Returning to old friends: proFile of Jyotika Saksena

One of the things I have loved most about my academic career is meeting women from around the world. This was particularly the case in graduate school, when many of the women in my classrooms were international students. While we often get busy in our careers and move on to our respective positions all over the country and around the globe, I regularly reflect fondly on those graduate school days when we worked hard, yes, but also enjoyed an occasional (or regular) brunch or beer with classmates. Jyotika Saksena is one of my favorite memories from my graduate school days. She and her husband, Milind, taught me much about their home country of India – and about the necessity of building bonds, even when it may be difficult to maintain them over long distances and time. This is my conversation with Jyotika about her nearly two-decade career at the University of Indianapolis. It has been a pleasure to return to an old friend for her insight and wisdom about the life of women in academia.

Could you tell us about your background – where you grew up, where you went to college, what you studied and why?

I grew up in Delhi, India. I did my undergraduate majoring in Political Science from Delhi University and Masters in International Relations and an M.Phil. degree in American Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi. JNU was one of the top schools for International Relations in India. One needed to take an entrance exam to get admission. After getting two degrees from there though, I wanted to go somewhere else for my PhD. I decided to follow in my father's footsteps and took the GRE to study in the United States.

You have studied in both India and the United States – how do you compare those experiences?

They are both very different styles of education system though with some overlaps. In India, we were not assigned any books but were given a list of books that we could consult to make our notes. I paid in total $100 or less for my undergraduate and graduate studies. I did go to a top women's college for my undergraduate education in India. We had good lecturers that allowed for class discussion and more interaction. One major difference was that, in general, both at school and college level there were more female teachers/professors than male. Teaching has always been considered a good profession for women, so it is heavily tilted in favor of women. I have found a more obvious bias against women professors in the United States that I did not see in India.

In addition, there is much more emphasis in the US on teaching how to write, especially focusing on issues of plagiarism, than there is in India. I love the flexibility of the US education system, which allows you to select and change your major with ease. In India, the process is very difficult and you are forced to make very definite choices right after the 10th grade in high school. Also, the concept of student evaluation does not exist in India. This means that teachers do not have an incentive to stay on top of their teaching material. On the other hand, I feel that both students and faculty are much more well-rounded in India and have a broad knowledge even outside their fields of interest, whereas in the US most are very narrowly focused and are not embarrassed to say that they know nothing about another area within their discipline. For example, an Americanist in the US will say very proudly, “I know nothing about International Relations.” You could not get away with that in India.

What inspired you to study political science/international relations?

My father was a professor of International Relations (IR) at JNU. Frankly, growing up I never thought I would be a professor or study international relations. My father would talk about IR and tell us stories from the two world wars and even about the fall of the Bretton Woods system. I would read his books even as a kid, but found history and politics boring in school. I wanted to be a medical doctor, but as luck would have it, I did badly in math and therefore, had to select the social sciences (because I was too scared to do math) and chose political science because it was most familiar. I loved IR, so I decided to focus on that instead of domestic politics, which to date I continue to find less interesting, if not boring.

Tell us about your research and teaching career at the University of Indianapolis – about your department, your colleagues, your experiences.

In many ways, it was hard to adjust to a small university environment after earning my PhD from a big research school. However, UIndy has been a wonderful experience. Small class sizes mean that you get to know the students really well. You feel like you play an important role in the lives of these students. Overall, the university environment is friendly and very rarely do I ever get to hear that something cannot be done.

We are a joint department of History and Political Science. While sometimes the tension between social sciences and humanities gets tedious, overall we have a very congenial department where colleagues make an effort to interact and socialize with each other.

Our department is well published, so there is a bit of pressure to publish, but not in any way like the pressure at big research universities. This has meant that I have had the opportunity to follow my research interests that span issues of global health and intellectual property rights to refugees. I have also had the opportunity to work with a local refugee resettlement agency and serve on their board, which has also driven my research to a large extent.

You also have an academic spouse. Can you tell us about some of the challenges (and advantages) that come along with being married to an academic and satisfying two career paths?

My husband and I did our master’s and M.Phil. degrees from the same program, and after we got married we did our PhD together as well. We were both very fortunate that we got jobs together at the same university and in the same department without really having to struggle at all. We both interviewed for the same job. While I got the job, the department offered a full time position to my husband that became a tenure track position in a few years. The fact that we are both not just academics, but also in the same field means that we are not only grateful to have jobs together in the same city, but this also makes us very inflexible in terms of seeking other jobs. We are fortunate though that we like our university, department and city.

Our challenge has been that because we are a small university and a small department, the internal dynamics can be difficult sometimes, both for us and for our colleagues. Issues of promotion and administrative positions are also a bit problematic because we are usually pitted against each other, and colleagues are reluctant to favor one over the other. The issue becomes bigger when we have to take a position. If we fall on the same side, then the assumption is that we are favoring each other. The fact that we are married, are the only two international people in the department and are of the same ethnicity further complicates the dynamics within the department and among colleagues. This problem has surfaced more because we have become senior within the department and have our own strong opinions about the direction of the department. The dynamics of having two different fields within the same department complicates the issues even further.

What have your experiences been as a woman in academia – and as a woman from South Asia in the United States working on a college campus?

While doing my M.Phil. degree in India, I got the opportunity to teach in a women's college. The college had mostly women professors, so the only real discrimination that I faced was age related. I looked – and was – too young, and so teaching was a bit of a challenge. The faculty also often mistook me for being a student and I was regularly shooed out of the faculty staffroom.

