PhD Studies in Japan
Not the most obvious study abroad destination, Japan still has loads to offer when it comes to postgraduate studies and research. With 13 of its universities in the top 50 in Asia (2 of them in the top 100 in the world), quality in teaching and research is not lacking. Education is at the heart of modern Japanese society with academic freedom being protected by the Constitution of Japan while the Fundamental Law of Education gives Japanese higher education institutions their autonomy (the principle of self-governance being sanctioned by the Japanese Supreme Court decision itself).
The number of international students in 2008 was a little over 120,000 with the top largest cohorts of students coming from China, Republic of Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia. This represents only 4% of the total student population. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has, however, big plans to have over 300,000 international students in Japan by 2020, so the message is: you are welcome! And the message is not just a recruitment drive; it is accompanied by a number of changes to ensure that the support structures from pre-arrival to post-graduation are in place for international students.
University system in Japan
There are currently over 1,200 universities in Japan, 80% of those being with private universities which are hosts to 80% of higher education students. The three main types of universities are:
- Private universities: Each private university promotes its own unique education and research strengths. Over the years, they have greatly contributed to the development of Japanese higher education.
- National universities: These have been established in all local “prefectures” (or the equivalent of “Local Councils” in the UK) to ensure that there is no regional imbalance to the provision of higher education. Within its internationalisation agenda, MEXT has been implementing its “Global 30” project in which 30 universities have been selected for government investment and support to develop their areas of excellence and to ensure their competitiveness on the global stage.
- Public local universities: they have been established by local public entities or public university corporations and are managed by them. They play important roles in providing higher education opportunities to local people and in acting as intellectual and cultural centres.
Since their creation in the mid-70s, Graduate Schools have been one of pillars of Japans internationalisation strategy. With a relatively small proportion of the student population currently engaging in postgraduate study, the professional and personal development of students has become central to graduate schools which are expected, not only to train researchers, but also to offer skills training as part of a well-rounded education for the future generation of teaching and research staff as well as enhancing the employability of postgraduate degree holders.
For holders of Masters degrees, a PhD lasts a minimum of three years; four years if your research project is in the areas of medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, and veterinary science. In a number of institutions, students also have the option to study for a PhD directly after their four year undergraduate degrees, although the duration of a PhD is then five years and there are additional requirements in the first two years of study which consist of taught courses (worth a minimum of 30 credits), a project proposal and an examination.
PhD students are normally referred to as PhD students (no surprise there!) but the term research students will normally mean visiting PhD students (i.e. for 6-18 months) so beware when you apply for admissions.
This is an area the internationalisation agenda of Japan higher education institutions has failed to address and there is no articulation with the semester system of countries such as France and Germany in the EU or the USA and Singapore further afield. Really useful if you want a break between your masters (or undergraduate degree) and your PhD, Japans academic year starts in April with the second semester starting in from October. Some, but not all, universities may allow you to start in the second semester.
Some universities apply a minimum age policy, for example, PhD applicants at Tokyo university should be at least 24 years old. However, if you believe to have the necessary qualifications but are under-age, then it is worth speaking to the international office or the body responsible for admissions at your university.
You may have to sit an entrance examination in your subject area or be asked to provide a graduate entry test score such as GRE so check what the practice is at your chosen university.
Applicants should have a Masters degree or an international equivalent. Alternatively, if your university offers the option, you may be able to enter a five-year PhD programme directly after a four-year undergraduate program such as the UK Honours Bachelor.
Unless your PhD requires you to demonstrate Japanese proficiency, you are most likely to be asked to provide evidence of proficiency in English language, either through an English language certificate, such as TOEFL or IELTS. Alternatively, you can provide an official document issued by your institution stating that your undergraduate/postgraduate education was delivered in English.
Documents to supply
- Official diplomas of your degrees (Bachelor/Masters degree).
- Official transcripts (you may also be asked for a copy of your bachelor or masters dissertation).
- Graduate entry test score and language proficiency certificates (if applicable).
- At least two letters of recommendation (generally from a senior member of staff such as a department head or academic advisor).
- An up-to-date CV.
- A research proposal.
- A medical certificate.
- A photocopy of your valid passport.
- A certificate of non-Japanese Registration, if you are already residing in Japan.
