Doing your PhD in Japan – Addenda

This post originated as a comment to this entry on the eminently readable blog of a scientist living in Osaka. Midway through writing it, I remembered I had my own soapbox for that sort of drivel: better than crowding some innocent bystander’s comment section.

Usual limited-interest-topic disclaimer applies: unless you are have a vested interest in getting your PhD (in Japan), you are better off skipping this entry and waiting for more pictures of awesome Shanghainese moped-riding cats.

By and large, I agree with everything Jan wrote. The operative quote, I think, is that it depends more on university/faculty [and advisor] than anything else.

As a freshly-graduated PhD student (from a Japanese university), I figured I could offer some extra pointers, gleaned from personal experience and that of close friends in similar situations at a couple “major” Japanese universities:

The choice of lab/advisor makes a huge difference.

In Japan as anywhere else… with the added twist that, for all sorts of well-documented reasons, Japanese professors (aka your pool of potential advisors) tend to be 1) older 2) culturally conservative 3) men. Each of which can be a serious hindrance to some PhD students. I would personally recommend giving some preference to “younger” (by which I mean, somewhat closer to their primes than retirement age), international-minded advisors. In the case of female doctoral candidates, I would pay close attention to the gender make-up of the lab (and think twice about Japan altogether as a country to live in, but that’s an entirely other debate).

Even though the academic world has its own codes that can transcend borders, there is still a lot of culturally unique aspects to Japanese academia. Some good, some less so. Dealing with the stereotypical culture-deaf and/or absentee advisor strongly emphasises the latter. Standard advice regarding advisor choice obviously applies (check their –recent– work, visit them in person, talk to previous/current students of theirs…).

As much as possible, pick, rather than be picked by, your advisor

Where I might stray a little bit from Jan’s advice, is that I am not convinced embassies are the best way to get word of potential advisors. I realise this is a tough task (much luck and happenstance was involved in finding my own advisor), but the problem with places like your local Japanese embassy is that their lists of contacts come with no vetting whatsoever and merely indicate academics that are eager to get fresh foreign PhD meat, which is not always the best thing.

In Japan like anywhere else, many professors specialise in piling up as many lab members as they can get (which in turns gets them higher status, longer publication list and more university funds). One very easy way to do so, is by getting foreign PhD students, who often come with their own Monbusho meal tickets1: forget about cheap labour, you are free labour to them. Joining a 30-person lab headed by some bigwig Japanese professor is a guarantee that you will not see your official advisor more than a couple times during your years there (if you are lucky, he2 will remember to attend your defense at the end). Of course, in such cases, you get handed down to one of the Associate or Assistant Professors, who becomes your de facto advisor: bit of a gamble if you haven’t specifically picked them beforehand.

And talking of:

Most likely, you will be coming on a Monbusho scholarship, or not at all

Save for a rather tiny number of domains in which flowing industry money provides funding opportunities, very few Japanese labs can guarantee direct financial support for the 3+ years that a PhD would take (make that close to none in Humanities). Also perhaps because Japanese PhD students tend to be considered more like Slightly-older-students than Researchers-in-training (and therefore not so much deserving of a stipend as expected to pay tuition), many labs that have funding for post-doc positions would not consider spending that money on PhD candidates. I have met countless talented Japanese students that had to go the self-funding road.

Luckily for you, [I assume] you are not Japanese, and can apply for the ubiquitous Monbukagakusho scholarship (commonly called “Monbusho”).

Monbusho is a whole topic of itself (room 3, shelf B-23 on my todo list of things to write about) [Update: finally got around to writing a post about it]. In a nutshell: graduate school scholarships distributed more or less directly (with the help of local academic authorities) by the Japanese Education Ministry (MEXT) to non-Japanese candidates. Many flavours exist, with the most common (and least competitive) one being apportioned by country (each of the 160-some eligible countries gets a given number of scholarships).

Somewhat unfortunately for the level of academia in Japan, but good for your odds, the Japanese government has been privileging quantity over quality over the past decade: budget cuts have resulted in ever-lower stipends, while the total number of scholarships awarded hasn’t been reduced much. Depending on where you live (and assuming you are not Chinese), this gives your odds somewhere between 20-30% and 200% (some of the smaller countries sometimes do not even have enough candidates to fill their quota). Among the downsides (beside the ever-shrinking stipend), count the fact that most of the application process goes through the deeper realms of Japanese bureaucracy: a long, painful and often scarring experience.

