Sakura Mentor

Challenges and Coping Strategies as a Postgraduate Student in Japan - Part 1
Lai Hung Wei Updated in July 2021

Konnichiwa and salam sejahtera! Recently I received an invite by Institute of Advanced Technology Universiti Putra Malaysia (ITMA-UPM) to join a webinar to share my experience as an international postgraduate student in Japan. I received many questions regarding problems I faced and would like to share them my dear fellow readers. It is important to note that these problems are from my personal experience and may not be applicable to all universities in Japan.

The first problem I faced was Japanese language and its culture. As a highly homogenous country, most Japanese speak only their mother tongue. Most laboratory PIs are able to carry out conversation in English, but this is not the case for all students. Therefore, I have had this awkward situation whereby some Japanese students would present in Japanese while international students in English during meetings. This can be rather counter-productive as the students may not understand each other properly. I took the initiative to memorize scientific Japanese terminologies every day before bed. After a few months, I eventually manage to understand and discuss researches in Japanese. Japanese is quite different from us, they do not voice out their opinion directly and tend to be very vague with everything they say. This happened to me once, I remember proposing some ideas to my PI several times and he always replied me “Good job. let’s think about it again”. However, little did I know, this actually means “no” in Japan. I didn’t know this until I talked to my lab seniors after a few weeks. It is a way for Japanese to reject you politely without wanting to hurt your feelings. With the help of my lab senior, I tried hanging out with Japanese labmates to learn how to read between lines and thankfully I am much better at it now.

The second problem is research field. I came from a microbiology background, studying on bacteria. My research in Japan is on cancer in humans. There is a large gap between these two fields. Regarding this, the only thing I could suggest is read, read and read. Read reviews for basic understanding, then move on to journal papers for specific information. For every paper you read, think and understand the logic behind them. What is the motive? Why this methodology? What is the benefits of this research? Etc. And if you can’t figure it out, talked it out and ask your seniors, or even discuss with your PI. I believed we currently live in an age where science and technology can only grow significantly by working together with other people.

(To be continued. Stay tuned!)

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