JSPS fellowship, final interview

In a previous post I documented the paper application for the JSPS scholarship fellowship. A number of applicants are accepted outright after this step, however a number are required to give a final interview in the form of a 4-minute powerpoint presentation. I was in this second set, and here is my advice for this final part.


TL;DR

  • Read the JSPS ‘About us’ page. This will give you a good idea of what they are looking for.

  • Impact and Originality are two key messages that should be emphasized.

  • Independent Thought. Which parts of the project are your own ideas, from your own initiative (as opposed to your professor’s)? This is another key point that should be clear.

  • Add Japanese Subtitles. Or alternatively make the slides completely in Japanese. You’re allowed to present in English, but having Japanese on the slides will make it easier for the audience to find the thread again if they lose track for a moment.

  • Get feedback from a wide audience. The panel will be a mixed crowd (from your general field), so you need to make sure your presentation is both understandable and appealing to a wide audience. Skype with old buddies from back home, ask other PhDs at your uni, hell, go knock on the door of some professors and ask them too. Not all of them will indulge you, but the ones who do will probably give you some really good feedback.


The story

The TL;DR pretty much covers it and most of the reasoning is explained in this post, so I won’t go into too many details. Of course being able to give a solid and compelling presentation is key, but that isn’t specific to the JSPS interview. So I will focus here on the Q&A section. Most of these questions are rather standard, so you should prepare and practice them. With some practice, you can often answer questions in a way that emphasizes things that you think make you a strong candidate but aren’t directly asked for (i.e. I wanted to point out that I have had a lot of international experience, which I think is one of the things that sets me apart from the average Japanese student).

Q&A

Q1: Why do you want to study in Japan?
This is a very standard question, and a perfect excuse to talk about something more important. I quickly mentioned that I like Japanese/Asian culture, then explained the main reason was specifically to join the Ishiguro lab. I had met prof. Ishiguro a year earlier during a summer-school, we got along very well and I really liked both the research topics his lab had as well as the approach they take. Then I took the opportunity to explain that his lab was very much focused on hardware development, whereas my background is more heavy on optimization and optimal control, so this provided a lot of synergy: I would be bringing new know-how into the lab, and at the same time there was a lot of new stuff for me to learn. Lo and behold, the very next question was…

Q2: What is your contribution, and what is from the lab? Actually, this was phrased as “Well, actually you already mentioned this in the previous question, but …”. Having known that this was important to them, I managed to preemptively cover a good part of this question already! This meant that now I could go a little deeper into the details (I had some back-up slides to help illustrate) without losing the audience (with only 6 minutes Q&A, I didn’t want to spend too much time on a single question. Being able to answer concisely is important). They seemed quite impressed and very satisfied.

Q3: What do you expect to be most challenging? This is actually a very standard question that I hadn’t thought of and prepared for. Fortunately, I had been working on my topic for a while already and was able to give a good answer, but you should definitely be ready for this one.

Q4: What are your plans after you PhD? “Do you already have plans to stay with your current lab?”. Reading between the lines… will you stay in Japan? This is a question I was expecting and I was worried might count negatively, since I doubt I will stay in Japan. At the same time, I wanted to be completely honest. I answered that I plan to stay in academia, which means I will have to be flexible and go somewhere that has an interesting project and also funding, so I don’t know what I will do next. I then added (which perhaps wasn’t necessary) that this meant probably I would leave Japan, also because I think it is important to move around in order to continue learning.
Since JSPS is of course interested in fostering the Japanese scientific community, this was a risky statement… but I got the fellowship, so I think they appreciate the honesty and also know that even if you leave the country, it is still likely that you will indirectly help by being a good contact outside of Japan. Regardless, my advice is in any case to be honest and keep your integrity.

Q5: Energy is a big challenge for field robotics, how does your topic relate to this?
This was the last question! A somewhat technical question, but not in the specific details. Also relatively easy to answer, since my research is quite closely related to this problem (or rather, this problem is very related to my research :P).

I have heard from friends that they had more specific technical questions. In general I had the impression that the questions were prepared beforehand: expect that they have read your application well and know exactly what they want to double-check before recommending you. This also means that if you’ve changed your research plan from your original application (indeed, about half a year passed between the paper submission and the interview, so this is possible if not likely), you should be ready to explain what/why you changed the plan.

