Vermont Academy

I spent most of last week in the heart of Vermont, speaking at a small highly-targeted bio conference, tangentially related to some long-forgotten PhD research of mine. The conference took place on the campus of some remote boarding school, empty of students during the Summer break.

Overall, the manageable number of attendees, circumscribed topic and complete absence of alternative for entertainment within a 30 mile radius, made for a convivial atmosphere and stimulating discussions.

Nevertheless, I spent a good deal of my time there feeling like the unfortunate hero of some weird time-travel story, living in secret fear that I might not be allowed to go home at the end of the week.

The overall Overlook Hotel meet The Prisoner vibe of the place may have helped. Jetlag may also have played a role. But mainly, it had to do with serious flashback to my own boarding school days, down to some spooky architectural similarities (not so surprising considering those were typically the type of Old World schools that a posh US “academy” would try to emulate). I had opted for the on-campus lodging option and was assigned a very typical dormitory room, complete with communal sinks and showers at the end of the hallway. Having to share the floor (though not my room) with other grown men long past their boarding school days and finding the bed made every afternoon when I’d get back to the room, only added a weird twist to the whole déjà vu experience.

I only started freaking out for real toward the second day: when, waking up from a sleep-dephased nap at 8 in the evening, I realised that, not only was the cafeteria hall the only option for food in a walkable radius, but the campus may have been the last square mile of US territory without a single vending machine on it. Missing the 6pm-to-7pm dinner service in that place meant going hungry until breakfast. If you’ve never known that feeling, you’ve probably never been to boarding school.

I carefully observed dinner times thereafter and, truth be told, had some lovely evenings sipping beers with colleagues in the school’s rec room (temporarily refurbished for use by legal-drinking adults)… But was still pretty relieved when they let me leave the grounds at the end of the week without special parental permission.

A long overdue primer on applying for a Monbusho. Hopefully just in time for this year’s application deadline.

What is a Monbusho scholarship?

Monbushō, short for Monbukagakushō (文部科学省), is the Japanese name of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. It is also the metonymic name of the grad school scholarship distributed by said ministry to international students. In practice, unspecified mentions of “monbushō” will nearly always refer to the scholarship1“MEXT” is the favoured English abbreviation when talking about the ministry.

In a nutshell, the main qualities of Monbushō scholarships are:

  • You get to study and live in Japan for up to 3-4 years (5-6, if you apply for a Master).
  • You have a free-meal ticket to practically any faculty in any university in Japan: both prestigious national ones (Todai, Kyodai…) or expensive private ones (Keio, Waseda…).
  • In addition to your (potentially costly) tuition fees, the grant includes a stipend for living expenses2constantly decreasing over the years, but still pretty decent for a scholarship.
  • Beside a few conditions (being a foreigner and having a bachelor degree, mostly) and a lengthy application process, these scholarship come with very few strings attached: you are free to study anything you’d like, wherever you’d like (and can leave a lot of the decisions to after the application gets approved).

For more technical details, Google, Wikipedia and your nearest Japanese embassy are your friends.

What do you know about Monbushō scholarships?

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Freshly back from two weeks in Kyoto where I attended a Machine Learning Summer School organised at Kyoto University. The whole event was impeccably organised and featured some of the biggest names in the field lecturing on fundamental aspects of machine learning: two highly productive weeks leaving barely enough time in the evening to catch up with friends and enjoy life in my former hometown…

A few random thoughts and observations:

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Work discussion with my boss this morning:

– So, for this project, I think we should use the Cox regression model.
– Yes, let’s go with Cox.
– But the dimension of the data means we will need to adjust the model.
– Right, bigger Cox.
– That could work. Or perhaps smaller input.
– How about multiple Cox with wider input?

Don’t let the title on the door fool you: in my head, I am still in Junior High School.

This post originated as a comment to this entry on the eminently readable blog of a scientist living in Osaka. Midway through writing it, I remembered I had my own soapbox for that sort of drivel: better than crowding some innocent bystander’s comment section.

