Ph.D - May Mean "Posthaste Departure"

Ph.D - May Mean "Posthaste Departure"

Over the last 10 years, I've met a lot of foreigners wanting to get more out of their jobs in Japan, but who are being frustrated either by some old fashioned hard-core company system OR because they lack the skills to take the next step up. Usually you would think that such people are at the beginning of their careers and that as they become more valuable to their Japanese employers, the companies would reciprocate and look after them better.

However, there is one segment of the population where more experience does not equal more tenure - and that segment is scientists and researchers for private companies. Indeed the more members of this group try to become valuable to their Japanese hosts, the less they seem to be wanted. I have lost count of how many academics I've interviewed who were being refused promotions, transfers, budgets, assistants, and even attempts to move out of the company dormitory. Instead, they are told to behave until their allotted time is up.

PhD's and other professional scientists and researchers are typically attracted to Japan because of generous corporate (not university) lab budgets, advanced technologies, and the sheer excitement in being in such a different country. When thinking about going to Japan, most academics try to rationalize that while they may be putting their professional development on hold, they will get to learn radical new processes, work with the very best instruments, and besides, it wouldn't be that long away from home.

Most appointments made by large Japanese companies to young academics are not overly generous, but they are at least viable. A foreign Ph.D still in his/her twenties can reasonably expect a starting salary of JPY8m, a paid-for apartment, return airfare, and perhaps some other small incentives. For someone attracted to the foreignness of Japan, such offers, wrapped up into a 3-year contract, are good enough to overcome concerns about a career being sidelined. I have found that the most frequent job offers are being made by companies in the telecoms, semi-conductor, software, biotech, and medical instrumentation spaces.

Once here, most scientists get right into the culture and language, enjoying the difference and excitement of working alongside their Japanese colleagues. Perhaps because doctorate degrees are so hard to get in the first place, those people who earn them seem to have a certain common level of persistence and determination. Thus, taking a personality like this and placing the person in the very challenging situation of a non-English speaking lab in Japan is just the thing to stimulate a reaction. For most people, this means that they re-assess their lives and value systems, and hunker down to get as much from their Japan experience as they can. They do eventually learn the language, they win friends and social position, and in some cases even marry and have kids.

But even while they're experiencing fulfilling personal growth, from what I've heard from the trenches, there are very few foreign researchers achieving professional satisfaction beyond the basic interest of the job itself. They are not encouraged to publish, choice of research projects is strictly controlled by the senior staff, and independent investigation is discouraged. In fact, all the things that typically would go to make up a career development program back home appear to be missing for foreign scientists in Japan.

I had one scientist - a bright chap naturally, who came to my office to tell me how frustrated he was. He'd spent 3 years learning the language, had a fiancée, and wanted to put down roots. The problem was that his very famous Japanese electronics manufacturing firm just wanted him for his recent semiconductor research knowledge, and once they had that, they did not feel compelled to offer him much else. He was regularly reviewed favorably for his work, and got frequent pay raises - yet he never received a promotion. He asked for a transfer to another business unit, but was blocked by his boss. He tried to find a mentor but was told through HR to stop bothering other people. In short, his world famous employer was telling him not to challenge the status quo. Essentially, he'd had his 3 years of fun and it was time to move on.

I pointed out to him that he was probably a victim of a glass ceiling, and we discussed the alternatives. I asked him what sort of treatment he'd be receiving from companies back home, and he agreed that his colleagues from university were now starting to pull away from him both in terms of job responsibility and salary. He justified staying on in Japan, by saying that his pay raises over the 3 years had boosted his salary to around JPY13m. But I responded that it was only just so much blood money and that perhaps he needed to return to the basic values of why he got into research in the first place. I don't like to discourage people or turn them away from the dream of building a long-term future in Japan, but the fact is that talented foreign Ph.Ds do face neglect in Japan and that life is too short to play the politics of a foreign culture.

Instead, I try to tell scientists to understand that once your time is up, instead of trying to fight the system, be thankful for the opportunity and get back to your home environment. You have research grants, promotions, papers and conferences, and professional recognition waiting for you. And in the years to come, you can look at the photos sitting on top of your desk, and remember back to those crazy, fun days in Tokyo with fondness rather than bitterness.