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I currently have about 14 months left of a PhD programme at a top-rated UK university. My project is in STEM and is partly sponsored by an industrial company. I recently went to a conference in Japan and presented my work. It was very well-received and I really enjoyed my experience in Japan, so much so that I didn't want to leave!

It turns out that my college offers a fully-funded "year in Japan" scheme for its students, which includes a combination of Japanese language classes and teaching English in elementary schools. Provided I am eligible, to me this sounds like it could appeal quite a lot - I am a mature PhD student in his thirties, so schemes like this aren't easily accessible to most people my age, and I've always had a slight itch to learn Japanese (but never had a strong enough reason to commit to it). I also get the impression that learning Japanese could be a handy skill to have, particularly as my scientific area involves collaboration with people all over the world.

However, as I am considering applying for postdocs once my degree finishes, I am slightly worried that having taken a year out of my formal scientific studies after my PhD might not look good. If I make a case for why I did the gap year (in this case, to learn the language and facilitate communication with other world experts), would it be seen as acceptable? Judging from other posts I have seen on the internet, certain postdoc programmes see any form of gap as a bit of a red flag. Having said that, I had a gap of several years working as an educator before I started my PhD, and this turned out not to be an issue when being selected.

What are your thoughts?

UPDATE: Based partly on the feedback I have since received, I have decided not to do this scheme. The scheme is only open to those who will have completed their PhD by the time the year abroad starts. Even with my originally planned end date, I would only have a month or so after submitting my PhD in which to complete my viva examination and make any revisions, before being eligible for the year abroad. Perhaps I could stick to visiting Japan every now and again for holidays.

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    Career-wise it would definitely be better to take a different route to Japan, e.g. applying for postdoc or other research-related positions in Japan. But how important is your career for you? Such a gap year will reduce your chances for a good postdoc but they will not drop to zero.
    – LuckyPal
    Jan 6, 2023 at 10:00
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    Red flag or not, keep in mind that your academic clock starts running the moment you finish your Ph.D. That is, quite a few opportunities (grants and such) are only available to "junior" researchers, meaning up to X years after their Ph.D. Also, unless your area of science is somehow genuinely connected to Japan, being able to speak Japanese is probably a marginal plus at best, if that. It would probably be perceived simply as a hobby of yours. In my field, "I did it to facilitate communication with other world experts" would sound like an empty marketing phrase that few people would believe. Jan 6, 2023 at 11:36
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    Becoming fluent in Japanese in one year is extremely ambitious, you are probably looking at three years minimum at least. Even achieving a decent level in one year would kind of assume that you were working on it intensively all day. Also just to warn you that unfortunately most languages do not have a ''huge'' benefit attached to them, apart from you will make new friends. If you put a lot of time into learning another language to a good level, it's kind of regarded as a ''passion project'' as it does not have a direct benefit in academia (apart from obviously if you live there).
    – Tom
    Jan 6, 2023 at 18:39
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    @Tom Well, if they start now, it's 2.17 years if they're starting from 0 Jan 7, 2023 at 18:51
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    have you given any thought to taking the year in Japan now, before you complete your PhD? Would your PhD program and funding source let you do that? Jan 7, 2023 at 22:45

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Standpoint: I've spoken Japanese 30 years and lived in Japan half of that, working as a software engineer.

The best course of action depends on what your motivations are.

Is your only strong motivation to spend time in Japan? If so, perhaps working as an English teacher instead of in your field isn't going to be an optimal use of your time. Why not finish your degree and try to do a post-doc in Japan? You'll get the time in Japan you seek, but without harm to your career. Alternatively, if you really find the prospect of teaching English to be as rewarding as being a post-doc, it might be a sign to reflect on your career choices.

Are you seeing a potential career benefit in learning Japanese? I studied Japanese in the 80s as an undergrad on the assumption that Japan's then-apparent leadership in technology would see more work being done in Japanese, and thus it be a useful career booster. But no research turns out to be published in my field, and I suppose that's pretty common in STEM. If you are thinking any Japanese skill would be useful to you to read Japanese research papers, do a quick search to gauge how common they are and see if any such really exist.