Usual limited-interest-topic disclaimer applies: unless you are have a vested interest in getting your PhD (in Japan), you are better off skipping this entry and waiting for more pictures of awesome Shanghainese moped-riding cats.

By and large, I agree with everything Jan wrote. The operative quote, I think, is that it depends more on university/faculty [and advisor] than anything else.

As a freshly-graduated PhD student (from a Japanese university), I figured I could offer some extra pointers, gleaned from personal experience and that of close friends in similar situations at a couple “major” Japanese universities:

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This update is a long time coming. In fact, except for a couple stalkers and my cat (who still refuses to friend me on Facebook), most people who care already know. But the whole point of that blog thing is to document and archive, preferably with more depth than allowed by biting 20-word status updates:

As of the end of last month, I am officially a Doctor in Bioinformatics from the Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Sciences of Kyoto University.

I know: doctor in pharmaceutics… If the rave-going friends of my early 20s could read that, they would have a chuckle. I fully intend to test that new doctoral title, next time I need something from my local pharmacy (if I can’t write my own scripts from now on, really, what’s the point?).

This whole phd thing is, without a doubt, the longest project I have ever lead to fruition (so far). In fact, thanks to the wonders of blogging, I can date the very day I announced to the world that I was embarking on a quest for knowledge and glory in the academic world (can you believe it’s been nearly six years?).

I wish I could say that it has been a long, difficult and formative path, strewn with near-unsurmountable obstacles and valuable life lessons. The truth is, it really wasn’t that bad.

Sure, there was that year’s worth of missing undergrad credits crammed into one stressful, panicked, semester, made even more interesting by the cancellation of half the classes that Spring, due to widespread student protests. There were never-ending battles with administrative trolls guarding the magic forest of French Academia with all their bureaucratic might. Two challenging yet exciting years getting my Masters. Years spent travelling between Paris, Tokyo and a dozen other fun places, alternating periods of hardcore studying and steam-releasing travels. There was much waffling over different math-infused Computer Science topics, toying with neuroscience-oriented AI and even spending a Summer pretending to be an NLP specialist, all topped by the most exciting class of my Masters: an intro to bioinformatics. After a few small hesitations (can you guess where I nearly went to work in the Spring of 2007), I finally signed-up for three more years.

Some research, a few papers and a healthy dose of whinging about suburban Kyoto life later, here I am: ready to start my career as one of the most overeducated baker/coffeeshop owner in the northern hemisphere.

The point is: it really wasn’t that hard. Or at least: no harder than getting up everyday to go to work anywhere else (a lot less hard, if that work is to spend 8 hours a day on a factory line). You don’t have to be exceptionally smart to get a PhD, you just have to be ready to spend a sizable chunk of your (fading) youth on it, with little money or anything else to show for it at the end. You don’t even need to be that driven or motivated: once started, the whole of academia is leaning over your shoulder, ensuring your work comes to fruition one way or another.

PhDs don’t make geniuses out of people: at best they make decent researchers out of them. Often, they just make incompetent assholes into pompous incompetent assholes.

So I guess I finally answered my own existential interrogations of 6 years ago: turns out gathering a couple pieces of paper with your name in a fancy font, does not make a big difference.

It does, however, make it a lot easier to find an interesting job that makes use of my skills for purposes other than devising inventive new ways of squeezing cash out of the financial markets. Which is why I will be moving to Tokyo in June to start my new research position at AIST in Odaiba.

Until then, I have a couple years’ worth of travels to catch up. Detailed route and dates should follow shortly.

(*) Yes, I know. I promise this is the first and last time I do that.

In the plastic bag carried by the guy walking ahead of me this morning, at the entrance to the [officially closed for the holidays] university campus: 2 bags of crisps, 3 instant-ramen cups and 2 cans of Boss coffee. Happy Holidays indeed!