Tuesday, September 20, 2016

PhD Defenses around the world: a defense in Japan


Today, I am hosting the narrative of Ayumi Koso in the "Defenses around the world" series. Ayumi is a press officer at the Division for Strategic Public Relations, University of Tokyo and is an editor of UTokyo Research a bilingual English-Japanese website that showcases the University’s diverse research. She received her PhD in neurolinguistics in Japan. Ayumi has experience practicing science communication at Japanese research institutions and funding agencies. She researches media release models that maximize the effect of university research communication in Japan.


My viva experience was in Japan. Before moving on to science communication, I completed my graduate studies at the Tokyo Metropolitan University in neurolinguistics, a field that investigates how our brains are wired to learn and process language.

There are two main ways to earn a PhD in Japan; one is to complete a 3-year graduate course earning credits and completing a thesis (“katei hakase” or degree PhD), and the other is to prove that you have the qualifications to receive a PhD by handing in a thesis and having it evaluated (“ronbun hakase” or thesis PhD). The first route is more common and taken by most doctoral students in universities, while the second route is designed for researchers who have a full time job at companies and public research institutions. While the second route does not require any credits, the thesis requirements are extremely stringent.

Like the majority of people, I took the common route and did a 3-year graduate course. At my university, in order to reach the viva, there were certain requirements I had to fulfill.

First, I had to earn certain number of credits by taking courses offered in our department. Then I had to deliver a proposal that contained the first few chapters and a detailed outline of  my thesis, and progress of my research. There was a committee to evaluate my proposal and by the time I passed the review, I was approaching the third year of my studies.

Because I was on a  Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) fellowship for the three years at graduate school, I had to think of an alternative way to sustain myself after my fellowship. I hadn’t quite finished my thesis yet, but luckily I was offered a science communication position at a research institution starting in April (the academic year in Japan starts in April!), so I decided to leave school in March, which was exactly the end of my third year. By then, I had a draft of my thesis, which was almost ready to be handed in for my viva.

For the next couple of months I worked full-time Mondays to Fridays, polished my draft, handed it in and created slides for my viva on the weekends. Looking back it was quite a tough time getting used to a new job, switching back and forth between science communication and research.

Then came my viva day. It was on a hot sticky Saturday in August, just in the middle of the summer holidays here in Japan called “obon”.

For my viva, there were three reviewers; my supervisor, another professor from my department and an external reviewer who was an expert in neuroscience. The viva was open for anyone to attend, so my lab members and classmates also came.

In my university, the viva has three parts: presentation, Q&A and review. I had 40 minutes to talk through my thesis, highlighting the main findings and conclusions. Then I took questions from both the floor and my reviewers for another 40 minutes. After the Q&A, I received feedback about my research from the reviewers about how it could be improved and the overall impression they had. The viva was about 90 minutes in total. Incidentally, while I wrote my thesis in English, my viva was conducted in Japanese.

The results of my viva and the evaluation of my thesis were reported to my department’s faculty committee for final approval. It was in September that I received official confirmation from my supervisor that I had passed.

Finally, I had to deposit six hardcover copies of my thesis, one of which was for the Japanese National Diet Library, before the degree could be awarded.

Normally, if you finish your viva in time for the awarding ceremonies in March, the president awards you the degree in front of the class and you can celebrate with your classmates.

In my case, by the time everything was done it was around September in the middle of the academic year so the award ceremony (if you can call it that) was quite simple and informal. I took a day off of work to visit my university wearing a nice two piece suit. I was called into the dean’s office and he awarded me the degree and congratulated me for my efforts. In the evening my supervisor and lab members organized a dinner for me where they congratulated me on receiving my PhD!

While I missed the formal ceremonies and celebrations, I was glad that I had made it to the end.

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