Jump to content

How Best to Pursue a Ph.D. in Chinese History


archimon

Recommended Posts

Hi guys! I’m currently finishing up undergrad at Rutgers U. in New Brunswick, having majored in East Asian Languages and Area Studies (Chinese focus) and History. I am currently working on my senior thesis, which will be done in the next few months. I hope that this is adequate research experience for at least an MA, though my ultimate goal is a Ph.D in Premodern (especially Song-Yuan) Chinese history, which I would plan to use to get a job as a professor. As far as language skills are concerned, I’ve taken Chinese for 3 of the 4 years of my undergraduate program, skipping the last year (i.e., this year) because I spent the summer of 2016 studying Chinese at ICLP in Taiwan and had, essentially, progressed to a point where my university language courses, which aren’t particularly rigorous (they only meet twice per week at the upper levels - three times per week during the first two years), were no longer of much use. Still, with no background in Japanese, and Chinese that, when I studied at ICLP, had only reached the level of students that had studied there for a full year (they offer an entire year after that before their classes cap out), I’m worried that weak language skills might seriously hurt my application. From having spoken with students that took the additional year, the training in Classical and Modern Chinese that they received was a serious boon, and has allowed them to read primary documents with reasonable ease of effort.

 

There a few paths forward that I am currently considering. 

 

First: JET Program

 

I’ve applied to and passed the first stage of the JET program admissions process, meaning that I will need to pass an interview next month to be selected and sent to Japan, where I would work as an assistant English teacher in a Japanese school (or schools). I had been considering JET because it would give me significant experience living abroad, give me applicable work experience teaching (which might be useful if I’m called upon to work as a TA, and could be valuable as training for teaching after leaving graduate school in any case), and allow me to avoid hemorrhaging money for a year while I take a break from school. My fear is that taking a year or more to do JET will allow my Chinese skills to regress to a point where I will need to retake a quarter worth of Chinese classes at ICLP or an equivalent program, in addition to the entire year of additional coursework later on if I were to get my Chinese skills to the point that they need to be for primary research. I might gain some knowledge of Japanese along the way, as well, though this isn’t really a primary consideration - I doubt I’ll learn a truly significant amount. (Perhaps I’m wrong)

 

Second: Return to ICLP 

 

Alternately, I had been considering returning to ICLP in order to complete the additional year of language training now, before I would enroll in graduate school. I would not need to take on debt to do this, though adding a fifth quarter if I were to regress while, say, doing JET, I might need to borrow a few thousand dollars. (I would apply to MA/Ph.D. programs in the fall, while in Taiwan) I believe that this might strengthen my application, as it would require less funding from any graduate program I would enroll in for language study (I would already need, if I understand correctly, to learn Japanese in graduate school in order to work with Japanese secondary sources, which would obviously take time and cost money), and I would not need to spend a year or more away working on foundational language skills for my area of interest, premodern Chinese History. 

 

If my assumption that my current language skills are inadequate to gain me admission to a good Ph.D. program directly from undergrad is correct, this seems like it might be a good way to address this defect. On the other hand, many people pursue terminal MAs, some of which have funding, before going on to a Ph.D. My question is: Would trying to get into a terminal MA program while doing JET for a year be a good path for me? Can a terminal MA sufficiently address the deficiencies in my language skills to be considered for a top Ph.D. program? Are there other deficiencies that I should be seriously concerned about with my application?

 

Essentially, I’m hoping that some of you can give me some guidance as to what my current chances of getting into a top-20 Ph.D. program would be on the basis of the information given in this this post. (I don’t have GRE scores yet - still need to take them) Is it worth it to spend money improving my Chinese skills in Taiwan for a year? Would it be better to do JET while applying to graduate school, with the hope of improving my language skills for free while in graduate school? 

 

(Sorry if there are any spelling or grammar mistakes - I didn’t proofread this very thoroughly)

 

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

If you can attend ICLP (or IUP in Beijing) for a year without taking on debt, that will do a great deal to benefit your application to a PhD program in Chinese history (and your eventual success in that program) - the only thing that would be clearly superior would be enrollment in a Master's program in Chinese history in China or Taiwan (that is, doing an academic degree in your area of specialty in Chinese), though it seems likely that your language abilities are not yet at the point where that would be feasible. (Note that I'm not saying this is necessary - I ended up in a top program without that sort of background - just that it's the sort of thing that massively strengthens one's application and that is reasonably common among successful applicants).

