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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

December 17, 2008

Is teaching English at a Japanese university a cushy job?

I know the image. We have only a handful of contact hours (or ‘koma’) per week. We often get our own offices, decent budgets for research, and nobody is checking to see when we punched the clock in our out, in fact there is no clock at all. Sounds good, doesn’t it- and that’s even without mentioning the professors’ Jacuzzi, the helicopter transportation, the Terence Conran-designed office furniture, and the kinds of salaries that investment bankers would kill for.

I hope you know I’m kidding about the last bit but I’m serious that when I say that university teaching has its obvious perks, it might not be the Life of Riley that some seem to imagine. You may be aware of the difficulty of securing long-time status at a university in Japan, so job security is often an issue (more on that in this blog in the near future) but let’s assume for the moment that you have a reasonably secure job at a Japanese university. With only six 90-minute classes a week what could possibly make it difficult? OK- I’m not going to pretend that it is as physically taxing and teaching children or as intensive as 20 classes at a JHS per week, and I know that teachers at other levels face some of the items listed below, but regardless, what follows is a point-by-point summary of what you might NOT have known about a university teacher’s duties:

1. Your time off from class is not really a ‘time off’:
I hate it when people (including students and fellow teachers) assume that if you are not in class then you have no other duties and are probably just watching South Park re-runs on Youtube (or writing blogs- ahem). Wrong. There is class prep. There is marking. Materials making (both pedagogical and promotional). Student consultation, orientation and extracurricular events. Meetings. Often endless, pointless meetings (possibly designed so that people DON’T watch South Park re-runs when not in class). Of course this is true for most full-time teachers at any level. But at universities…

2. You are supposed to be PRODUCTIVE with that free time:
Every year you have to provide a list of publications for the past year that are then rated. Presentations must be listed and will then be rated. After all, you are expected to be a researcher. Active involvement, including leadership, in professional societies and organizations is crucial (you are expected to be a big face in the community), not to mention active collaboration and liaison with those in other universities. All these things go into a rating system. If you are producing nothing but your grades at the end of the semester it will not look good when contract renewal time comes up (this will also, by the way, be the topic of a future blog entry). And you don’t just teach programs, you are usually called on to develop and maintain them. But at least these are things that you can choose and have some control over but you can’t really control…

3. Participation in committees:
Some committees seem to have been made up purely for the purpose of having a committee but you still have to produce. An ‘International Affairs’ committee will have to produce reports and newsletters. Various overseeing and organizing committees have to produce reports. Entrance exam committees… well, you know. International exchange, liaison and other special programs will often take up the dinner hours or weekends. And this is only the tip of the iceberg because if you are a native English speaker you will also be…

4. A de facto English secretary:
I know that most NS teachers at every level get ‘help’ requests from students, teachers and administration all but I think I’m safe in saying that it reaches new heights at the university level. The administration needs its English translations (which can often be very technical, opaque, or arcane) to be picture perfect. There are hundreds of researchers at different departments who are expected to publish outside Japan and who see an NS teacher as a handy resource. And you are expected to have seminars, one-to-one consultations and other extra-classroom connections with your students (grad student thesis guidance being one).

5. Song and dance:
Many teachers at all levels have to participate in promotion and recruitment for their particular schools but there is one item that is more or less unique to universities. That is fundraising through grants. Over the past decade, even national universities have been weaned off the public teat and have to engage in raising funds by producing and promoting programs that can win grants and awards. This includes the infamous kaken-hi research grants which involve a monstrously bureaucratic application and follow-up reports.

So, it university teaching a piece of cake? No. Would I trade it for another position at another level of teaching? No. Would it be easy for a person like me to slide into a position teaching children and think “Wow! This is a breeze!”? No. But more on that in the next entry.

Mike G.

Main | Can university teachers teach kids (and vice-versa)? »


How does one even begin to find jobs at universities in Japan? Is a MA sufficient or a PhD required?

Aree- check out another article from the uni-files for an answer:

If you are looking for jobs teaching English at universities in Japan, you can find job ads at

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