PhD student and Supervisor - Falling into a “trap”

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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.

An email excerpt in Feb 2016, ~6 months prior before finishing my MPhys.

Dear Ken Lee,

It was very nice to have a chance to talk with you through skype.I now understand that you applied another university and are waiting for the result. It may take sometime, however, the deadline of the application of scholarship we offered is coming, meanwhile. I would like to give you a little more information about the scholarship since it is really a good chance. It is a national scholarship of Japanese government. It is probably the best scholarship that foreign students can obtain in Japan. Monthly scholarship is enough to live in Osaka and enrollment fee and tuition fee are waved. Usually MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) makes selection of scholarship students, however, IPC has some quota to recommend. You are within the quota which means you can surely get it. Once we submit names of the candidates to MEXT, we are not allowed to change and the students have to come to Japan. It is a rule. Therefore you need to submit the pledge. In addition to the scholarship, I would like to emphasize that Osaka university is good for you. I think that you want to study experimental physics and acquire skill to carry out experiments. Then I can say that Osaka university is one of the best place since we have enough instruments that each student can work with and enough space to set up experiments. We have many experts.

If you have further questions, please feel free to ask me.

Sincerely yours,
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

At this stage, I was actually still in the midst of applying to various university for a PhD. It is still quite early to decide on accepting a PhD place this early as the norm for UK would be around after May/June. On top having to decide on such matter, that year was when Britain had a referrendum on leaving/staying EU and we know how that went. As a international student myself, I know the competition for funding would increase significantly if Britain decide to leave EU(and it did unfortunately) before even considering that the competition is tenfold more difficult compared to UK/EU students as about 1 out of 10 PhD studentship funding are only open to international student in the UK. The rest of them only being reserved for UK/EU student.

I have another option to consider is funding from my own country, Malaysia. However born as an ethnic Chinese Malaysian, I already know that it is near to impossible to secure any scholarship or funding in Malaysia to support the PhD itself. This has lead me to look harder while considering socio-polictical situation around the world.

At that time I have applied to Japan and UK although my first choice would be remain in the UK as there would be less adjustment for me to do. Choosing Japan would have result me needing to adjust to brand new environment and also learn Japanese. Secondly, I really wanted to remain in UK as my Supervisor at that time recommended me Royal Holloway at London where I had interview there and really liked the projects that was offered to me. However back of my mind the funding situation has really held me back.

At that time, I was still emailing to different prospective professors on the possibility of doing PhD with them. This offer from Osaka Univeristy has the funding secured if I decided to go with them. However they needed me to decide on a decision very early despite the program only starts in October. When I looked back now, I should have took the sign of hastily requesting me to accept the offer by the professor was a bad one as it should have given me more time to decide and compare other choices. At that time, Royal Holloway could not give me a definitive answer although they have promised to give an answer after 3 weeks of the interview(which was in January). When I query the person who interviewed me at Royal Holloway was that they were still making decision and at that time I knew it was the funding situation that held them back from giving an offer to me. My suspicion was proven true when Royal Holloway gave a difinitive answer to me in June(3 days after the referendum) that funded position was no longer available although the door was still open if I could find an alternative source of funding. In the UK, if I was rejected they would have straight up told me that it was rejected as they knew it would allow me to move on and look at other places. Therefore I knew it was not a sugar-coated rejection and they would have done it after 3 weeks of the interview in January and not waited till June.

In Febuary 2016, I have seriously considered all possible options and decided the best choice was to accept this offer from Japan.

Coming to Japan - a “scam”

Who knew that decision of mine was a not a smart one and frankly speaking it was out right a bad one. From that email excerpt, It sounded that the professor really wanted me to join him think that it is was my ability that he wanted. Thinking it was because of the quality of my MPhys thesis(I have used my mid MPhys research report initially) that he felt I could do quality research with him. How native of I to think that way as the sole reason I was offered by that professor was a cheap labour to do shift work at Kamioka. In that academic year, he has already accepted 2 Phd student with me being the third. It was already obvious that there was too many new PhD student and did not understand how the department even allowed the professor to accept more new student.

From the start of the PhD program, I tried to had meetings with the professor to lay out the research project plan for myself. However after multiple attempted meeting with the professor, there was no concrete project that I should be working on in the first 3 months. There was no project with a clear aim. Even I listed few possible ideas, the feedbacks from that professors was that I should try it/ take classes without giving the desperate feedbacks I needed to do research. The reason a PhD student requries a supervisor is the supervisor need to nurture/invest/develop a PhD student into a full feldge researcher. There was no such advice recieved from that professors, all I got was extremely generic statement where can be given by any professors in any field. They also did not attempt to try get me be well verse the main experiment that was carried out In Kamioka mine.

All I could do was to read literatures and try to think and ideas of executing the research idea. I had to develop a research project myself and learn the nuances and general idea of the data analysis in a typical physics experiment myself. If there was proper guidance and advice by supervisor, all of this would taken less than a year rather than more than a year by myself.

Switching advisor in April

Did I mentioned that the professor that accepted me was due to retire midway through my supposed 3 year PhD? In early 2018, I was only made aware that the official advisor for me was changed through the admitrative staff of the university. That professor cc. the information to the admistrative staff but never to me. Even it is written in Japanese, that professors could have informed me via cc. in email as this was directly about myself. Even the associated professor that took over the advisor role did not even informed me about this change. Informing me about this change could save me hassle when I needed the information of advisor when filling applications/forms. The decency to inform me was not even there. It is just basic curtesy that any decent human being can do. This can be done in just merely less than a min to write a email to inform me. This is not that difficult to do. Forgetful? well that shows that I am just a cheap labour to them.

Hearing stories form my peers how different experience they had about thier PhD process does make me realise this offered I accepted the offer was an outright a wrong decision on my part lacking the proper research about the personality and work ethics of the professor. I should have probably took a gap year after I finished my MPhys. Well I can only regret my decision and move on knowing that I need to take control of my research my own. Literally working my PhD out myself alone disregard the interest of my advisor while only considering the best interest for myself.