If you want to get ahead in the world, everyone says you should go to college and get a bachelor’s degree. That’s true in Japan, where it’s generally a requirement for getting any decent salaried position. But though there’s always the option to pursue a higher level of education with a master’s or a PhD, in Japan, they don’t have the same appeal.
In fact, the number of doctoral students in Japan has been steadily decreasing since it hit its peak in 2003. This is worrisome for Japan’s science industries, as graduate university students are thought to be the lifeblood of scientific research and development in Japan, and provide the core work force at the country’s science industries, including their world-famous chemical companies, which are among some of the richest in the country.
According to the Japanese Ministry of Education, the number of PhD graduates was 11,637 in 2003, but has since decreased by almost half, to just 5,963 this year. Since 2003 was 17 years ago, you might think the decrease in doctoral graduates is due to the country’s continually declining birth rate, but in fact the statistics say otherwise. The number of doctoral graduates per one million citizens has also decreased; in 2017, it was 119, compared to 131 in 2008.
Compare that to the U.S., Germany and South Korea, which all increased their number of graduates per one million citizens since 2008. These numbers are bleak for Japan, whose science industries form the backbone of their economy. But what could be causing this decline in interest in pursuing the sciences to a higher academic level? Experts in the science and academic industries say it’s because the costs of getting a PhD outweigh the benefits in Japan.
Akira Yoshino, Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry, pointed out that it’s because PhD candidates are concerned about their employment prospects once they graduate. Yoshino says that, though having a doctorate provides a leg-up in finding employment in most other countries, there are no such considerations in Japan.
“I think that there should be recognition of the achievement of a PhD, as well as preferential treatment and pay for doctoral graduates,” he added. He also suggested that young people these days are not able to devote themselves to long-term research. “Academic research is a search for the truth, or is based on something the researcher has a deep curiosity about that they can single-mindedly pursue. It’s absolutely important to have one mission to focus on. Along those lines, I believe that it’s very important to cultivate an environment in Japan where someone can settle down to research something for 10 years or more, and feel secure about it.”
Yoshino himself started studying lithium-ion batteries when was 33 years old, and devoted all his energy to researching that single topic for nearly 40 years. His hard work paid off when he earned the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2019 for his impactful work on lithium-ion batteries.
Hirotaka Sakaue, associate professor of Aerospace Mechanical Engineering at Notre Dame University, agrees that having a doctorate amounts to little in the eyes of Japanese companies. Sakaue attained his PhD at Purdue University in the United States, but when he tried to find work in Japan, all of the jobs available based their pay on age rather than achievement, and the experience he gained through his PhD courses wasn’t even considered.
“In America, once you have a PhD, your annual salary changes greatly,” he said. “In my field of aerospace mechanical engineering, getting a PhD in Japan has no effect on your pay and so doesn’t have any appeal.”
What’s more, many U.S. doctorate programs in the sciences provide a stipend to their students, but Japanese universities offer no such benefits. “Since they’d have to work while studying for three years, I’m not sure many master’s students see any reason to get a PhD,” Sakaue said. He believes that a revision of the compensation system and the fostering of an environment that makes it easy for students to continue their post-graduate degrees is essential to raising the numbers again.
This problem serves as yet another example of much-needed workplace reform in Japan. The emphasis on seniority, rather than actual experience or qualifications, is a problem in many industries and for many workers, not only PhD candidates but also foreign workers and other employees with specialized qualifications.
Given that having a PhD has merit when applying for permanent residency in Japan, it’s probably not a matter of society viewing the degree as worthless, so hopefully more companies can change their tune and begin to actively work to promote advanced education in science.
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