Updated: Oct 30, 2022
Image Graphics by Team Geostrata
Dr. Sharinee L. Jagtiani speaks with The Geostrata’s Dipika Singh, on the career prospects in International Relations. Dr. Jagtiani completed her PhD in International Relations from Oxford University. The discussion broadly focuses upon how the students, at an undergraduate level can step into the sphere of international relations and discover the career opportunities in the field of research and analysis.
Dipika: Dear viewers, welcome to this Geo Convo on careers in International Relations. This is Dipika Singh and I manage content for the Geostrata. Today we have with us Dr.Sharinee Jagtiani who is a researcher and analyst of international relations and public policy. She has over ten years of experience in think tanks and research institutions across Asia and Europe. Dr.Jagtiani also has a doctorate in International relations from Oxford University and she is currently based at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies and Oxford working on global affairs and rising powers. Today in this conversation we will be broadly focusing on career prospects in International Relations. Welcome, Dr.Jagtiani.
Dr. Jagtiani: Thank you so much for having me, I am happy to be here.
Dipika: It's an honour for us, ma’am. So I would like to start with this question as to why you decided to pursue PhD in International Relations.
Dr. Jagtiani: So a little bit about my background. I did my undergraduate degree in Mass Media and Journalism from Bombay. And in my third year, we were asked to major in Journalism or Advertising and I chose journalism. And at the time we had a module on journalism and public opinion and the person teaching that module was the coordinator of the mass media programme. And as a part of that module, there was a focus on international affairs. And that was sort of my entry point into global affairs and international relations.
My interest was more in research:I was always that person in my undergrad class who would be asking all the questions much to the dismay of other students in the classroom and my Professor then saw something more and in my interest, she advised me it would be the right thing to do to actually pursue a career in International Relations. So it was really based on my own intellectual curiosity,my interest in the world around me and at the time when I was studying my undergrad it was 2008, the global financial crisis that happened: so I started becoming more aware of the world around me and its implications on the media. So this started my interest in International Relations and then I just chose to pursue it further.
Dipika: Great! Could you also provide us some insights on how undergraduate students of political science and international relations work up their profiles to match the Ivy League standards. Also, did you receive any funding to study at Oxford since we all know that it's a high budget expenditure? So how can the students look for these funding avenues?
Dr. Jagtiani: Personally, I don't know if there is any clear-cut recipe book in terms of how you get in because I do think Universities do put a lot of time and investment at the doctoral level especially to really look through everybody’s individual profiles and decide who wants to be a part of the system and who can join. But here are some guesses on the things I think worked for me. Before doing my doctorate I spent a lot of time in the think tank space. I was working for a good five and a half years between my master's and my PhD which I think really helped my profile. I think when you are doing a program like International Relations, universities are looking for people who come with a diverse backgrounds and have diversified experiences on and beyond the western world. And I think that might be why my profile might have been flagged to the admissions department. But if I was to advise students, especially growing up in India we tend to think it all about the grades and it is very competitive, I mean I keep telling people the likelihood of getting into Oxford versus competing for the civil services exams, the likelihood is higher to get into Oxford versus competing for a civil service exam in India.
So we are obviously coming from a society in which grades are prioritized and yes it is really important to have a very strong academic background and that's the first filter but that's, not the only thing.I think they are really looking for a wide range of experiences and you need to be able to convince them as to why those experiences would make you a really unique contributor to the doctoral program. And I think that is something,so really focus on that uniqueness of your profile. Spend some time doing some really interesting things,learn some new languages; I mean as Indians we obviously speak more languages than most others because this is sort of who we are. But take out that time:I did spend time learning Mandarin when I was in Singapore,and these things helped. I was an Indian who had education in India, I studied a bit in Malaysia as well,I have worked in Singapore, I did my masters in the UK, so I came with this eclectic mix so I think that made my profile stand out. And I think what is also interesting is and I think may have worked is I was outside of the Oxford system. So I didn't have a masters in Oxford or I didn't do an undergrad in Oxford. So a lot of people who you will meet in these Ivy League schools or the Oxbridge system have kind of been socialised in the system much earlier than somebody coming from the outside. And on the hand this is a disadvantage because obviously you go in and you expect to adapt to a system that people have been doing for a very long time. But on the other hand, you add a fresh perspective. So I think there are two things that may have worked for me. Obviously, there are the standard tips and advice: you have to write, I guess, a personal statement and you also have to write your research proposal.
