How a PhD can lead to an international career in academia

29 November 2021
PhD graduate shares international perspectives of research degree
Professor Hitoshi Nasu made the unconventional decision to leave Japan and pursue further studies at Sydney Law School, leading him to an established global career in academia. He shares his insights and advice.

Professor Hitoshi Nasu, graduated with his PhD in 2006

With bachelors and master degrees obtained in his home country of Japan, Professor Hitoshi Nasu had his future laid out for him - to remain in Japan and build a career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Despite the pressure to follow this conventional path, Hitoshi made the bold decision to move to Australia to pursue further studies, where he graduated from Sydney Law School in 2006 with a PhD degree.

This move has seen Hitoshi build a successful academic career spanning Australia, the UK and US.

After completing his PhD with us, Hitoshi taught at the Australian National University. He then relocated to the United Kingdom where he was Professor of International Law at the University of Exeter.

Today, Hitoshi is Professor of Law at the United States Military Academy and Senior Fellow at the Stockton Center for International Law, United States Naval War College.

We spoke to Hitoshi about his decision to leave the comfort of his home country and forge an unconventional career in academia. He shares his experience pursuing further studies abroad and provides valuable insights for those considering an academic career.

You could choose anywhere in the world to study. Why did you choose Sydney Law School?

"An attraction to choosing Sydney was the Opera House."

When I finished my bachelor and master degrees in Japan, I had two options:

  1. Work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
  2. Explore a postgraduate study abroad.

At the time, it was a common understanding that once you entered the Ministry you would finish your career there. I passed the exam so I was eligible to apply for a position, however I could not convince myself that a life-long diplomatic career was the right choice so I chose to pursue my academic interest further.

There were plenty of options to consider when I thought about where in the world to pursue further studies so I did my homework on a number of world leading universities, including Sydney Law School. As my interest area was international law, I looked for international lawyers working at the Law School and identified renowned professors Donald Rothwell and Ivan Shearer.

I emailed Professor Rothwell (who was the Director of Postgraduate Programs at that time) indicating my interest in studying international law at the Law School and he kindly provided guidance with my study options.

Another attraction to choosing Sydney was, of course, the Sydney Opera House, as all overseas students would agree! 

Sydney Law School was the obvious choice for study in Australia.
Professor Hitoshi Nasu

How did you find the transition to living in Sydney?

Nowadays people can be connected through social media. When I moved to Sydney however, there was no such thing. I lived with a host family who helped me become familiar with the local area and I went to the English school attached to the University to brush up on my English, so I was able to make friends easily.

I enjoyed my time in Sydney socialising with my friends and I was very busy with study.

What tips would you give to research students considering a career in higher education?

1. Do your homework

It’s important to know whether the institution you could be working for is the right fit for you. While you will be expected to contribute to the institution, the institution should also be providing value to your career. It’s like a marriage where both parties need to know and have confidence in each other.

2. Keep an eye on the market

Each University balances its own priorities so there is a lot of academic movement within universities and countries. Take a close look at the institution to gain a sense of why the position is advertised. Is it because the institution is growing and strengthening their research profile and education service, hence the need to recruit, or are academics leaving because of problems within the institution?

3. Expand your network

This has been important to each of my career decisions.

When I took the position at ANU, I knew I made the right choice as there were colleagues already known to me as the best in the field. And I moved from ANU to the UK for an opportunity to work with an influential scholar I had already known of. When I made the move to the US, I knew the scholar who approached me for the position.

If you could pass on any advice to research students, what would it be?

Today many research students and early career scholars restrict themselves to a narrow field of topic and don’t engage with anything that falls outside that area.

My advice would be to have an open mind, and say yes to as many opportunities as possible. If your colleagues or supervisors invite you to take part in a project or other work, don’t say no!

That was my approach. Even though my area of interest was international law, I took Professor Mary Crock's course in migration law and it helped secure my first academic position at ANU. If I hadn’t taken Professor Crock's course, which I consider to be my golden ticket, I don't know whether or how I would have commenced my academic career.

Also during my early career at ANU, Professor Tom Faunce invited me to consider research collaboration on nanotechnology which, as it turns out, helped shape my career. My current role in the US requires familiarity with various new technologies for military application in the context of law of armed conflict. There aren’t many people who have such expertise so I was able to seize the opportunity when it presented itself. If I had declined that research collaboration opportunity, I would not have been hand-picked for the current role in the US.

Professor Nasu publishes widely in the field of public international law, with particular focus on international security law, the law of armed conflict and the law of weaponry. His expertise extends to a wide range of international security law issues, such as collective security, peacekeeping, the protection of civilians in armed conflict, and in different domains including maritime, cyber and space. In particular, he has produced numerous publications that address a variety of legal issues arising from military applications of new technologies, such as nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, as well as contemporary security challenges in the Indo-Pacific theatre.

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