Japan or bust: how I changed careers to achieve a dream (guest post)

This is the first in a series of posts by one of my university friends, Graham Moore. He is currently teaching English in Japan, and has agreed to write about the experience for my blog. All of the posts are available under the ‘EFL in Osaka’ category.

Graham’s magic!

Phase 1: I dream of Japan

Japan has fascinated me for many years. The combination of its modern image as a crazy, busy, futuristic wonderland with its traditional, almost mythical, history of shoguns, samurai and martial arts has kept it high on my list of places to visit for as long as I have wanted to travel. A high proportion of my ample collection of video games originate from Japan (Final Fantasy VII, despite its age, remains my favourite game of all time) and I diligently practised karate during my university days. The more I learned about Japanese culture…

If the trains are late by more than five minutes, you are given a note to show to your boss as a reason for your lateness.

The crime rate is so low, you can leave your bike unlocked at night and nobody will steal it!

With the exception of Monaco, Japanese people are the longest-lived people in the world!

…the more I wanted to see it first-hand. And so began a journey that would take me the best part of a decade.

Japan in one picture. Yes, even the girl in the pizza suit.
Japan in one picture. Yes, even the girl in the pizza suit.*

I am a scientist by education and I never pictured myself as anything else until recently. My dream was to work as an industrial chemist and ultimately move to Japan, hopefully working on some exciting new technology (like designing self-repairing metal for a car or a giant robot) or synthesising world-changing chemicals (like a cure for cancer that also gives you gives you Super Saiyan powers). I studied Chemistry at Durham University for my undergraduate degree, with three years of lectures and practice labs, before working a year in industry at FujiFilm Imaging Colorants, Scotland. The advantage of doing an industrial placement during the final year rather than as a penultimate sandwich year was that, upon graduation, it would be easier to make the transition into the working world.

And this situation seemed perfect – I was working for a Japanese company after all, surely it would be easy to transfer to Japan from here? But sadly this was 2008 and the economy was taking a major hit – FujiFilm IC could not afford to take on graduates and they weren’t even able to continue their industrial placement scheme the following year. Fewer places were hiring and many of my friends were laid off mere months after being hired for their first job. My time as an undergraduate finished on a low note and the future was not looking as bright as it should have. Finding funded PhD positions was easier than finding a job. I went from having no intention of doing a PhD (at least not until I was older) to having one confirmed at the University of Nottingham in a mere three weeks.

It was somewhat less abroad than what I was hoping for but financially speaking, it was stable and more than enough for my lifestyle. Having a doctorate under one’s belt can only be a good thing, plus I would extend my time as a student by 4-5 years, something I was very happy about. During my first year, I discovered a university program called BESTS (Building Experience and Skill Travel Scholarships) which allowed research students to spend part of their degree working abroad. Japan was among the countries that had allowed BESTS students to work there previously, and the research I was undertaking was also being done in Japan. I could even take a bonus module in Beginner Japanese as part of my PhD (something that FujiFilm IC had offered to previous placement students but not to my year’s). All a perfect fit, right?

Sadly, when you are a PhD student, your supervisor is your king, and unfortunately, I am quite the anti-monarchist. We were destined to have many clashes during my studies and the notion that his students may also be productive outside of his laboratory was an alien concept to him. And while the University of Nottingham gave me the best experiences of my twenties, none of them were in the Chemistry department. I’m sure the majority of people with PhDs enjoyed their research, but I didn’t. And as my second graduation approached, I was once again flustered as to where to go. Industry hadn’t worked for me and neither had academia.

The brain part is being optimistic
The brain part is being optimistic (From ‘Piled Higher and Deeper’, copyright Jorge Cham)

“Why not teach English in Asia?” multiple friends suggested. I’m not sure if this was a recommendation based on my English skills and love of Asian culture or simply as a go-to gap year-esque idea, but the thought intrigued me. I am a pedant for accuracy in English and I had experience dealing with people with beginner English skills, so why not? Plus it would be a means to my long-standing goal of getting into the land of the rising sun. May 2013, my PhD was near completion, my quest for an English school in Japan began.

Phase 2 in Graham’s adventures coming soon…

*Image credits
Temple image from ‘theswissrock’City image from nhouse.sgSushi image from PBSGirl in pizza suit image from Business Insider

4 thoughts on “Japan or bust: how I changed careers to achieve a dream (guest post)

  1. That is so unfair, to stop the first post in the series when the quest for a school begins…) I can’t wait to learn where it’s taken you, Graham. I also have a very strong personal interest in this series)))

    Thanks, Sandy and Graham!:)


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