It's good to spend some time before you apply to these universities to talk to professors in these departments and kind of get a sense of whether they will be willing to supervise you. Different universities have different policies: some are okay with you consulting professors beforehand before applying just to see if they are interested in working with you. Other universities, Oxford, for example, that wasn't an option. I just had to go through the system and apply directly without consulting supervisors beforehand. So you need to do that research. Another thing worth doing is, a lot of departments have professors who are experts in certain areas. So if you are trying to work on a graduate project that has to do with nuclear deterrence or has to do with arms control or has to do with foreign policy in Asia, it's good to look up professors in these departments to see if there would be somebody who could potentially work with you on these things. And I think there is also value in working with a professor who is not necessarily exactly the expert in exactly the thing you are doing but has wider expertise on some of the things you are doing, because that way they learn from you as well, so its a conversation.
So I think that is something I would advise, that focus first on having a very unique and diverse profile; make your life interesting. Study a language, and take some time to do something unconventional because all these experiences are seen as making somebody different from everyone else. Spend some time on your statement of purpose, and spend some time writing those proposals. You will have to allot a certain set of months in your life on these documents as well. So take some out writing these essays. Get your friends, peers, colleagues, and mentors to read through them, get some feedback and then apply.So if you are thinking about applying, you need to think a year in advance. So say you are applying for 2024, make the decision that okay I am going to apply in 2024, so I need to use 2023 to prepare myself for it. So it's a lot of planning, and it can't be something that you wake up one day and decide on because there is a lot of work that needs to be put in.
Dipika: Okay ma'am, great to know about the planning aspect, also talking about the funds, did you receive any funding for studying at Oxford and how can the students look for these funding avenues to pursue careers in international relations?
Dr Jagtiani: So spend a lot of time on university funding pages, really spend time on this because you would be surprised at the amount of unobvious funding there is out there. So in my own doctoral experience, I used a combination of funds. I had different scholarships from India, from the UK. I was teaching as well. So that also helped me get through the DPhil. So it is important to spend a lot of time reaching out to people, to companies, to corporates, to trusts, I think simple googling. This is what at one point I did Google scholarships for Indian studying Social Sciences overseas, and scholarships for higher education. I mean, it was a real concoction. If I was to actually go through the list of funds, this interview would be long over. So I won't go through each and every scholarship that I got. It was almost like a crowdfunded project in the sense that I actually raised money before and while doing the PhD. And I think the value of that versus getting a stipend is because there are obviously the conventional scholarships and I'm not going to bore your viewers with giving you the obvious, which is when the Commonwealth and Chevening and all of these. Which everybody already knows about.
But this is sort of if you want a more unconventional path of funding, then it is really about raising money through the process and it is about kind of making your project interesting to potential funding bodies to support you. So you can literally just start by googling, reach out to people, and don't hesitate to write to people. So the Tatas have some really interesting trusts to help students. So I got some of those, I got some Oxford scholarships, I got some scholarships from my college, St. Cross College at Oxford. Oxford and Cambridge also have this whole collegiate system, which is another minefield. So spend some time actually seeing which colleges offer funding, for which program. So really, like I said, I'm reiterating the point I said in the previous question that you asked me, it's a one-year project to go in because you need to first, put your documents together. Second, look at your profile and see how you could boost it and make it interesting. Third, you need to raise funding. So all of these things take a long time. So it was kind of a mix of all of these things. Teaching is, again, at the PhD level, really helpful. It's very good experience and it also kind of helps you get through with meals and things and a lot of student jobs on campus in general. So in the UK, the visa that you will get as an Indian allows you to work for less than 20 hours or something a week. So this gives you a little space to work as a librarian or a tutor or an archivist, something that can actually help you get through your day-to-day life there.
Dipika: Thank you so much, ma'am. I'm sure this will be very helpful for the students watching this. Moving ahead, could you please tell us about your learning from your research and analysis experience?
Dr Jagtani: That's a big question, but I'm going to try to be concise. I have probably three main points. The first one is, don't ditch the heavy-duty theory parts of your studies. And the reason I say this is because I have been in the think tank world long enough to know that there are a lot of people who are interested in kind of writing and are really good at this. They're good at writing and reacting to the world around them, quickly putting an op-ed out, quickly putting an analysis out, and the temptation for people like us, and obviously, there are people at a much senior level who are doing that, so they are writing with that kind of experience, and they're kind of writing with that knowledge. And there is a temptation for younger people who are entering into this world being like, I need to get my quick op ed out. I need to write this. And today there are so many platforms that are willing to publish young writers and things. And in that, there is another temptation then to ditch the theory parts of your studies and be like, who cares about this boring theoretical work? I just kind of want to comment on what I'm seeing and reading now.
