University is anything but universal: How to apply to graduate school in three different countries

(For the past year or two, I’ve been contemplating writing a “missing manual” for university that explains the tacit skills and knowledge for getting by in university that first-generation students or foreign students may not have. This piece is looks at one potential topic.)

Though it will depend on the country, university, and discipline, only a tiny percentage of the people who finish an undergraduate degree will go on to study for a Master’s degree or a doctorate. A good number of these students will already have a clear sense of how to select and apply to a graduate program, as they may have had when they were applying to universities and colleges for their Bachelor’s degrees. But a significant number will have only a vague sense of about the application process, informed mostly by the materials on a university’s website and not by friends or relatives who have gone through the process before.

I’ve had the opportunity to be part of the graduate school admissions process a number of times. As a student, I applied to grad schools in the US and Canada. As a staff member, I have evaluated applicants in Japan and New Zealand. On the surface, they all seem quite similar in process, and in some ways they are. But there are a number of significant differences between contexts that students and staff may be unaware of. Graduate school is often a time for students to decide to pursue studies in another country, so being unaware of these differences may put them at a disadvantage.

So here are some of the main differences that I’ve noticed between New Zealand, Japan, and North America. (My experiences with US and Canadian applications were similar, so I’m treating them together.) I’ll focus on a few areas where the differences are the biggest. Everything I write comes from my experiences in anthropology and STS. I think that much of it will apply to other humanities and social sciences, and a little of it to STEM disciplines.

Entrance Exams

The phrase “entrance exam” seems to conjure images of Asia for many people, and indeed an entrance exam was one of the key parts of the application process in Japan.

In Japan, entry to graduate school generally requires one or more scheduled written exams collectively and colloquially known as the “inshi.” In the case of my former employer, the exams included an academic English language test that was required of all applicants to the department and a subject exam specific to the program. There was also an interview/oral exam.

In North America, there are practically no entrance exams in the Japanese sense, a score on the Graduate Record Exam or GRE is needed as part of applications to manyu Ph.D. programs. This is more often the case in the US than Canada, though even in the US, some programs are dropping the requirement. There are also some programs that require an interview.

In New Zealand, there may at times be an informal interview as part of the application process, there are no timed written exams required.

The Research Proposal

In Japan, North America, and New Zealand, applications to graduate programs generally require a research statement that outlines the potential project that the applicant will undertake if admitted.

In Japan and North America, the statement is usually used to gauge the writing and research potential of a student. Once admitted, students usually have some flexibility to alter their intended research. In my case, the research statements for which I was accepted to Master’s and Ph.D. programs in the US and Canada bore little resemblance to the research I eventually ended up doing to graduate. In Japan, there was similarly some flexibility, though students usually did not alter their research projects a great deal once accepted.

A lot of this flexibility has to do with the large amount of coursework that is generally required of graduate students in Japan and North America after they are admitted. In the US, Canada, and Japan, it is common for students to do one to two years of seminars in which they read widely within their field. In many programs in the US and Canada, this coursework prepares students for “field exams” or “comprehensive exams” which test students’ preparedness to move on to independent research. My Ph.D. program in Canada did not have comprehensive exams but the Ph.D. research proposal and oral defence served a similar purpose. (Other programs in the same university did have comprehensive exams.)

In New Zealand, the research statement takes on greater importance. The statement is taken more strongly as a commitment by the student to pursue a specific project if admitted, and there is less flexibility to change direction, especially at the Ph.D. level. Correspondingly, graduate students are not usually required to take courses at the Master’s or Ph.D. level and there are no comprehensive exams. The programs are also therefore much shorter. Whereas some Ph.D. programs in the US may take 7 or more years to complete (during which the successful student will also often receive a Master’s degree) a Ph.D in New Zealand is officially 3 years in length. The student is expected to focus on their doctoral research upon admission. At the university where I currently teach, students will not ordinarily do any courses after completing an Honour’s degree. There are, however, “taught Master’s” degrees in which students spend the majority of their time doing course work. These correspond to the “Master’s by coursework” degrees (versus “Master’s by research”) that can be found in some departments in North America.

Application Fees

In Japan and North America, applicants typically have to pay a fee, which may be more than a hundred dollars, to even submit an application to a graduate program. In New Zealand, no fee needs to be paid. Some universities may offer fee waivers for financially disadvantaged students, but in my case, I paid a few hundred dollars submitting my applications to a number of universities.

Other Aspects

Apart from the importance of the research statement and the requirement for (or lack of) entrance exams and application fees, the other aspects of graduate applications in the three regions are roughly the same. All require the submission of grade transcripts for previous degrees. All require some number of academic reference letters (though this can vary from 1 to 3 letters.) If your first language is not English or Japanese, then you may also have to supply proof of language proficiency with a TOEFL, IELTS, or JLPT score.

Graduate School in New Zealand

What this all points to is that for people who are familiar with the North American style of university education, the New Zealand version of graduate school looks a little peculiar, in some ways even more so than Japan. And so applying to a program here will require an adjustment of perspective.

From my standpoint, doing a Ph.D. at a New Zealand university requires somewhat more preparation and maturity of students than a North American university does. Applicants here will generally need to have a stronger grounding in their discipline and a fairly well developed sense of their research project in order to be considered qualified.

The flip-side of this is the application process in New Zealand is more open. I mean this in the sense that, if you are interested in applying to a program, the staff will be quite open to discussing your potential project and even in some cases helping you develop it prior to your actual application. If you can find an interesting staff member who is also interested in your work, they may become a strong advocate for your acceptance.

Whether or not to go to graduate school in New Zealand, or in any other country for that matter, is not something with a straightforward answer. But for those who do decide to go and to do it in another country, it will pay to know that university is not universal.

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