JSPS fellowship, paper application

I’m a grad student at this lab in Japan, and after many trials and tribulations I managed to get the JSPS DC 1 scholarship fellowship. This fellowship is rather competitive, and I felt that due to lack of English information as well as many cultural differences, the application is somewhat challenging and confusing for foreigners. This post is meant to give some suggestions and hopefully help other would-be applicants.


TL;DR

  • Read the JSPS ‘About us’ page. This will give you a good idea of what they are looking for.

  • Start Early! Making a strong application will take several iterations. The good thing is, after this you should also already have a good road-map for your PhD.

  • Get help for Japanese. I wouldn’t write the entire application in Japanese unless you can actually write it yourself. But I do think it helps a lot to have a short mini-summary in Japanese at the beginning of each section.

  • Keep it Simple! The panel of reviewers should be from your general field (unless you apply to the interdisciplinary section), but not necessarily from your specialization. Remember, make it simple and clear, but don’t dumb it down!

  • Get feedback from different people. This is the best way to find out what parts of your explanations are too field-specific, which parts are unclear and which parts are actually interesting to a wide audience.

  • What is your Story? What is the story that links your masters thesis/project to your PhD research? In Japan it is generally assumed that they are strongly related, so think carefully about it.

  • List of Publications is really important. Not so much advice as more a general warning.


The Story

Some general information

Let’s start with some ‘admin’ stuff. There are 2 tracks, DC1 and DC2, with the same application procedure and deadlines. The difference is that DC2 is for people who already in their first year of PhD studies and therefore only covers 2 years (in Japan the standard PhD is 3 years), whereas you apply for the DC1 before starting. You do have to apply through your university(the university will then submit your application to JSPS), as well as know which lab you will be in and what your project will be: you will need to describe in great detail what your research will be. This description can be in English, however the rest of the application must be done in Japanese. This means it will be very difficult if not practically impossible to apply without actually being in your lab in Japan.
Start Early! The application deadline is usually sometime in April, but you need to pre-apply thorugh your uni a couple months earlier, and in particular you will need plenty of time to prepare the application. I spent close to 2 months focused mostly on this; I started sneaking in sessions of programming optimization exercises as a way to let off steam, it was that bad!
This fellowship is really good for Japan: not only is the financial support good, you’ll get some funding for your research and I’ve gotten the impression that getting it actually boosts the rep both for the recipient but also for the lab and the school. Presumably because of this, Tohoku U has special sessions where you bring your first drafts to be checked by a “mock” panel of various professors to get feedback and help improve student’s chances. So check if there is similar support at your uni. Note that chances are the announcement of this support will be in Japanese(I wouldn’t have known about this if not for the Japanese PhD in my lab who also applied), and the support itself might well be in Japanese too. Use it anyway. Your reviewers will/should be a mixed panel of people from different fields (should be your general field, but not your specific field), and they will be Japanese. One of the hardest parts for me was to understand and adapt what is actually impressive (and what isn’t) in Japan, and getting real honest feedback is critical and will probably surprise you.

Research Description

The biggest part of the application will be a description of your research. This is structured as follows:

  1. Research Description so far (i.e. master thesis): 1.5 pages
  2. Research Topic (i.e. your PhD)
    • Background, challenge, approach in relation to part 1.: 0.5 page
    • Purpose and Contents of the research: 1 page
    • Originality and Impact: 0.5 page
    • Time plan: 0.5 page
    • Legal issues (if for example you conduct experiments on animals, or take surveys or whatnot…): 0.5 page

It is important at this point to understand that Japanese academic careers work very differently from the west: just as people usually join and be loyal to the same company for life (Shūshin-Koyō or ‘lifetime-employment’), students are generally not encouraged to move between labs but often join a lab very early (here at Tohoku, usually at the end of the bachelor degree) and stay with that lab throughout their undergrad, grad and post-grad studies.
This is so commonplace that it is assumed that you will do your PhD not only in the same lab you did your masters-project on, but on the same project. This is why the description of the research topic (part 2) is in relation to part 1 (the Japanese explanation actually asks how your master project led you to the new topic, etc.). This is generally not the case for foreigners (at least it wasn’t for me), as I finished my studies in Switzerland before coming to Japan. Luckily (and this is actually the reason I decided to come this lab in Japan specifically), my previous project was closely related to my new topic, so I could weave a nice story. In anycase, this is the take-home message: when explaining your master project make sure to highlight and emphasize the parts that help explain what your PhD research will be about. After all it’s 1.5 pages at your disposal to convince the audience about funding your PhD.

