All in the Family: Getting a Master’s Degree in Japan

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On March 18, 2015
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Photo by Paul Worthington

If you have been teaching in Japan for more than a few years, you may have wondered whether a teaching degree could make a difference in your life. Maybe you have looked at various programs online, abroad, or even here in Japan. After wading through the mess of promotional material, payment options, and promises of a better future if you apply right now, you may be wondering what awaits at the end of such a program. Is it really worth it?

Taking the Next Step

After 6 years of teaching in Japan, I felt that I wanted to go the next step and commit to my beloved profession. Getting my master’s degree felt like the logical step with my years of experience and commitment to the field. I wanted better opportunities and to be competitive beyond just having experience. I shopped around and looked at many different options.

I already had a family here and a great teaching job, so leaving just to get a degree felt unwise. Some people may benefit from going abroad to get a degree, but it wasn’t going to work for me. Since teacher training in Japan is not typically a master’s equivalent, I knew that really wasn’t what I wanted either. Teaching licenses, granted by the government, are only valid in Japan, but a master’s degree would give me a certain amount of flexibility no matter what.

A master’s degree is absolutely worth the time and money if you are willing to market yourself successfully and make progress in your career.

No Drive-through Diplomas

While new programs and options are popping up every year, I decided that an online program was my best chance at that time. Of course, quality is equally important. You don’t want a program that will just give you a piece of paper because you paid tuition and wrote some papers. For me, Skype-style classes with interaction and presentations were very important. The program I chose also had a certain amount of accountability involved. I was observed and sometimes recorded by staff and other teachers who had to verify with my program that I was actually teaching. In the end, I felt like I had truly earned my Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) through all the hard work I put into it. Be sure to pick a program that matches your expectations of graduate level work.

MA, MS, M-What?

Don’t let the jargon confuse you. There are many types of graduate level teaching degrees. There is the MAT, which is specifically for teachers who are actively teaching and want to improve on existing skills. There is also a Master of Science in Teaching (MST), a Master’s in Education (M.Ed), and a bunch of other variations that involve the same words in a slightly different order. Are there differences between the degrees? Asking that is like asking whether people are different from each other. There are many similarities but also many differences.

Most countries require a master’s level degree for school teachers and administration, which means that technically any of the degrees could put you on the path to your dream job. The M.Ed is typically more research oriented than the MAT, but counts toward licensure for both teachers and counselors. If you are considering becoming a professional counselor, you may want to consider the M.Ed. Either way, it is best to check with the school you are planning to attend. Ask them about the different degrees they offer and see which one fits with what you plan to achieve.

The Fine Print

While most teaching jobs in Japan do not differentiate between types of master’s level degrees, if you have a job or career path in mind, certainly check with people already doing that job. You should also be aware that simply having the degree may not be the golden ticket. For teaching English at the university level, most jobs require a master’s degree and a certain number of publications. If you keep that in mind while you do your degree, you can potentially publish some of your coursework while completing your program. That will save you a significant amount of time and give you the opportunity to get feedback from the professors in your program.

Even with your master’s degree in hand, you still won’t be guaranteed a raise or a better job. Yes, a degree makes you more competitive when applying for a job, but don’t count on your company giving you more pay than those without the degree. Don’t expect promotions unless you are willing to fight tooth and nail to get them. If these factors are important to you, then make sure to discuss them with any prospective employers when applying for a job. If you already have a job, be sure to discuss your potential degree with your employer. Some employers may be extremely supportive, but that is not always the case.

So Is It Worth It?

A master’s degree is absolutely worth the time and money if you are willing to market yourself successfully and make progress in your career. It’s far too expensive and time consuming to just have as a trophy collecting dust on your wall. Most English teachers in Japan do not have master’s level degrees, so it is not a necessity if you are already content with your career path as it is or if you aren’t really sure that you want to be a teacher for the rest of your life. However, if you are serious about making the commitment, then you can certainly make the degree work for you.

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  • kayumochi says:

    If getting an MA is important to you then go for it but don’t expect to do anything for you in Japan because you will still be a gaijin which means you will locked out of the system.

  • primalxconvoy says:

    Although a masters degree is vital for university teaching in Japan, it isn’t vital for teaching in all universities around the world, nor other organisations in Japan.

    The diploma in EFL is actually favoured in Europe and other parts of the world over some (more academic) MA’s, due to the practical teaching involved. Diplomas from respected institutions can also be used as part of the course (work) to existing MA courses (about one third of the course), which is a great way to study for a qualification in stages (and get 2 qualifications in the process!)

    If you want to get an official certificate, or diploma in Japan, here is one place that offers both online and physical studying, counseling, tuition and teaching experience:

    http://www.tefljobsinjapan.com/training/index.php?PHPSESSID=ead7430b5d6e7a07cceeaf66bf4f7d05

    And here:

    http://www.teaching-english-in-japan.net/directory/cat/22

  • Joiri Kanoi says:

    This makes sense. Such an enlightenment.

    I really wanted to have a masters degree, but, as you have just stated, it takes a lot of time and money. I am enrolled now in the Diploma in Language and Literacy Education, online, from the University of the Philippines Open University – a pre-requesite for me to be able to proceed with the MaEd. Indeed, reading all the materials took a lot of my time, everyday. I am about to quit, but, I have just started and that I should finish it coz I chose it.

  • Mikey says:

    Great article, very interesting – raised some questions though.

    So, did you do the Masters in Japan, at a Japanese university? or online at a non-Japanese uni? And how much did it cost roughly? Im totally thinking about it – a masters or TEFL or something maybe? CELTA? Something flexible yet recognised …

  • Zikri says:

    Hmm…while on the subject of Master’s Degrees, would anyone recommend applying for the LLM Program in International Economic and Business Law in Kyushu University? I’ve an LLB (Hons) and am currently training to be admitted to the Bar in my home country, but was contemplating on applying for a law-related job in Japan.

    I understand that most graduate law programs in Japan require proficiency in Japanese, but are there any other universities aside from Kyushu that have an LLM program that is conducted in English?

    I apologise if this has gone off-topic by too much.

    • AsianIP says:

      Yes, this program has quite an international set-up with all courses conducted in English. For law-related job, you would certainly require Japanese proficiency or experience in international aspects of law. Other university offering LLM is Nagoya having 2 different LLM programs.

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