I had intentions of applying for higher education in Korea or Japan, but I was told many times that "Doing PhD in an Asian university is a career suicide".

Why is that?

My field is cognitive neuroscience, and to be more specific I'm interested in a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience at the Seoul National University.

  • 13
    This seems a bit sweeping. Just off the top of my head, for what that's worth, the Universities of Singapore and of Hong Kong have stellar reputations in many areas.
    – ctokelly
    Commented May 20, 2018 at 11:50
  • 6
    Generalisations like this often blur the lines between fact and propoganda. Its best to think and judge independently, as behoves an academic. Commented May 20, 2018 at 12:28
  • 2
    Maybe you should talk to the people who told you this, and ask them why they think this way? Commented May 20, 2018 at 17:41
  • 3
    In Asia, very generally speaking, things are often very hierarchical. The prof's opinion is rarely questioned, and students are the prof's worker bees. That occurs in the west, too (all too often), plus it's a self-fulfilling prophecy, and there are countless counter-examples. But I guess that's what the people warning you thought or thought other people (those who might hire you in five years) think.
    – Karl
    Commented May 20, 2018 at 20:41
  • For what career exactly? academia? And where? Commented May 20, 2018 at 22:34

3 Answers 3


Maybe because they're less well known (in the US and perhaps Europe too)...?

In the US, for instance, everyone knows about Harvard, Yale, MIT, etc. They probably also know about Oxford and Cambridge. But then, few outside of academia will be able to recognize the quality of programs at the other European universities, such as ETH, EPFL, TU Munich, the University of Copenhagen, or, in the case of Asia: at the University of Tokyo, the National University of Singapore, the University of Hong Kong, the Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology, etc. Less recognition means general distaste/disdain.

But then, if you ask people in the right niche, they will give much better evaluations. A physicist will know that the University of Tokyo has a very good (indeed, one of the best) physics department, their research leading to quite a few Nobel prizes. A mathematician would likely recognize the Kyoto University Research Institute for Mathematical Sciences (again, a few of their faculty members have been honored with Fields medals). A computer scientist might know about the National University of Singapore's computing programs. A biomedical scientist would probably have good things to say about the University of Hong Kong, and so on. There's quite a lot of top cadre research going on in many Asian universities!

Moreover, it can even depend on the subfields concerned: for example, in general computer science, the Institut national de recherche en informatique et en automatique (INRIA; the French National Institute for Computer Science) might not pop up as a big name; in my subfield, though, it's a very renowned place. The best advice: ask someone who knows about your field very well!

(Of course, I know very little about SNU, and nothing about cognitive science. But someone has to know.)

  • 3
    Honestly, I never heard someone is accepted in academia, just bcs of reputation of UNI. it is more likely to be regarded in terms of publication record
    – SSimon
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 9:32
  • The question is where the top people at the named institutions or generally from those countries got their doctorates.
    – Karl
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 12:57
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    @SSimon Of course. But then OP is picking a PhD program, and his best bet is probably going to a department (and studying under an advisor) with a good reputation, which will likely lead to more, better publications. No one gets to choose their publication record before they enroll, it really depends on many, many things :-)
    – xuq01
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 18:10
  • @Karl AFAIK, most professors at U of Tokyo Physics Dept and KURIMS received their degrees in Japan. I have seen quite a few Japanese PhD graduates getting jobs in the West as well. For NUS/HKU, it depends on the department: usually it's about split-half, but indeed many of the top people have PhDs' from the UK/US (most, but not everyone. I have certainly seen HKU PhD graduates getting jobs in the US too). Of course, none of them work in neuroscience, so I don't know how well the OP's concerns are addressed; to me though it seems that neuro isn't a big thing in Asia as of yet.
    – xuq01
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 18:19
  • ^of course I'm talking about R1 (or equivalent) universities here. At a R3 or weaker R2 it probably matters even less where you got your PhD from...
    – xuq01
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 18:23

In addition to xuq01's answer, which covers most bases pretty well:

It is pragmatically a good idea to do your PhD in the broad geographical area where you also see yourself staying for the longer term. The actual science is, or at least should be, pretty international. A good research method in Asia should also be a good research method in the US.

