In conversation with a Cambridge student

Udisha is doing her PhD from Cambridge University. Her project focuses on India’s cooperation with Bhutan and Nepal in the water and energy sector. Udisha studies graduated in Maths from St Stephens College and then did a Masters in Public Policy from NUS, Singapore.

How did you choose the Social Sector? Did you always want to enter this field?

I started working for a Delhi-based NGO while was studying Maths in college. My first development sector experience was interning with IVolunteer and spending two months in rural parts of Uttarakhand to study microfinance and water issues in the Himalayas. I loved the opportunity to see a different way of life and learn about real-life issues that truly mattered to me. It was exactly the opposite of my experience of studying Mathematics (which at that time felt too detached and mechanical). That experience perhaps drove me to pursue a Master in Public Policy in Singapore and since then, there has been no looking back.

Did you always want to go to Cambridge?

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do a PhD in my early twenties but when I finally made up my mind, I was determined to pursue it at Cambridge. My decision was driven by a lot of background research. Cambridge seemed ideal because of its unfailing reputation, excellent research output and my strong instinct that my PhD supervisor was a perfect match for my research interests. Regardless of the degree, I always wanted to study in an environment that would be well-suited to my academic aspirations. Cambridge has been a very fulfilling experience in that regard. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time and look forward to spending another two years there.

What’s your favorite thing about Cambridge?

Cambridge is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever lived in. It’s large, green open spaces, stunning walks along the river and blend of traditional and modern infrastructure makes it a very special place. You can sit in a café on King’s Parade with your cup of coffee and stare at the King’s College chapel which was built over 500 years ago. Few cities today provide you with such an experience.

Udisha at the Dining Hall

What’s your least favorite thing about Cambridge?

After one point, it could feel like you are living in a bubble. Cambridge feels very comfortable and secure. A lot of times there is no incentive to experience life beyond the university environment. It is important to keep stepping out of Cambridge, making short trips to London or other parts of the UK to remind oneself that life is much beyond academics, friends and tutors. The country has a lot to offer.

How did you manage a scholarship at Cambridge?

It took a mix of effort and a lot of good fortune. I applied to all possible scholarships available at the University of Cambridge. The Cambridge Trust is very generous and there are many funding opportunities but getting a scholarship can be extremely competitive. I was fortunate that my college, Newnham, awarded me funding to pursue my PhD studies in the Department of Geography.

Did you do Internships as part of your course?

Internships are usually not part of the PhD programme but I do know students who took a semester off in between to pursue a short-term consultancy or internship opportunity. It is not a common occurrence though and the reason is that UK PhDs are already quite short (3 to 4 years) in comparison to the USA or Canada (where it takes 5 to 6 years on average). As a result, most students prefer to focus on finishing their degree within the short timeline.

Is the social sector not a very financially lucrative field?

That is not necessarily true. By virtue of working in a sector that strives to benefit society, money should ideally not be your first and only criteria. However, there are fields within development such as public policy which offer lots of lucrative positions. Yes, if one were to compare it with a typical corporate job, there may be fewer opportunities with big monetary benefits. There is no doubt that there are limited number of permanent jobs at international development agencies like the World Bank or the United Nations where you get to “do development” while reaping excellent benefits. However, if you network well during your time in college, develop an area expertise and plan your career proactively, I think it is possible to be financially well-off regardless of the sector.

What’s your take on the social sector field in India?

In my experience, the social sector in India is more unorganized than developed countries which is both an issue and an opportunity. Productivity and funding support can be low and you might witness a lot of unprofessionalism and lack of accountability which can be a turn-off. However, it is also a solid opportunity because working in the social sector in India, with its myriad issues and challenges, is an excellent path for individual learning, growth and impact.

What about jobs post your course Cambridge? Can you stay in the UK or will you return to India?

I want to do development and policy research/consultancy work after my PhD. The UK and Europe offer numerous opportunities in the field. Research is very well funded so there are good number of post-doctoral jobs available. The UK recently changed its laws and will now allow international students to stay on for a period of two years after their student visa expires. That is good news for prospective students. The UK education system is excellent so this should definitely be seen as a strong incentive.

Tell me about the faculty at Cambridge?

Cambridge has an excellent faculty with stellar research and academic experience. As a student, you have an opportunity to attend any lecture in any department. This means you could be listening to a Geography lecture one day, and on another day, attending a lecture by a Nobel Laureate in Physics. Most faculty members follow an open-door policy and I have found it very easy to approach almost every single professor that I come across. They are open to having a conversation and sharing new insights and ideas. There is also a lot of opportunity for collaborative work.

What would you advise to younger people wanting to enter the Social Sector?

As cliché as it sounds, unlike other jobs, working in the social sector requires a minimum level of passion and concern for the way things are in the world. There will be many challenges along the way and the only thing that sustains your interest long-term is to be connected to a bigger picture. It requires a lot of patience, determination and some level of idealism, but the sector offers many exciting and diverse opportunities.

Tell us something fun about Cambridge?

The discovery of the DNA was announced in a pub called The Eagle which remains of the top-favourite places to hang out after a long day of work. Some of the best ideas or inventions have emerged in Cambridge pubs rather than in a library or laboratory!

“Punting” is a boat ride down the River Cam that takes your the College backs. The famous Mathematical Bridge is a famous sight to look out for.

One thought on “In conversation with a Cambridge student”

  1. Great work Udisha and its a pleasure to see yourng minds gain knowledge and part it effectively. As a Ph.D in gerontology it gives me great pleasure to see people work and do their research on various topics and be productive in society. Would love to visit Cambridge and give a lecture to the brilliant students specially in psychology and that too research.

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