Further Education After JET: From Teacher to Student: Making the Decision to Pursue an Advanced Degree

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From Teacher to Student: Making the Decision to Pursue an Advanced Degree

Leah J. Gowron, Former Saitama Prefecture ALT, 1990-1991
Director of Alumni Relations
Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (California, USA)

leah-gowron-2016aFor most JETs, the question of “now what?” clouds their final months. Leaving a familiar lifestyle, moving within Japan, returning to your home country, relocating to a new country, the potential loss of income if not immediately transitioning from JET to a new job- are all concerns shared by departing JETs. 

Some JETs address these challenges by reflecting on their time in Japan with an eye to furthering their education: was there something unique and fascinating culturally/linguistically/historically that I want to continue to study? Have I discovered, through my teaching, language or management experiences, a possible new professional path to explore? Was JET a break between the completion of my first degree and the eventual continuation in that same path of study? No one answer fits all, but additional educational experiences after JET is one response to “now what?”

The real goal is to make the best use of your time and energy to ensure two things: that the reason you decide to pursue an advanced degree is based on facts and reality checks; and that you feel as prepared as possible to offer the strongest application to a given programme/university as you can, including a thorough understanding of when and how to address your JET experiences.

The Value of an Advanced Degree: Myths and Realities

Making the decision to attend a graduate programme takes time – time to reflect on why you feel a need or desire to obtain that next level of education, and time to research the market – nationally and internationally – to understand not only why you want to study a particular topic, but also where. 

Additionally, the “where” question may have significant impact on both being accepted (many universities place limits on the number of international students they accept per programme), and in receiving funding.  Qualifying for certain types of funding, either as an international student at a university outside of your country of residence, or via loans and bursary programmes from your country of residence or the country you will be in while you study, takes time to research. The “where” part of this question may impact your likelihood of being employed in the future. Finally, the timing of “I am going to graduate school”, or “I plan to study XX topic” may affect your ability to apply for national and international fellowship programmes, which have the potential to offer successful candidates significant funding, but only if you meet their application cycle.

Here are some comments from JETs over the years:

  • I am planning to get my Master’s/ Ph.D. because I know that with an advanced degree I am guaranteed to earn much more money;
  • My family expects me to get another degree;
  • Searching for a job is scary, so going back to school postpones that concern;
  • If I go to the “right” school, I will not have to search for a job upon graduating; the jobs will come to me;
  • How long can a Ph.D. really take – you just research something you like to study;
  • I cannot possibly get into XX field/career if I do not have an advanced degree.

Ph.D. programmes, depending on your dissertation topic, the format in your country of study (PhDs in North American average six-eight years, whereas in Europe they often can be completed in two-four years), and if you need to do field research/language acquisition as part of your dissertation, can be a sizeable time commitment. It’s not just the time in school, but also the loss of income (or much income, as Teaching Assistants are seldom paid what they are worth!).  Pursuing a PhD requires true dedication and focus to a given topic, and a strong sense that there is a need for such education relevant to the requirements of a given profession.

Let’s bust some myths about what an advanced degree does and does not do. An advanced degree is not some miracle job-magnet.  There is a preconceived notion that X level of education “guarantees” Y level of income. In many professional fields, an advanced degree is an expectation, not something unique that makes you stand out. In fact, there is the possibility of being “overeducated, yet underemployed” in some fields.

Individuals starting graduate programmes tend to fall into one or more of these three categories:

  • They have done extensive research, not only on the university programmes they are applying for, but also the faculty teaching in those programs and the profession itself. These applicants are confident that there is both a need for a specific type of advanced education in their career plan, and that they are in a degree of study that “fits” that career field;
  • They have a strong feeling that “now is the time to continue my studies”, and usually have some understanding within themselves of a particular interest, focus or direction, but not necessarily where that education will lead them professionally;
  • They feel that so far they have not been able to “figure it out”, the “it” being what they want to do, but hopefully something will happen during the course of their studies where “it” will come together and viola!…the answers to the questions they haven’t yet researched on what they want to do professionally will appear.

Hopefully as you transition from JET to the next great adventure, you find yourself checking boxes #1 and #2; if not, then postponing a graduate programme may be the better choice for the moment. 

Making the Best Decision: Reflection and Research

The decision to jump into another degree programme takes reflection and requires answering some potentially difficult questions:

  • Do I have a particular passion for a certain issue, topic, or field? Am I willing to engage in academic research in this field?  Will this topic still be as exciting if I am learning about it in a formal versus informal manner?
  • Will I mind if my personal time and other interests (including employment and family) may end up coming second to my studies?
  • Can I afford the education I want/deserve/need?  Am I willing to acquire education debt? Do I understand how long this debt may take me to pay back, with my field’s earning potential? Am I comfortable with the knowledge of what I might postpone or give up personally as I repay this debt (purchasing a home, starting a family, travel, etc.)?
  • Where is the best place for me to study this topic?  Why? Faculty, reputation, connections, name recognition of the programme/school, resources and services to students all need to be reviewed.
  • Is there flexibility in the programme? Will I be supported in inter-disciplinary studies or must I only take what is defined within the programme?
  • What results can I expect from this education?  A specific career? Inroads to more educational opportunities? Greater professional and financial success?

Each person considering an advanced degree will have their own questions, but the main ones of what will I do, where will I do it, what support is there for me as a student and what are the potential results are all key.  Reflection on such questions may lead a prospective graduate student to further definition of their interest area(s) and their expectations of the programme and the university.

Research, research, research…that’s the key word when it comes to deciding where to go for the education you deserve. With advances in technology there is no excuse for not finding the “right” school or programme, regardless of location. When researching university programmes, also consider checking out professional association lists—find the association relevant to your field(s) of interest, contact members and check their online profiles to see what schools/programmes people you wish to emulate have achieved. Other good online resources include national and international education-oriented organizations such as the Institute of International Education (IIE) or the Council on International Education Exchange (CIEE). Review job descriptions posted in sites relevant to your interest areas- what degrees are required to apply?  Knowing what’s expected professionally, ie: what your competition has in the way of academic credentials is key to understanding that a) it’s time to get that additional degree and b) which one.  With those decisions made, it’s just about the application and getting accepted to move in this positive, engaging step forward!

Copyright 2015 by the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR)