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Physics Ph.D. and career prospects in Japan

  1. Dec 19, 2017 #1
    Hello to everybody!
    I am writing this post because I am facing an important choice for my future and I really need a piece of advice from someone with more experience about the "scientific world" than me.
    I am an Italian boy who is about to graduate at "La Sapienza" University of Rome with a Master's Degree thesis in theoretical cosmology.
    In the last years, I have talked to some people doing research in the theoretical physics field and I have read many stories on the internet. I have also read the Feibelman's good book "A Ph.D. is not enough". All of this helped me understand that perhaps it would be better for me not to aim at an academic career and secure a job in the industry or some national lab. Or at least first do a Ph.D. in experimental and applied science and then jump ship if so I have to.
    But this is only half of the story. The other half is Japan. The fact is that my girlfriend is Japanese (living in Tokyo) and I really like the Japanese language (I am N2 level). Moreover economically Japan is much ahead of Italy. This is why I would like to go to Japan to get a Ph.D. I have already tried to apply for an internship at JAXA and do some interviews for engineering-like jobs but, even if I was welcomed quite warmly, I couldn't get much out of them, mainly because what I am doing now is very theoretical, exotic and without much real-world application. On top of that, my University name (even if in Italy is one of the best Physics departments, maybe the best), means nothing in Japan. It doesn't ring any bell.
    That is why I have applied to 4 Universities in Tokyo for a Ph.D. and I have been accepted in all of them. I now have to choose one. This is why I writing. To ask: What is the best pick in your opinion?

    Actually I have a preference (Yokohama University) but it is a very important step and I would like also to get an "external" feedback.
    My aim after Ph.D. would be to find a job in a company in Japan. I was thinking about something space-satellites-related or a company that builds scientific equipment. I would consider to work in a national laboratory or to continue with the academic career only if I see concrete chances of success (that I really fail to see now).

    My main doubts are:
    1. Is it better (future-wise) to go to an higher-ranked University but study a very abstract subject or to go to a lower-ranked University and study applied science with better application in the real world?
    2. In other words, what would a prospect Japanese employer regard higher (at Ph.D. level)? University "name" or actual skills?
    These are the options
    • Yokohama National University (ranked 46 in Japan):
      • Field: Experimental Particle Physics (applied science, building detectors, testing equipment, doing data analysis)
      • Supervisor: Young and very very supportive, very nice person, very pragmatic.
      • Research group: very recently formed group, I am the only Ph.D. student, there are 4-5 undergraduate students, I would be followed by the supervisor very closely, we would work together.
      • University: it seems a good academic environment, the dean of Physics department is very kind.
    • Saitama University (ranked 56 in Japan):
      • Field: Experimental Astrophysics (applied science, building detectors, testing equipment, doing data analysis)
      • Supervisor: The head of the group is very kind but he is cross-appointed with JAXA so he won't have time to follow me. I don't know yet who is going to be my direct superior. There are 2-3 other assistant professors and they all seem very kind but I hadn't much time to get to know them well.
      • Research group: well-established group, 3-4 Ph.D. students (all Japanese), 10-15 undergraduates and master students, very relaxed environment.
      • University: I don't know much about Saitama University.
    • Tokyo Institute of Technology (ranked 9 in Japan):
      • Field: Theoretical Cosmology (very abstract, not much practical use for it in the industry and real world).
      • Supervisor: The head of the group is very strict but he seems a good person. He has many students and he made clear that he has not much time to spend with each of them.
      • Research group: well-established group, 4-5 Ph.D. students (even a Brazilian student), some undergraduates and master students, this is a very research-oriented hard-working group.
      • University: I don't know much but it is one of the best Universities in Japan.
    • SOKENDAI (The Graduate University for Advanced Studies) (ranked 90 in Japan):
      • Field: Supernova explosion 3D simulation (a lot of numerical simulations but, at the end, not many real-world applications (anyway more than Cosmology)).
      • Supervisor: I would be the only student. We would work in close contact. He is kind. Only a bit shy. Not a great English speaker as well.
      • University: it is not a real University. It is more a research institute. That is why there are only a few Ph.D. students every year. Very research oriented. There are no undergraduate and Master courses. I would work at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ).
    I am sorry for the long post. I hope that someone with some experience could give me a good piece of advice
    Last edited: Dec 19, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 19, 2017 #2


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    I don't have a Phd myself and I don't know the universities in Japan BUT I say this:

    Follow your heart!!!

    Go to Tokyo that is closest to your girlfriend and is in the field of your master thesis. If theoretical cosmology is something you really like, go for it. Don't worry about securing a job in the industry, if you really good at theoretical cosmology you ll probably find a job (with equally good salary) as a university professor.
  4. Dec 19, 2017 #3
    Thank you for your answer! All the University I have listed are in Tokyo so yes, I am going to Tokyo. The problem is which one!
    The problem here is that "probably". What if the possibility is one out of ten (and I am being generous)? Would you plan your future according to these unfavorable odds? It would be like pointing a gun loaded with 9 bullets out of 10 to your head and shooting. Would you do it?
    That is the matter at hand. I am good but maybe not really really good like the best and youngest student of my University. It took me some years more than average to graduate because I was learning Japanese during University (so I am not so young anymore). I have good grades, an average of 28.5/30 but this is not 30/30 and there are definitely people (not many) with the maximum grades.
  5. Dec 19, 2017 #4


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    I believe a man with your skills (28.5/30) will be able to find at least a "decent" job somewhere after you finish your Phd (even if this is in theoretical cosmology).

