6 things which surprised me about studying at a Japanese university
In 2019, my master’s program at TUM gave me the amazing opportunity to spend an exchange semester at Waseda University in Tokyo, one of Japan's most prestigious academic institutions. Before going, I thought I was well prepared for the semester and knew what was coming. However, I soon discovered that the university courses and study culture in Japan proved to be both a mind-opening and challenging new experience for me and many other Western students. With this article, I want to help those of you who might also consider choosing Japan as a destination for their semester abroad or master’s degree. Based on my experience, I will share six key observations about the academic environment at Waseda University.
Campus of Waseda University
A quick note of caution before we start: Please be aware that most of the points are based on my personal experience at the Waseda Graduate School of Economics (GSE) and might therefore not necessarily be reflective of other people’s experiences or Japan as a whole.
1. The motivation for doing a master’s degree
Let's start with a fact about the Japanese education landscape which surprised me a lot: Not even 10% of all students in Japan who obtain a bachelor’s degree continue to pursue a master’s degree. Compared to Germany, where more than half of all university graduates go on to do their master’s degree, this is a huge difference. The reason for that lies in the motivation of the students: While in Germany the completion of a master’s degree is seen as a big career boost and necessary for many well-paying jobs, in Japan the demand for advanced degree graduates in the private sector is low. Companies prefer to hire bachelor graduates directly after university at a younger age to shape them more efficiently into loyal employees following the company guidelines. Thus, the majority of students who decide to start a master’s degree in Japan do not do so for a career boost, but because they aim to have a research career at university.
2. The focus of the lectures
Because the master’s degree is seen mainly as a preparation for a PhD at Waseda GSE, the lecture content was very academical, theoretical, and on a constant high level. The focus was on teaching skills like mathematical and logical proving, comparing scientific theories, derivation of solution methods, and correct notations and definitions. Real life applications, case studies, or programming implementations were seldom discussed in the lectures.
Typical lecture content
3. The workload
In contrast to Germany, where usually only the final exam decides your final grade, the grading process in my classes in Japan included many different evaluations performed throughout the semester. In most of my classes, I had to prepare presentations for the lectures, do weekly homework, and write a midterm and a final exam. Over the whole semester, this led to a pretty high workload which took away more of my free time than I first expected. Yet, on the positive side, my skills improved a lot through the constant practicing and the workload is distributed evenly over the semester (with small peaks at the end). I actually preferred this approach over the German system, where usually the workload is kind of flat during the semester, but has an enormous peak before/during the exam period at the end of the semester.
4. The small classes
Due to the limited number of postgraduate students at Waseda GSE my courses consisted only of a small number of students. Attendance was either mandatory or at least part of the final grade (in contrast to German universities where attending is usually voluntary; often, classes are even recorded and put online, so there is not even a need for attending). I really enjoyed the limited course sizes, because you get to know your classmates, there are interactive discussions between the professor and the students, and you can develop a personal relationship with your professor. One professor even invited me and some classmates to a fancy sushi restaurant at the end of the semester, something I never experienced during my studies in Germany.
Sushi meal together with the professor
5. The course selection
The course selection process at the start of the semester was very structured and strict. I could apply for different classes before the semester started (with only limited information of the class contents) and only change my course selection (or drop classes) until 1 week after the courses started. A later drop-out meant a failure of the class with the risk of not getting accepted into the class at a later semester again. Scheduling conflicts (even small ones) were completely prohibited. This is a different philosophy compared to German universities where course selection tends to be much more flexible and less regulated.
6. Relative Grading
The grading system at Waseda GSE is pretty harsh as there are only 5 different grades (A+, A, B, C, and F). If a class exceeds a certain number of students, a relative grading scheme has to be applied for the course where only a small proportion of the students are able to score high grades. However, despite the competition facilitated by the relative grading concept, I experienced a very positive studying culture where people often met in study groups and helped each other out, something I was really happy to see.
So what is the bottom line? How did I like the university experience?
To be honest, at first it was quite challenging and stressful, especially considering my hope of having a relaxed semester where I could focus on the life outside university. But after I was able to familiarize myself with the unknown academic culture, I managed to keep the workload at a reasonable level. This way, I still had more than enough free time to explore Japan and enjoy my life in Tokyo. Beyond this I noticed how my academic skills improved significantly throughout the semester, especially in disciplines where I had problems before. Lastly, the small course sizes led to engaging and interactive lessons, which I would have joined even without the mandatory attendance regulation (at least most of them). So all in all, I can fully recommend the experience of studying at a Japanese university.
PS: As this article only focuses on the academic perspective of spending a semester abroad in Japan, please feel to reach out should you have questions about any other aspects of my stay.