And the value, I think, from being a researcher who has a strong theoretical understanding is your ability to link things across time and space. So you're able to link something that happened in the forties to something that you're seeing now, or you're able to link different country comparisons. So you look at something happening in India today and you can be like, Oh, this happened in Spain at this time and what did we learn from there and how can we connect the two? And I think this is a huge privilege for people doing international relations, because unlike doing history as your main discipline, for example, history requires you to focus on a specific time period and really be the master of that time period. And that's the incredible benefit of being a historian. The advantage of being an IR scholar, on the other hand, is you can time travel. You can move across time, you can talk about something before and then reflect on what this means for today. And the theoretical training that you get in your graduate studies at the Mphil masters or DPhil level really helps you make those connections. And what would then make you a really good analyst is if you can take that theoretical complexity, the depth of that theoretical complexity, and then simplify it for your audiences so you could be a really good analyst if you can go from the complex to the simple. And sometimes what we see is people writing from the simple about something complex and then there is a bit of a mismatch there.
There's a depth that is missing and this exists in a lot of the opinion columns and analysis you will see today. So I do tend as a person to feel that somebody with a good sort of theory training can actually really give me a better op-ed than somebody who doesn't. And that is something I would tell students that I know. The first part is really boring, like theories of international relations and why we need to think about all these ‘isms’ and why we need to think about these philosophers and these thinkers. And the first part is really hard. But once you get through that tough part, it gets better because the theory and the theory training really kind of puts your mind in a very different place. It improves the quality of your analysis and your research. And this is if you choose to be an academic or you choose to be a think tank scholar. So it really is valuable. So I would really push students to give the theory thing a shot. Don't get bored and close it away. It will get better and it will start making sense to you. Just give it a little time. So that's the first point. Theoretical don't ditch heavy duty theory. Give some time, give some patience to it. The second one is on this I can't emphasize enough. This is the importance of history and historical analysis. I don't know if you feel this when you're in the IR space. I don't know if you feel that there's a tendency where we look at sort of predictive analysis that country X is going to have this kind of GDP in 2025 and therefore we need to think of it in a different way or there is a likelihood of this happening a few years from now and therefore we need to think about this.
Of course, predictive analysis is very helpful because it kind of makes us more aware of why we need to urgently think about certain matters that are happening today. But I feel sometimes this undermines the role of history and the importance of history because we could actually make sense of what is going on today if we took some time to pause and think about how we dealt with it historically. History serves as a great space, a great place, a great time to see how we dealt with international relations before and kind of learn from those lessons. And the other thing about historical analysis is it gives us a better understanding of where countries are coming from today. So today, if a country like India is making a claim, for example, to permanent membership in the UN Security Council it's coming from a historical sense of itself for why it feels entitled to make that claim. And unless we don't have that sort of historical context of those creators, of those ideas, we really won't understand why it matters to India so much today. And the same goes for other countries, right? When we want to understand why is China behaving in the way it is? Why is Russia behaving in the way it is? that historical analysis really helps. Why is the United States responding to India in the way it is? I think that kind of historical understanding really strengthens an analysis of the contemporary. So it's important not to get lost in this sort of predictive future type analysis. I mean, it's important, but it's not the only way to be a researcher or an analyst. Look at the history, look at the future, and then kind of come up with good analysis that's somewhere in between.
And wait, I have one more quick point.The other thing I would also advise is "a graduate education and international relations also makes you more aware of your agency as a messenger of information." It means that today global order is at a really unsteady and unstable period, we are in a moment of flux and we really don't know where we are going to go from here and the value of studying international relations is that after the training you become very aware of the responsibility you have. The importance of your agency as a scholar and an analyst of international relations, so when you are writing an op-ed or writing an analysis or writing an article, especially in today's very turbulent world, you have a very great responsibility to provide information to people to help make sense of the world around them. And the beauty of a graduate training in international relations and the seriousness of it makes you aware of your agency in this process so it's important to remember and remind yourself of the fact that today it is one thing is to write on trend but the other thing is to make sure that you are providing information in an era of fake news, in an era of online trolling, in an era of all these really sort of dangerous places. You are providing information of a very serious nature and this is again something that I learned from my research experience. My agency is a scholar and a provider of information is extremely important and that makes for more responsible research and analysis. So,don’t ditche the heavy theory,the importance of history and historical analysis and reflecting on your agency as a messenger of information in international relations. Those are my three takeaways.