    But it depends what your top priority is. If your priority is to make very good money from your job then just a "decent" job might not be enough for you, and in this case you ll have to do a phd in applied science that secures a job in the industry.

    But I find it very important that you ll be close to your girlfriend whatever university you ll choose. Lucky you ! :D
  6. Dec 19, 2017 #5
    Thank you for your encouraging words. It is not for the money that I am making this choice, or not in the sense that I want to do good money in my life. I already knew that when I chose Physics at the University. I am considering going out of academia because there is the concrete risk of not making ANY money if I remain. I have met many brilliant (way more than me) researchers that had to "drop out" of science because they couldn't find anything not even close to a "decent" job in academia. I really suggest you to read the book "A Ph.D. is not enough". It is very short but full of insights. It will make clear that doing research in Science is not so idyllic as one would naively imagine and that working in a company or a national laboratory is not so dull, boring and not rewarding as it seems.
    And if you are considering to get a Ph.D. I insist that you MUST read that!
    Last edited: Dec 19, 2017
  7. Dec 19, 2017 #6


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    I can't speak to the specific universities or Japan itself, but if you want a general opinion about transitioning from academia to industry, it's the skills you have that employers are interested in, not your pedigree (i.e. not the university name).

    Numbers tend to carry the weight of authority, but it's important to consider where ranking comes from and what factors are considered in the process. A Highly ranked university can be that way because of many factors that really have little relevance to your particular situation. Maybe they've published a lot of papers, or drawn on a lot of grant money in fields that are unrelated to what you do. Maybe they have a great judo program, which is great for the school, but not that important to you if your sport happens to be swimming (though I have no shame in throwing in a plug for how awesome judo is).

    And maybe this complicates things, but I would also add that just because a particular area is theoretical in nature doesn't mean that it doesn't come with any practical skills. While the actual problem you work on may not have many commercial applications skills such as programming or mathematical modelling that you'll learn are likely to be very marketable when you graduate.
  8. Dec 19, 2017 #7
    Thank you very much for your answer! It is very insightful. It is a relief because my impression was actually the same: that skills are valued higher than pedigree.
    Also for the ranking, I got a lot of feedback from some people telling me to consider only highly-ranked Universities but I think that the choice of supervisor is way more important than the particular University when it comes to enjoying the Ph.D. period and acquiring skills, would you agree on that?
    I agree that theoretical studies include often the acquisition of refined mathematical and computational skills. The problem that I had when doing interviews in the industrial world is to persuade the employers of that. They are not so easily convinced ... maybe I haven't met many open-minded people in the Japanese companies world but the answer was always the same: "what you do is too theoretical to have real-world applications!" No matter my efforts to convince them that I could learn very quickly anything that requires math, physics and programming ...
  9. Dec 19, 2017 #8
    To: OP. I'm not familiar with the university system or career opportunities in Japan, so I can't answer your question. But I will offer this word of caution: you need to get advice from people with first-hand experience with the university system and career opportunities in Japan. I've served as a mentor for students from many countries, and I've worked with colleagues from many countries; and I know that the university system and what employers value vary a lot from country to country.

    Your situation brings back fond memories from many years ago. My family and I were visiting Disneyworld in Orlando, FL. On a bus, we met a couple of international students who worked part time at the World Showcase in Epcot. She was from Japan, he was from Italy. They met while riding the bus to and from Epcot, fell in love, and got engaged.
    Last edited: Dec 19, 2017
  10. Dec 19, 2017 #9


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    I am Japanese, and I am at the last stage of getting Ph.D. in Chemistry. I am going postdoc in Tokyo Institute of Technology starting April if I am successful with my defense. I am not familiar with Ph.D. in physics, so you should take what I say with grain of salt.

    If you are planning to go to a company, it might be better to major for those that are practical: it is easier to convey the importance of you being in the company based on your major. It also gives you wider range of choice. That being said, getting a job as a Ph.D. candidate is quite different from getting a job as a masters and bachelors. Consider yourself to have very few choices as to which company and which type of job you can get, but with high success rate of being accepted within those few choices. (In contrast, masters and even more for bachelors, have wider range of choices but lower success rate of being accepted.)

