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A message to those who want to become researchers

I would like to ask you to give some advice to students who are planning to go into science fields or who want to become researchers. In particular, do you have any message for women who want to pursue a career in science?

As for my own research field, I would say that research in theoretical solid state physics, especially in performing computer simulations, is a field where you can easily maintain a good work-life balance because you don't have to spend all your time next to supercomputers. You can perform simulations with remote work. For example, you can submit a "job" (a set of calculations in a simulation) from your PC at home to a supercomputer through the Internet and have the supercomputer calculate even while you are sleeping. Because of this, I think it is relatively easier to have private time than experimentalists. It is easy for both men and women to maintain a good balance with their personal life. Since the research is computer-based, you can streamline your work as much as you want, and in fact, you can make better working conditions for yourself.

Oh, that's one of the hidden advantages of being a theoretician.

Yeah, we, theoreticians, need to think deeply, so we need to sleep properly and stay healthy. Generally, for people who want to become researchers, academic positions are very limited, and it is very difficult to get long-term employment at a young age. So it is difficult to say everyone should become an academic researcher. I myself thought that I would have to live with instability in exchange for my freedom. I think it is important to consider how such would-be researchers can maintain their life and mental health if they cannot get a permanent post after working hard until they are 30 or 40 years old. It's a difficult topic... If you are the type of person who desires the praise of others, not just the joy of discovering something, it will be even harder.

You mean that if someone wants to become a researcher, they should think about what fulfills them and then choose a career path accordingly?

I think they should think about whether they can do it without feeling discouraged, even when their efforts don't pay off. Additionally, private companies are also doing excellent research and development, so I don't think they need to stick to academia. It is better to think deeply about what they will be satisfied with in the first place and then choose a career path.

In your personal history, gender differences don't seem to have mattered. In spite of that, have you felt that women are at a disadvantage?

I think it's hard if you are raising children. But I'm not, so I don't feel disadvantaged. If a woman is in the situation where she is the only one in her field, everyone will remember her. In that sense, I think it's actually rather advantageous. However, in any case, regardless of gender, it is hard to become a researcher, so I think would-be researchers need to be prepared for that.

What have been the hardest situations for you? When you cannot get any result?

That is hard, indeed. But getting this position was the hardest. I am grateful that my current position is stable. When I was a postdoctoral fellow, I had a fixed term, and I had to produce results in order to get the next position. However, results aren't something that just comes out of nowhere when it's convenient, so that was tough. It was tough and I had some difficulties. After arriving at IMS, although the initial start-up was difficult, now I feel comfortable here.

What is public outreach for?

I'm happy to hear that. By the way, since we've been talking about "would-be researchers", are you interested in activities such as giving special lectures at junior and senior high schools or accepting students from those schools into your lab for work experience programs?

Are you talking about, uh, public outreach? Now, I'm just enjoying my research. Prior to getting this stable position, I had always felt like I was on the edge of a cliff looking for the next position to move. So, it is difficult for me to recommend it as a career path to everyone.

I think in science outreach it is important to convey not only the fun of science but also the reality of the life of a scientist. When I look at lecturers in such activities, I feel that they seem to have gotten their positions without having experienced much trouble, but in reality, everyone must have had a hard time.

Most of the people who cooperate with those activities have permanent or long-term positions, but these people have come up from over the cliff. If someone doesn't consider "survivorship bias" and just looks at the bright side of things when deciding on a career path, they may be shocked when they first face a cliff and say, "What on earth is this!?" That's why I think it's better to have someone be honest and tell them, "It's actually pretty tough."

It's hard to tell them that, but it's something worth saying. It's difficult to find the best way to tell them that, though. And I think it's natural to realize that "the road to becoming a researcher" is tough.

I think it is good if you talk about the positive aspects, such as jobs where experience in research is advantageous. I think people have the impression that "the road to becoming researcher" is a straight trail without a fork. So, I think it would be good to tell stories that show more diversity in the career path after getting a doctorate. For example, you could introduce successful science writers with research backgrounds. I don't like giving the impression that only those who have successfully been promoted in academia are the winners. If there are more examples of how the logical thinking and writing skills cultivated in research are valuable, the range of career choices one has will expand. When I was a graduate student, there were only a limited number of academic positions available, and I used to sulk and think, "My future has been checkmated (ah, despair)." So, I think it would have helped me mentally if someone had explained that there were other possibilities.


Research environment at the Institute for Molecular Science (IMS)

You've mentioned a little about the research environment at IMS. How do you feel about that at IMS in comparison with those of other institutions you've experienced?

I'm employed as an associate professor, so that I don't have many "chores." For concentrating on research, I think here is one of the best places in Japan. If you want to do theoretical research, I think IMS is a very good environment because you can concentrate on your research in a relaxed atmosphere. Additionally, the budget allocation is adequate. If I had to mention a demerit, I would say that it is difficult to increase the number of members in my group. I think most universities have a constant flow of students coming in every year. That doesn't happen here because our graduate university (SOKENDAI) is not big in terms of the number of students. So, the group inevitably has a small number of people. But that is actually not a big disadvantage for me because I like to do research in a small group with close communication. However, it may matter when doing research that requires a lot of manpower. So, I think the number of students is the most problematic point here.

Is the atmosphere of a research group here different from those in the universities you've experienced?

Yes, it is different. I think the atmosphere of the groups in IMS is closer to those in RIKEN (Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, Japan) than in other universities. In organic chemistry, I think they need more students, so it would be good if there were more cooperation with local universities in that regard.

Narrative in research

I would like to ask you about your interests and hobbies other than research.

I am a very indoor person, and sometimes I don't even go outside on my days off. I stay at home and watch movies, read books, or play PC games. Nowadays, everything is available on the Internet, which is a great thing for people like me. On Saturdays and Sundays, I work if I have a deadline that is very close, but I try to take a break otherwise. When you are in your 20s, you don't have to worry about working all the time, but when you are over 30, your brain gets tired of working all the time. Taking a proper rest and enjoying some diversion like movies is necessary. Sometimes I read science books unrelated to my field. When I was in my doctor's program, I watched anime to take my mind off things.

Have you found any relationship between what you learn from such movies and books in your free-time and your research?

Movies are very well thought out in terms of story development and presentation. If you haven't experienced such good stories and scenes, you may not know what kind of presentation is good and what kind of storyline appeals to your audience. That kind of appeal to the mind of your audience is necessary for research and writing papers. In that sense, they are related to research. Also, at conferences and international meetings, researchers chat with each other over lunch and coffee breaks. If you are not doing something different from your work on your days off, you will not have much to talk about. If you can have some enjoyable conversations with people, you can better connect with them.

Thank you very much for spending your time with me today.

Translated by Hideki Katayanagi
Photo by Miyuki Harada

Translated fromOriginal (Japanese) Written by Hideki Katayanagi
June 2020

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