Of course, there is a long tail of alternatives to Monbusho, most of which are dependent on your particular field of study, but few offer significantly better deals in terms of funding, freedom and opportunities.

The gist of it is, if you are qualified enough to join a graduate school in Japan, you are probably in good place to receive a full-ride scholarship by the Japanese government that includes payment of your tuition (a hefty cost, especially in some of the more prestigious private universities), monthly stipend and a few other perks. Among these perks: up to a year as a “research student” (kenkyusei) dedicated to studying Japanese and/or preparing the graduate school entrance exam.

Which takes us to:

You don’t have to speak Japanese, but it certainly won’t hurt

More than anything else, this point depends heavily on your pick of university/faculty/advisor, but hoping to conduct your entire PhD at a Japanese university with non-existent Japanese skills and no interest in acquiring any, sounds a doomed proposition to me.

Setting aside faculties that evidently require higher Japanese skills (most non-scientific fields except, possibly, Humanities specialising in a foreign language), even the most dynamic labs in “international-minded” faculties within large universities will often feature Japanese-only curriculum. In my own case, this meant conducting my research in English (my advisor was perfectly fluent…), but being routinely expected to take care of paperwork in Japanese (… our lab secretary wasn’t) and attending a dozen hours per year mandatory classes/seminars in Japanese (though I was allowed to hand in my assignments in English). All this in a hard-science faculty3 in one of Japan’s biggest university (not necessarily such a blessing, where international practices are concerned). Given the overall small fraction of foreign students (even at graduate levels) and general weak English abilities of Japanese students (not to mention professors), the chances of your faculty providing classes in English are very slim.

The Japanese government and major universities are all too aware of these problems and even launched the ill-fated “Global 30” project: your typical Japanese bureaucratic monster, fed on good intentions and promises of massive fundings, currently dying a slow death by a thousand paper-cuts at the hands of politicians looking for electorally-safe budget savings (presumably while the staff at participating universities looks on and breathes a collective sigh of relief at the thought that they will not have to start doing everything in English anytime soon).

Bottom line is: if you do not plan on spending at least some time getting up to a basic conversational level in Japanese (in that regard, Monbusho’s ‘research student’ year is a huge bonus), you will likely be a very unhappy grad student in Japan. That’s without even getting into how sadly restrictive your social circle will be.

Wait, did I mention there is an exam?

Finally, you may want to have a look at this entry (and more importantly, talk to your potential advisor, as this is entirely faculty-dependent): unlike some countries, Japanese doctoral schools often require you to pass an entrance exam. Depending on university and faculty, this exam spans the spectrum between Complete Bullshit Oral Presentation Formality™ all the way to Seriously Painful Written Exam™4.

頑張って!

There would of course be a lot more to say (a fair share of the past 3 years of whinging on this blog have to do with my own experience of such), but in the spirit of keeping this entry within the realm of half-legible endless drivel, I’ll stop here. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments, though.

Update: Jan posted a small addendum on his own blog. There too, we tend to agree on the main points.

Update 2013: I posted a very long and detailed entry on obtaining a Monbusho scholarship to do a post-grad in a Japanese university.

  1. I don’t have any hard numbers, but based on my somewhat anecdotal observations of graduate schools at two national Japanese universities, the vast majority of Western PhD students come to Japan on a MEXT Monbukagakusho scholarship []
  2. Choice of gendered pronoun entirely intentional. []
  3. Admittedly not the most international-minded one, since despite researching in Bioinformatics, I ended up belonging to the very domestic-oriented Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Science, thanks to the magic of Academic Politics and Tenure Affiliations. []
  4. As a PhD candidate in some random applied-science department, I am sure you relish at the thought of solving typical RLC circuit problems, the likes of which you thought would never follow you past your first undergrad year. Here is your chance! []

18 comments

  1. > The operative quote, I think, is that it depends more on university/faculty [and advisor] than anything else.

    Oh boy, this is *so* true…

    > The choice of lab/advisor makes a huge difference.

    You can have a good advisor in a crappy lab, or the opposite, or any combination of adjectives. It’s definitely better to know where you’re going before you start your PhD. I do suggest an internship during the Master, but that may not be enough (because, you know “tourism and immigration should not be confused with one another”).

    > As much as possible, pick, rather than be picked by, your advisor

    Why the heck would you spend (at least) 3 years with an unknown person?

