PhD in International Politics in Japan as a MEXT Scholar
Nov 4, 2022
8 mins read
💼 PhD: International Public Policy
⏳ Apr 2018 — Present
🗣 English, Japanese
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This interview was conducted by Angelina Kovalyova - PhD student at Tsukuba University
I am originally from Tennessee, US and now I am doing my PhD at Osaka University studying International Politics. This is actually my fourth year of PhD, but the program is officially a three-year program. I have extended that program for one year, and from April, I will be extending it one more time.
Field of Study
I study the relationship between government and media, specifically I focus on how media coverage of humanitarian crises is impacted by government policy, and how government policy is impacted by this media coverage of the crisis. It's a symbiotic relationship.
I did MEXT Scholarship Program for the first six years in Japan. I did one year as a Research Student, two years for a Master's Degree, and then the first three years of my PhD. But because the program is only a three-year program, once I extended it to the fourth year, that funding was finished.
But fortunately, because of the complex situation with the pandemic, a lot of international students were given 100% tuition waivers from the universities, and so I was able to get that. Therefore, I don't have to pay for any of my schooling, but I do pay for everyday living expenses.
Daily life as a PhD Student
As of now, I have finished all of my coursework, so all I'm doing is dissertation work. And because I'm in a humanities program, there are no labs and I am not doing any kind of experiments.
It's all pretty independent. I make my own schedule, which is great, but it's a little bit overwhelming. I do almost everything at home, and maybe once every month or two, I'll go to campus to meet with my advisors and update them on what I'm doing.
Right now I'm doing data collection for my dissertation which involves a lot of data mining of government websites. As for my day-to-day schedule, usually I just get up in the morning, make myself a cup of coffee, start a podcast, and then spend ~4 hours downloading PDFs.
Most of my friends doing PhDs in biology or engineering spend around six days a week in the lab doing eight-hour workdays and then work on their own publications and things like that afterward. So it's quite intense. But for me, I've had a lot of freedom. Usually, I do about six hours of research a day, but it's totally flexible. I only work four days a week.
I think the most important thing is time management. If you're doing a humanities-based PhD and start really getting into that dissertation work in your first or second year, you can easily get by doing three to four hours of research a day if you're consistent.
But if you're like me in your fourth year and you still haven't finished anything, you're in a bit of a rush. Don't do that😂
My program is quite easy in terms of requirements. We needed about eight credit hours, which is only four courses, so I finished the coursework in the first year of PhD. It's the same courses that they give to Master students. So it's not that hard.
There's no publication requirement. So all we have to do is graduate by completing our dissertation and defense of that dissertation. But I think there is an understanding that in this field of politics if you graduate without any publications, you set yourself up for failure if you want to go into academics. Not that it's impossible to recover from that. Of course, you can do postdocs and things like that.
But in terms of hard requirements, you just write your dissertation and defend it, take four classes. That's it.
I know that the path to getting your PhD is quite different from country to country, but even from department to department within Japan. So I do have friends that are, for example, getting their PhD in business-related and marketing-related fields. And they could choose to graduate via dissertation or via meeting a certain number of publications. In their case, it was three publications to graduate. In a lot of science fields, they have dissertation + publication requirements. You need three publications, which will make up about three out of the four chapters you need for your dissertation. So there are a lot of patterns even within Japan.
Best things about PhD
I think there are two things that I really love about my PhD. And I don't think I would have gone to get a PhD if it hadn't been for this. The first one is my advisor, I love him. He's amazing. Without hyperbole, probably one of the best human beings I've ever met in my entire life. When I flew into Japan, he picked me up from the airport, bought me a coffee, and took me on the bus to my hotel. He's just been amazing from start to finish, super supportive and encouraging. I think if you're going on this multi-year journey that's quite stressful and sometimes existentially overwhelming, it's really important to have that kind of support. I was really lucky to have him and I think if I hadn't had him, there's no way I would have decided to pursue a PhD. Even though he does things that really get on my nerves, for example, he never replies to emails. Getting him to communicate with me during the pandemic has been really frustrating.
The other thing is that doing a really big research project is so rewarding. I hate it while I'm doing it, when I'm in the weeds of downloading 10,000 PDFs and spending a month of my life just hitting the download button. But when you get to the end looking at the results and seeing that you really accomplished something that is amazing and important for future research is just a hard feeling to describe.