There are two major factors that will matter most in your application - your demonstrated ability in Chinese (and, given the period you are interested in, a strong background in Classical Chinese as well as modern Mandarin would be of great benefit to you - you should be able to acquire at least some Classical background at ICLP) and your demonstrated ability to do high quality historical research using sources in Chinese (and preferably, though this is by no means an absolute requirement, Chinese-language sources from your period of interest). The latter will be demonstrated directly through your writing sample and indirectly through your statement of purpose (which will discuss your background and show your ability to formulate a compelling research question), letters of reference, publications (if any - note that this is certainly not necessary or expected), thesis awards, and (even more indirectly) grades in history courses.

Doing JET is perfectly fine if it interests you (and taking a break from academia for a bit is certainly a very valid and healthy decision), but, purely from the perspective of admissions to a graduate program, it seems to me that it will provide you with very little help in either of the two factors I discussed above. Would a terminal MA program alone be sufficient to get your language skills up to snuff? Quite possibly, though it would depend on the program and the degree of language training it can provide beyond what you have currently, and, even if you pursue this path, you would ideally spend at least another summer, if not a whole year, during the MA program in China/Taiwan doing further language training, so I'd argue it's worth just doing that straight off (or after JET, if you'd like to do JET).

The final question is whether, once you have completed a year at ICLP, you would be in a good position to be admitted to a PhD program directly or would need to apply to an MA first. It's hard to answer that since it would depend a lot on what your undergrad thesis looks like. Is it based primarily on Chinese-language sources (preferably from the Song-Yuan period)? If not, do you think that you would be able to revise it to give such sources a prominent role as your Chinese ability improves? After a year at ICLP+your current Chinese language background, if you also have a strong piece of original research (with which a couple of your recommenders are familiar) based mainly on Chinese-language sources from your period, you would probably be an excellent candidate for a good Chinese history PhD program. If not, you will likely need to enroll in an MA program first.

Hope this helps!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

2 hours ago, pudewen said:

The final question is whether, once you have completed a year at ICLP, you would be in a good position to be admitted to a PhD program directly or would need to apply to an MA first. It's hard to answer that since it would depend a lot on what your undergrad thesis looks like. Is it based primarily on Chinese-language sources (preferably from the Song-Yuan period)? If not, do you think that you would be able to revise it to give such sources a prominent role as your Chinese ability improves? After a year at ICLP+your current Chinese language background, if you also have a strong piece of original research (with which a couple of your recommenders are familiar) based mainly on Chinese-language sources from your period, you would probably be an excellent candidate for a good Chinese history PhD program. If not, you will likely need to enroll in an MA program first.

Thanks - this is extremely helpful, and largely confirms the conclusions I had come to before writing the post. It’s great to have a second opinion. I’ve sent emails to a number of professors that I’ve worked with at Rutgers asking for their two cents as well. 

 

As to my thesis, I’d like your help understanding my position. I am, indeed, writing it using primary sources from the period, but the sources I am using have been translated into English by earlier scholars. My central source is the 袁氏世範 (Mr. Yuans Precepts for Social Life), written by the S. Sòng official Yuán Cǎi 袁采, which was translated by Patricia Ebrey back in the 80’s. I’m also using the 清明集 (The Enlightened Judgements). In addition to these sources, I’ve taken quotes here and there from my secondary sources, and so, while I’m nowhere close to using as many primary/Chinese sources as I’d like, what I’m doing is certainly more than just a review of literature. While I’m currently relying on translations, if it would help, I see no reason why I couldn’t simply retranslate the sections I’ve chosen to quote once my classical Chinese has improved a bit.

Currently, one of my recommenders is actually a linguist, but I've worked with him on a research project that he is working on (a translation of an academic book written in modern Chinese with Classical Chinese quotations scattered throughout), studied abroad under his tutelage my freshman year, and took a semester of Classical Chinese with him. My second reader isn't even tenured, so, currently, only one of my recommenders (my primary advisor, Sukhee Lee - you may know him/know of him, as he graduated from the program you're attending a few years back) will be familiar with my thesis/writing sample. 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Nothing is absolute in this process - if your SoP interests a potential advisor enough, you could well be admitted to a good PhD program applying right now, with the expectation that you'll put a lot of work into improving your Chinese in your first couple years. Similarly, you could certainly be admitted after a year at ICLP with your thesis unchanged from the form you submit it in, or with nothing changed beyond some retranslations of quotes. So I want to be clear that I'm not saying that you won't get in if you don't either revise your thesis substantially or produce a new writing sample.

That said, in terms of maximizing the chances that you get in, you would be well-served to have a writing sample that works with sources that haven't been previously translated because it will likely be a better piece of scholarship - more similar to work that you would be expected to produce as a PhD student. So if you do decide that you want to try to go straight into a PhD, I'd recommend that you consider revising your thesis by incorporating sources that are important to your topic but that you did not use because your Chinese was not good enough. I recognize, of course, that the timeline of applications makes this difficult if you want to apply while you're at ICLP, rather than taking a year off, but you will have at least a few months (more if you start in the summer) of further intensive training at the time you apply. If this lets you work in even one substantial and important additional text, that will be to your benefit. Similarly, there's no reason the recommendations you list would prevent you from getting in, but if there's anyway for you to work with another historian of China (even if not a middle period historian) who is capable of critically evaluating your work, that will likely be beneficial.

