Flying Out

In the words of Michael Scott, I am not superstitious… but I am a little stitious. I have kept quiet about my PhD application journey throughout last year as I was worried that talking about it might jinx it in some way, that it might put a curse upon me somehow that negated everything I said I was doing or planning on doing. But now that I’m at the finish line, I finally feel at liberty of sharing what has become some of the most grueling year in my life so far.

I have been applying to do my PhD abroad. In particular, I’ve been applying to Japanese universities, enamored as I am with the literary culture and the mixed bag character of the country. When I’m writing this, I’ve already purchased my plane ticket, have filled out the online immigration forms, exactly a week before I fly out of Manila. When this gets posted, however, I will have been one week in Japan, already full swing along the process of getting acquainted with campus life, and meeting my classmates and colleagues alike.

The application started way, way back in 2021. To prepare, I left my job as a quality management officer and lead of the in-house data science team at Jollibee’s Global Quality Management Division. Parting with many good friends, colleagues, and leaders at Jollibee was an incredibly heart-wrenching ordeal, but it was a necessary sacrifice that I had to make. I moved to the University of the Philippines, for a short stint as an assistant professor at the School of Statistics. While there I focused my time on producing research output, attending conferences, and getting as much professional engagement as possible. This I owe to many supportive former professors and colleagues at the School, without whom I might have been caught between a rock and all sorts of hard places.

In Japan I was eyeing three schools in particular: the Nara Institute of Science and Technology, the one I’d been familiar with longest, after hearing about several UP alums coming there to study Machine Learning; the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, after a recommendation by my adviser when I was doing my master’s; and Waseda University, because Murakami went there. I sent an application to OIST through their online platform; meanwhile, I started reaching out to professors first at NAIST before moving to Waseda, to see if anyone would be willing to support my research

That last portion I didn’t get to do, because I immediately struck up a promising discussion with a professor from NAIST. Seeing that NAIST closely aligned with my research objectives, I prioritized my application there, as opposed to a bigger university like Waseda. As a research-focused national university, NAIST admits only graduate students in the fields of Materials Science, Biological Sciences, and Information Science. I applied to join the professor’s laboratory, which was engaged in research involving statistical machine learning, and high dimensional computation.

Something that’s rarely mentioned about the PhD is how grueling the process can be just to get in. After a few months of preparing my documents (transcripts, research experience, updated vitae, and personal statement, what have you), it’ll only be in August of 2022 when I receive word that I had been accepted at the school. Even then, there remained one unresolved matter that continued to weigh on my mind: how to pay for the damned thing. Graduate school can be expensive. At home, here in the Philippines, that might have been a minor issue, as I could always pay for it with the salary I get with my job. But overseas, seeing as I’m uprooting myself to move into unfamiliar territory, I didn’t have quite as many options. I don’t even speak the language (yet)! So I had to apply and get into scholarships.

Here’s a useful word of advice for others that might be out there hoping to study in Japan too: read up on the embassy process for the MEXT (Japanese Government Ministry of Education) scholarship timeline and process and follow that. I certainly didn’t, and I almost paid for it by losing all my progress with NAIST out of having zero money to pay for tuition and living expenses. But thankfully, the MEXT Scholarship has another intake process, and that is if you are recommended by the university to take up the rest of their dedicated slots. Thus begins a few more months of sending out documents and waiting, and waiting. But because you’re reading this blog post, and I’m en route to Japan already, you know that everything turned out for the better. In December, NAIST informed me that I had been chosen for their university recommended slot for MEXT, and later, in early March, I received final confirmation from the Japanese government that I will, in fact, be receiving my scholarship.

I say that I’m at the finish line, but really I’m only at a branch-off point to an even longer journey. I have three years ahead of me, before I can consider this mission accomplished. But right now, I’ve pressed the big red button and initiated take off on what I’m already foreseeing will be some of the most colorful (and busiest) three years of my life. When you read from me next, I will have started settling into this new chapter of my life in Japan. Ganbatte!

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