Guide: Entering a Postgrad Program in a Japanese University

So you are thinking about doing a Master’s degree or a doctorate at a Japanese University. Doing a postgrad in itself is challenging but to do it in country that is culturally different and/or far from your home makes it doubly tough. This article (which will be updated regularly) will try to cover the various aspects of such a decision.

Disclaimer: No two people are ever gonna take the same path and what works for some might not work for others. This is written with the purpose of helping you come up with answers to questions you may have in your head. I wrote this based on my own successful experiences and experiences of others I have met (both good and bad). You don’t have to listen to every word written here as you might have better ways of doing things.

Am I cut out for it?

This is pretty much a question only you can answer. At the postgrad level, you are not expected to just learn but also to contribute to some research. Your professor is likely to be hoping to publish a paper or two from your research. Do you like research? Do you like to read academic papers? Are you independent? What are you expecting to get out of a postgrad degree? More realistic questions include:

  • Do you have an excellent academic track record?
  • Are you able to secure finances to fund your studies in another country?
  • Do you think your resume is attractive to a potential advisor/professor?

Particularly at the PhD level, I personally hold the belief that someone who is applying for a PhD programme should already be confident of doing research on his/her own and sees the programme as a way to prove himself/herself. However, you don’t have to agree with me.

One easy way to answer the above questions before flying to Japan is to try to secure a scholarship. Successfully getting a scholarship usually means several things:

  • Someone other than yourself thinks you have the potential
  • Your finances will be more secure
  • There is a path for you after graduation (think of company scholarships)

Read more about scholarships for international students in Japan HERE.

Also, official information for MEXT Research Scholarship for 2015 is available HERE.

Language and Choice of Major

Language is going to be one of the key considerations when studying in Japan. At the postgraduate level this is less of an issue because most professors would allow their students to write their dissertations in English. It is probably more relevant for course-based programmes. The choice of major should also be made with Japan in mind. For example, “computer science” is not offered at many universities and in its place, “information engineering” is offered. For more information on language, choice of major and current Japanese universities that have English programmes, refer to THIS ARTICLE.

Research Proposal and Entrance Exams

Whether you are thinking of entering as a scholarship recipient or a self-funded student, you are likely to face two immediate challenges, writing a good research proposal/theme and passing the entrance exams. We are skipping the initial paper screening part, which should be a breeze if you have had good grades and recommendations.

A good proposal usually comprises the following:

  • Relevant connection to your past research or academic background
  • Clear attainable goals and a good methodology to achieve the goals
  • Contain some novelty or aspect that is under-researched currently
  • Realistic for the time and skill sets you have
  • Clear understanding of current research in the field

Some tips with your research proposal:

  • Play up your strengths. E.g. if you are good at calculus, suggest a methodology that uses numerical methods
  • Mention your hard skills and how they can help in the research E.g. programming in FORTRAN
  • Draw connections between what you have done in the past and what you intend to do in your research
  • Read up on your potential supervisor’s research and see how you can complement it
  • Do not try to bluff your way through. Spend time to read up on current research in the field that you are applying for
  • Show maturity and independence in your writing
  • Attach a research timeline, if possible, to show that you know what you are in for


As for the entrance exams (may not apply to those in majors such as fine arts), these normally have TWO main components. The first component will be tied to your potential research topic, and may consist of a written paper and/or an interview with professors from the department. The second component is likely to be based on your discipline as a whole. For example, if you are an environmental engineer dealing with clean water technology, you are likely to be test on topics relating to environmental engineering as a whole (not just clean water tech).

The first component should be easy as long as you prepared your proposal well. For those who have little confidence in giving presentations, try to practise as much as you can. The more familiar you are with your own presentation, the less likelihood for you to panic. Get your friends to read your proposal and ask you difficult questions about it. Prepare good responses to questions that are likely to arise. Typical questions include:

  • Is there enough time for you to do your planned research?
  • How is your research different from the others?
  • How would your research contribute to society / research community / planners?

As for the second component, all I can say is… STUDY HARD and STUDY IN ADVANCE. Don’t leave it to the last minute. I’ve seen people failing entrance exams despite flying all the way to Japan. If possible, ask your professor if you can get contacts of current senior students in the lab and you can ask them for past-year papers or any pointers on the format of the exam.

Note to MEXT Research Student Scholarship applicants:

You have to first apply as a Research Student (RS). An RS is a non-graduating student who will be doing only research at the university. The RS period is around 1.5 to 2 years. The proposal that you submit to MEXT initially should be related to what kind of research you wish to do during this RS period.

After successfully receiving the scholarship, most RS are encouraged to switch to a master’s (M) or PhD (D) course soon after they arrive in Japan. MEXT will open up another application (now a ‘real’ research proposal for your postgrad is required) for the extension of your scholarship to cover a master’s or PhD course. You are typically required to sit for entrance exams in your department/faculty and this usually happens after around the 4th month of your RS period (this may vary: in some cases immediately!). Once you pass the tests and matriculate as a M or D student, you are no longer an RS but a full-fledged postgrad student.

Good luck with your application! Drop a comment if you need more detailed information.

*featured image courtesy of Steven S. (CC license)