    Several criteria that I would consider:
    1) Is the professor a reasonable and rational person?
    Your Ph.D. life is surely going to be miserable with a selfish, irrational, and mean advisors, no matter how much you like the area of research. Japanese professors tend to lack empathy and compassion. It is important you refer to one of their students to understand the true face of the advisor. There are also very nice people out there of course, and those are the kind of people that are easier to work with. This is especially important because your professor will write a recommendation letter for you.
    2) How practical, in terms of skills you acquire throughout your study, is the research?
    From your candidates, all of them are quite good with some of them being one of the most prestigious universities. So I wouldn't worry too much about brand names in this sense. Your preference (Yokohama National University) seems to be a good choice. What matters more is the type of research, which your preference also seems to be good.
    3) Work time
    Some labs force you to stay for 12 hours or more, and also come on Saturdays. Typically uncommon in physics, but quite common in chemistry. You should make sure you can balance your life with research. Very strict labs tend to force you to stay for long hours. These types of lab also give you minimal amount of time looking for jobs because professors tend to frown upon those that spend too much time looking for a job. I personally don't recommend that kind of lab.
    4) Number of members
    This is not my criteria, but the one YOU should be considering. Japan is absolutely terrible in regards to English education. Barely 1% of the population can speak even the most basic English. That means you will be forced to learn Japanese. This is especially so if you are going to a company because they may refrain from taking those with poor Japanese skills. You can more quickly learn Japanese if there are more people around you. I know your girlfriend is Japanese, but do you speak Japanese with her?

    Are you funded to go Ph.D. course in Japan?

    Side note:
    There are special programs meant for Ph.D. candidates looking for a job. Several companies send in headhunters to these programs to look for the right Ph.D. candidate. Such program is your chance of appealing yourself to these companies and getting more opportunities. For example, my university annually runs "Akai-ito kai" (translates to "red-string meeting", where "red-string" is a metaphor of "bonded by destiny"), in which Ph.D. candidates present a poster introducing themselves. I've never been to any of those programs because I already decided at the time that I am going academic. However, I have several friends that are looking for a job right now as Ph.D. candidates. I am sure there are a lot of these programs out there from those that are run by universities, to those run by companies. Keep your eyes on these information.
  11. Dec 20, 2017 #10


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    I deleted several posts which contained Japanese.
    1. Although harmless language, it is against our rules.
    2. My sample translations showed, that they could have been easily translated into English.
    3. Which raises the question about the motivation to do not.
    4. I first wanted to eliminate only the Japanese parts, but then they became unreadable.
    5. If every reader is forced to use a translation engine in order to read the posts, it would be an enormous waste of time.
    6. Other people's time.
    7. I might have been more generous, if the Japanese words were either names or negligible as in formulas.
    Please translate into English. There is absolutely no reason to write "Tokyo Tech" or "international student" in Japanese. Otherwise this thread will be closed.
  12. Dec 20, 2017 #11
    I am very sorry. I didn't know that I was going against the rules. I used some Japanese words only because they conveyed a very precise meaning that is not easily translated into English such as job-hunting "shukatsu" or meetings for prospective employee "setsumeikai". About the University names, you are absolutely right, I could have written in English. I wrote in Japanese only because it was easier (quicker). Could you re-enable the posts, so that I can translate the Japanese words, please?
  13. Dec 20, 2017 #12
    fresh_42 moderator kindly let me repost the translated content. so I am reposting the answer to @CrysPhys and the last answer to @HAYAO

    Answer to @CrysPhys
    Your answer makes perfect sense. The Japanese University and Corporate systems are deeply different from the European and American ones. So I agree completely: I am considering answers from people with first-hand experience much more than others. Luckily there is Hayao that just answered and I am taking his words of advice into the greatest consideration.

    I met my girlfriend while she was in Italy as an exchange student. A day (we didn't know each other yet) we were invited by a common friend to join a group of about 20 Italian and Japanese students on a one-day trip out of Rome in these two places (Bomarzo the park of monsters and Civita di Bagnoregio). And then love sparkled. If you have the opportunity I really suggest you visit those places, they are, together with Calcata, the most beautiful places near Rome (of course I also suggest you visit Rome).

    Last answer to @HAYAO
    I understand. It sounds really mean. I hope that your group is not like that. The Yokohama University professor doesn't seem like that. He is very young and has three children (not that this means something by itself but just to convey the image of a nice person who likes to spend weekends with his family).

    You made your point. So, after all, some labs are not that different from the classical Japanese company where the lower employers can go home before the boss has gone. I understand. You are right, it should be me who decides when to go home. Even if I would be happy to remain in the lab even on Sundays, I imagine there could be some Sundays when I would like to do something else (once a month?).

    The scholarships you are referring are intended for Japanese students. I know because I already had this discussion with some possible supervisors. The scholarship system for foreign students is a bit different. There are 3 main scholarships. One is Embassy-sponsored MEXT scholarship (I have already applied and I wasn't selected). Then there is the University-sponsored MEXT scholarship (you can apply only after admission) that I am going to apply in January. It is the best one because you don't have to pay University fees and have a monthly allowance of about 150.000 yen. And then there is the JASSO scholarship for foreign students, it doesn't pay the University fees and has a monthly allowance of only 50.000 yen. These are the same in almost all Universities. Then, of course, there are some more fee reductions, tutoring-teaching part-time jobs, scholarships depending on the particular University and program.
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