PhD student and Supervisor - grit to presevere in helplessness situation alone

6 minute read


This blog series is of my personal opinions and experiences in grad school. My personal bad experience may not necessarily reflect the situations in most academia settings but I hope this will shed some light to people about the good and bad of academia. This is my way to vent some of my frustration in this top-down hierachical environment of the lab I am in.

The first 2 years in grad school

The past 2 years as a Phd student in Osaka University can be described as a mix of freedom, docile, frustrating and lonely experiences. Personally I have felt the main reason I was accepted by the professor was because they needed student to do shift work in Kamioka. As it cost only approximately ¥160,000 a month to hire 4 student to do 4 weeks of shift compared to hiring a single full time research assitant for it which cost upwards of ¥200,000. As the job for one person can be very taxing, one typically needs 2 two research assistant for the job, which double the cost to more than ¥400,000. Therefore in the eyes of these professors, we as students are view as a mere cheap labour source for thier experiments disregarding their role to mentor the students properly. A similar experiment in Korea, they hired research engineers to do this job full time.

Half way through the second year, the professor that accepted me into his lab had retired. The one thing that puzzle me when I was made aware of this when I was few months into this PhD is why did he even accept me into his lab knowing he going to retired while haivng a bunch of senior Phd student that requires significant attention to them. 6 months before I started he has already accepted 2 PhD student into his lab with exisiting 7 Phd student already in his lab. Although 3 of them are directly supervised by the associate professors, there are still 6 students that still requires the professor’s supervision. All this considerations was without counting myself in. It is obviously that this is too much for any academics to handle this many Phd student. Bearing in mind each student requires to have an original research result by the end of this PhD which definitely requires meticulous mentoring on getting thier first original research theme going.

The thing that puzzle me the most is how even the departmental committee even allow a professor to have more than 3 PhD student at one time. Not only the professor will have to be overwork, there is probably be not have enough time to have 1-to-1 meeting with each student every week. On top of that, “big name” professor are constantly on the move that even when they have only 1 PhD student, it is difficult for them even.

Freedom to choose whatever you like but no clear options was laid out.

Choosing what to eat before knowing the full menu and the taste of every item on the menu.

My dilemma at the beginning of my PhD was choosing my own research topic. Even I myself am very interested in neutrino physics, I do know that I required a very specific and feasible topic within the scope of the professor expertises and being in an experimental physics group, It needs to be doable with the experiment itself. The professor told me that I am free to choose whatever I want and so did I suggest some idea to him, I did not recieve proper feedback on how I can realise some of these ideas. I was told to attend class to learn stuff but in reality my undergraduate in Southampton did a fantastic job in preparing me as a physicist that most of the classes here are equivalent to my undergraduate courses back in UK. At the end, I was left on my own to find way to realise the research idea I have. I did question myself as to what was the reason he wanted me in his lab? was it because of my MPhys thesis about astrophysical neutrino that he is interested? Though I have realise this later on that I am just a cheap labour that he needed and he does not really care about my desire to becoming a full feldge physcist and a researcher.

Now as a 3rd year PhD student, when I see the situation of newly minted first year masters students. The professor only said they are free to choose what the want to do but never really give the full list of choice available and details regarding any research project. I can say this that the professor themself does not have a research project tile and abstract for it in the first place. It is akin to giving a fishing rod to someone but never tell them about how to use it and how to find a fishing spot for it. They are left to figure out the purpose of the fishing rod and learn how to use the fishing rod themself. If the student where taught how to use the fishing rod, the student would not have wasted time to find resource to learn about it where it could have been 3 months to learn how to fish but it ended up taking a year to do so. When the time comes for a student the graduate, the professors then only start taking efforts to make a student graduate.

Are’t you not supposed to take in PhD student that you think they are capable of doing one in the first place? If one that they choose turned out to be struggling, is it not the responsiblilty of the professor to mentor the student properly so they can be an independent researcher? But in this lab I am in, there was no proper mentoring to master student by the professors, nothing much needed to be said about PhD student that they are left to fend off themself. Once again, student are viewed as cheap labour here again.

There are more things that I want to vent but that is it for today. I will probably write more about it in the next few weeks.