Please tell us about yourself
Sharada S. is a student of Masters Programme in Public Policy from the batch of 2014-16 at the National Law School of India University.
Sharada is presently a research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Technology, and Competition.
Tell us more about your life before NLSIU. Why did you choose to pursue Public Policy? How did you end up in such an offbeat unconventional and exciting career?
I have a background in Electrical and Electronics engineering. As an undergraduate student, I developed a passion for parliamentary debating and enjoyed reading outside of engineering more than engineering-related academic papers. Furthermore, I was most fascinated by nanotechnology and embedded systems and research in these fields were highly technical career tracks that had relatively fewer and narrower options within the country. I always wanted to work where I could have a more direct connect with public issues. Debating was instrumental in shaping my perspective and sharpened my interest in philosophy and politics. I did not, however, want to dwell in the realm of theory, and public policy bridged the gap between the realms of abstract theorising and real world action. Before I pursued the Master’s course here, I did Takshashila Institution’s Graduate Certificate in Public Policy, which helped me solidify my intent in pursuing a career in this discipline.
How did your experience at NLSIU help you find the career of your choice after Masters in Public Policy?
Different parts of the programme allowed me to hone my career choices. I love how NLS has been the level of support for experimentation with new areas of interest, and the flexibility and accommodation for my wide range of extra-curricular pursuits (including at least a dozen parliamentary debates, two Internet governance fellowships and a summer school).
Fieldwork was the first step in a transformative journey. The stories of the people made a lasting impact. I met a deeply influential woman whose name is Rekha. She’s a 21-year-old, with a blind mother and a 2-year-old son, who divorced her alcoholic and abusive husband and decided to take her life into her own hands.
She wanted to talk to me about scholarships so she could go to college. Despite social censure from her village, she was determined to be a teacher, and I was able to help her to access government scholarship sites. It was the first time that the power of the Internet struck me, I realised how it can improve educational outcomes for those less privileged. Since then I have wanted to work to proliferate its access to communities. I met so many Muslim communities where girls were not allowed to study beyond fifth grade, but nearly all of these people used phones of some kind. I couldn’t think of ways to change the structures that subjugate them, but I did think that making information accessible could help drastically. I don’t know if I can negotiate with patriarchs and leaders who wouldn’t give me a time of the day because I had a loud voice and an uncovered head. But these kids, they all loved seeing things on my phone or my laptop and were so genuinely inquisitive and quick on the uptake with technology. It made me believe that policies towards internet access and programmes are more effective than top-down laws that made education compulsory. I went to “schools” which had 1 teacher for 300 students and kids who were “educated till tenth” but couldn’t string four words to a sentence in English. I now worry whether we have the capacity or the manpower to change education systems without a drastic infusion of technology.
My research methods class in the third trimester afforded me the opportunity to present preliminary ideas on Internet policy, and receive incredible feedback from Professor Jayaram and my classmates, which shaped the course of my dissertation significantly. It teaches you how to go from a problem statement to a hypothesis to an overview of various methods to test that hypothesis and how and where to use them – and I use this at my workplace, in determining the scope of my study at times, or in deciding whether to pursue a new research paper idea at other times.
I also applied to the European summer school on Internet Governance in this trimester. I applied because I didn’t have many resources in India to learn about Internet governance. I went to Meissen in Germany for the summer school in July. It was a week long summer school, with 15 hour work days. Every expert that did a session covered a new area. I learned about cyber-security, GTLDs, ICANN, IANA transition and Internet rights. Nearly every area of Internet policy was taught by those at the forefront of policy making and negotiation in the global arena.
I came back equipped with knowledge and spent time researching what I wanted to do on my next break and working on my proposal
In September last year, I applied for the Amazon Fellowship for the Internet Governance Forum. The fellowship covers a trip to the IGF and has a requirement of research output based on the IGF. I was one among the four that were accepted and was immensely grateful for the opportunity.
At the IGF, I attended panels on zero rating, the subject of my Master’s dissertation. I asked questions of experts and briefed myself with ongoing research. I conducted interviews with stakeholders, attended networking events and gained a lot of knowledge on a contemporary subject area in Internet policy.
Of course, the internship and dissertation mattered immensely, but I answer that below separately.
Present nature of work at the current organisation?
I’m a research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Technology, Innovation and Competition. I work on a project called 1 World Connected, which looks at innovative ways of connecting the unconnected (1worldconnected.org). We catalogue case studies of all last-mile connectivity initiatives that are underway across the world. I conduct interviews with stakeholders to develop case studies, engage with governments and ministries, present my work at conferences, write routine reports for our supporters, and liaise with a public affairs and media team to improve outreach of our project’s work.
What would you look for if you were in the position to hire new MPP graduate(s) from NLSIU to this organisation?
I would look for candidates with strong writing and communication skills, good quantitative analytical abilities, and a demonstrated interest in Internet policy issues. Knowledge of networks and telecom engineering would be very useful. The work I do relies on self-starters and highly motivated individuals that can be creative, so I guess that’s something I’d look for.
What role do internship and dissertation have in securing the career of your choice?
I’d applied for the GPPi, Berlin internship while doing my fellowship, and was screened by a three-step process. Work at GPPi is as rewarding as you make it to be. We have a library and multiple IdeaLabs that are internal discussions to brainstorm ideas. A day at work ideally involves a research task, and freedom to structure your day a little around your own personal research interests. The first month was primarily cyber security capacity building, the latter half was primarily encryption policies. It fed into their ongoing research projects as well as a dialogue program that they were organising over the course of 2016.
At the internship, I got to do a wide range of things. From writing brief research memos to making presentations to preparing questions for panel discussions, to just brainstorming ideas for pitches, to sitting through meetings to take minutes and meeting newer ones. That’s what I liked about it because every day was a challenge in something new.
I wrote my dissertation in the realm of Internet policy as well, which was useful while having a conversation with my professor on my current research project. I think the emphasis on the dissertation is more if you intend to get into a more research-oriented field, and less if you’re applying for traditional corporate positions.
Any concluding thoughts?
Take initiative. I think the thing that goes unsaid in a lot of these conversations is the fact that personal drive and initiative play an immense role in deriving value out of the MPP. You will not find a more conducive environment or a more supportive staff for your research endeavours.