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! []