My overseas internship experience significantly increased my knowledge of research culture and lifestyles in foreign countries.
Guest contributor Andy Tay
Previously, I shared my thoughts on the usefulness of an overseas working experience to establish networks with international experts, and to develop cultural awareness — both of critical importance in a researcher’s career. This year, I decided to head to Japan, Tokyo to work on stem cells as a summer intern at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute (BSI).
If you’re thinking of an overseas internship, especially in Japan, my hope is that this will be of help to you.
Long working hours?
Before coming to RIKEN, some Japanese friends warned me that the Japanese work a lot. In fact, there are many negative reports on Japanese workers having such long hours that their mental health is affected. Another friend told me that there was certainly pressure on him to start earlier and to end work later — as that’s what everyone else does.
Despite this, scientists in Japan have significant autonomy over their working hours. In fact, the situation in Japan is no different from many other countries where scientists build their working hours around pre-planned experiments. Nevertheless, I did feel pressured at times to work into the evening alongside my colleagues.
It’s typical for scientists to return to their laboratories over the weekends in Japan, unlike other countries where I have worked in. Whilst I was in Germany, I never saw anybody back in the laboratory over the weekend, and people visited rarely in Singapore and the US. On the Saturday morning of my first week in RIKEN, I walked into a packed office. I later confirmed with the lab members that they came to work voluntarily.
Every lab has a different culture, but everyone deserves to find work/life balance. If you’re thinking of working in Japan, let your supervisor know what you’re used to it terms of working hours and weekend plans. Many Japanese scientists work extra on their own accord and I believe they are understanding enough not to expect the same from an intern (which my supervisor told me on my first day).
Pride in work
One characteristic of my Japanese colleagues that struck me was how responsible they are about their work. Laboratory members, regardless of rank, take great pride in their labors. In my previous laboratories in Germany and US, technicians typically leave on the dot — they are paid by the hour with a cap on maximum daily working hours. While the technician in my current lab is paid under the same system, she usually stays back for one to two hours longer, and even returns on weekends.
The Japanese are also very responsible towards their students. My supervisor made 100% sure that I was confident with his lab techniques, and patiently showed me every step of the protocols despite his busy schedule. This high degree of personal supervision helped me to learn quickly.
I’m told that this culture is pervasive in most occupations in Japan. My colleagues went on to explain that this could be a reason why tipping could be considered rude in Japan — many Japanese do not want to create the impression that they are providing a good service solely for the money.
Although I am highly impressed with the culture of pride in work, I can also see how it might affect the delegation of work, especially if there is too much hand-holding. If you are someone who prefers more independence, I strongly suggest that you make that clear with your internship supervisor.
Is there such a thing as being too polite?
During my stay in Japan, I was greeted with great hospitality. Many colleagues were patient with my lack of the language, and the technical staff in my laboratory even downloaded a translation app to better communicate with me.
The culture of politeness can be restrictive, though. During the first laboratory social outing, I wanted to leave early. I was reminded by a non-Japanese co-worker that this would be rude unless I have urgent issues to attend to. The Japanese usually leave together after gathering in a circle to thank the organisers. Therefore, if you decide to join your Japanese colleagues for an outing, make sure you can fully commit to it. This shows your sincerity and respect for the other attendees.
Learning to be an environmentally-responsible scientist
In the US and Singapore, rubbish sorting is not mandatory by law. And, although it is necessary to sort one’s personal rubbish in Germany, this practice does not apply to laboratories. The Japanese have taken sorting to a higher level.
As I work with biological entities in RIKEN, most of the waste that I generate has to be sterilised. On top of sorting my waste into metal, glass, plastic (recyclable and non-recyclable) and paper, I also had to pay special attention to possible biological contamination. That means a whole ten different categories of recycling.
While the practice of sorting research waste was inconvenient initially, it didn’t take me long to get used to it. In fact, I’m more conscious and determined to reduce the amount of waste I generate during my experiments.
Those interested in working in Japan have a variety of types of financial support available to them. RIKEN BSI provides financial aid to most summer interns, which includes accommodation and travel costs. The Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) also offers short-term fellowships to students from selected nations like US, Canada and UK for summer internships in Japan. It is important to note that if you are not a citizen of the selected countries but have spent more than three years as a student in those countries, you are eligible as well. The Hitachi Global Foundation also supports visitors, primarily faculty members, from Asia to conduct research in Japan for up to three months with their Hitachi Research Fellowship.
Andy is a PhD student in the bioengineering department of the University of California, Los Angeles. His research focuses on the evolution of magnetotactic bacteria and biophysics of neurons. In his free time, Andy enjoys using the gym and writing.
Andy is grateful for financial support from RIKEN BSI during his summer internship.