October 10, 2023
President's Message for New Students, Autumn 2023
Congratulations on your admission to SOKENDAI!
President's Message for New Students
Fall 2023 Convocation Address
Congratulations to all of you on your admission to SOKENDAI. On behalf of the faculty and staff of SOKENDAI, I would like to extend a sincere welcome to you all.
During these past three years, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult particularly for students from overseas to obtain study visas, and also has caused tight restrictions on student activities even after their arrival in Japan; every student went through a quite difficult time. This year, as the world almost settles into a post-COVID way of life, we are able to welcome you all here in the same way as before the pandemic. It is a great pleasure for me to be able to meet you all face to face at this entrance ceremony and to experience firsthand the anticipation, nervousness, and excitement you must feel as you face the challenge of a new life.
As you will be spending your graduate years at SOKENDAI, I would like to tell you a little bit about our university. SOKENDAI is a graduate university established in 1988 to nurture the next generation of doctoral professionals at national research institutions in Japan. While the label “graduate university” is familiar to our faculty and staff, when you look at higher education institutions around the world, it is more typical for universities with graduate programs to also have undergraduate programs. For that reason, it is fair to say that SOKENDAI, which has only graduate programs, is a very special educational institution.
Another major feature of SOKENDAI is that national research institutes serve as the sites of graduate education. Within SOKENDAI, these research institutes are referred to as kiban kikan, or “core institutes,” because they form the organizational core of SOKENDAI. These twenty core institutes nationwide are equipped with large-scale experimental facilities, cutting-edge research equipment, and vast and valuable collections of research materials, and they are home to leading researchers. They also serve as hubs for advanced studies across a broad spectrum of academic disciplines, from humanities to high-energy physics. As students enrolled at SOKENDAI, you will spend your graduate-school years at research institutions such as these.
Next, I would like to tell you about the curriculum at SOKENDAI. At many universities, you would study, for example, in a “graduate school of science” for a Ph.D. in physics, or study in a “graduate school of humanities” for a Ph.D. in literature. In contrast, SOKENDAI offers degrees in literature, science, engineering, medicine, informatics, and statistics all within a single educational institution called the “Graduate Institute for Advanced Studies.” At Graduate Institute for Advanced Studies, majors are conventionally referred to as courses.
Hearing this, you are probably asking why SOKENDAI curriculum is the way it is? Certainly, in order to obtain a doctoral degree, one must acquire advanced knowledge in a field of expertise and hone highly specialized research skills. If that were all, however, it would be much more efficient to conduct such specialized education separately for each specialized area.
Before responding to the question about our curriculum, let me ask you to imagine for a moment what it will be like after you have earned your degree. Of course, it may be a little unfair to ask that you imagine life after your degree. After all, today is just your first day... Nevertheless, one thing that I can say for sure is that virtually none of you will keep using the exact same skills and knowledge that you learn in graduate school for the rest of your lives.
What, then, does it mean to pursue a doctoral degree? In simpler terms, why have you come to graduate school? No doubt, you all bring with you different intentions and objectives. By nature, humans are curious about the mysteries of nature and the things we don't understand; we want to make sense of them and deepen our understanding. Our intellectual activities based on this human nature have not only strengthened human individuals, but also extend the intellectual frontier of humankind. In our modern educational system, someone who wants to further pursue such intellectual activities inevitably continues on to graduate school and, as a result, obtain a degree. Some people may even feel that receiving a graduate education and earning a degree are meaningless as such, and that they are in graduate school as the natural outcome of their sincere pursuit of their innate intellectual ambitions. On the other hand, some people will have entered graduate school because they believe it is necessary to acquire more specialized skills and knowledge in order to tackle the various challenges of modern society. Even more practical, some might believe that a degree will be advantageous in their future career.
So, each of you has come to graduate school with intentions and objectives of your own. At the same time, as the university that has accepted you, we too have ideas about what kind of person we want you to become when you have completed the doctoral program at SOKENDAI. Needless to say, the primary objective of graduate education is to ensure that students acquire specialized knowledge and research skills. When you receive your degree, we expect that you will have attained a certain level of “academic expertise,” “creativity,” “broad perspective,” “global competence,” and “research integrity.” These are the competencies you will need in order to function as an independent researcher after obtaining your degree. It is essential that you acquire and strengthen these competencies properly in the doctoral program. That being said, I want to stress the importance of your mindset as well. What kind of mindset is expected of you?
Academic research in recent years has experienced dramatic improvement in measurement technology and also in information technology; that have made it possible to study more sophisticated questions and complex phenomena. Moreover, there is a major trend toward “open science” along with “data-driven approach” that enables efficient and more accelerated scientific advancements by exploiting data and knowledge in a more open manner. We should also pay continuing attention to the recent exponential growth of generative AI, as well as to automated research techniques which integrate digital and robotic technologies to tremendously accelerate the research process. These rapidly changing circumstances have made it difficult even for active researchers to imagine the future of academic research just five years from now, much less ten. We can easily imagine that the role of researchers and the way of research will undergo significant change in the future.
As such, you begin graduate school at a turbulent time when science and society may be entering a new phase. The major changes I have just described may not appear suddenly during your time as graduate students at SOKENDAI. However, I am convinced that a great wave of change will come not long after you have earned your degrees and left SOKENDAI. For you to swim past that wave and contribute to the development of human knowledge and solutions to our societal problems, you will need not only the ability to illuminate phenomena and solve problems using the knowledge and skills of specialized fields, but also the ability to alter how you think, to shift your perspective and change your mindset. We might call it courage—the courage not to cling to familiar ways of thinking and doing things, but to make changes to your environment and daily routines, however comfortable they may be. That is why I said earlier that mindset is important. At the risk of oversimplifying, I would sum up by saying, “What matters most is neither knowledge nor skills you have but how you think.”
Now, with that lengthy detour behind us, let me return to the matter of SOKENDAI curriculum. Why, then, at SOKENDAI, are the twenty courses that lead to degrees in various specialized fields all housed within a single educational institution, the Graduate Institute for Advanced Studies? It is to facilitate and encourage you as students not only to acquire the knowledge and skills of your own fields of expertise, but also to transcend those specialized fields as you are studying, to transcend your particular course and vary your environment as you are conducting research. This is the reason that we have torn down the walls of “schools” and “departments.” If you were to remain in just one environment, repeating the same activities day after day, how difficult it would be to find reasons and opportunities to alter how you think, to shift your perspective and change your mindset. SOKENDAI curriculum is designed not only to help you hone your personal expertise, but also to get you to question how you think and encourage you to keep this in mind at all times as you pursue your studies and research. Please take full advantage of this environment.
By enrolling at SOKENDAI, all of you here today have decided to change the environment you have known for so long and to challenge yourself with new research topics in a new place. The many things I have discussed today aside, I really hope that your life as a student at SOKENDAI, be it in terms of your research, your studies, or your personal life, will always spark “how you think” and get you excited about new ideas you discover. The university and all of our faculty and staff are readily committed to supporting you in this endeavor to the best of our ability.
Again, congratulations on your admission today.
Takashi NAGATA, ph.D.