It's also possible (and perhaps even a good idea) to apply to both PhD and MA programs simultaneously; if you don't get in to the former, you can spend some time at one of the latter to put yourself in a stronger position to try again later.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

What is the likelihood of getting funding for a MA were I to go to ICLP and apply to Ph.D. and MA programs simultaneously? It seems a lot to do to substantially work with untranslated sources after only a few further months of training -my Classical Chinese isn't awful, but it's not really there yet, and it'll need more than just one quarter of classes to get there. I do have leads on some potential sources that speak to my topic, but I wouldn't fundamentally change the arguments of my thesis, I think, but flesh them out somewhat with these sources. Would that be sufficient? I'm hesitant to spend money on ICLP with the hopes of boosting my application, only to be left with no funded options for the year after - a paid MA is basically out of the question for me. How many of the students you know in the program had theses incorporating sources in the way that you describe? How many already had completed MAs before applying? I want to have a decent sense of how much of a chance I have/how much of a crapshoot this may end up being before committing financially to anything. I understand this whole endeavor entails some degree of risk, but I may pursue something else now and cut my losses if I have a very good chance of being left with no path forward in the next application cycle that doesn't include spending money. Taking a year off to reapply might be feasible, but it's certainly not something I'm certain I can take, or that I'm certain would be helpful.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

As someone who had to study several languages for her field while in graduate school, I really, really recommend doing as much as language training as possible before you go.  You'll be busy (and stressed) enough juggling the demands of a PhD program: courses, picking a dissertation topic, preparing for exams, teaching, applying for pre-dissertation research funding, etc, etc.

I agree re: classical Chinese.  I've been working with Chinese history professors for my project and was debating what kind of translator I needed.  In my case for the 1940s, I definitely needed someone trained in Classical Chinese and high-level calligraphy.  So, that was a fun process....

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I don't have a great sense of what it takes to get funding for an MA, since I didn't do one, and though there's an MA program here, I don't know who has funding (with the exception that, at our MA program, one group of people that very commonly receives funding is students from China who want to do a PhD, but who the admissions committee thinks need to spend some time in an English-language academic environment first, which obviously isn't a category that applies to you). Assuming that funded MA admissions are somewhat less competitive than PhD admissions, I'd expect your odds would be pretty good after a year at ICLP.

In terms of how common having an MA prior to entering a top PhD program is - in my department, at least, I'd say that it is extremely common; the vast majority (north of 80%, I'd guess) of PhD students in Chinese history (and Chinese studies/East Asian history/East Asian studies more broadly) had an MA at the time they entered. As I said above, I'm an exception to this, but my undergrad thesis was principally based on an untranslated Chinese source from approximately the period I work on, and I had two extremely well respected historians of China vouching for my abilities. But it's not like that made me a shoo-in; I was rejected by more places that I was admitted. This process is tough and competitive and there are some very impressive people applying; one of my colleagues not only had excellent Mandarin at the time of application but had completed a Master's degree in Xinjiang with a thesis written in Uyghur; another had two MA degrees and multiple publications; another is a published professional translator of Chinese literature. And a whole bunch of people are Chinese nationals with degrees from the top universities there who have also completed degrees at excellent MA programs in the US. I was a lot less impressive than that, but I was also lucky in all sorts of ways. If you would only do ICLP if you can be certain of getting a funded graduate admission, I'm sorry to tell you that there are no certainties. And there won't be once you're admitted (you know what's worse than the graduate school application process? the job application process).

But if a PhD is something you're set on pursuing, you'll have to do some of the things that maximize your likelihood of getting in, and if you don't get in anyway, then you'll have to find a way to do more of those things. There are all sorts of ways to get funding to do things that will help you get in to a PhD program: apply for grants that let you spend time doing research or studying in China at the same time as you apply to graduate school (the Fulbright is a great, though very competitive option, but there are lots of others. Look at Confucius Institute scholarships, for instance), look for a job in China or Taiwan, make sure you're applying to MA programs at schools that are recipients of FLAS grants for East Asia (you can find the list here: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ope/iegps/nrcflasgrantees2014-17.pdf) which will maximize the chances that they have funding to offer you (particularly desirable are places that both receive FLAS money and where the university fully funds all PhD students; this maximizes the odds that MA students are getting that money).

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. See our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use