I always did well in school and university without having to make a lot of effort. Growing up in New Delhi, a person of south Indian ethnicity and culture, Christian family in a largely Hindu society, I felt like an outsider.
I struggled to identify what I wanted to do in my life. Good in STEM subjects, I also loved literature: gobbling up novels and historical books. Majoring in science in senior school - Indian version of A-levels – switching to English literature as an undergrad. Neither seemed to clarify what I should do.
My parents were academics. Although this influenced their cultural preferences and lifestyle, they did not approve of my dancing, and enjoyment of Rock, Pop and Bollywood music!
To the younger me, being an academic looked ‘boring and beige’. One of my dad’s closest friends and colleagues, also a close family friend, tried to convince me to major in economics like my dad, his friend, and his wife. Taken aback, I pushed against this vehemently. Determined to forge my own way, I would show them!
Since I did not want to be like my parents, my intention was to start working as soon as I finished my undergraduate degree. However, a recession hit in my final year and my parents convinced me to do a master’s. Mum, a nurse during my childhood who had returned to education and completed a master’s and a PhD to transition into teaching, advised me that it would be much harder to return to education later in life. Frustrated by the thought of another two years of not earning my own money or living my life on my own terms, I decided I would do a master’s, but that that would be the end of my involvement in higher education.
An experience that gave me direction was community service volunteering at university. Allocated to an NGO to teach English and Maths to the children of domestic workers enrolled in government schools. Seeing the academic and personal achievements of the children, sharing my favourite childhood books, helping them develop an interest in reading and spelling, advancements that they would carry for life, was hugely rewarding. Remembering these experiences eventually led to a master's in social work.
After those two years I was employed as a project executive at a company that subcontracted research, IT services and media products for different aid agencies and government bodies. I had fulfilled my adolescent dream to be independent and to do something different to my parents. But I was not happy, my role did not interest me.
What intrigued me was the research projects that I learned about whilst working on the project proposals. Overtime, I realized what I wanted to do, and what mattered to me most. It was research and it wasn’t boring or beige!
Consequently this realisation, almost 10 years ago, propelled me into a PhD in gender, social inequalities, and education. Working as a junior researcher in the field on a project on gender inequality developed my skills and resulted in a successful proposal for an MPhil programme at The Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. My MPhil dissertation explored caste-based prejudices and experiences in an undergraduate college. This was soon followed by a successful proposal to pursue a PhD in the Department of Education Studies at the University of Warwick.
For me it is not a choice between an academic or non-academic career. I want a research-focused career and have fulfilled this role in both types of environments. Since many of my relatives are academics, I am intimately aware of the changing conditions and economic realities that academics struggle with.
Despite disciplinary career twists and turns, the last decade has given me an appreciation and understanding of my parents' choice.
A key thing I have learned about myself is to understand what I enjoy. I like knowing about people’s lives and figuring out if they can be improved.
In a non-academic environment, the pressure to publish in academic journals is relatively low (in sociology, education and development studies). The audience to which you write is usually aid organisations, governmental bodies and funders.
I enjoy the grounded nature of research on gender, education and social inequalities. Without the pressures of academia to publish every year.
This kind of work is more flexible. It feels more rewarding emotionally, mentally and psychologically. In a way, helps me feel like I am not a carbon copy of my parents.