in the event that I do not get tenure there is someone else to see you through.