However, the whole surrounding framework (how are PhD students advised, and how are PhD schools organized? which grants are available and how does one apply for them? how does undergraduate education work? what does a typical career track look like? how is the university organized?) can vary tremendously between geographical areas. When you learn your ropes in Asia, you may find that a lot of how you think an academic career works will not transfer easily to Europe or the US. Further, if you do your PhD in Korea your professional network will presumably be in Asia, making it harder to find good references for applying for jobs in Europe or the US.

Of course, there are also significant advantages to doing your PhD abroad, most importantly that you will see this different perspectives first-hand and will gain a lot of experience that other academics may miss, but you should prepare yourself that you will ultimately pay for this with additional challenges when you want to move back.

  • >you will ultimately pay for this with additional challenges when you want to move back. Ideally, I wouldn't move back.
    – M.S
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 13:44
  • If she wants to return back and work in neuroscience, I think it is not possible. hard pill to swallow
    – SSimon
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 15:33
  • Yep, connections are really important, especially in the US...
    – xuq01
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 18:20

I have recently spent two years in China where I worked as a postdoctoral fellow. I was in touch with many PhD students, almost all of them Chinese. A few international PhD students. Mainly from two well-known national institutions, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and South China Agricultural University. I can speak of my local impressions and of I have learnt from my colleagues (most are Asian) about other places.

Personally while (i) I do not recommend pursuing a PhD in Asia for someone who is seriously interested in STEM research and Science , (ii) I definitely do not think that would be "a career suicide". In fact nowadays a degree in Asia may prove a great CV implement and attract considerable employers' interest.

How do I mean?

(i) My impression is that a closed, rigid hierarchy-oriented culture which is refractory to axiom-challenging cannot foster high-quality philosophy and scientific thinking. My colleagues and references complain that a general feature in Asian societies is that open discussion and critique are in direct conflict with main pillars of formal education and social traditions. This pervades the Academia as a widespread notion that PhD supervisors are regarded as leaders instead of tutors, and the focus is results-oriented; classes are professed top-down as lectures and PhD candidates are still evaluated by school-fashion tests & grades based on memory and mechanistic performance. Thus being, I strongly recommend science-aspiring individuals to train as PhDs inside multicultural pockets where critical, independent thinking are encouraged, especially where there is a sedimented tradition of Scientific Method.

(ii) Most individuals pursuing a PhD are actually not primarily interested in STEM research and science, but keen on building a strong CV and connections towards a safe career path. History shows that Science and curiosity-driven research is not about securing a job, good connection, stable salary pay. Stats and facts show that Modern Academia and Industry are also not rewarding unbiased thinking and traditional scientific principles. There is a growing interest in official performance numbers, and many countries in Asia are leading the latest professional rankings in highest specialised fields of industry. The chances of getting hired as a PhD seem to be currently much greater in Asia (e.g. China, Thailand, Vietnam, India) than elsewhere. A PhD completed in Asia is guaranteed to pave the path to strong connections for a stabler career in Asia, as well as select those individuals capable of adapting to local cultural standards (and language). All Asian PhDs I have met seem quite sure of their short-term goals and seem great performers towards modern 'system' rewards. Thus being I do recommend career-driven performers (i.e. the majority of professionals) to consider taking a PhD (abroad) in Asia, which I believe is a strong asset to CVs nowadays.

As with everything else in life, the value and price of choices/opportunities depend on circumstances -- e.g. whether you are a (i) or a (ii) kind of person.

P.S. Anyone interested in this thread should also read http://academia.stackexchange.com/questions/107964/is-obtaining-a-phd-from-an-asian-country-really-a-career-suicide

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