Do you feel learning Japanese would be a personal benefit? If so, it pays to be realistic about how much progress in Japanese can be expected in a year. Here's some bullet points from my experience to try to give you some sense. Other people may learn faster or slower than me, of course.

  • after two years of university Japanese (10 credit hours per year; each semester having 5 hours/week of class plus 2 hours/week of directed conversation practice) I couldn't conduct even the lightest conversation with a real Japanese.

  • after a third year, however, I could get through not only basic conversation but bootstrap enough to work as an engineer in Japan. (I'm not sure how much is due to finishing the course of study, and how much is due to having done so in an intensive environment.)

  • Even with lots of self-study (in a time when the internet wasn't a distraction!) it took me about 28 months in Japan, working as an engineer, to learn what is taught in one college year of classes. (After working 2 years 4 months, I went back to Indiana U. for 5th year Japanese and was about at the right level, having skipped 4th year.)

If you're thinking that the learning of Japanese is a big motivation to take this decision, you might also take a good look at summer school programs where you can learn one year worth of Japanese in nine weeks (Indiana U. and Middlebury had such programs 30 years ago). I found that nine week 24/7 program approximately equivalent to 28 months of living in Japan and working 100% in Japanese. People who haven't been through such a program simply cannot believe you could learn 10x faster in the US than Japan, but those people haven't tried it! We shared the same floors of the dorm with the teaching staff and all pledged to use the language 24/7, even at 2AM taking a leak, you name it. 4 hours class, 2 hours directed conversation, and at least 6 hours homework and study a day. There are some fellowships available for this in the US at least. I got a fellowship covering tuition, room and board, transport, and a small cash stipend. I'm sure similar programs are available in other countries.

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    Note also that Japanese is perhaps the hardest language for a native English speaker to learn: according to the Foreign Service Institute's ranking of language difficulty, Japanese is one of five Level 5 languages (the most difficult), alongside Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Korean. Level 5 languages are estimated to require 2,200 hours of dedicated, focused study and practice before reaching a general proficiency in reading and speaking—and Japanese is the only language to be marked as even significantly more difficult than the others in its category.
    – Aos Sidhe
    Jan 6, 2023 at 21:29
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If the scheme is for learning Japanese and teaching English, then are you really going to be able to facilitate communication with other world experts? Presumably you can communicate with them in English using the internet wherever you are.

Learning Japanese starting in your 30s will be difficult and I would guess that it is very unlikely you will be able to read academic papers or talk about academic research in Japanese after just one year of studying part-time. As you have 14 months left in your PhD maybe you could start studying the language now on your own and see how it goes.

I suppose you could apply to the one-year scheme and then if there is an interview you could ask whether these things are likely to be possible.

Your gap of several years before your PhD, and your age, actually make me think it would be less advisable to have another gap. If you want to do a postdoc afterwards then you would definitely need to keep in touch with research, at the very least, and maybe publish or submit some papers.

Could you find a shorter scheme of three months or so? It doesn't have to be through your current university. Could you find an internship in a Japanese company that works in the area of your PhD research? Did you meet anyone in Japan who could advise you? Or could the person at your university who runs the scheme give you advice?

Good luck, and don't make your decision just based on what I say.

