Quo Vadis, PhD Graduate? (Practical Advice to New PhDs in Japan)

It’s graduation season once again. To those who are completing their course requirements and who will be receiving their coveted degrees at the end of this month, congratulations! It’s time to relax and bask in the glory of your PhD. Bring out the champagne! Have a blast at karaoke! Give yourself that well-deserved break.

Someone wrote me a couple of weeks back, asking me for advice on how one should go about on choosing a postdoctoral position. As a PhD candidate, that person is naturally anxious on how to proceed next. It reminded me of how fraught with anxiety I was when I was nearing the completion of my degree. I was very relieved to know that I had endured and would soon be receiving the fruit of my labor. However, at the same, I couldn’t help but feel so confused. Where do I go next?

As a new PhD graduate, the choices that one makes can and will ultimately determine the fate of one’s career. Don’t even think that having a PhD is an end; rather, it is a beginning to a brand new adventure. The question is, how does one begin the long trek?

Part of the reason for my confusion was my location, of course. Had I studied in the Philippines, I would be joining the ranks of assistant professors in some university. But it is not so easy here in Japan. It would be nearly impossible for me to join the faculty in any Japanese university, primarily because of the language barrier. If the classes would be handled in English, it would probably be possible for me. But such positions are quite rare, and for the physical sciences, even rarer. Physics itself is already a difficult subject, so just imagine how that difficulty would be doubled or tripled if it were taught in a language that is not mastered by the students. Try explaining Maxwell’s equations…in Japanese! I already have a pretty hard time explaining the results of my own research to my colleagues.

Simply put, teaching is out of the question.

Thus, the only choice that was available for me was to join a purely research-based institute, one that does not require teaching as part of the job description. I was fortunate enough to join such an institute.

For those who are planning to go back to their home country, this is the part where you can officially stop reading. But if you are planning to stay in Japan, you will have to face the task of finding yourself a job after you get your PhD. Based on my experience, here are some tips that might help you in navigating your way through the early stages of your career:

Advice #1. No matter how high-falutin’ it might sound, realize that a postdoctoral position is still a temporary job. Postdoc positions are typically offered in one-year, two-year, and sometimes three-year contracts. In other words, expect to be out in the job market after a couple of years. If you want to stay longer in Japan, you should aim for a long-term employment that offers job security long after you’re done with your postdoctoral work.

Advice #2. A common pitfall for some PhDs is to bounce from one postdoc position to the other, sometimes becoming a "Postdoc for life." This often entails relocating from one institute or university to the other, depending on where opportunities become available. Although this invariably gives you a lot of exposure to different places and people, and may even afford you experience outside Japan (thus enriching your life, you may argue), sooner or later you will still have to look for a more permanent job. The pressure on finding a permanent job is perhaps not so excruciating for those who are unmarried or don’t have families yet. As long as you’re single, bounce all you want, see the world, by all means feel free to experiment. But if a family is depending on you, the pressure could be tremendous, and the frequent moving is bound to take its toll on your children. Also, there is no guarantee that moving from one research group to the other will allow you to work on the same topic. You could very well end up working on a variety of totally unrelated topics (depending on who you are working for). Although some people couldn’t imagine working on the same topic for the rest of their lives, those who do have a higher probability of being recognized as experts in their field. (This is not to say that those who work longer on a certain topic are almost certainly recognized for their contribution; even a relative newcomer to the field could sometimes make outstanding and brilliant contributions. But do ask yourself: what are the odds?!!)

In a nutshell, decide which one is more valuable to you: Permanent vs. Temporary, Mastery vs. Diversity.

Advice #3. High pay for postdoctoral work is not a guarantee for future employment. Postdoctoral fellowships in Japan pay well, and for a good reason: to attract the best minds in the world. But it doesn’t mean that if you had been awarded with a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship, you will automatically be a top choice when it comes to employment.

To illustrate: consider the case of B, a new PhD graduate. He applied to a postdoctoral fellowship, and got selected. At the same time he also applied to a company. However, the postdoctoral fellowship offered a higher "salary" compared to the company. Although the company offered a lower salary, this was only expected because he was a new graduate and neither had experience nor the appropriate training. But at least the company offered a long-term employment and the chance to climb the corporate ladder with each succeeding year of employment. In the end B chose the postdoctoral fellowship, thinking that it was a better deal. At the end of 2 years, B was unemployed. He applied to various positions, but got rejected. Frustrated, he left Japan and moved to the US.

Think long-term, not short-term.

Advice #4. Timing is everything. Application periods vary from company to company, or from institute to institute. I had been recruited at least eight months before I officially started work at my institute! In a similar vein, those who are entering a company/institute this April have already gone through the recruitment process months ago. So if you’re only starting to look for work now, it is a tad too late for that April job. For PhD students, remember to start early! You should start planning ahead for work a year before you expect to get your PhD.

