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Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012

Ph.D. path in U.S. less traveled but worthwhile


NEW YORK — Despite shrinking numbers of Japanese students studying in the United States in recent years, many enrolled in U.S. doctoral programs are more positive about their futures as they can generally secure greater financial independence and career opportunities than if they had stayed in Japan.

News photo
Rarity: Kenichi Shimada, a Ph.D. candidate in biology at Columbia University in New York, works with a colleague at one of the school's laboratories in November. KYODO

As U.S. universities typically provide tuition waivers and some form of funding for Ph.D. students, pursuing such a degree in the U.S. is "almost certainly" less of a financial burden than doing so in Japan, according to Yohei Ishii, a Ph.D. candidate at Brown University in Rhode Island.

In addition, U.S. graduate students are paid for work as teaching assistants or research assistants while studying, making it possible in most cases for them to make an independent living, the 27-year-old from Hiroshima Prefecture said.

Being on a payroll, many see their doctoral programs not merely as study but as a "profession." In Ishii's case, he receives $2,000 a month, or about ¥156,000.

"Financially, I'm almost certainly better off" in the U.S. than studying in Japan, said Ishii, who is a member of the Kagakusha Network, which assists and supports Japanese students studying abroad. "If one is to earn a Ph.D., studying in the United States should be included as an option."

Working side by side with other Ph.D. candidates from around the world, Ishii's life as a graduate student in the U.S. is challenging and sometimes his research requires him to stay up all night. Still, he is upbeat.

"It's tough," Ishii said. "But it's the same for everyone here."

In Japan, though, such enthusiasm is a rarity.

According to the Institute of International Education, about 21,000 students from Japan were studying at U.S. universities in the 2010-2011 academic year — less than half the number of a decade ago.

By students' place of origin, Japan ranked seventh, falling behind the likes of China, India, South Korea and Taiwan.

The IIE cited "the effects of a rapidly aging Japanese population and other factors, including the global economy and the recruiting cycle of Japanese companies" as some of the root causes of the continued decline in Japanese studying in the U.S.

Japanese companies' recruitment schedules are typically timed for hiring fresh graduates when the nation's school year ends in March. As students in the country are often required to sacrifice several months almost exclusively for competitive job hunting, those overseas face an even heavier burden, something that has made many Japanese students hesitant to study abroad.

The sharp drop in students from Japan, which sent the most from the 1994-1995 through 1998-1999 academic years, has also worried Washington, which fears the falling numbers could result in weaker bilateral ties.

Even U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has voiced concern, prompting the government to eye ways of reversing the trend.

Japanese Ph.D. candidates also note that the advantages of obtaining a doctorate in the U.S. go far beyond the financial perspective during the years of research.

"Future prospects after earning the degree are clearly much brighter here in the United States," said Kenichi Shimada, a 31-year-old Ph.D. candidate in biology at New York's Columbia University.

In Japan, the lack of job openings for researchers with doctoral degrees has become such a grave concern that it is now widely known as the "postdoc problem."

While searching for a postdoctoral position in the U.S. is just as much the researcher's own responsibility as it is in Japan, Shimada pointed out that one main difference is how companies and society view doctoral degree holders.

"In Japan, students who have completed a doctoral course are perhaps often deemed (by companies) as being difficult to handle," said Shimada, a Tokyo native.

"Meanwhile in the United States, doctor's degree holders are thought of as having established one's own scientific viewpoint through professional training and having outstanding skills to examine problems."

Unlike in Japan, where there are too few positions for too many researchers, a much wider spectrum of postdoctoral opportunities are available in the U.S., ranging from landing jobs at companies to becoming schoolteachers and even museum curators.

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