PhD highlight series: Mr Reuben Holmes (#1)

This week we have the first interview from our Alternative Postdoc PhD Superheroes series. As we have many PhD candidates in the Alternative Postdoc community, so it makes sense that we will try to feature as many of them as possible.

Rueben has just started his PhD program in Japan and in this interview, he is talking about how he got here, what are his plans for the future and how his experience in industry influences his PhD journey.

Enjoy the read!

 Quick notes on Reuben:
Name Mr Reuben Holmes, CChem (Chartered Chemist)
Countries he has academic experiences fromUK, Switzerland (1-month research visit), Japan
Reuben in keywordsPatient, Integrity, Humble
Reuben as a scientist/researcher/academicJack of all trades, master of none – hoping to become a little more focused through my PhD!
Currently excited aboutAWNTY Podcast, Materialism Podcast
Reuben’s typical day:        Right now, I have to take each day as it comes – this is not a Rock & Roll answer, simply a reflection of reality!
Contact Reuben at::Insta @reuben_phd_japan
LinkedIn Reuben Holmes

Hi Reuben, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Could you briefly introduce yourself?

I am a PhD researcher at the University of Tokyo, Japan, investigating materials for nuclear fusion reactor applications. I grew up in England, completed my Bachelors and Masters degrees in Scotland, then worked in the UK nuclear sector for 8 years.

I joined Instagram to share my journey from an industrial chemist in the UK to PhD researcher in Japan – my main hope is that my story will inspire others to dream big and not stop until they reach their goals.

What kind of pupil were you as a kid?

My high-school years in the UK can be described as staying out of trouble and doing enough study to remain competitive. Sports and socialising were more important to me than studying for perfect grades, and luckily I found a good balance from an early age.

I absolutely loved geography and that’s where I excelled, but in the end I moved towards chemistry because it offered better career prospects. My chemistry teacher won the UK ‘Science teacher of the year’ award, so perhaps he had some influence on my eventual direction!

What did you study in your undergrad program?

In 2011 I completed my 5-year combined Bachelors and Masters degree in Medicinal Chemistry at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. Like in high-school, I did enough work to get decent grades, but there was more to life than studying.

I worked part-time in a bookmakers (Betting Shop), which helped me develop a special bond with the town and local people. My 4th year was spent on industrial placement at GlaxoSmithKline, working as an analytical chemist in their UK pharmaceutical manufacturing plant. This was my first taste of professional working life and for a student the money was pretty nice because it was shift work in a 24/7 analytical lab!

Why and how did you decide to go into a PhD? Why Japan?

After graduating I worked in the UK nuclear sector for 8 years as a chemist, providing technical support to the UK’s nuclear power reactors and nuclear fuel recycling facilities. I was inspired by the technical knowledge and rigour of my colleagues and wanted to develop my own area of expertise in nuclear materials.

Doing a PhD seemed the logical way to achieve this, as it allows me to take full control of my technical development rather than being constrained by company’s priorities and politics. Thus, in January 2019 I started looking for PhD programmes.

Back in 2015, my fiancée moved from Japan to the UK to complete her PhD in Medical History. Seeing how she grew in confidence and stature through doing a PhD abroad was a big motivator for pursuing my own research interests. We set a goal of living in Japan together, which is why I set my sights on doing a PhD in Japan.

I distinctly remember the moment I first visited the University of Tokyo’s Nuclear Engineering and Management department website in 2019 – I knew straight away it is where I belonged. The rest is history, and after a slight delay due to Covid-19, I finally moved to Japan in October 2020 to start my research!

Reuben in front of UTokyo’s Yasuda Auditorium

How is your PhD program structured?

First, I had to secure a scholarship, and in late-2019 I was awarded the MEXT scholarship by the Japanese Government, which covers my tuition fees and a monthly stipend. From April to September 2020 I prepared for the graduate school entrance examination while taking Japanese language classes, still based in the UK due to travel restrictions.

From October 2020 I started a 3-year PhD programme, with the first semester dedicated to Nuclear Engineering classes and literature review. I will start my experiments in 2021, which involves irradiating materials for nuclear fusion applications. The experimental facilities are based on the East coast of Japan in Ibaraki prefecture, so I will move there in early-2021 after completing my classes in Tokyo.

How would you describe your relationship with your supervisors (in Japan called host professor)?

Since I first contacted him about PhD positions in early-2019 he has been enormously supportive. Once I passed the initial stages of the scholarship application and started preparing for the university entrance exam in mid-2020, he invited me to join weekly lab meetings.

This helped me to understand the breadth of research in the group and gave me a sense of belonging while my travel plans to Japan were on hold. Only in November 2020 did I finally meet him in person, and I feel incredibly grateful to be supervised by a world-class researcher in nuclear materials.