    > Most likely, you will be coming on a Monbusho scholarship, or not at all

    I feel so special \o/

    >You don’t have to speak Japanese, but it certainly won’t hurt

    I disagree.
    You don’t have to, but if you do, try not to be good at it.
    Being fluent means you’ll have to behave like a Japanese person, and suddenly, life will be much less enjoyable…

    > Wait, did I mention there is an exam?

    Mine was “quite-a-pain-so-I-suggest-you-do-all-of-those-of-the-past-10-years-to-know-what-you-will-have-to-solve.”
    Mostly undergrad fundamentals, aka things you haven’t done in ages…
    And the oral, with scary teachers…

    P!

  2. @Pied:

    1. Re. “pick rather than be picked”: was mostly a way to sum up how it is quite easy to end up with an advisor “by default”, i.e. whomever your embassy/previous advisor/etc. recommended you. People do not necessarily realise that, when coming with their own funding (e.g. Monbusho), they have the upper hand and can really afford to be picky on which advisor they go with.

    2. Yes, you are special!

    3. Re. Japanese proficiency: your hypothetical case is not really relevant… A potential PhD applicant will either be already fluent (and short of hiding it, I’m not sure what they could do), or most likely a beginner, in which case no amount of preparing for their move to Japan is gonna turn them to such fluency that people will start treating them as Japanese…
    On the other hand, being somewhat conversational will make their life considerably easier and more enjoyable (both in and outside of university).

  3. @KeitaiGoddess: my thesis was in English (though I had to file all the paperwork, including ToC and abstract, in Japanese). Indeed, since the thesis usually consists of past publications, most science faculties in Japan allow all students to choose between English and Japanese.

  4. Hello.

    Thank you for your posts. They are the most helpful by far that I found on the internet on the subject. I am interested in pursuing graduate studies in Japan myself, but I’m not very sure about the procedure. I will be grateful for any help.

    I’m a practicing lawyer in the Philippines and wish to pursue a Master of Laws study in Japan. Do your posts and advice apply equally to MEXT Masters applicants? Also, I have read somewhere that I will have better chance of getting a MEXT scholarship if my application is coursed through a Japanese university. Is there any truth to this?

    Again, thank you for all the information. I hope I can be as successful in this as you were. 🙂

    Best regards.

  5. @Irish,

    Well, I applied and went for a PhD, so there’s no guarantee, but I haven’t seen any real difference with the way Masters applicants went through (all the applications seemed to be handled through the same process: same requirements, same steps, same forms etc. Only difference might be at the university level: Masters are typically a lot more coursework-oriented, might be in Japanese (in which case there would probably be a language requirement to get in) etc.

    I’ve heard a lot of different things about which of the two channels (embassy or university) might be easier: I think it mainly depends on your home country and how many people are applying through embassy there. I suspect there might be a lot more Filipino applicants than in many European countries (if only for the geographical proximity), so in that case, University sponsoring may give you better chances. However, it is usually not easy to get such sponsoring unless you already have a close relationship with a professor there (it’s a lot more paperwork for them, I believe).

    On that sort of matter, do not hesitate to contact the embassy and ask them outright: they should generally be able to tell you the average number of applicants for the total number of available scholarships (in European countries, it seems around 3-4 for 1), and you can compare that to the odds through other channels.

    Good luck!

  6. Wow, thank you for the info! It’s great.

    I’m considering Japan for my PhD in Chemistry. Do you have any contact, who could give me some more answers in matters of chemistry as field or for applies from Germany?

    thx 😀

  7. Hi!

    I’m considering Japan for my PhD as I was there for exchange program during my MSc study. Love the people and environment!

    My questions are:

    1. If Mobusho holder, we cannot pick our advisor?
    2. Is it stressful to do research in japanese lab? Were they having over xpectations on us?

    Arigatou Dave-san!

  8. [sorry for late replies, but on the off chance you are still wondering:]

    @Paul: sorry, absolutely none. Your better bet would be asking your own professors. The next (considerably less optimal) way is to directly contact professors in Japan whose work you find interesting. Keep in mind that, these days, academics are bombarded with quasi-spam requests from prospective “research interns” or students (India, in particular, seem to specialise in this): clearly mass-sent, but still quite surprisingly well-targeted (with indication that the sender has at least briefly browsed through the recipient’s academic resumes and list of interests). I am a far cry from an established academic and still receive a sizable number each year. So, if you want to grab any attention, you should definitely ensure that your request comes with a high level of detail regarding your would-be advisor’s work and why it is of interest to you. Should also make it very clear that you are not asking for funding, but would come with your own…

    @Syafarah: you can find a lot more information in another entry I wrote about getting a monbusho scholarship to study in Japan. My personal experience of Japanese labs wasn’t particularly stressful (no more than anywhere else in the world), but I’m sure everybody’s experience is different… That is precisely why it is important to carefully choose your advisor (and their lab).

