Spring is the season for goodbyes and hellos. Just the other day, on March 23rd, we held our graduation ceremony and said goodbye to 53 newly minted PhDs. Today, we say hello to each of you who are here to begin working on research for your own PhD. We welcome 76 new students to SOKENDAI today. To each of you, I offer my heartfelt congratulations on your admission to our university.
Now, you are at the beginning of a new journey. Over the next five or three years, you will concentrate on research and writing your dissertation. There will be numerous challenges ahead but also the great joy of things to come. Research is the process of pursuing your curiosity to understand things using methods of your own, and producing knowledge about those things that no one before you knew anything about. The process is fraught with difficulties; it is no easy thing on one's own to create knowledge that adds to what we already know. Yet the process is also a very enjoyable one. We become researchers because we want to pursue research, and enjoy the process of research even when it entails difficult obstacles.
In the 1950s and 60s, when research to understand the structure of DNA was flourishing, a female researcher named Rosalind Franklin made significant contributions through her research on X-ray diffraction of crystallized DNA. She conducted her research at King's College London of the University of London, where she was a formidable rival to Watson and Crick, who were later awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of DNA. Because of her untimely death from cancer at a young age, Franklin never received a Nobel Prize despite her important work. Even so, it is said that she once confided in a friend that she thought it was such a treat to get paid to do something she loved so much. Similar sentiments have been expressed by other Nobel Prize-winning female researchers as well. (And admittedly, I've never heard of any male researcher saying such a thing.)
I have thought a lot about her words, or more precisely about what would cause someone to express such sentiments. Is it really so shameful for researchers to get paid to do what they love? There is an assumption behind such statements that people engaged in other occupations do not generally enjoy the work they do. While that may be true for some, there are plenty of occupations in the world in which people work their hardest and experience a sense of joy from the work they do.
And yet, when it comes to research, even though we are by no means just goofing around, there is something so enjoyable and exciting about it that we feel guilty. As you delve into your research, I hope each of you will experience such excitement. You are here out of a desire to pursue research, not because anyone forced you to be here, so please allow yourself to thoroughly enjoy the research you do.
The environment in which young researchers find themselves today is vastly different from when I was young. True, even back then, just getting a PhD did not guarantee a secure future. When I graduated from the School of Science at the University of Tokyo and entered the School's graduate program in anthropology, there were postdocs who had earned their PhDs ahead of me but were staying day and night at the department lab while working there part-time for a number of years because they could not find employment.
Today, it is even more challenging. Young researchers are now expected to show results of some kind in the short period of just a few years or they have no future. As a result, they choose safe research topics that are assured to produce results in a short period of time. Sadly, this weakens research activity overall, as young researchers are kept from undertaking truly interesting and important work because it may prove difficult to pursue.
I believe this is where things stand today, and it worries me. People everywhere are afraid of what may happen to them a few years from now, so their tendency is to choose research that is "safe"--not a good thing, in my view. But SOKENDAI is a graduate university with no undergraduate programs, and each of you here today has chosen to leave your undergraduate institutions behind to pursue your studies here. Compared to the majority of graduate students elsewhere, I believe you are the kind of people with the courage to come to a new place and pursue new areas of research. Please allow yourselves to thoroughly enjoy your work by holding onto that courage and pursuing new areas of research. To our faculty advisors who will supervise their work, I sincerely ask that you create the kind of environment in which graduate students can pursue research from a broader perspective, not just write a strong dissertation.
Having said that, the research that we so enjoy depends on the public funds that we receive. What of our responsibilities, then? SOKENDAI's mission as a university is to nurture future generations of first-class researchers, which is why we support you in various ways so that each of you has the chance to become a first-class researcher. Because SOKENDAI is a national university corporation, a large part of our funding comes from taxes paid by the people, which means that we have very large responsibilities indeed. If our enjoyable pursuit of research ultimately produces no results worth mentioning, then we have failed in the responsibility we have to explain our work to society.
What do I mean by "results"? Today, everything is about assessment: "Internal assessment," "external assessment," "assessment of achievement based on targeted numerical indicators." Likewise, the results of your research form part of a broader assessment of SOKENDAI's performance and that of its research centers. Be that as it may, the nature of what you will accomplish in these years ahead need not be narrowly defined in terms of direct contributions to society, nor narrowly conceived in terms of the high bar of awards received for major results. Rather, in my view, what matters most as you pursue your research as graduate students, is that you acquire a broadly defined "depth."
The ability to survey earlier research, past to present, and find within it something missing; the ability to identify the parameters that need measuring to elucidate some phenomenon; the ability to actually measure such things; the ability to summarize your findings, view them from a broad perspective, derive an important conclusion from them, and suggest future directions for research--in the abstract, whatever your area of research, be it in the sciences or humanities, these are the kinds of activities you will undertake in the time ahead, reflecting the kinds of skills you will have acquired several years from now when you receive your PhD. As you pursue research as a graduate student, do not simply focus on the research results right before your eyes. Rather, nurture these abilities so you can take pride in them several years from now.
For whatever reason in Japan, I feel that people who have obtained a PhD are still not regarded as professionals with "added value" in the general sense of the word. Among researchers, the PhD is seen as a mere starting point, much like a driver's license. Fair enough, but outside the world of research, corporations argue that people with PhDs take a microscopic view of things that makes them hard for corporations to use. Meanwhile, the percentage of PhD holders in government and primary and secondary education in Japan is extremely low in comparison to other countries. Why is that? I believe the fault lies partly with the doctoral educational process and partly with society, and a mismatch exists between the two.
Achievement goals in doctoral education tend to focus exclusively on research on a certain research topic, without enough attention paid to nurturing the kind of meta-cognitive skills I mentioned earlier, such as the ability to grasp wholes and take a high-level view of research. To be sure, such skills are normally acquired in the course of conducting actual research, but their importance is not recognized. Meanwhile, because society tends to regard people with PhDs as little more than experts on a narrowly defined subject, it does not think to utilize them as fully as possible. Perhaps this is why Japan, while regarded as a knowledge-based society, lags behind others in both valuing and utilizing its people with PhDs.
I hope you, as students enrolled today at SOKENDAI, will pursue your research not only with a focus on achieving your research goals in the near term but also by stepping back from your research to reflect on things and ask yourselves about the skills you will nurture. I encourage you to avoid immediate gains but to take a broad perspective so that you will discover which problems are the most fascinating and acquire the skills you need to take them on.
Truly, research is fascinating--so fascinating, in fact, that we may even feel guilty, as Rosalind Franklin said she did. I hope for each of you that research continues to be something so fascinating, and that you will be the kind of socially responsible person who continually reflects on what it means to be someone in society who is privileged to engage in such fascinating work. As you set out to pursue research and produce magnificent dissertations, I wish you the best of luck. Once again, congratulations on this beginning of your new journey.
April 10, 2018
Mariko Hasegawa, Ph.D., President