This is the view from the 9th floor of the science building where I spend all my time on campus. On this day the view was particularly beautiful, and the half-covered sky struck me as a good metaphor of my current experiences in graduate school, but more on that later.
I feel my experiences can be best understood if I put them into perspective. I am currently a 1st year Master’s student in a graduate physics program in Japan. More specifically, my research group focuses on theoretical particle physics and cosmology. Only a month has passed since I first began my program, but I’ve grown and adapted so much that when I look back I feel I’ve changed quite a bit. During that time I’ve made several observations, some of which will undoubtedly change over time. Many more experiences lie ahead and I hope to document them as they come along, but for now I think it is worthwhile to give my initial impressions.
I’d also like to state that my experiences will certainly differ in some aspects to other graduate students. This is true not only within Japan but even within the same university, as a graduate student in theoretical physics most certainly goes through different experiences than say an experimentalist, not to mention someone from a different discipline. Please do not take this as even a general guideline to life as a graduate student in Japan, as they are simply my own thoughts. Hopefully, though, some parallels can be drawn between graduate students in all disciplines, not just the hard sciences. Also, my only knowledge of physics graduate school in the States is anecdotal, so I’d be interested to hear the similarities/differences from some of my colleagues back home.
Education is autonomous
This isn’t to say there are no classes or learning done in the traditional sense. To be more clear, I should state that, in general, my life as a graduate student is highly autonomous. This may not be the case for experimentalists. Indeed, I do know of one student who is explicitly told when to be in the lab. With my group everyone is free to come and go as they please. I was only ever told that it depends on the student, but in general, most students treat it as a full-time gig and spend 8-12 hours a day on campus. I’ve also never been told what to do while in lab, or even a hint as to what to study. Indeed, my only obligation outside of class is to prepare a weekly seminar on quantum field theory that I present to my adviser. Of course, my adviser and professors in courses I am taking can help guide me, but ultimately it is up to me to learn and understand the material. Other than that, I’m free to do as I please. This, so far, has been a blessing, as we have a pretty extensive library where I have taken to borrowing texts to study from on my own. Since I only have to take a few classes this leaves a lot of time for self-study which I find is invaluable in working on my deficiencies in my physics knowledge.
Specialization starts early
As far as I can gather, most graduate physics programs in the States have a core curriculum for incoming students that treats the undergraduate topics (mechanics, EM, QM) on a graduate level. The benefit is that throughout your education from undergraduate to graduate you will see the same topics two to three times with increasing levels of complexity and depth. In Japan, however, it seems that no such curriculum exists at the graduate level. Indeed, after looking through the course list for Master’s/Doctor’s students these classes aren’t even offered. My hunch is that the university system in Japan is similar to that in the UK; that is, your undergraduate years are spent almost exclusively on your major, leaving much more room for advanced work. My program is also semi-terminal, meaning it’s expected I will finish my PhD in five years but I can extend it for a year if I have to. They even offer an intro QFT course here for undergraduates, something that I think is unheard of in the US except at the top physics institutions.
As a result your graduate education is spent diving straight into the fundamental physics of your intended research area. For example, since I am in the particle physics and cosmology group this means that the legendary QFT book by Peskin and Schroeder has been my bible since day one. Consequently, most students finish their coursework in their first year and begin writing their master’s thesis at the start of their second year. As far as I know, in most PhD programs in the US the entire first two years are spent mostly on coursework. This has left me a bit worried that I may fall behind my peers in the States so I’ve resolved to self-study the graduate texts of mechanics, EM, and QM.
Funding is not guaranteed
I think it is pretty safe to say that just about every full-time graduate student, and certainly PhD course students, in America will never see a tuition bill. This is because most institutions accept only as many students as they are willing to fund throughout their program. This is usually done in the form of either a teaching or research assistantship. In Japan, however, this doesn’t seem to be the case. I can’t speak for every student, but my adviser mentioned that most graduate students are self-financed and aren’t guaranteed a scholarship/stipend from the university. Now, I myself am receiving scholarship money from the government, but these scholarships are mostly targeted toward international students. In fact, it seems international students have an easier time finding money than domestic students do. This can make the decision to attend graduate school an even harder one, especially if you are already trying to weigh the consequences of missing out on starting a career.
Your lab is a community
I won’t open the can-of-worms that is the “in vs. out group” stereotype of Japanese culture, but within most labs there is a strong sense of community. Group members will often go to planned social events outside of the lab, such as to karaoke or to go drinking. My lab is no exception. Almost every day a group of students will go to dinner together at the local cafeteria, although it certainly isn’t mandatory and the number of students fluctuates wildly. They’ve even jokingly called it the 食事軍団 (shokuji gundan – “meal squad”). We are even planning our yearly 合宿 (gasshuku), which is basically where you go and spend a weekend together at a lodge doing various outdoor activities and listening to seminars relevant to our group’s research. I’ve never been to one, but from what I can gather it’s quite the mix of play and work.
I have a passion for physics
I’ll be honest. My study habits as an undergraduate were pretty abysmal. Like most of my peers I relied on doing the homework the night before it was due and cramming before a big test. Reading the text/lectures outside of class was unheard of, and I never touched the library to study until my final year. I knew I wanted to do physics, but I didn’t necessarily have the motivation to study. I think a big reason for this was all the distractions. Once classes were over I’d go straight home and forget about lecture. I honestly didn’t know if I had the motivation to turn physics into a profession.
Once I entered graduate school what changed wasn’t necessarily my habits but my environment. Having a quiet place to study with no distractions can do wonders for you. (My one piece of advice to any student is this: find a quiet, calm place outside of and far away from home. That way, unless you want to be bored out of your mind, you practically are forced to study.) This is when my true passion for physics finally ignited. Now I find that a lot of my free time is spent thinking about physics. I’m constantly humbled by what I don’t know, and this only fuels the flames.
As I mentioned before, my program does not offer the core courses that are considered fundamental in the US for any graduate physics student to learn and master, especially theorists. Now, with my new found passion, I find I actually want to study these on my own. I’m currently working my way through the infamous Electrodynamics book by Jackson that is considered a rite of passage by many students. It’s a difficult process, but what might have seemed like a chore to my younger self now seems enjoyable. It’s hard to convey the satisfaction one gets from solving a problem after spending many hours in thought.
When I first started this journey perhaps my sky would have been completely grey and gloomy. For example, a topic like quantum field theory is no easy subject to understand by any stretch of the imagination. But bit by bit the clouds have receded, not only from my understanding of QFT but also from my life as a graduate student. Graduate school has made me realize I have a very strong passion for physics, so much so that I can’t see myself doing anything else. When I first got here I thought you’d have to be crazy to want to spend 60-80 hours a week in the lab. Now, at the end of a 12 hour day I can only lament that there aren’t enough hours in the day to study more physics.
Of course, there is still much more to learn. My experiences studying QFT have taught me that what may seem daunting to understand at first can be grasped through hard work and studying your butt off. While my sky is still full of clouds, there’s always a faint ray of sunshine poking through to motivate me to work through this seemingly impossible task of becoming a theoretical physicist.