Thursday, May 10, 2012

Ph.D. in Japan

I got a question recently in a comment about doing a PhD in Japan:

Test Tubes
Hello, I found this blog while looking for OIST. I was wondering if you could give me some info on how different are japanese graduate studies if compared with America or Europe (I'm doing a master degree in Canada right now).

Also, except OIST, is there other good opportunities for non-japanese graduate students (especially in the neurosciences, pharmacology and microscopy techniques) on the main island. I'm talking about institutes with good reputations and which are friendly to English speaking foreigners and where you can do a PhD. Do you know how competitive it is to enter OIST or one of these graduate schools?
First, let me make a few things clear: I never did a Ph.D. in Japan, and I have not been directly involved in Ph.D. student training in Japan or elsewhere. I came here as a post-doc and have mostly worked at research institutes with little direct contact with graduate students. The information I have is second-hand or inferred from things I do know. I'm not an authority on this.

Graduate student from Turkey at ATR.

With that said, I would say doing a Ph.D. is pretty much the same the world over. In my experience the research world has its own culture. The working culture of your lab is more similar to research labs in other countries than to the local culture where you are. There is probably a lot more variation between universities, between research fields and between labs within a field than there is between labs in different countries.

The general process is much the same in Japan as elsewhere. It's three years with a combination of coursework and your own research. In the sciences your thesis will be your published papers — at NAIST, my current workplace, at least one paper must have appeared in an international journal — together with some sort of introduction. The thesis is presented and defended at a seminar; it's not really closed, but generally only the directly affected parties attend.

The details of your studies can vary enormously, depending on your chosen field and on your lab. You may be working alone or as part of a large team. You may have complete freedom to decide your direction or none at all. The department may be a cozy, collegial discussion club or a high-stakes, high-stress, winner-take-all pressure cooker. It depends on the university, field of study and on the particulars of the lab, and is, again, not specific to any one country.1

Patch Clamp
Patch clamp microscope, OIST.

In general, graduate schools in Japan are interested in foreign students, and many are actively looking for them. One reason is the same as everywhere of course: graduate students — whether domestic or foreign — bring funding, directly and indirectly, and they are the traditional cheap labour of the research world. But many labs are also actively seeking to become more international. They look for broader cooperation with the wider international research community, and encourage their Ph.D. students to go abroad as well.

Language is not a big problem. Universities that seek international graduate students offer their courses in English. Many labs now actively encourage the use of English in seminars and lectures even when they have no foreign students to better prepare the students for international meetings and publications. Some places, like OIST use English as their official working language in all school matters.

One issue is that the school year starts in April in Japan, rather than early autumn, though that is a problem for visiting students more than for those doing their entire Ph.D. here.

We have three or four foreign Ph.D. students — from Brazil, Indonesia and China — at the lab. We also cooperate with an institute in India so we frequently have Indian graduate students coming for shorter visits, and graduate students and post-docs visit India in turn. None of the foreign students seem to have had any serious language difficulties and I've noticed that they all seem to pick up Japanese fairly well over time too.

Papero robots. NAIST.

So, how do you find a lab? I've asked around a bit, and it seems most foreign graduate students find a place through the Japanese embassy or Japanese consulate in their home area, or through a local funding agency with a Japan program. You can also ask your own university; larger universities have their own office for this kind of thing. And there may well be that somebody at your own department already knows a researcher or two in Japan and can refer you to them directly.

One way to pick possible places is to simply look at the web sites of any likely universities. Any larger university will have a comprehensive English-language website with information for prospective students and graduate students. Here's international graduate school information for OIST, NAIST and Kyoto University Faculty of Science. A quick search will give you similar information for any university in Japan.

How difficult is it to actually get accepted? That's not completely straightforward to answer. A graduate student represents a substantial investment for the department, and nobody wants to accept somebody that is unlikely to finish. Like elsewhere, the number of positions often isn't really fixed; if you're particularly well qualified — you have some experience already and your research interests fit nicely with the lab — there will always be room for you, while labs will rather let a position go unfulfilled rather than give it to somebody not quite qualified for it.

The exact procedures for acceptance differ between universities. Some hold a general entrance examination while other schools may use interviews or other methods. One problem is that the school year starts in April in Japan while most countries start around August-September. That is mostly a problem for those that want to do just one part of their graduate studies in Japan and not so much for those doing their entire Ph.D. there. If you want to do this and you're qualified you won't have a problem finding a place.

The biggest hurdle, I think, is to decide to actually apply. You're committing years to grad school and it will change the future course of your life. Doing it in another country is all the more intimidating. Doing a doctorate is stressful, uncertain and can be intensely frustrating when things don't work. The financial rewards are uncertain and a research career is insecure and highly competitive.

But if you're up for it then grad school can be hugely rewarding; it is perhaps the only time in your life when you can give your curiosity free rein for a couple of years with no other responsibilities and no strings attached. If that sounds like your kind of fun then you should absolutely consider it.

Blimp Time
Preparing a remote sensing experiment. NAIST.
#1 When I started, my advisor dumped half a dozen books in my lap and asked me to please contact him once I figured out what kind of thing I wanted to do. It took me three years, with occasional false starts.

On the other hand, at the very same university I've seen an announcement for a Ph.D. position (in analytical chemistry I think it was) as part of an existing large-scale project where your course list, your teaching activities and your Ph.D. research was already determined down to the expected number and contents of published papers and a preliminary title for your thesis.

Don't expect too much uniformity even within one particular university in other words.


  1. Nice summary!
    Started writing a comment with some additional observation, then realised I should better put the mammoth it had turned into, on my own blog. I hope you don't mind the self-serving linking...

  2. Dave, no problem! In fact, I'm writing a short post with a link back; you have a better, more direct perspective on this than I do.


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