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Pursuing a Ph.D. Abroad

By Manaf Kottakkunnummal

Presently, I am a PhD student at the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa (CISA) and Department of Anthropology at Wits, Johannesburg. This specific research, funded by the Government of India’s Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, falls under a broader research rubric of migration of Indian labour and capital to Africa.

I started to apply for a PhD programme abroad after I finished my MPhil in sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), India in 2011. I had a fairly good proposal by 2012 that linked Islam, communism, and rise in expectation of sailors among lower status Muslims in Ponnani, Kerala. I kick started my application process circulating a proposal on ‘Matriliny among Muslims of Kerala’ in late 2010. This proposal did not travel smoothly in the networks.  Prof. Susan Bayly at the Department of Anthropology, Cambridge University, had read my proposal which I pasted onto the body of an email. She encouraged me to apply while giving no assurance of admission. During my second term of application at Cambridge, I only followed the procedure I did at my first attempt. When final results arrived, I was rejected.

In places like Oxford and Cambridge, where I aimed to secure admission, selectors value your experience in a specific field. I did not have a background in anthropology. This had a bearing on the low response my application evoked. I mainly applied in the UK, including top institutions like Oxford and Cambridge. I gathered some money (Rs.5000 for each application) for processing the application fee out of my merit based grant.

As a prelude, I contacted some faculty members at anthropology: Profs. Susan Bayly and Robert Parkin. The response was not very discouraging. Following this, I started applying for PhD programmes in other institutions in the UK. Like many of my friends who applied abroad, I also had an idea about the academics who I wanted to work with. My selection of institution was partly decided by this. I battled with some of the procedures such as sending the copies of my certificates to UK. University of Calicut, Kerala, took a long time to give me an original certificate of bachelor’s degree. This forced me to lose a year in the entire process. Certificates in English language proficiency and visa processing surfaced much later.

In my second year, I applied abroad with my proposal on ‘the daily life of communism and Islam’ amongst an erstwhile lower status community called Azheekalkar (sailors) in Ponnani, Kerala. I assumed that their stint with communism attributed them with a rise in their expectations of life. I observed this in their material culture like dress, their assertions against stereotypes, and, broadly, in ‘a leap of faith’ they felt even while their standard of living did not improve much. I proposed to look at communism through the paradigms of sociology of religion. Oral history constituted my method. I lived in Ponnani for a month before I wrote my proposal. My intention was to pursue this project at JNU. This helped me to gather comments from faculty and friends. Later, most of the faculty in the UK liked my topic very well.

I remember being happy getting a positive ‘reply’ from Oxford to proceed with my application. I only had to send my application with the proposal. I posted a hard copy of the application with sealed envelopes containing recommendation letters in it. Now, I know that Oxford is a university of very high standards than I imagined then. I targeted for a high quality institution and this set my academic efforts for realizing my goal clearly. A couple of my friends who studied masters in sociology also had been studying at Oxford and Cambridge. This also instilled some motivation in me.

I have mostly written about my experience of applying from my memory. I had a tough time getting letters of recommendation from the Sociology faculty. These letters were mandatory in each application. Partly because of my priorities, I found my faculty at home very unsupportive and even hostile when I finished my MPhil. Once I got a scholarship at Wits, everything went smooth. Dealing with technical aspects − for instance, getting a police clearance and obtaining a ‘visitor’s visa’ (I changed my status of visa only at Wits) was fun-packed.

My close friends always encouraged me to apply abroad. I processed the applications fighting my own anxieties about living in a new place and finding a support system – ‘freezing in cold for no use’ – as I was told once. You are always your own worst enemy! I did not choose to apply in the U.S because of this anxiety. Eventually, Prof. D. Menon, the director of Centre for Indian Studies (CISA) − where I study now – liked my proposal and offered me a scholarship to study in South Africa.

South Africa is a country of contradictions. Johannesburg, where I live now, is a nice city, except when things go elusive for a while, as visible with the incidences of Xenophobia in April this year. When I arrived in 2013, I met a lot of friendly people in and out of my university. Unlike in New Delhi, I felt more at home here. I could travel, and spend a lot of time reading. I also got a new life; new chances to experiment with a new place, and to rebuild my identity, and personality.

Currently, I study the social life of Indian generic pharmaceuticals in Johannesburg. I am immersed in the solitary process of writing up my chapters of PhD dissertation. I have found the faculty and staff very supportive here.

I wish good luck to all those who wish to study abroad. Studying abroad gives you a leap of faith, a rush of social mobility and, above all, individuation.


Manaf Kottakkunnummal, is pursuing his Ph.D. at the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa, Wits, Johannesburg. Email:


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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