Wednesday, February 22, 2012

PhD fail

These are the results of the PhD entrance exam. If your number is on the page, you pass. If your number is not on the page, you fail. My number is not on the page.

The reason I failed is because I didn't take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) in time. All prospective students are required to take the TOEFL since our graduate school is -- theoretically at least -- in English. (In reality, the majority of classes are in Japanese, the students write their reports and give presentations in Japanese, the professors give lectures in Japanese, the office sends out information in Japanese, and the mountain of paperwork we have to fill out on a regular basis is in Japanese. Ironically, the PhD results were posted in Japanese, which meant I needed to use Japanese to find out I had failed because of my English.)

The PhD exam was scored out of 400 points. The points were divided evenly between your English ability (based strictly on your TOEFL score) and the quality of your presentation. You needed 50 per cent overall to pass. The scoring system is set up in a way that someone with a good TOEFL score and a lousy presentation can pass the PhD entrance exam. On the other hand, someone with a low TOEFL score and an excellent presentation can fail the PhD entrance exam.

I got zero points for my English ability and a high score for my presentation. But because I didn't get a perfect score on my presentation, I didn't have enough points to reach the 50 per cent baseline needed to pass. Two members of my interview panel were willing to give me a perfect score on my presentation but the third professor was not. This is where things get tricky.

The two professors who were willing to bend the rules were both foreigners. They thought the TOEFL requirement for native English speakers was an embarrassingly stupid rule and they were willing to bend it. But they were both lower ranking than the third member of the panel, who was a Japanese engineering professor I had never met before. (It's a mystery as to why a civil engineer would be chosen to judge a candidate hoping to become a specialist in the field of ecological literacy.) He ended up giving me a less-than-perfect score for my presentation, which was probably the right thing to do. Objectively speaking, my presentation didn't deserve a perfect score. But by giving me a lower score, he knew I would fail the entrance exam. He wouldn't be failing me based on my suitability as a PhD candidate, he'd be failing me because I didn't take the TOEFL on time. There was no room for compassion or common sense.

Rigidity is a fact of life in Japan. This is not entirely a bad thing. Rigidity has its benefits -- trains that run on time, fantastic customer service, and an attention to detail that you just don't find anywhere else in the world. As a foreigner, you either accept the way things are done here or you don't. Ultimately, the responsibility for failing the PhD entrance exam falls on my shoulders. I should have taken the TOEFL. I've lived in Japan long enough to know that the rules are too rigid to bend.

I'm not upset about any of this. I mean, I was upset at first but I'm not anymore. In fact, I now think it's a good thing I failed. I think by leaving the TOEFL too late, I had already subconsciously decided that I didn't want to stay in Japan and do a PhD. At the same time, part of me was attracted to doing a PhD because I was passionate and excited about the research I was doing for my master's thesis and I wanted to keep it going. I was on a full scholarship that paid me to be a full-time student; it would have been easy to slide from the master's program into the PhD. But it now seems clear that the easy choice would have been the wrong choice.

With only a month to go before I graduate, I want the all of the good things about my time in Japan to be what stays with me. Despite the occasional setback, my experience here has been overwhelmingly positive. To be paid to be a full-time student is a rare privilege. It seems petty to complain about a silly rule.

Besides, the frequent ups and downs are what make life in Japan interesting. Being confronted with different ways of thinking forces you to examine your own way of thinking. Why do you see the world this way, and not that way? Why do you value this, but not that? Being an outsider allows you to see the way people have been culturally conditioned to think and act, which, in turn, allows you to see the way you have been culturally conditioned to think and act. Living in Japan has broadened my mind. And that's something that will stay with me forever. It will be difficult to leave Japan but I'm ready to move on. New opportunities and adventures await!

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