What did you study at Yale, and what is your current profession/job?
I’m a New Delhi-based freelance journalist, writing mostly on human rights and development along with culture and travel, and I’m a consultant for international development organizations. So I work in a few different roles. I completed my PhD in Comparative Literature in 2015, and my particular field was postcolonial studies and visual culture. I also did an MA in History of Art while at Yale, which I finished in 2010. After I graduated I went to work as a consultant for the World Bank group in Washington D.C. When my contract ended I moved to India and started freelancing.
What do you like most about your current role? What do you find most challenging and/ or rewarding?
I like the flexibility of freelance writing and consulting, but I struggle with the same challenges that I did as a PhD student, namely lack of structure and the desire for meatier, more collaborative work. Journalism has also suffered from the same process of casualization and corportization that universities have. My current role still feels intermediary, a bridge between my program and the post-ac world. Ultimately, I’d like to branch out from research and communications and find a program role that connects my background in arts and culture with my training in international development and human rights.
How did your time at Yale shape your career trajectory?
I applied to study at Yale when I was only 23. I was living in Paris at the time, and had just returned from two long trips to India, where I had just given my first conference presentation. I had the same interests then that I do now, but I didn’t have a sense of what careers a person like me might pursue. I wanted to study more, and hoped that the rest would fall into place, which it more or less did. I knew from the beginning that academia was not a good fit for me, either personally or professionally. But I got a lot out of my years at Yale. First of all, I am deeply invested in the value of a humanities education, particularly in international development, where economists and technicians abound but what is always needed are people who have fluency in multiple cultures along with respect and even love for the places where they work. They need to know not just the standard development metrics, but they should also have a sense of that region’s music, heritage, art— its unique practices and principles. I was reading in an Indian newspaper recently that the hard sciences ask “how?” but the humanities ask “why?” Outside of academia, I see how badly those critical thinking skills are needed, even among efficient and experienced practitioners. In that sense I really value my time at Yale.
What are the main skills that you acquired as a PhD student which help make you successful in your current career?
Yale gave me the time and resources to spend years in professional exploration, developing a unique skill set that I am now proud of. I was the recipient of several major research grants, and those were instrumental in preparing me for what I do now. Learning how to write a successful grant proposal through trial-and-error was one important skill. And also, just knowing how to arrive in Ramallah, or Lahore, or Srinagar, knowing virtually no one, and having to get settled, make contacts, and carry out a research project— all that was hugely valuable to freelancing now as an independent journalist. This spring, I went to Nepal to cover the first anniversary of the 2015 earthquake. I also contributed articles from Sri Lanka and northwestern India.
Did you acquire any professional experience related to your line of work while in graduate school?
I did a lot of different things while in graduate school. I started volunteering with IRIS, a nonprofit organization in New Haven that aids incoming refugees, while I was in my third year. I spent the next year in Israel and the West Bank on a long grant and continued volunteering with NGO’s while conducting my own research. That was also when I first started writing journalism articles. The next year, I went through a training program in development reporting at the United Nations in New York City. I also worked with a Fair Trade craft company that employs women artisans in Central Asia. I explored many, many different paths and activities. I lived in New York City for two years, and went to a lot of networking events in the city. I also volunteered as a translator with an advocacy organization that works with detained immigrants and as an arts teacher at a non-profit working with recent Arab immigrants, and I trained as an abortion escort. I wrote my dissertation pretty quickly and never got that stressed about it, except towards the very end. I think it’s because I was continually doing things outside of academia, and that helped me keep a realistic perspective. When you’re working with communities that just fled war and still manage to seem upbeat compared to the hysterical, miserable PhD students you know, the whole system starts to seem pretty ridiculous.
What advice would you offer humanities PhDs who are interested in your line of work?
Be open and honest with professors and peers. In my day, there was a taboo around admitting that you wanted to work outside of academia. That meant I didn’t reveal my plans until my last year of school, which is a shame, because some of those professors might actually have been in a position to help me. Take advantage of the time and resources you have at Yale. PhD students seem to think that they’re exceptionally busy, but trust me, you will probably never have this much time on your hands again during your working lives. Take advantage of it. The stipend means that you have a financial safety net that you can fall back on as you explore. Listen to your gut. If there is something that excites you—a project or person that you read about—get in touch and try to get involved. Have fun with it. For international development specifically, figure out what role you’d like to have, where you’d like to be based, and see how your skills translate. But be critical and be savvy. Don’t conform to existing models of development and aid. See how you can innovate and reform. Follow the industry and appreciate its complexities. For freelance journalism, find a news hook then turn your research into an Op-ed. Or think of an interesting story idea, do a bit of pre-research, and think about what outlets it fits with. Look for editors’ emails on Twitter and send in a cold pitch. Look for guidelines online. Keep pitching. Editors are busy and can take weeks to respond. It takes a long time to get started, and work is slow, but it’s an exciting way to get your writing to a much wider readership. Academics tend to think they need to spend twenty years on a subject before they’re qualified to discuss it. The rest of the world does not feel that way— to its detriment, often.