Japan reports 20 per cent drop in doctorates over two decades

With job prospects slim in Japanese academia, PhD students may need to look outside country for further employment, researcher suggests

September 20, 2023
Japan jobs
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The number of doctoral students in Japan has dropped by a fifth in the past two decades even as the country invests heavily in boosting its research strength.

In 2022, 14,380 students began doctorate degrees – 21 per cent less than the 18,200 students doing so in 2003, according to Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT).

In January this year, Japan’s government announced it would put in place tax breaks to encourage companies to hire PhD students – a move that betrayed a “sad situation”, one researcher told Times Higher Education.

Recently published figures do little to brighten the picture. Compared with other large economies, Japan lags far behind, with 123 new doctoral degree recipients per 1 million people in 2020 – less than half of the UK’s 313 and Germany’s 315, per Japanese government figures.

The gradual decline in PhDs comes even as Tokyo seeks to educate more experts in critical fields, with its launch of a ¥10 trillion (£64 billion) endowment fund designed to create “international research universities of excellence”.

Akiyoshi Yonezawa, vice-director of the international strategy office at Tohoku University, said the phenomenon of declining doctorates “runs counter” to the Japanese government’s initiatives in its science, technology and higher education policies over the past two to three decades.

“Japan is an exceptional country that has experienced a long-term stagnation in the number of doctoral students, against the general global trend of significant increase,” he said. “It is indeed an embarrassing situation.”

Researchers noted a number of cultural factors behind the slow decline, ranging from the fact that Japanese companies prefer to hire graduates early and train them in-house, to persisting negative views of wives holding higher degrees than their husbands.

There are also fewer academic jobs – especially secure tenure-track positions – in the country because of demographic decline, Professor Yonezawa noted.

He said that the government and leading universities such as Tohoku are trying to improve financial support for graduate students, but said this was “not enough”.

“It is a question of how to motivate Japanese young people, in particular, to pursue doctoral studies and then go on to do frontier research and knowledge work. This is, of course, the challenge for Japanese universities and industry to employ and reward doctoral degree holders at a global standard,” he said.

Still, he noted that the picture of doctorates in Japan is more nuanced – in the past 20 years, even as the number of Japanese doctorates declined, the number of overseas doctorates in Japan has risen significantly, with international students representing 19 per cent of the total in 2012 to 27 per cent in 2022, according to MEXT data.

Ian Wilson, director of the Center of Globalization at Aizu University, a public prefectural university specialising in the STEM fields, noted that the number of overseas PhD students at his institution has nearly doubled compared with pre-pandemic figures.

“Maybe Japanese universities need to realise that there is still a demand for international PhD students and that the focus may need to shift,” he suggested.

Professor Yonezawa also believed a pivot outward may be necessary, though he took a slightly different approach.

“It is not realistic to absorb all PhD graduates into the Japanese industrial system. In order to send their doctoral graduates to the global talent market, faculties should have rich international connections to the global academic and professional communities,” he said.

“To this end, the recruitment of international faculty and Japanese faculty with international career profiles should be accelerated.”


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