…and about higher education in Japan.

The following is an entirely anecdotal account of what it is like to pursue education at public university in Japan. I cannot comment on the country as a whole or every field of study, but this certainly gives some basis for comparison to experiences in the United States.

Oh, where to start. My adventure into academia here in Japan started at the latest of stages. I came here as a student who already held an advanced degree in my field – a masters of science. So, when commenting on the experience of  undergraduate and the first two years of graduate school, I can only give an outsider’s perspective.

Undergraduate admissions to universities in Japan are similar in concept to those in the United States. You’ve gotta take a test of some kind while you’re still in high school and your grades have to be measured against all the other applicants. And, of course, some kind of application needs to be filled out. I can’t say for certain if any personal statement accompanies the application, but that’s a minor technicality. However, in the case of Japan, universities do not rely on a nationally administered exam that is standardized for that year (e.g. SAT or ACT). Instead, students are expected to participate in the university specific entrance exam. I could easily imagine the difficulty is scaled to fit the caliber of institution. Places like Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka University would have the more challenging examination hurdles. By in large, private universities are nice enough to not schedule their exams at the same time as each other, but in the case of the national universities (public schools), this is not the case. All national universities test on the same day. There is, however, a “second chance” day (as my assistant professor likes to call it). Here, students can opt to re-take a test they did not pass at a public university or try for different one. All tests are administered onsite and that means you must be physically present with your butt in the hot seat for an entire day. As far as I can tell, there are no exceptions. And if you don’t read and write the language fairly well I am not confident that there is any “special” test for you. Classes are almost always taught in Japanese, so it’s a moot point if you don’t read and write the language.

From what I have been told, the test is the primary metric by which schools decide whether or not to admit you. Schools in the US are certainly a little different and the admissions criteria remains a mystery from school to school. One of the long standing traditions of Japan is to post the examination results quasi-publically. Nowadays, you can view your examination (and similarly your admission status) online. However, they still go through the motions of posting the examination results on some form of a public bulletin board (with names redacted and test numbers shown). I personally experienced this with my oral interview/exam for the doctoral program. Although, no one told me about it and I only found out about the postings a few days after it was made. My advisor was nice enough to tell me only an hour after the interview that I passed.

As for graduate-level admissions, the process is nearly the same. And from my personal observations, most Japanese students pursue a degree at the same university from which they completed their undergraduate degree. Now, this continuance of education is heavily dominated by the sciences – and that’s where my observations lie – so, I cannot comment on the flow of  students in the humanities. I do recall from the early 2000’s that engineering majors at my US undergraduate university were more interested in employment post-graduation than continuing on to graduate school. I cannot say if attitudes in the US have remained the same, but that mindset today is completely opposite in Japan. Most (nearly all) undergraduate students will continue after their four year degree and pursue and additional two years of graduate study in the same field (often in the same laboratory they were aligned upon graduation). About one semester prior to the completion of their undergraduate education yet another test is administered for graduate admissions (or, shall we say, graduate continuance). Thankfully, those tests are not all on the same day throughout the country. So, if you fail at your home university, you can try elsewhere. Procedures, obviously differ a little in the United States. Applicants typically look to the GRE as the largest hurdle prior to application (classes are over, so no possibility to go back and fix that poor GPA). But, aside from the standardized testing and letters of recommendation that are usually expected, there is not much a student must consider. However, if someone is looking to jump right into a PhD program, that’s where things get a bit fuzzy.

Japan likes to be very procedural. And I am not sure if this “procedure” is the same everywhere, but this is how things played out at my university. Students couldn’t skip a masters of science in our department. Nor could they simply earn one on the way towards a PhD. Everyone willing was required to enter into the masters program, finish that, and wipe their hands clean. Following that accomplishment, they then basically re-apply for the PhD program and go through that bevy of hoops and obstacles to be fully admitted once again. Since I had earned a masters in the US, this is where I squeaked in and started.

So, to round out this discussion, the final stage of any academic pursuit culminates with the pursuance of a doctoral degree. Here is where things change a bit. Most universities in the US have a test used to validate a basic level of competency (at least in the field of engineering they do). This test is known as “quals” or “prelims” or “general exams” depending on where you go. This test is typically taken by students when they are ready and that’s usually soon after finishing their coursework at the graduate level. This is considered to be the hardest test anyone will ever take. After this, there shouldn’t be any barriers that prevent you from starting, continuing, or finishing your doctoral research. Some places have an additional “exam” that amounts to a committee meeting to discuss your field of research and proposed hypothesis you want to work through. But other than that, you exit the educational gauntlet with the thesis defense and then you’re done. Japan seems to make this a whole lot easier. Instead of an actual exam, my university administered an oral presentation/interview. This was a fairly short 30 min presentation about my previous work with an additional 15 minutes for questions. Usually this presentation covers your masters thesis and your previous research. However, coming from a masters program geared more towards working professionals, I didn’t have a thesis or any body of research to present. So, I gave a presentation on my previous work at my last employer with a short introduction into the type of work I would like to do for my doctoral study. That was it.

After a short wait, I was informed of my admittance by my advisor. The admissions process felt pretty informal to me, but I guess that’s Japan. My exit “exam” will be of a similar format (i.e. thesis defense), but of course longer. I still have my thesis to draft and submit for review to my reviewing committee. That’s a few months away and all the fun of late-night-edits still await me.

Good times.

More on the topic of Japanese academia will certainly follow.

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