In the US, it has been difficult for me to distinguish my experiences as a woman and as a South Asian. When I joined the PhD program, I did not have an assistantship. I was told that if I maintained a good GPA I would get an assistantship. Even though my GPA was above 3.5, I always struggled to receive an assistantship on a regular basis. The general rule in the department seemed to be that once a student received an assistantship she continued receiving it unless she did not have a good GPA or did not perform her responsibilities adequately. However, in my case, I had to fight for an assistantship every semester. The graduate coordinator once told me that my assistantship had been given away to an incoming master’s student. “Should we not share?” was the response I got when I asked why it was my assistantship that was given away. I once had to drop a semester because I learned at the last minute that I no longer had financial support. Given that international students are not eligible for loans or other financial aid, I had no way of getting enough money to pay my fees. Once, when I spoke to the graduate coordinator in his office about getting a TA/RA position, he told me very angrily that many of the American students did not have assistantships either and that he was going to make sure that I did not get one.

Some of my professors were very kind and continued to speak on my behalf. One of them even suggested that I file a case of discrimination against the graduate coordinator. Of course, I had no means of doing that. I finally took my case to the head of the department, who was supportive, but complained to one of the professors that while initially my appeal seemed to be a request, in later semesters it almost sounded like a demand. I was asked to apologize before he would grant me the assistantship again. My entire PhD experience was colored by the constant fear that I would not have funding for the next semester.

In terms of teaching experience, I had to face some challenges in the early years. Both as a graduate student and as a new professor, students would sometimes openly challenge me in the classroom. One time, some of the students were so belligerent that I had to leave the classroom. There were several students who came by my office later to say that they were sorry for their classmates’ behavior and that the problem was that I was too nice. I think this is an issue that many female professors encounter. As one of my colleagues said, “students assume that because I am nice it will necessarily mean I will grade easy.” I have found that as I have grown older and more confident, I no longer have such incidents and I usually have a fairly good relationship with the students. Another thing that helps is requiring class participation as 10% of the overall grade. I tell the students that 10% is the difference between an “A” and a “B.” If they are disruptive in class, then they lose those points. It has worked every time.

Sometimes the issue has clearly been related to my ethnicity. I have had at least a couple of students come to me to say that they resented the fact that I was teaching them American politics. Fortunately, they later approached me to tell me that they had changed their minds and liked the comparative perspective that I would bring to class. I am not sure how many did not change their mind. I have had several students comment about my English language skills and accent on my evaluations. However, my experience is that most students are open to changing their minds if you show skill and care. For every student with a bias, there are five others who will accept you for who you are and are eager to learn from someone different.

What have been the highlights of your academic career? What have been the difficulties?

The highlight of my academic career has been finding a tenure-track position right after graduate school. The entire visa process for international applicants gets very complicated if one has to move from a one-year position to a full-time position. It was also wonderful that my husband and I landed tenure-track positions in the same city and university. Most academic couples have to deal with long distance relationships, and thankfully we did not have to do that.

The worst part of my academic career was when I was initially denied tenure on very specious grounds. I appealed and was then later granted tenure. However, this happened at a very vulnerable time for me. We were trying to have kids and I was going through an IVF process. I received the news about my tenure denial the day before my procedure. Needless to say, the procedure was not successful. It may or may not have been because of the stress that I had to go through for several months before the decision was overturned. I have not shared this with many people, but I feel that this is an issue that many women academics face, and we should have an open discussion about what we really want from our lives. Many of us delay having children until we finish our PhDs. If we are lucky enough to get a job, then the next five years are very stressful because of the tenure clock. If not, then the stress of dealing with one-year positions and applying year after year for jobs is not easy either. In the end, many of us wait for the right time and then it is too late. I think young scholars should think about the uncertainties of academic life and make life decisions accordingly.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you had a mentor and/or been a mentor during your academic career?

Mentoring is very critical for graduate students and young faculty. I have, unfortunately, not really had a mentor and clearly did not realize the importance of one. I feel that mentoring is much more important for research than for teaching. I was fortunate to join a department of good teachers. I was also comfortable enough with senior faculty members that I could approach them with issues and concerns. In terms of research, my current department did not have senior faculty in political science and because my research interests were different from my dissertation advisor, I was pretty much on my own. Frankly, if I had understood the importance of a mentor then I would have kept in touch with my committee members and sought their support, but it took me many years to realize how important a mentor can be, especially for international students who join PhD programs. It has taken me a long time to learn some of the basics, like trying to get joint publications with your professor, even if the research topic is your idea. It will teach you the ropes of publishing and give your more confidence to do it on your own. I have also learned that you should join different caucuses at major or minor conferences in the field and volunteer to be a part of the organizing committee. It helps you get to know people in the field, find mentors and a community. This is also how you get invited to do book chapters and write for special editions of journals.

What advice would you give to young women going into academia today?

Before you get into academia, really think about what you want out of life. Your career gets delayed by at least 5-10 years compared to those in other fields. Plan your life accordingly. You should also find a mentor, ideally a female. You should also work to create a support community of others in the field. And finally, work with your professors on joint publications before graduating and going on the job market.

What do you do for fun – to get away from work and gain “balance” in life?

I have a nice group of friends that I meet with on a regular basis. We go out for dinner, drinks, plays and concerts. There was a brief period where I did not have any close friends. I had to make a special effort to change that situation. I identified a few of the women that I had met and whose company I enjoyed and asked them to meet for lunch or coffee. Since then I have introduced them to each other and we meet regularly either one on one or do a girls’ night out. I feel that my friends keep me grounded and we remind each other to have fun.

Dr. Jyotika Saksena is Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director in International Relations in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Indianapolis.

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