A very important point is the language. You are allowed to write this section in English, however I strongly advise you to get someone to help translate at least parts into Japanese. During one of the Tohoku U feedback sessions (see above), I was told “You should use more figures and less text. A reviewer who sees this much English might not bother reading it thoroughly.”. This is a hard truth; you should not assume all your reviewers are completely comfortable with English, and if it is difficult to understand your ideas they will be less convincing. In my case, in addition to ensuring the explanations were simple and well-illustrated (which is a good thing regardless of the language/circumstance), a lab-mate graciously helped me translate the entire “Personal Motivation” section, and for the technical explanations my professor translated a short “mini-abstract” paragraph for each section. I am very convinced this greatly helped my chances.

Finally, when you explain your project you are supposed to emphasize the originality in two ways: both the originality of the research with respect to the field itself, and also which parts are really your own ideas and not the brainchild of your professor/lab. JSPS is actively trying to foster independent thinkers, and as the standard in Japan is for students to continue working on the same project as they transition from undergrad to grad studies, this is something they actively check for and it should be clearly explained.

If you are collaborating with other labs (especially internationally), you probably want to mention that. This is all very much conjecture, but I have the impression that although a large part of Japanese society is still very isolated in their world-view and aren’t very interested in or aware of what happens off the island, I feel that the upper echelons have identified the importance of opening up and made it a priority. This might be a bonus point. It will probably depend a bit on who actually reads it.

List of Publications

This part was a bit of a shocker for me. In Europe (at least in Switzerland), it’s rather unusual for a master student to have any publications, and quite impressive if you have just one. This is because the education system is completely different, and you aren’t really a “graduate” until you finish your masters (bachelors degree is 3 years, and everybody does a masters).
In Japan (and from what I understand, it is similar in the US) however, the situation is different: it is quite common to enter the industry after a bachelors, which lasts 4 years.
So when I went to the first feedback session, having listed my 1 conference proceeding + 1 conference paper, I was feeling pretty confident and even cocky. Only to have a prof frown at the list and ask “Can’t you fill out all this white-space a little more?”.
You see, what I had not considered is that once a student joins a lab in Japan, he will publish regularly in domestic conferences, which have relaxed or even no review. It’s a different system, with a focus on giving young students practice and experience, rather than original research. Indeed from what I’ve seen, it is about equally unusual for a graduating Japanese student to have a paper at an international conference. This notwithstanding, most Japanese students will have a very impressive-looking list of perhaps a dozen publications and achievements, and this is one of the most important criteria for selection. The good news is that international publications are given more points, however it’s still difficult to make up for the quantity that your competition will have.
So if you have the luxury of spending a semester or two at the lab before starting your PhD, you can make it clear to your prof that you plan on staying there, and participate in some of these domestic conferences. From what I’ve seen, it is common practice to send specific students who will continue as PhDs to more conferences, specifically for this reason.

Personal Motivation and Achievements

This section is more standard, and separated in 2 parts. The first is a free-form regular motivation letter, and in the second you are encouraged to list actual accomplishments and things you did that lend weight to what you claimed in the first part. As an example, I wrote that I believe active communication (‘science communication’) of research to people from other disciplines as well as the general public is essential. To back it up, I explained I’ve taught robot-programming workshops for elementary-grade children, and also got a poster award at a biology conference (my background is in engineering).
If you can, I advise getting a friend to translate this part into Japanese. Since it doesn’t need to be so technically precise, I think it makes more sense that this part is in Japanese (I didn’t feel comfortable not writing the technical part myself, hence in English).