Evolution of the project
I will say that the project that I'm doing now is only barely the project that I proposed at the beginning. So there is room to change if you find that you're working from an angle that you don't like or that it's too frustrating. My original proposal was to do just a massive case study of four or five different humanitarian crises, but I quickly realized that there was no good way to do that. What I ended up doing is this big data machine learning analysis, which is totally different, but the core idea is pretty similar. So you can change and adapt.
One of my favorite quotes that has really helped me through PhD, not to sound cheesy to have a favorite quote, but I keep it on my Notion page as a reminder. I've since forgotten who said it, but it's basically “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. It’s a reminder that I am building my own research upon the research that other people have done. I'm not in this alone, it's not a solo pursuit, but that it's a constant progress toward better understanding.
Surprising things about PhD in Japan
My undergrad was in an American university and so much attention was on the course work and what you learn through the course that the dissertation seems almost like an afterthought project. Of course, it's still very meaningful and it's something people spend a lot of time on, but it's just the final step of doing your PhD. Whereas in Japan, at least in my program, it felt like the dissertation is everything. As I mentioned previously, I only needed four courses before I was moving on to actually doing my dissertation work.
The dissertation work is almost totally unguided. I can, of course, consult with my professors as much or as little as I want, but it's basically total freedom and total independence. I was really shocked from just being thrown into it. I was supposed to find my own way, my own methodology. It's definitely really challenging to be innovative with the resources that I have and to be the person in charge of my entire project.
From start to finish, my advisors have not really done anything. They obviously gave me feedback on the ideas that I have. If I come to them with a question, they could say: “Well, here are some books that cover this topic” or “This is what I think about what you've written so far”, but basically the methodology, the topic, the research design, all of it has been just me.
When people ask me what I've learned as a PhD student in Japan, I tell them that I learned literally nothing from the coursework. And that's not an exaggeration. I've taken the same level of courses as a PhD student in Japan that I took as an undergraduate student in the US. Here the focus is not at all on what you learn in coursework. It's all about how you develop as a researcher.
PhD is not for everyone
I would definitely do a PhD again. But I think that's just my personality. I like big research projects. I like writing. I like the thrill of finding out something that nobody's found out before. But before you go into a PhD, you also have to ask yourself: What is your motivation? Are you wanting to go into academia? Do you have a clear course in an industry that requires you to get a PhD?
If you don't have a clear reason why you're doing it, I wouldn't recommend it because it's easy to get to the end and realize that it's not going to help you achieve the goals that you want if you don't know what those goals were, to begin with.
The characteristic that you definitely need to have is being goal-oriented. If you're the kind of person that switches between projects and never sees things through to the end, PhDs probably not going to work out very well for you. I think you also need to be willing to grow on your own. It’s not for the kind of person that is very codependent and is afraid to initiate things or to do things on their own without a lot of handholding. Not that there's anything wrong with that because, in a lot of things, I am that person. But you need to be able to motivate yourself and take the initiative in your own research.
Plans after PhD
I do hope to go into academia, I would love to be a professor and a researcher. If professorship is my number one choice, I would be happy in a think tank. And I don't think that there's much room for think tank work for what I'm doing in Japan, so that would probably have to be somewhere else. But yeah, I like teaching. I like research. I think academia is what I want to do.
Things to know before going into PhD
I would say that PhD shouldn't take over your whole life. I think PhD is something to add to what you already bring to the table, but it shouldn't be your only identity and it shouldn't be the only thing that you're doing. I haven't really talked about it in this interview, but anyone who knows me whether it be in real life or through social media knows that I do have a lot of other interests, one of which is Japanese learning, but I also have a family. I'm taking care of a young child and I have a partner that I really like to spend time with. And I have other hobbies and things that I'm doing. I believe PhD should complement the other things you have in your life. It shouldn't be the thing you do to find fulfillment in yourself.
PhD is a step, but it shouldn't be the only step that you're pursuing. If your goal is to go into academia, for example, don't only do your research, please build other skills that are going to help you in academia in the future. For example, if you're not comfortable or confident in your writing, please take a writing course. If you don't know how to do quantitative work, learn how to do it, even if you're in humanities, I promise you you will need it. Learn how to do basic coding. There are so many skills that will make you a much more competitive person after you have the PhD, rather than thinking that PhD is the only qualification you need to get the job that you want.