  9. This was an extremely well-written and clear post. I have a question about what happens after you obtain your PhD. For you, you chose to continue practicing in Japan. Were there instances where your fellow scholars chose to return to their home countries, and how recognized was their PhD back home?

  10. @Jill: I am awfully sorry: somehow I missed the notification for your comment. I imagine it is a bit late for you by now, but figured I’d reply anyway, just in case someone comes here looking for an answer to the same question.

    To my knowledge, a lot of people getting their PhD in Japan then move on to another country (either back to their own or elsewhere), as is pretty typical of PhDs everywhere. Nowadays, PhD basically hold the same value anywhere, but your academic CV (publications etc) is vastly more important in landing a position afterward. As for the recognition of a Japanese PhD in a non-academic, non-R&D context: I think it’s entirely down to the country in question. Some may have a positive inclination toward higher degrees of any kind, some might not give a crap…

  11. Hi Dave, thanks a lot for your write ups. I am trying to apply for a Master’s degree in Industrial Engineering or Materials science Engineering from Nigeria, Africa. any clue on what my chances are with getting a scholarship, also I would like to know if there would be written Entrance Test Examinations to get in to study for Master’s program in the faculty of Engineering, and if there is one, please do you have any clue on the topics in Maths, Physics that would be tested and how important and relevant do they take the results from the test scores. also I have a little niggle about Placement Preference Form (a prescribed form), and Application Form (a prescribed form) as the the criteria needed, do i get these forms from the embassy or from the school i intend to study in. Thanks and looking forward

  12. Hey Dave,

    How is it going? I have been reading most of your comments and blog updates for a while now but I am posting a comment for the first time. I have a question and I hope you don’t mind me asking you so bluntly…here it goes:

    Did you have any issues getting responses from the University/Advisers when you were first considering applying to Japan? As in, when you first send them greeting e-mails, describing your interests and CV attachments and they never respond you back or is it just me? You see, I am an American who is very interested to get my Ph.D from Osaka University in Biotech/Molecular Biology and I have been sending lot of e-mails to professors to recommend me. So far only two professors wrote me back stating that their labs are full and aren’t looking for any new candidate. Forgive me if I missed your advices on this topic, but it would help me if you can reiterate the pointers as to how to better communicate with the professors.

    Thanks, Dave

  13. @bennie:

    I am afraid I can’t help you on that one. Don’t remember the specifics of these forms, assuming they were part of the Monbusho application. For the rest: as I wrote, entrance exam is specific to each faculty. But also usually only a problem after your scholarship is approved. But you can contact them beforehand to know the requirements etc.

    @James:

    I don’t remember having particular issues hearing back from potential advisors. Although I went the kinda-typical Japanese way and tried to get a reference (however distant and thinly-connected) for practically anybody I contacted. I would expect that some professors might just not be particularly interested in new members and/or not particularly comfortable with communication in English, resulting in your mail going to the bottom of the pile.

    Short of being able to write in Japanese or getting a common acquaintance to introduce you (or that you can namedrop in your email), I’m afraid the only recommendation I could give you is to put your focus on younger profs with a record of recent activity… Also of course: checking their lab page to see if they have any ongoing call for new recuits would be a good indicator of how eager they’d be to have you (no recruitment call certainly doesn’t mean they’d say no, but it’s a hint they might not go the extra mile).

    Good luck

  14. Hi Dave

    Thanks for your responses on MEXT scholarship.
    My question is what kind of exams or orals in screening phase if you want to pursue doctoral course in Japan

    regards
    Dennis

  15. I have just come across this blog and want to thank you for a very informative and well written sagacious advice. I have been looking at doing doctoral studies in Japan as it would be very eye opening experience living there for 3-4 years. However, the age limit for MEXT funding is 35 and I now in my 40s. I have contacted MEXT and other universities but their replies are quite prevaricating. Have any knowledge if an old man like me has any options for PhD studies in Japan ?

    Thanks !
    tg

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