Today is officially my last day at the Okinawa Institute of Science & Technology (OIST). I thought I would take the time to reflect on how the last term went. I didn’t do any courses this term (which I am thankful I didn’t take considering how poor my experience was with the previous courses I took here). I also managed to take my Education Visit in July to go back home for two weeks – it was nice seeing my family (and being a bridesmaid at my sister’s wedding). This term I also had one of the nicest supervisors. This term has been the best in terms of research experience – although the lab supervisor was quite shy, he was very complementary if I had done a good job with something. He was also the first principal investigator (PI) here who actually said that it was great that I had been in his lab (words matter, people!). I have been quite distracted this term (what with organising my move to Cambridge and all), so I did feel like I hadn’t done as much work as I could have. Anyway, I think I did some work that was useful to my supervisor.
This week most of the new batch of students are arriving to start their PhDs at OIST. I have two new flatmates (one from Kazakhstan and one from Indonesia), although I will be moving out of my room tomorrow so I won’t have much time to get to know them. My experience of OIST has definitely changed in the last year. When I first arrived, I was like the new students, starry-eyed and excited to start my PhD at this progressive university. During our interviews, everyone was impressed by the place; its stunning architecture, abundance of funding and resources, and repeated emphasis on conducting cutting-edge research. I think OIST does have the capability to do really great research; however, it’s still really small at the moment, which means there isn’t a whole lot of choice of labs for the students. Before I came here, I thought that I could join any lab of my choosing and basically do any research that I wanted; in retrospect, this thinking is very naïve, but there was no communication from OIST at the beginning which led me to believe otherwise (and maybe many newbies have similar experiences even at other universities). And then when we came here, we discovered that joining a lab wouldn’t be as simple as we believed. OIST definitely could do better to inform students (before they decide to take up their offer) on which labs can actually take students. I’ve known some students who came here for specific labs only to find out that their prospective supervisor is retiring soon, or their lab is full, or they are going on sabbatical. I don’t know how OIST makes its admissions decisions, but it seems like there could be better matching between incoming students and labs which are available. In my own case, I had quite a bit of bad luck in terms of not finding a lab here. I really thought that I had a good chance of finding something suitable before I came (in terms of environment and research fit) … and then I found out that wouldn’t be possible. Luckily, I had the good fortune of finding an excellent lab and project at Cambridge (with full funding). I don’t blame OIST for not being able to find a lab; these things happen (it’s life) and they can’t control who you get along with or what you like in a research lab (people are different!). My year here, on the whole, has been a good experience and, who knows, maybe it even provided a platform for me to get the position I wanted at Cambridge.
The funding at OIST is very good. I managed to save quite a bit of money, despite also having to pay for driving school (which isn’t cheap), in part because OIST heavily subsidies accommodation. Even if OIST didn’t subsidise the accommodation, rent in Okinawa is cheap compared to other places (a perk to living in quite an isolated place). Finding a PhD with full-funding is very difficult, and OIST is definitely an attractive option for many prospective students, especially since they provide conference/workshop travel (plus education visit travel) funding which isn’t dependent on the availability of supervisor funding.
For new or prospective students, my main advice would be to secure a desired lab as soon as possible. Be informed about your prospects. Find out from supervisors if they can take students. Manage (if you can) to talk to current students in the lab; find out if the lab environment is for you and if you like the supervision style provided. As they say here in Japan: Gannbatte kudasai!