Getting a scholarship for grad studies in Japan

Yesterday, perfectly timed on Christmas day, I received an e-mail confirmation that I had received the JSPS DC1 scholarship fellowship (Note: I much later found out JSPS is a fellowship and not a scholarship! This means I pay taxes on it, and tuition isn’t automatically waived as it would be for the MEXT scholarship -__- and the miscommunications continue in the land of the rising sun) for pursuing my PhD in Japan, this lab. やった! I had gone through a lengthy and painstaking application process, finishing the paper application last April, then going through a second ‘Interview’ screening, and finally 7 months later getting a confirmation that I wouldn’t need to worry about doing this again.
Finding a scholarship turned out to be very difficult, with information in English generally scarce and outdated, so after the frustrating ordeal of the paper application was over, I vowed that if I got it I would document the process, my opinions and suggestions, in the hope that it might help others who find themselves in a similar situation. This is that story.

I will split this into 3 parts: Scholarships in Japan: general suggestions (this post), JSPS fellowship: paper application and JSPS fellowship: final interview.

Scholarships in Japan, an Overview

TL;DR

  • Start early. Most Japanese scholarships start in April, are not flexible, and often you need to apply a full year in advance.
  • Get help from a Japanese friend. A lot of scholarships will have information only in Japanese, or only scant/outdated information in English
  • TRUST NO-ONE. I’ve found that when someone didn’t know something, I was often often told “No” instead of a straight-forward “I don’t know, you’ll have to check yourself.”. So check application information and eligibility independently.

The story

Let’s start with the basic situation of doing a PhD in Japan. Unlike Switzerland and much of Europe you do not get a salary as a grad student, and it is expected that most students will be independently financed (by their families). So getting a scholarship is something of a priority if you plan to do a PhD here.
Your best bet at this point is to get a MEXT scholarship by Embassy Recommendation (check your local embassy), which means applying in your home-country well in advance and under many circumstances without meeting your professor and labmates, which I actually recommend against in general and especially in Japan (I might blog about this in another post). There are other scholarships, but in many cases you not know whether or not you will receive it until after you’ve committed to the PhD, simply due to timing. You have been warned.

One of the major difficulties has been getting information. Tohoku University has a website listing scholarships as they get announced, however these announcements are often posted with very short notice and are definitely not complete. A major problem is that often this information isn’t available in English, the programs seem to change, and the administration was often unwilling to see anything outside the official information they received and posted: on multiple occasions I was told that a scholarship I inquired about did not exist or that I was ineligible to apply for it (including the JSPS scholarship that I actually got). Sadly, I missed a deadline on the MEXT scholarship by University Recommendation due to this (the administration only knew about the ‘Embassy Recommendation’ and ‘Domestic Selection’, and claimed the documents I was requesting didn’t exist, until it was too late). After this I was rather upset, developed trust issues, and independently checked all information. This is really difficult to do on your own if you don’t read Japanese quite well, so try to get help. But even then, be cynical and double-check things yourself. I was helped out by a lab member who was applying to the DC2 track of the JSPS scholarship (a 2-year scholarship, for students who have already started their phd), and at first he simply replied that I couldn’t apply to the JSPS. Indeed, I couldn’t apply to DC2 because you had to already have started your PhD… and he completely missed the fact that I could apply to the full 3-year scholarship with the DC1 track, which follows the exact same application procedure and was explained on the same web-page.
This initially almost seemed cruelly intentional but I eventually came to understand that this is simply due to a very different cultural mentality. Just as many staff-members were unable to conceive the notion of taking the initiative to check for information about scholarships and application information which they hadn’t been directly given by their higher-ups for redistribution. This is actually not out of laziness or malice, they (I’m just making general statements here, fully aware that these are just generalizations, and not always accurate) really just aren’t used to being flexible or taking initiative, and it requires a strenuous amount of mental-bending for them to do it. But this is a topic for another post; the take-home message is, when someone is helping you, take the time and ask them to show you and explain to you everything in detail, even if it is tedious and time-consuming. Don’t accept everything at face value, because often it simply won’t be the full picture. And it’s your responsibility to make sure you understand when it is and when you need to dig a little deeper.

That pretty much sums up my general advice. JSPS is actually the only scholarship I applied to (I planned on applying to MEXT but to my consternation I missed the deadline, see above), so most of my advice will focus on that application in the next couple of posts. JSPS does seem to be among the best scholarships fellowships available in Japan, both in terms of financing but also I’ve come under the impression that JSPS recipients get more “cred” from their peers and professors. It is also somewhat competitive, with 22% acceptance rate this year. Of these, about 17% received the fellowship after the first step, and the rest had to do a final interview, at which point the chances were much higher (I went through this step as well).