Image Credits: University of Kent
Dipika: Great! Thank you so much ma’am. Now,since you have worked in numerous think tanks,could you please throw some light on how the undergraduate students can get into this sphere and what do the opportunities look like in the think tank space and what skills can gain?
Dr Jagtani: There are different kinds of think tanks out there and some are more research oriented, some have a stronger academic leaning, some are more policy oriented. They are focused more on workshops and talks and lectures. So there are different kinds of think tanks out there. So you need to kind of do the research and think about what kind of think tank would I fit in best way? That research is sort of the first thing, that is the onus on you as somebody who wants to apply. I personally have had the privilege of working for both kinds of think tanks and there are advantages to both, and I found the kind of combined experience extremely enriching the skills that you get from working with the think tank now obviously the first thing is you get some sort of consulting skills because you are often in times sort of one-on-one with a policy maker and obviously if you are starting out as an undergraduate student or a research assistant at a think tank, gives you this ability to watch and shadow some of your seniors how they do it.
This is something I really benefited from. I would watch my senior fellows talk to ambassadors and talk to policy makers and kind of learn from those experiences of how a policy maker really thinks, where is their mind and I genuinely think that they really shaped the way I approached my PhD project as well. Because I had this sort of experience before starting the PhD program. So first you get the skill set that you get out of this is sort of an early introduction into the consulting world and you can obviously take this and continue instead of the tract of political consultancy, but you could also take it in a sort of corporate direction as well. So as an undergraduate student if you think this is something you are interested in then think tank world could give you some insight into this sort of client facing consulting type role if that is something you are looking at when you advance in your career. Think tanks will give you some really effective communication skills - written and oral. You are constantly exposed to some fantastic speakers, lecturers, speakers, moderators, so you just through the process of listening as a junior obviously can learn a lot about sort of communication, how to speak to certain audiences, how to change the (tenor) of your presentations to different people.
So effective communication orally is sort of one big thing, but I also gained a lot in terms of effective communication in my writing. So I had some really good opportunities in my career to write some policy briefs, notes for speakers, as a junior this is a lot of what you will be doing, you will be preparing notes, you will be note taking, minutes of the meeting like these are some of the and I'm talking really at the undergraduate level and at the face of these things might sound a little dull but you can actually get a lot out of it if you choose to, so obviously you are young and you want to do all the cool things and see your seniors doing but I think that there's some value and actually just shadowing and listening and contributing and that sort of the value of the think tank world that you are not only do you get these effective skills but you also get sort of unconsciously trained in the process. So that's another sort of skill that I saw myself getting as I was there. And the other final point is "there's a lot of interest in the think tank world to hear young people.
''So don't be afraid if you feel you have a thought on an idea for a workshop or a project or there's a brainstorming session with your mentor and you want to contribute something, don't be afraid because often what happens isn't the think tank world, it's not like the exactly like in the corporate structure whether a lot of junior positions and you sort of slowly rise, it's research assistant dissociate analyst and then senior fellow and fellow, so it can be that you might feel really intimidated because all the gap between you and the next person is so wide in your terms of expertise and experience and age but don't be hesitant to ask questions because this young fresh perspective is also really valuable and it's valued in think tank world so that's another thing like being learning skills of confidence, not being afraid to ask questions. These are the skills sort of harnessed and the final point would be to kind of see what are the projects out there because think tanks also rely a lot on third-party funding. So it gives you a sense of sort of what are the interesting projects that researchers need to do that policy makers want to know more about that they don't, so it gives you this ability to also kind of see where you want to harness you own expertise and create your own niche. So this is another sort of thing that I acquired from being in the think tank world for a long time.
Dipika: Ma’am, since you have worked on a lot of research papers, do you have any suggestions for the projects that the undergraduate students of IR can consider working upon?