How to apply
- Visit the universitys website and, if available, submit an admission inquiry form, along with your CV. Alternatively, if an e-mail address is available (it might not), then contact individual supervisors to discuss your preliminary research plans.
- Once you are sure this is the right programme for you, submit the application form.
- An admission panel will review your application based on your qualifications, documents supplied and tests scores (such as GRE and language proficiency, if applicable). Some departments operate a two-stage selection process so you may be invited to an interview (face-to-face or by telephone) if selected at this stage.
- Further documents or a fuller application form may be required.
- The final decision is made.
Fees and scholarships
In national universities, the PhD tuition fees for pursuing a doctoral program in Japan are fixed by the Ministry or by local authorities for public universities. They are currently:
- National universities: 535,800 Yen (¥) per year + ¥282,000 for admission fees.
- Local public universities: ¥535,948 per year + ¥374,913 for admission fees.
In private universities, annual tuition fees range from ¥530,000 for medicine and medicinerelated PhDs to ¥1,100,000 for PhDs in the Arts. A one-off university admission fee is around ¥220,000 in addition to the tuition fee.
All international PhD students are required to enrol in the National Health Insurance system. This is done through the office which has processed your residence registration. The annual premium varies depending on where in Japan you live, but is around ¥20,000 per year.
Optional expenses include:
- University Student Health Insurance.
- Personal Accident Insurance.
- Personal Liability Insurance.
There are several scholarships available to international PhD students, some of them need to be applied for before arriving in Japan, others after (with, however, no guarantee of securing the funding). The most prestigious research scholarships are those awarded by MEXT.
- Japanese Government (MEXT) Postgraduate Scholarships
Applied through the Japanese embassy in your home country, these highly selective scholarships provide return air fare, university fees, a monthly grant of 155,000, an optional six-month course in Japanese and help finding accommodation. The Scholarships are tenable at selected institutions but in all subject areas.
- Scholarship program for self-financed international students
These scholarships awarded by the Japanese Government provide a monthly allowance of 65,000 for graduate students who do not hold a scholarship (from any source).
- GRIPS Scholarships
For highly-qualified international students wishing to pursue a PhD at the National Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo, full scholarships are provided by the Japanese Government (MEXT), international organisations and GRIPS. The scholarship covers: a monthly stipend, application, admission and tuition fees, a round-trip economy-class air tickets between your home country and Japan.
- Scholarships provided by JASSO
JASSO is the Japan Student Services Organization is an independent administrative institution established under MEXT and which also runs the undergraduate university entrance examination EJU.
- Scholarships offered by local authorities
- Scholarships for International Students
Conducting your PhD research
Doing a PhD in Japan is something that you need to prepare carefully. Make sure you have all the information pertaining to your Graduate School AND your research department/lab. As with all settling in periods when you go abroad, you will be faced with cultural and communication hurdles. These are not bad, they just add to the experience. In Japan, however, the process of research, requirements for a PhD award, the working culture and the hierarchy of higher education are additional things to be aware of.
Expectations and requirements
It is paramount that you define your research project and your training structure with your supervisor from the outset and that you find out how your project fits with the programme of research in your department or lab.
Make sure that you are clear about the PhD award conditions such as the number of publications you are required to have. It is also advisable that you get clear information, preferably in writing, on working rules and regulations: access to equipment, hours of work (including week-end work), holiday allocations, conference attendance, training courses.
Interactions with your supervisors and your colleagues
In order to aid networking with your colleagues, you should consider learning some Japanese so you can communicate with your peers, at least informally. If your level of Japanese is only basic, then use English to talk about your research.
Japanese people take traditions and hierarchy very seriously. Professors command the most authority and the supervisor-supervisee relationship is more akin to a master-disciple interaction. If you feel you need to challenge your supervisor, do so with the highest level of diplomacy and respect. There is also a strict hierarchy within research teams which is determined by age and position, with post-docs commanding more seniority than PhD students who, in turn, are considered as seniors to masters and undergraduate students. As such you may find that discussions within a research teams are generally top down rather than on an equal footing.
Professors are often really busy with administrative, pastoral and other activities, delegating their day-to-day supervisory role to junior academics, post-docs or even final year PhD students. As a PhD student, you will be expected to be an independent researcher anyway and the support you receive is likely to be minimal. In this context, your graduate school will provide the training structure you need so be sure to check what they offer.