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    "Your gap of several years before your PhD, and your age," this is so anglo-centric and I hope this way of measuring one's cv disappear from the world and from the brains of academics. Age has nothing to do, if one has to judge post PhD performance in a (apparently) objective way, one should take into account only the time (years) spent doing research, removing any gap year, maternity, unemployment etcetc periods. In short: judge reearchers for the quality of their research, not based on some numbers or contraptions (the most hilarious being the h-index, shortly followed by cumulative IF)
    – EarlGrey
    Jan 6, 2023 at 13:50
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    @EarlGrey I hope this way of thinking disappears too. I partly agree with you. But if a person has lots of gap years an unemployment (with no research work) they are likely to get out of practice and rusty.
    – Oliver882
    Jan 6, 2023 at 16:03
  • I should probably clarify that my gap before doing a PhD wasn't really a true "gap" per se - it was simply a break from academia. Straight out of undergrad, I started one PhD programme which wasn't a good fit so I left after 9 months. Then I trained to become a teacher and did that for a few years, before realising that isn't what I wanted to do. So, I've not really had any concrete "gaps" in my career where I've done nothing for a certain amount of time. Jan 8, 2023 at 16:12
  • @epsilonD3LT4 OK. Being a teacher for a few years and then deciding you want to do a PhD is something that everyone would understand. But half-changing your mind again for this one year in Japan, with a plan to then go back to a postdoc, would be different. However, I can see in your edit that you decided against the scheme in Japan. Good luck and as others have said you could still consider applying for a postdoc in Japan
    – Oliver882
    Jan 8, 2023 at 17:45
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It is common to view the achievements of an academic relative to the time passed since they got their PhD. Many postdoc fellowship schemes have rules of the kind "at most X years after the PhD was earned", and this will also often factor in how people informally evaluate your profile for job applications. Thus, spending a year after your PhD doing something[1] else will be detrimental to your career prospects (not a red flag though).

For STEM subjects, learning Japanese will only really be useful for your career if you plan to work in Japan (and there seem to be a few academic job opportunities there for foreigners fluent in Japanese). Becoming fluent in Japanese in a year seems very ambitious to me.

The usual way for someone in your (future) situation, meaning having a PhD from a UK university, wanting an academic career and interested in spending some time in Japan would be to apply for a JSPS postdoctoral fellowship via the Royal Society:

https://royalsociety.org/grants-schemes-awards/grants/jsps-postdoctoral/

(JSPS postdoctoral fellowships are available for non-UK PhD holders, but the application routes are different).

[1] For the formal aspect at least, exceptions for child caring duties are common though.

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As a former academic who split their time between Japan and the USA, I would consider a postdoc in Japan if your major field is amicable to it. I often recommend Ph.D. students who want to learn Japanese for postdoc position in Japan through my academic network there if I think they'll 1) actually be able to complete the project, and 2) want to actually learn the language.

Now that I'm out of academia, I tend to hire people who have had some experience abroad because my field (semiconductors) involves shared time between the USA and Asia. I'm unsure of your field, but gap years that are not frowned upon as you generally learned something.

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It seems your worry is:

having taken a year out of my formal scientific studies after my PhD might not look good.

But you also state that

my college offers a fully-funded "year in Japan" scheme for its students, which includes a combination of Japanese language classes and teaching English in elementary schools.

Which means you would be the succesful winner of a scholarship. Earning funds is a skill that is sought after for postdocs. Of course it will be difficult to frame correctly this scholarship with your scientific profile, but if nothing it shows you are proactive in looking for your own fundings.

The big question is if you would be able to use this program to fit your scientific profile. Maybe you can do the bare minimum of English teaching and save some time to look for collaborations/write proposals/finish projects? or even just providing private english tutoring?

Some final remarks:

  • Japanese is not useful in terms of your potential scientific career in Japan. It is very hard to learn, sometimes there are some special programs to make Japan more interesting to foreign researchers and those programs are not requiring Japanese knowledge.
  • you say:

at a top-rated UK university. My project is in STEM and is partly sponsored by an industrial company. I recently went to a conference in Japan and presented my work. It was very well-received and I really enjoyed my experience in Japan, so much so that I didn't want to leave!

so I would consider that maybe it is not Japan, it is you and the sum of running away from UK weather and from the stressful top-rated uni ... in short: maybe it is the attitude you had for your trip to the other side of the world, rather than the country itself, that promoted this strong interest in Japan.

  • Are you sure you can live in Japan? try to live there on your own money for a couple of months, then you will be able to decide if it makes sense to live there one year ...

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