Yukari Sekine, ISS’s 250th PhD graduate walks into the room wearing a beige and green cardigan that had been knitted by a former employee turned friend.
Having returned from a month-long silent retreat just days before this interview, she has a lot of reflections to share about her journey over the past six years.
The process and the pleasure of doing a PhD at ISS
In true ISS style, the 250th PhD was conducted using a scholar-activist approach to research, where Yukari focused on agrarian struggles (like land grabs and ecological consequences) in the era of climate change, populism and authoritarianism in Myanmar. She came to ISS to join a research project led by her now supervisor Professor Jun Borras, and found herself stepping into a challenging but rewarding research community. As she puts it, having this project group meant being able to see things from a broader, more complex perspective, and then working with Jun to network and connect patterns across diverse areas.
That the group itself had genuine camaraderie, an interest in supporting each other and made her feel included and comfortable is, according to Yukari, true credit to the people that make ISS what it is – the staff, the professors, her supervisors and her diverse cast of colleagues and friends. Her gratitude is immense and unbridled, and she carries that energy as we start talking about some of the harder times she dealt with during her PhD trajectory.
Without hesitation, she talks about the internal conflict she faced when it came to the writing. While the fieldwork had its challenging moments, it was engaging and dynamic. By contrast, 40% of her time in the past two years went into taming her insecurities around writing and finishing on time. Writing and learning how to write was the hardest part, and Yukari talks openly about the mental health struggles that she has observed PhDs face in general. Having reached the end of her own process, she is looking to make this her personal quest for the future: supporting mental health needs within and beyond academia in the years to come.
'I think a lot of the anxiety comes from thinking you should know everything from the beginning, which isn’t right of course. It’s a process of discovery — finishing a PhD does not mean you’ve finished the process of knowing or learning.'
Deciding what happens after the PhD defence
Of course, this is not the only thing she will be looking to do after receiving her degree! Reflecting on her experience as an activist-turned-scholar-activist, she talks about how her perspectives on activism have developed over the years. Where before she would be highly encouraging of social movements, she now sees the inner workings of them more clearly from an academic perspective. Advocacy and activism are necessary, but Yukari now more clearly sees the conflicts and layers involved in constructing change. She gives the example of Myanmar’s land struggles, where conflict over land takes alongside military dominance, conflict over state and ethnic armed organizations over territory and power.
There is historical context involved, as well as socio-economic and political structures. Activism is one element of a lot of moving parts. So, after a well deserved break with her family, ISS’s 250th PhD candidate is going to re-enter the field, as an engaged researcher and advocate, and learn how to re-connect in social justice. Just this time with a view to understanding alternative ways of advocating and contributing to social change.
'The reason why I came to ISS was because it was so politically and socially engaged. After graduating I’d like to think of what the best way is to contribute. I want to help as much as I can, but I think I do need to reassess how I can help and what my position in that space will be without adding my own inner conflict or preconceptions. I think that is where I will start.'
As our newest graduate, ISS congratulates Dr Yukari Sekine on the success of her efforts and we cannot wait to see just how she redesigns her activist efforts in Myanmar and beyond.