Dr Jagtiani: Don’t go for something that…well I would say find a balance between what is the hot topic out there and what you are interested in. So, I have seen and it’s a tricky balance to find to be honest, I have seen a lot of people and I remember when I was doing my master’s thesis at the time China’s role as a donor and an aid financer became a new thing, this was 2010 and Chris Alden had written the first book… not the first book, I am sure there were books before but the key book which was China and Africa and it was this new thing, not many people have studied, obviously now 10 years later there’s a lot more on it but at that time it was interesting and new area that was really understudied and people wanted to know more about it, how does China provide aid, where does it come from, what are the structures in place.
That was obviously like a hot topic you could argue but where my interest and passion came from was in developing countries, so how do countries kind of build independence through aid system eventually and then become independent providers of their own social and economic infrastructures. So, you have to find this balance, don’t be this person who necessarily just writes on a hot topic because then it becomes little dispassionate, you don’t get so connected to it and that passion and that fire is really what you also need to get you through a thesis and I am saying this at the undergraduate level, graduate level or doctorate level. So find a balance between what is interesting, what are people talking about in the IR space but also something that matters to you.
For example, today, if you are somebody who really thinks very strongly about the role of climate change and the role of conserving the environment and sustainable development. Green technology for example is a really big thing in the IR space and the development space, this might be something you want to write your thesis on. So make sure you write something that is interesting that people are talking about and at the same time something that you care about. So this way you will match passion with relevance and this will help you drive a thesis forward and even the students who are thinking of doctorate programmes, thesis is a very, very painful thing to write, so at some point of time you will be asking yourself why you decided to sign up to this and it is really that passion that will push you forward. So, really, a mix of passion and relevance. This is sort of something I would advocate as a decision to… on your research topic.
Dipika: Thank you so much ma’am. I would now like to put forward one last question and that is could you also briefly touch upon the emerging political risk analysis industry and how can the students set foot there.
Dr Jagtiani: So there are some really excellent places that do this kind of work, obviously there is The Eurasia group and Control Risk and so on and for students who don’t know what this is, from what I understand these institutions help clients think about political risks of their investments, their engagement in certain places and certain industries and sectors. So they are looking for analysts to help them decide whether it’s a good idea to be in a specific place or an industry or a sector from the political standpoint. So, what are the political instabilities in those areas, how can they affect that industry, how should that risk be mitigated, how can that risk be managed, so this is sort of what that industry is and in a world in which global order is so unstable - Russian invasion in Ukraine has caused the world to upside down in so many ways.
I think this is a really interesting and growing space. Many graduate schools offer this as a module, political risk analysis is a module, so take it, if you are being offered that, take it and if it is something that you want to do in your career, look for schools and programmes that allow you to do that. So always think about what you want from your career, roughly, obviously it's not like you wake up one day and you are like ‘I want to be a political risk analyst’ but that is something you are interested in doing. Look for graduate programmes that offer it as a module because then you get that kind of training, that kind of thinking because it requires a particular kind of… sort of business mind as well as a political science mind.
So it’s a really interesting and a unique interdisciplinary area, so it’s good to take some time to look for these courses and what I did once is I found some interesting courses at Oxford that were outside the International Relations department and then I would just write to the professors of those course if they allow me to audit those classes. So I would just sit there, wouldn’t do the assignments or anything, I would just listen. So even if your course per se doesn’t offer it, if the university offers it outside your department, don’t hesitate to write to professors and say you know ‘I found this course really interesting. Can I just come and listen’. Sometimes they may even say ‘no’ but sometimes they may be very happy to have you because they actually might think you’ll add your unique perspective there.
So even if your IR department doesn’t have it, look at the business school of the same university, they may have it. So you can audit it and train yourself to think in that way and another idea that came to me would be that if you are in a think tank and you are interested in this kind of analysis, try to see… ask your mentors at the think tank if you could contribute or write paper or a publication with this sort of risk analysis angle because what that would do is that it will make somebody who is hiring you in these companies interesting…because then they are like ‘oh already thinking in this risk analysis mind-set’ which is a different point from traditional IR mind-set. So try to get experience in this, audit classes, listen in, get the training and I am sure it would be an industry that would be willing to consider your application.
Dipika: Great! Thank you so much Dr Jagtiani. I hope our viewers could take away some insights from this conversation in terms of opportunities in International relations. Do get in touch with us and we will implement the takeaways together. Ma’am thank you so much for your time.
Dr Jagtiani: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
Watch the entire interview on the Geostrata's YouTube page
BY DIPIKA SINGH
IN CONVERSATION WITH DR. SHARINEE L. JAGTIANI - PHD IN INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS FROM OXFORD UNIVERSITY
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