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Young researchers need more international experience

Since 1995, Japan has implemented Science and Technology (S&T) Basic Plans every five years. The current, Fourth S&T Basic Plan emphasises the promotion of basic research and the development of science and technology professionals, thus reinforcing the importance of graduate school education.

The National Institute of Science and Technology Policy, or NISTEP, conducted a series of follow-up studies on the Third S&T Basic Plan before drafting the fourth plan. For one of these, NISTEP conducted a survey on the diversity of career paths and the international mobility of recent doctoral graduates in Japan.

The survey collected career path information for all doctoral graduates of Japanese universities from 2002-06. Data were collected from 414 universities and about 75,000 graduates. This was the first comprehensive survey in Japan on doctoral graduates from all universities in the country.

Some findings

With regard to general trends among doctoral graduates of Japanese universities, 81% are Japanese and 19% foreign students. Among Japanese students, 16% mainly work in private companies. The number of foreign students has been increasing in recent years; in particular, the number of Chinese students is growing rapidly.

Among those who completed doctoral courses between 2002 and 2006, approximately half assumed an R&D-related position immediately after graduation.

Among graduates in physical sciences, engineering and agricultural sciences, the percentage of those taking up an R&D-related role was particularly high. In physical sciences and agricultural sciences, the percentage of those who became postdoctoral fellows was also high, at around 30% each.

Too few PhDs go overseas

As for their locations immediately after completing the doctoral courses, 73% of Japanese graduates remained in Japan, while just 2% moved overseas. North America and Europe were the main overseas destinations.

We believe that this figure is too small compared to other Asian countries.

Most Japanese graduates who relocated overseas became postdoctoral fellows in the US or Europe. About half of the Japanese postdoctoral fellows in the US returned to Japan after five years.

We surveyed 1,200 senior experts to ascertain why young researchers did not study or work abroad. The reasons given related to their career prospects on returning to Japan: low financial returns; concern about a dearth of good academic positions for postdoctoral fellows; and a lack of guaranteed positions for working individuals.

There are few posts available to young researchers or postdoctoral fellows in Japanese universities. Moreover, private companies prefer recruiting graduates with a master degree rather than those with a doctorate. One reason for this tendency is that Japanese doctors studying at graduate schools sometimes do not have a broad perspective on science and technology, being adept only in their specialist fields.

Increased funding

The Japanese government has been increasing its competitive research funding for universities during the five-year period, aiming to double the 2001 level. Its efforts have been successful to some extent, but the increase in competitive funding has decreased the proportion of research time invested by individual professors and other teachers.

A recent survey analysing the working hours of approximately 400 university researchers shows that research time has decreased from 47% to 36% on average.

Another survey shows that it is becoming more difficult for university researchers to set aside three to four hours of uninterrupted research time. Consequently, some senior researchers are reluctant to send young researchers to laboratories abroad, due to concerns that the younger researchers’ absence will unduly increase and intensify the workloads in their laboratories.

When analysing the international mobility of doctoral graduates from Japan, about 90% of those who stayed in Japan or moved to Korea and China were home-country natives, while the remaining 10% were foreign nationals, who were mainly Japanese, Chinese and South Korean.

On the other hand, almost all of those who moved to South East Asian or South Asian countries were home-country natives, while not many Japanese, Chinese and South Korean graduates moved to these countries.

The top 10 overseas destinations are China, the US, South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Germany, Canada and the UK. Of those who moved to Western countries, around 70%-80% were Japanese, which contrasts sharply with those moving to Asian countries.

On graduating from Japanese universities, 36% of the Chinese students, who accounted for 39% of international graduates, remained in Japan. This figure is higher than the average for all international graduates. This is because the Chinese students are highly rated for their language and other abilities.

In recent times, intense efforts have been made by some companies to recruit Chinese graduates. Of those who returned to China, more than 60% secured either full- or part-time positions at Chinese universities.

Higher productivity through study abroad

Another survey was conducted, on around 9,400 researchers from research organisations and universities in Japan.

It shows that about 9% of them have worked in foreign countries as full-time researchers. They were more actively involved in research exchanges at their institutions, and their productivity in terms of papers in the past three years was superior to that of researchers without overseas work experience.

With regard to papers written in English and those co-authored with international researchers, those with overseas work experience produced more than researchers without such experience.

Moreover, the ratio of the top 10% most cited papers and the number of times cited per international paper are double those of domestic papers produced by only Japanese researchers.

The results show that Japanese universities should promote research cooperation by utilising a network of doctoral graduates. Moreover, they show that producing co-authored international papers leads to increased ranking and citations.

The counterparts of international co-authored papers in Japan have changed drastically in comparison with 10 years ago, when researchers from Western countries were the main counterparts. China, Korea and other Asian-Pacific countries have become more important in terms of counterparts of research cooperation for Japanese researchers.

We believe that more Japanese researchers should go to work abroad in foreign research institutes, and that more Japanese students should go to study at foreign universities. The government is trying to increase the budget to support students and researchers studying or working in foreign countries.

* Professor Tomoaki Wada is in charge of internationalisation and academia-industry collaboration at the Tokyo University of Science (TUS). He is also an affiliated senior fellow at the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy, or NISTEP. Prior to his appointment at the TUS in 2010, he worked in the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology for 30 years. Between 2002 and 2004, he served in the cabinet office as chief secretariat for science and technology policy, where he prepared the draft of the Third Science and Technology (S&T) Basic Plan. In July 2008, he was appointed director general of NISTEP, where he summarised key reports of follow-up studies on the Third S&T Basic Plan. This paper was presented at the recent QS Showcase 2013.


Until recently, Japan has secluded itself (actually totally shut itself off) from the rest of the world. In a way, they still do (eg what's their immigration policy? what's their refugee intake? etc). They are paying for it in many ways now...including this one.

Eva Bernat on the University World News Facebook page
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