GeoPolitics offers fascinating insights into developments across the world from a strategic, geographical and historical perspective !

Amruta Karambelkar, our next pathbreaker, Research Associate at Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), analyzes how developments in the Indo-Pacific region impact India.

Amruta talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her inclination towards languages, and subjects like history and geography, that steered her towards Political Science and Strategic Policy.

For students, a career in international affairs is like unravelling a puzzle with multiple facets and throwing light on strategic developments that have global impact !

Amruta, Your background?

I was born and brought up in Pune. After school, I went to Fergusson college for plus 2 in Arts stream, and also continued in the same college for BA in Political Science. Since school, I have had an inclination towards languages and subjects like history and geography. So, after I completed school, I had decided  to pursue the Arts stream. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I had two choices to specialise in BA- Economics and Political Science. I felt that these two subjects have better prospects, than say, sociology or history. But I thought over it and felt that unless one has a strong background in mathematics, it is not wise to pursue Economics. Afterall, why would you be half-baked? So, I chose political science as my major, since I was equally interested in that subject. After I graduated from Fergusson, I did my MA (Political Science) from the Department of Politics and Public Administration, Pune.

What made you take up such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

Initially, my father acquainted me with prospects in civil services. So, during my 10th boards, I had chosen to pursue studies in that direction. But more importantly, I followed two criteria, which I feel every young person should follow- choose a career /subject feel passionate about, 2. But also something you are good at, or have a natural talent for. For example, I loved physics in school, but mathematics was a challenge, hence I avoided science stream. The right way to go about choosing a career is to fulfill both the above criteria. Merely being passionate is not enough, one should also have a talent for it. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

After I finished my MA, I tried to move to England for further studies, but there were no scholarships available. So, I changed my mind and let go of an offer from a reputed UK university. I started looking for internship opportunities and Delhi seemed like a great place, also because I was fascinated by the thought of living there. I had two inclinations- either international relations, or the development sector. Through a family friend’s guidance, I applied for an internship at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), and got selected. I worked there for nine months.

At ICWA, I studied developments in Maldives from a political scientist’s hat. The more we know about a particular country, the more it adds to common knowledge, and can be beneficial to Indian government as well.  Anyone with stakes in a specific country or issue can learn more about it through publications from think-tanks. 

This was my first and, fortunately, big break into the realm of strategic studies. Thereafter I joined the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies as a research officer and my focus was on South China Sea and Southeast Asian politics. 

At IPCS, I had a higher profile, and I had higher deliverables too. The nature of work was similar- researching, publishing though I had more say into my work. Here, I began to work on Southeast Asia, specifically the South China Sea. I also followed domestic issues in Southeast Asia and insurgencies in the Philippines, and researched events in the ASEAN. 

I worked there for about 18 months. I realised that I had to enroll into a PhD program, since one cannot go far in this field without a doctorate. So, I applied to JNU, Centre for Southeast Asian studies, cracked the entrance and interview, and landed in JNU. 

Until recently, MPhil was mandatory to get into PhD program. MPhil is typically a two-year program, with the first year for course-work, like a regular college, where you attend classes. In the second year, you write a dissertation of about 40,000 words. MPhil prepares you for a doctorate, because one can assess one’s interest and capabilities, given that PhD is a long-term commitment. 

For my MPhil, I chose to look at military modernization in Southeast Asia. The reasons to choose this topic were two-fold – one, I enjoyed working on military matters, and two, this topic is relatively not over-researched. Moreover, security matters are more relevant in the job-market, especially in think-tanks. For my doctoral thesis, I looked at the same area, and narrowed military matters to the navy. 

In social sciences, PhD research can be theoretical- where you explore a theory, or apply deductive methods to test a theory with respect to an issue, event or phenomena. It can be contemporary or even historical. Innovation, that we associate with a PhD- in political sciences, it can be by the way of methods such as, new approach, new arguments, new analysis, reviewing an earlier work etc. You can also study a government policy in depth and bring out new analysis. Your research should add to existing knowledge in that area. 

In the midst of my PhD, I got a job at the Vivekananda International Foundation, which builds on my previous research. I currently look into more contemporary matters like the Indo-Pacific geopolitics, groupings like the Quad (The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD, also known as the Quad or QUAD) which is a strategic dialogue between the United States, India, Japan and Australia that is maintained by talks between member countries), and India’s interests. 

