Thoughts on the Department’s Ph.D. program for prospective applicants in Japan anthropology

The Graduate School provides general information about Yale and the Department of Anthropology as well as the necessary application materials.  The Department, too, has a web site and can send details about the procedures and our program.  Here, I want to add some particular points for those interested in studying Japan anthropology here, with me and with my colleague, Karen Nakamura.

To both of us, the anthropology of Japan is one of the discipline’s most demanding specialties.  Yale, like several other major universities, has both a strong anthropology department and a wide range of Japan specialists outside the department.  We expect students who work with us to train themselves widely within sociocultural anthropology, and we encourage them to work with other Japan specialists outside the department.  Admittedly, training to become both a professional anthropologist and a Japan specialist is doubly time-consuming.  However, we feel strongly that we must be well-trained and deeply committed to our discipline, its central concerns, and its theoretical orientations and be conversant with current scholarship about Japan in the humanities and social sciences.  The ability to combine the two produces the best anthropology of Japan.

I am frequently asked about the background appropriate to graduate study in anthropology.  For example, is it necessary to have been an undergraduate major in anthropology?  Our department is, and I myself am, rather agnostic about this.  I would guess that of our recent graduate students, about a third have been undergraduate majors, another third have had some anthropology training, and the rest have had little, if any, anthropology.  At least some had no formal study of anthropology, but rather have been exposed to it through Peace Corps or similar postgraduate experiences.  Those applicants with Japan interests have more often been East Asian Studies majors of some sort; most have had some experience in Japan (possibly through JET); a few are Japanese nationals. 

To me, the most important point is that you as an applicant have a clear sense of what anthropology is and why you want to embrace its way of looking at the world as the basis of a career.  A Ph.D. program is unlike BA or MA studies in that it is professional training.  You are committing yourself to a vocation–usually as a professional scholar and teacher, although there are other, equally valuable ways of using a Ph.D. in anthropology.  No one can be absolutely certain that anthropology is for him or her, but you should be reasonably confident about what you are getting yourself into–and communicate that in your application.  My own research interests in Japan are rather wide-ranging–from regional development, village festivals, heritage politics, and middle class ideology to Tokugawa domain political economy and Edo firefighters.  My present research and writing focuses on professional baseball in Japan and, more broadly, on questions of sport and society. For Professor Nakamura’s interests, please see her web site here.

However, neither of us believes in imposing these interests on our graduate students, whose own research interests vary considerably.  Please see the related page for information on past and present doctoral students whom I worked with and for ways on contacting them to get further information on our program and their experiences here.  

It is important to understand the Department’s admission procedures and philosophy.  Unlike some departments, we do not delegate admissions decisions to a small committee.  Nor are there informal “quotas” apportioned among the faculty–e.g., the Africanist gets to pick her student, I get to pick mine, etc.  Rather, the sociocultural anthropologists meet as a single body to read, discuss, and evaluate all applications.It is also important to emphasize that our doctoral program is relatively small. The Graduate School funds all doctoral students fully and equally, which is very generous, but as a consequence of this and the uncertain academic market, it has reduced the number of admissions it authorizes individual departments. In 2012, the Department of Anthropology was given a quota of 10 admissions for the sociocultural, biological, and archeology subfields. Sociocultural admissions are by far the most competitive; last year we were only able to make 8 offers from 240 applications. Clearly, we were not able to admit a number of applicants who were highly trained and whom we would have loved to work with.

This process means that potential Japan students are judged against all others, and I have no determining voice in the final decision.  The procedure also means that the various faculty members apply their own criteria to the applications; that is, some give more weight to previous academic record, some to GRE scores, some to letters of reference, some to the academic writing sample submitted.  In the end, I believe this is quite fair to applicants, but as a messy democratic process, it also makes it hard to advise you about which criterion is most important and on what particular basis decisions are actually made.  I will say that I am one of those faculty who pays careful attention to the writing sample.  Although this is not required, we strongly encourage applicants to include in their application some example of their scholarly writing, such as a senior essay, thesis, or seminar paper.

It is very hard to generalize about a modal program, but a not uncommon sequence is for a student:

  • to take four courses a semester for the first two years, using the summers for advanced language training and/or pre-dissertation research;
  • to take the candidacy qualifying examinations in the spring of the second year;
  • to use the third year for preparing a dissertation research prospectus and grant applications, for preparing the third-year “field paper,” and for completing up one or two Teaching Assistant assignments;
  • to conduct fieldwork for twelve to eighteen months in years four and/or five;
  • to return to New Haven to write the dissertation for another twelve to eighteen months in year six (and perhaps year seven, but note that registration for a seventh year requires special permission of the Graduate School)

Of course there are many variants, but I generally expect that students who work with me will complete their doctoral training in six to seven years.  Sometimes applicants present themselves having completed a Master’s degree program.   Indeed, those with an interest in a Japan specialty and without much academic preparation or language training should consider an M.A. in East Asian Studies, either here at Yale or at several other universities with similar degrees, before beginning doctoral work.  Our Department does not give automatic credit for previous graduate work, although this is sometimes deemed appropriate.  Even those who enter with an M.A. generally spend two years in course work here in the Department before moving to dissertation research.

The Department web page gives details of the curriculum and requirements of our doctoral program.  I should note here that the department requires proficiency in a foreign language that has a significant body of social science writing.  You may use Japanese to meet this requirement, usually by taking an exam that asks you to translate several short passages from a work of Japanese anthropology without dictionaries.  This is generally quite possible for someone who has finished the equivalent of intensive third-year Japanese.  You must meet this requirement by the beginning of your second year, and it would make life easier for all of us if you can do upon entering.  The first-year curriculum makes it quite difficult to take even intermediate-level language courses, and thus if you need to study more Japanese to pass the exam, you will probably have to devote the summer after the first year to an intensive program at Middlebury or elsewhere.

Finally, I must emphasize that our Department’s doctoral program is small, which allows us to offer students close mentoring and individualized programs.  In recent years, we have been able to accept six or seven students in sociocultural and linguistic anthropology.  Given the wide range of interests among the fourteen faculty in sociocultural and linguistic anthropology, it is regrettable that we are unable to accept many applicants whose accomplishments are noteworthy and whose plans fit the interests and competencies of particular faculty.  Still, we feel it is irresponsible to maintain large doctoral enrollments at a time of severe constraints on professional positions, we are proud that we can offer five-year packages of full stipends and tuition fellowships to all entrants (and Japan specialists can take advantage of a number of additional funding resources), and we believe in the pedagogical advantages of more intensive professional training.

Fortunately, these days someone interested in the anthropology of Japan has a range of attractive choices, and I encourage everyone to explore and apply to several programs.  Although I obviously think highly of our own doctoral program here, there are a number of other departments and Japan colleagues whom I hold in very high regard.  Anyone with serious professional interests should be exploring and applying to a number of programs.  It is important, though, that you have a sense of whom you will be working with and whether that department will be a congenial place in which to spend several important years of your life.  I encourage you to talk to as many people as you can about the options you are considering.  Professors generally don’t mind being contacted; if they do, then that itself is useful information.  Graduate students are often as informative (and more candid), and you should try to contact them as well.  [In addition to the names of my own students, our Department Registrar, at 203-432-3665, will be happy to put you in touch with other of our graduate students.]

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