I have just finished a BSc degree in maths at ETH Zurich and I am now planning to continue with an MSc and a PhD in Japan.

My question is this: is it possible to do an MSc at one university and then do the PhD at a different university?

In Europe this is not only socially acceptable but nothing unusual. But as far as I know, Japan is different; how different I don't know. I would very much like to apply to one university for the MSc and then relocate to somewhere else for my PhD. But I'm rather worried that this may mean that the professor supervising my MSc will lose face. And of course, I can't just ask them directly because they might not tell me the truth out of politeness.

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    Have you tried contacting some Japanese culture/language department in some universities in Switzerland? – Penguin_Knight Oct 30 '13 at 12:57
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    Just out of curiosity. I think ETHZ is already a very good university, so what's your motivation to continue your study in Japan? It's also interesting that as a European (if you are), you can consider problems beyond your culture/style, to reach issues like "losing face" – ziyuang Oct 30 '13 at 19:17
  • "And of course, I can't just ask them directly because they might not tell me the truth out of politeness." - really? (seriously, really!?) I know Japanese culture is very polite, but that's a serious administrative question. To my Western mind, lying about this is in every way ruder than telling the truth (and also it's unethical). – Moriarty Nov 10 '14 at 9:00

Institutions prefer their recognized terminal degree to be the final education before its graduates continue in their careers. By doing so, the graduates provide the evidence of the efficacy and value to society of the institution's academic programs.

However, as you have said, in Europe, the MSc is not recognized as a terminal degree. An institution in Europe from which you might graduate with a MSc should expect, if you continue your studies, for you to be successful in the program to which you apply.

The correct way to ensure that you contribute to the local reputation of the institution to which you consider applying is to ask them if the degree is intended to be a terminal degree, or if it is considered strong preparation for the terminal degree that you wish to pursue.

You should also inquire about this at your terminal degree school of interest, and you should strongly consider the advice that the institution you want to pursue your terminal degree at gives you in that matter.

For example, I inquired at Columbia about their PhD in Economics, and they suggested, as I expected, that I complete a Masters in Statistics first.

Communication, in the spirit of your notable tactfulness, is the best way to ensure that you meet the expectations of the institutions that you are interested in.

If you enroll in one of the 13 universities of the Global 30 project, an elite program, which offers degree programs in English. You can use the their Course web page to find out detailed information.

If you want to do MSc and PhD in different universities in Japan, I am afraid you don’t have much choice in Global 30 schools. And not every Global 30 school offers the program you want. For example, you only have less than handful of Math graduate programs available in Global 30.

If you are proficient in Japanese, it is another story. You do have plenty of choices. As far as I know, Japanese graduate students switch schools for various reasons, too.

  • That is incorrect. Only in BSc programs makes Global30 a difference, so it is unrelated to the OPs question. Most reasonable university accept foreign students without Japanese skills into MSc and PhD programs. These programs include a Japanese training, too. Courseworks are generally minimal, the textbooks are available in English, written assignments, defenses, large oral presentations are generally accepted in English. Even Japanese students often submit their thesis in English! There are thousands of foreign students every years joining such programs. – Greg Nov 8 '14 at 2:19
  • Since your location is Japan, I trust what you are saying. Would you be interested in answering this question? Once I see your answer, I'll delete mine. Thanks. – scaaahu Nov 8 '14 at 2:24
  • My addition is not much helpful for the OP, as it is unrelated to his question. Global 30 is a good, elite program to some people, so it is a good thing that you pointed it out. I think your answer is relevant and helpful, if you don't say it is the only program. – Greg Nov 8 '14 at 2:29
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    @Greg I edited my answer based on your comment. Thanks. – scaaahu Nov 8 '14 at 3:29
  • The question asks whether it's socially acceptable, not whether there's much choice in programmes. So this doesn't seem to answer the question at all. – David Richerby Nov 10 '14 at 9:03

In Japan, most of the (Japanese) students stick to their university. Partly because of convenience and the costs of moving and entering a new university. It used to be "stick till death" for many, but nowadays it is more common to go out and work/study at other universities, too. It is especially true when one tries to enter to a more prestigious university.

One piece of advice: don't measure yourself to the Japanese students. The expectations and opportunities are completely different.

Also, Japanese students are available in large number, so most professor see students as commodities, and most professor do not really care if an average students leave or not. At MSc level supervision is not a really involved commitment on the part of the professor, so do not feel like having bound for life. Also if you choose a new place that has good relationship with your professor, he may even support you.

I don't understand however your motivation: if you are unfamiliar with the system and how to get accepted, how to find good positions etc, why would you like to flip from one university to another? As far as I know Math is a particularly slow field, so the chances that you got out something serious during your MSc is slim. Jumping from one place to another, one topic to another may have a bad influence on your options to produce high quality work.

Is it possible? Yes. Is it common? Not really.

In general, Japanese students will only change university after finishing their MSc if they are able to enter a higher-ranked university. For example, someone from Osaka U may move to U Tokyo to do their PhD, but most students stay where they are. I don't think the supervisor loses face in such a situation, partly because the student goes somewhere better and partly because MSc students in Japan are a dime-a-dozen (and mostly job-hunting all the time anyway).

One thing to consider is that it will take some time to adapt to the very different environment. This might mean your progress is initially slow, and it could be difficult to produce sufficient results in two years to warrant moving. I recommend you try to get into one of the top schools (U Tokyo, Kyoto U, Tokyo Inst. Tech., etc.) from the start.

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