I can say with a sense of satisfaction that I got into each of these organisations on my merit, though it is equally true that your network matters. As is with every field, some people will land in a job merely through their network. However, hard work and talent will always bring you opportunities. 

How did you get your first break? 

Right after my MA exams, I told my professor that I was keen to do some internships. He introduced me to an NGO in Pune that worked in political development. After an informal interview, I was taken onboard for a short assignment to document a national consultation on the MNEREGA.

My first break came through an acquaintance, who guided me to apply to ICWA. After the initial interview, I was tasked to prepare a report on a seminar. The then director and the director-general were satisfied with my report and on that basis, I was offered the internship. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Moving to a new city, that too a metro like Delhi was a big cultural change. Living by yourself, and managing a paltry stipend was a life-learning lesson. I had fortunately made a couple of friends who were supportive. Food and weather in Delhi and Hindi language took some time to get comfortable with. I did not do anything extraordinary about it, over time, I got accustomed to the new life in the national capital. I guess I was very keen to stick around, hence I could adapt quickly, without any conscious effort in that regard. 

Challenge 2: Doing a PhD or research work is mentally taxing. So, I would relax my mind through exercise, by watching TV shows and films, and socializing with people from diverse fields. Sometimes you experience writer’s block, which means you cannot think of a new idea or face inertia. That can be overcome by distracting yourself and engaging in another activity to refresh the mind. 

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role?

I work at Vivekananda International Foundation, based in New Delhi. My main focus area is to see how developments in the Indo-Pacific region impact India. So, it is India-centric. The aim is to analyse geopolitics.

VIF is an independent think-tank that focuses on India’s national interests. The work nature at all think-tanks is similar, the difference could be in the approach or focus area. Here, I publish on the VIF website, record podcasts with experts, participate in seminars and meetings with international scholars and diplomats where we exchange views. 

This job requires being updated of current happenings around the world. Hence, one has to monitor developments in one’s area very closely. The ability to read in depth, to articulate well and precisely, will give you an edge. It is also important to be able to write well. In policy research, a comprehensive view of a problem needs to be taken. Professional network is important.  It is also necessary to understand your government’s policies. 

What is a typical day like?

A typical day begins with reading several newspapers, magazine articles about your research area. Meetings, seminars and conferences are regular. When one is working on a research paper, then one can even utilize weekends. Research and writing require a peaceful and quiet environment. 

The best part about this job is dynamism- every day, every article you write, is a new learning. Geo-politics is a dynamic field, which keeps you on your toes, which makes it very exciting and at times challenging. 

Per se, there is no team work as such, so we work on our own-which gives flexibility and control on how you plan your work. Work-life balance can be met, barring exceptional days. 

You also get to meet and interact with who’s who of the world. You may be in the same room with a foreign minister, a president or a prime minister of a country. You also regularly work or interact with counterparts from across the world, foreign diplomats. Hence, the exposure one gets, is unparalleled. If you travel for work or conferences, most of the time the expenditure is taken care of by the organisers. 

How does your work benefit society? 

It is difficult to discern the direct benefits of my work because it is not apparent. But my work enhances knowledge about a country, a geo-political problem. Just as scientific exploration gives us more information about natural phenomena, my research throws more light on international geo-political developments. Governments can make use of these skills when they require deeper study into something, since career bureaucrats may not have the time for in-depth research or analysis. 

For example, an analyst such as myself can study a country comprehensively, whereas a career diplomat may have specific focus. We can get a different perspective through our interactions with counter-parts from other countries, can bring an alternative or civilian perspective. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

While this field is enticing, and certainly gives you immense satisfaction, the salary/income is nowhere comparable to the private sector. Though there are fewer professionals in this job, the competition is intense. So, survival can be tough for many. At the risk of sounding pessimistic, I would strongly advise to be cautious in this field if you have a family to feed, particularly if you’re working in India. Pay scales are better in teaching jobs.

If you are getting into research for a PhD, make sure that your research has market value. If you want to make a living out of your work, your research should be salable. 

In general, in any field, if you have the passion, as well as talent for it, you will always thrive. In the beginning of your career, focus on learning rather than on money. Work hard, but always maintain the work-life balance. Never neglect academic pursuits, target to score well in exams and try to get into the best of colleges/universities. Always upgrade your skills, do not shy away from change.

Future Plans?

After a few more years in policy-work, move into academia and teach. Or, I may pursue other passions.