What would you advice to a person who wants to do a PhD in Japan? Where to start? What were the biggest obstacles and how you have tackled them?

The first step I took was to find a supervisor willing to host me as a PhD researcher, which in my case was simply done through internet search and then emailing the professor directly. Then you must decide on your funding arrangements – if you’re self-funded then I guess it’s straightforward.

I secured a MEXT Scholarship from the Japanese Government, which covers all university fees and a monthly stipend. To get this involved an initial application, followed by exams and interview at the Japanese Embassy in London. If successful, you must then obtain a letter of acceptance from your chosen university and finally pass their entrance exam.

While Japanese language wasn’t necessary for my PhD programme, I took the level N5 Japanese Language Proficiency Test before the interview to demonstrate my willingness to learn the language. If you’re considering studying in Japan it’s important to check the language requirements of your course first!

Have you decided what you will do after your PhD and why?

My ultimate goal is to become an international leader in nuclear research. What exactly this looks like I’m not sure yet, I just know I enjoy the international, leadership and research aspects of what I’ve done in my career so far.

I plan to focus my efforts on developing nuclear fusion technology as it offers unparalleled benefit to society if we can progress it to an industrial scale. Seeing how my research fits into this greater scientific challenge, and knowing the good it can bring to earth, are fantastic personal motivators.

What PhD program has given you or will give you?

I hope to gain skills in designing scientific experiments and build enough confidence to be able to lead a team of researchers.

It’s also an opportunity to expand my academic and industrial network, while building some solid foundations for family life in Japan.

What are your other superpowers?

From an early stage in my career I received numerous compliments about my Emotional Intelligence. I’ve come to learn that happiness and success isn’t just about spending time reading papers, doing good research, publishing results, teaching, etc. but it is about the connections and bonds you form with other humans.

My superpower is certainly the ability to listen attentively and this allows me to develop relationships based on trust and reciprocal altruism.

As for hobbies, I’ve found most success and enjoyment playing and watching darts. Wherever I have lived in the UK playing darts has allowed me to connect with local people and I really hope to continue this hobby in Japan.

What is the hardest in doing what you are doing and how do you deal with that?

In terms of a single activity, preparing for the University of Tokyo entrance exam was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. My BSc/MSc was in chemistry but my PhD is in an engineering department, so I had to learn a ton of advanced mathematics from scratch.

After some minor panics I decided to invest in tutoring to get me over the finish line. I’m really glad I did because I could not have done it alone.

Living apart from my fiancée is by far the hardest thing for me. Any professional anxieties seem small-fry compared with being separated from the people you love. To manage this, we set clear goals of building a life together in Japan and try to put all our work and activities in context of achieving it. Having this shared goal is our glue and demonstration of our commitment.

What are you the proudest of?

That my fiancée and I have managed to sustain a long-distance relationship without compromising our career and professional development. We met in 2010 and have lived apart, mostly on different continents, for ~8 years.

Reuben, his fiancée and red pandas

Who was the most influential person in your science journey, and how so?

When I joined the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory in 2015, I started working with Dr Colette Grundy, who has been the biggest positive influence on my career so far. From day one Colette showed belief in me, even when I was faced with insecurities and difficult situations. She has opened doors for me to do research around the world and interact with various stakeholders such as government, regulators, academics, and NGOs.

Most importantly, Colette has shown me what it means to have integrity – doing the right thing even when nobody is looking. This means whenever I’m in a tricky situation I ask myself “what would Colette do?” and can have confidence I’ll choose a sensible course of action. This is the most powerful gift a mentor can give you.

Who are your mentors or people you follow on social media and enjoy they content and why?

Here are a couple of my favourite people to follow:

@johnnychemicals – He’s always positive, cheery, and shows first-hand what it’s like to work in water chemistry control. He’s also been a great supporter to me throughout my Instagram journey.

@theprettyphdblog – Her stories give a genuine and humble insight into both her PhD work and everyday life. She has great explanations of her research and always has time to answer questions.

@cheeserland – Her content is really fun and has given me so many ideas for the places to see in Japan!

Where people can find you?

I set up an Instagram account specifically to share my journey of doing a PhD in Japan (@reuben_phd_japan). For the more formal information, you can find me on LinkedIn (

Thank you!

1 thought on “PhD highlight series: Mr Reuben Holmes (#1)”

  1. Dr Colette Grundy

    A fascinating insight into another persons learning journey. It aligns well with my personal value to always be learning whether it is academically or through daily professional work or meeting people from other cultures. Thank you for sharing your story.

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