Advice #5. Don’t be hesitant to use your network. Begin with your sensei. He/she is one of the key persons who can help you connect to potential recruiters/employers. This is a case where it matters who you know, not what you know. Believe it or not, there are cases when an advertised job is only there officially; unofficially, a person has already been referred to the recruiter and is already being considered for the job. Why? Connections, my dear Watson. So use your network as a leverage.

Advice #6. Use the internet. A valuable source of information is available at JREC-IN (Japan Research Career Information Network), which is available in both Japanese and English. However, it is obvious that not all employers take the trouble of offering their job advertisements in English, so if you can plow through the Japanese, check out the Japanese version first. Usually there are more positions available in the Japanese version.

Research institutes and universities also have regular announcements in their websites about available positions, so don’t forget to check them out as well. However, once you have narrowed down a potential job offering, try to first explore ways to get a proper introduction or referral from your sensei or colleagues. See Advice #5 above.

What if, after all your efforts, you still find yourself unemployed? As far as I know, once you graduated from the university, your student visa is no longer valid and you have to either leave the country or find some ways to convert your visa to working or researcher visa. To buy yourself some time, you would probably opt to grab any kind of employment possibility that comes your way. For economic and practical reasons, why not? But I advise you to be prudent. Use the opportunity if you must, but be vigilant for the job you really want and for which you have the proper qualifications. And if you can’t imagine yourself doing that kind of job for the rest of your life, don’t even think of starting it at all, if it can be helped. Decide for yourself if that job will create opportunities for you later, or if it will end up as a career trap (or career bomb!) for you.

A final note: take these advice with a grain of salt. Experience varies from person to person, and naturally situations are not at all universal. I’ve based these on my own experience and my knowledge of other people’s experience, and my views are inevitably shaped by these. Needless to say I would certainly love to hear about the experiences of other PhDs in Japan who have stayed here and made it successfully. I’m sure each one of you has a story to tell. :)

To the newly grad, good luck, and gambarimasho!

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5 Responses to Quo Vadis, PhD Graduate? (Practical Advice to New PhDs in Japan)

  1. Frances says:

    Hi, Kathy! It’s been hellafa long time– got busy. Anyway, I’m still in my MA studies but your post really makes me think about the kind of career I want to get myself into. Looking at the PhD holders I know (in the Phils.), I see what you mean when you talk of permanent vs. temporary, mastery vs diversity. A PhD isn’t necessarily a magic bullet, it’s complicated!

    P.S. Super belated happy birthday :)

  2. kathy says:

    Frances, welcome back! Thanks for the birthday greeting! Bakasyon ka na ba ngayon, or are you taking up summer classes?

    Actually, what strikes me as odd is why there is a lack of academic career counseling in the universities…it seems that everyone just wants to go and get a PhD without really understanding the consequences for it. You’re right, it’s not necessarily a magic bullet. Everyone must seriously ask themselves first if a PhD is really necessary for their chosen careers or not.

  3. Hi, Kathy! This is actually the busiest summer evarr! Aside from teaching summer classes, Im off to Singapore next week to attend a seminar and when I get back home, I’ll be doing my first conference presentation…I’m the first presenter pa. Plus, I’ve got a couple of research projects ongoing. O diba?

    Anyway, that is so true. Academic career counseling in the universities… There seems to be an imperative to get a PhD a.s.a.p. but you’re right, not everyone needs it. And I remember what my prof once said: it’s sad that there are people who get PhDs just for the title (and the salary upgrade) but they don’t do research. As a young person in the academe, I have yet to fully understand what he meant, but it makes sense to me.

  4. Gigi says:

    Hello kathy,

    I have a question that maybe you can answer…my husband is Japanese but right now he’s here with me in the US studying towards a BA and perhaps an MA in linguistics. He’s hoping to have a career doing research in linguistics (maybe phonetics) in Japan (I’d like to move there ASAP,) and we were wondering if it’d be easier for him to eventually get a job at a Japanese university if he got his PhD in the US or in Japan. What do you think? What kind of people do you think can answer this question?

    Thanks for your time! I’m going to wander around the rest of your site now…I wish I were in Japan like you :)


  5. kathy says:

    Hello Gigi, thanks for dropping by! Always a pleasure to welcome new visitors to my site.
    Regarding your question – personally I think that the chances of a foreigner getting a job “related” to one’s field of expertise is higher for someone who graduated from a Japanese university. It’s an unwritten rule, but employers prefer those who can speak the language (or at least have some basic language skills) over those who don’t.
    Your husband is a Japanese national – but was he raised outside Japan all his life? If so, I imagine that he would get the same treatment as with foreigners. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. :) Good luck!

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