My Research Journey
By Mahmood Kooria
Growing up in a village of Kerala, even an Indian university such as Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) was beyond my educational imaginations. But once I got admission there in 2009 to complete a Master’s at the Centre for Historical Studies, my confidence increased. Yet, I was not that confident to apply to a foreign university, although it has been a silent dream for some years. Like many students in the Indian academia, Oxbridge universities were there in my mind, too, but I was not self-assured to share my ambition with friends or teachers. I remember checking out the websites of such universities quite often very secretly. I did not know how to apply or move ahead with the procedures.
Meanwhile, one of my professors at JNU, whom I still admire like a father-figure, asked me if I am interested in applying to any foreign university. I did not know what to say, especially as all my complexities of a villager were infused in my psyche. Still I told him that I was interested. He advised me to contact my current supervisor at Leiden University. I hadn’t heard of that university before that.
Only later on, I realized that the Leiden is one of the best universities in the world and its Department of History has been one among the first twenty best departments in the discipline in the world. It also had a long tradition of studying Asian and African communities, religions and cultures for not less than four hundred years; in other words, a rich tradition of Orientalism permeated through the hallowed corridors of Leiden. It also has been a dream campus for many educational aspirants of Southeast Asia, similar to Oxbridge, due to the continuing colonial “legacy”, of course. However, while applying to the university, I had only aspired to study abroad in a European atmosphere.
I applied for a doctoral programme at the Encompass-Cosmopolis Programme of History Department. The Programme was primary targeted at the Asian and African students in order to train them in Dutch language, and make them capable of working with the Dutch archival materials on Asia and Africa since the seventeenth century. It was also a follow-up programme of much successful TANAP Project, which also had similar objectives. Therefore, once I started with the application procedures, it was a very smooth process thanks to the years-long familiarity of university officials with application hurdles that Asian students generally come across.
Just before I started the process, I had written to my current supervisor informing him of my interest in the programme. He was very appreciative of my interest, and arranged an informal meeting during his visit to India. In the meeting, with two other applicants, he discussed many prospects of the Programme and enquired about our aspirations. The meeting gave me more confidence to move further with the application.
The technical complexities apart what matters most while applying for the doctoral projects is the proposal. Although we might not work on the same topic eventually, it is always better to have a topic that relates to our personal academic interests and which matches with the research areas of one or two professors with whom we plan to work. While most of us ignore the research interests of professors and tend to stick to our own research-plans, it is difficult for the professors to say yes to our proposals. That is a stage we also should be conscious. I wrote a proposal on the intellectual and religious connections across the Indian Ocean world, focusing on each region from South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East. My supervisor also had worked on the Indian Ocean arena, and had long research expertise on South Asian histories in a broader perspective. Thus, the chemistry did work out well. However, I had to change my topic into a completely new area – a case that often happens with many graduate students.
The cover letter that we have to attach with the application is also very important, as it explicates many of our skills and motivations to pursue such a research. With all confidence, we need to state our different skills which would contribute to our doctoral studies. In my case, what I stressed was my linguistic expertise as I knew Arabic and Urdu, and had tried learning Tamil, Persian and Portuguese. I also stressed the importance of Leiden as a place known for its Oriental Manuscripts Collections in which many valuable materials for my research are kept.
Recommendation letters from reputed scholars in the field and personal contacts with the future supervisors all assert to a common saying in the academic arena: “academia is all about networking.” Precisely this strategy plays a crucial role in the selection process, be it doctoral positions or other academic appointments or publications. Hence, the works towards what we aspire for should start way in advance – building up our scholarly network is the best way to succeed in academia.
However, beyond any networking, what matters most is the work we submit and produce. In this case, the proposals are the significant entry-points to our ambitions and abilities. If we manage to state our field, the research gap, and articulate our preliminary hypotheses quite convincingly, all the rest would follow.
Before concluding, I would like to address a foundational question: Why one needs to study abroad in the West, while many Asian or African scholars have already built up an astonishing career without ever being to any foreign university?
My immediate answer relates to the disparities between the educational spheres of Global South, in which the majority of students are struggling to get admission into prime national universities that have limited seats and the Global North. Also, most Southern institutes lack much of foundational research infrastructures in order to compete with the world-class universities, which mostly are in the Global North. In my case, most primary and secondary sources related to multiple regions across the Indian Ocean from South and East Africa to East Asia are readily available at my current university, whereas I was struggling to get materials on many Indian cities and regions during my M.Phil. research at one of the best universities in India. In order to overcome these issues during the research, a suitable and manageable way is to get admitted to one of the good Western universities which would cater to your research interests and aspirations.
Mahmood Kooria is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of History, Leiden University, the Netherlands. His research focuses on the historical developments of ulama-networks in the inter-regional maritime cultural interactions through the Indian Ocean world. Currently, he is conducting archival research in Indonesia and Malaysia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.