Sasikumar S. Sundaram is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of International Service at American University, Washington D.C. and a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Political Science, University of São Paulo, Brasil. His research focuses on Global Order and Global South; liberalism and empire; foreign and security policies of India, Brazil, and China in a comparative perspective; and status and reputational concerns of states. His articles have appeared in journals such as International Theory, International Studies Quarterly, Journal of Global Strategic Studies, Journal of International Political Theory, Polity among others.
DSPS alumnus Miklós Zala (Political Theory track, 2017) caught up with Sasikumar at the beginning of 2021 to talk about his experience at CEU and his career after graduating.
Hi Sashi, thank you for talking to us.
It's my pleasure.
Let me start by asking how did you get to CEU? Also, what motivated you to choose the International Relations (IR) track?
In 2010 I was riding a wave of good feeling about world politics among my peers. I was working for a think tank in New Delhi called Manohar Parikkar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis in New Delhi. Then, I was a Visiting Fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies in Oslo. In these institutions, I talked to people who were interested to see the world differently. As a first-generation student, some of these talks thrilled me and also frightened me. Words like ontology and epistemology sounded so important, pompous, and intellectual. I did not understand any of this jargon but pretended as if it was obviously clear. Furthermore, a prime debate in IR loomed large between the so-called neorealism and neoliberalism and on new metatheoretical questions from Constructivism. Even if I did not understand these things, I kept coming back to these discussions again and again in several encounters. When I was young, being presumptuous was my strong motivator, and it led me straight to CEU in 2011. To be sure, it was not a straight route. I looked at several schools in the US and UK and carefully studied their existing faculty members. All my other MA applications were rejected. CEU offered a lifeline with a stipend and accommodation. Importantly, CEU's Department of International Relations had Friedrich Kratochwil, Alexander Astrov, Erin Jenne, and Paul Roe, among others. These names are familiar for those like me interested in metatheoretical debates in IR and on practical problems of foreign and security policies. I clung to the lifeline.
What was the next step?
The next step was actually studying and completing the MA program. It was one thing to get into the program and an entirely another thing actually to learn from the program. My MA program was like learning IR on steroids. I really liked many of my MA classmates, some of whom are very good friends till today. I had to manage the intensive one-year program and also wished to spend time with my friends and see Budapest a little more. Many times, these looked like a zero-sum option. The actual next step once I was in Budapest is to balance these two parts. Yet, several new and interesting things came up. I discovered many areas of IR, such as questions on global order and the pathologies of International Organizations. I gave up many of my old ways of looking at the world and picked up new ideas, theories, and concepts. I eagerly picked up crumbs here and there in the process that led straight to the gingerbread house of PhD.
But you continued in CEU's Doctoral School of Political Science, Public Policy and International Relations (DSPS).
Yes, I chose CEU again because of my familiarity with the institution and professors' work. Part of my way of thinking about a PhD program was its long gestation period that requires both a supportive institution and a helpful friends' network. I was very much aware that CEU and IR department were very helpful and supportive at the institutional level. Erin was willing to supervise me, and later on, Paul offered his helpful hand when I was drowning in the critical IR literature. I finished my PhD with the meticulous supervision that Xymena Kurowska offered me. At the friends' network level, I was also aware of CEU's international student strength. CEU, with its fundamental idea of an open society, students from all over the world, allowed me to explore myself.
So, all in all, the complex institutional environment of CEU had an appeal to you.
What was your impression about DSPS when you entered the program? What was the big difference between the International Relations MA and the doctoral program?
This is a fascinating question. I quickly realized that the doctoral training program is very different from the MA program. The MA was a pretty rigorous but straightforward program. Much of it was about having students who come up with ideas, get a slight glimpse of the world through these ideas, and let us fly from there.
The doctoral program was very good but also challenging our limits. The sort of initial optimism that came with "OK, I am in the same institution, so it must be a smooth transition to the PhD" was quite easily and rapidly destroyed. I think this was true among my friends across the subfields, from political economy, political theory to international relations. It was (and I believe still it is ) a very competitive environment. In retrospect, most PhD students (including myself) wanted recognition as a "uniquely" talented person in the field. Or avoid a misrecognition among peers and supervisors. Quite obviously, it failed not because of any lack of talent but because of our underestimation of the already ongoing talented conversations in the field. Furthermore, the standards of CEU's doctoral program were very high unlike an MA program so as to, I believe, enable us also to become responsible teachers and researchers in our areas. Unlike some other institutions, no supervisor here in the IR department gives a topic to a student or offers a research question actually to work on. Much of it is driven by the passions of the students themselves and their objectives. It meant several false starts, lofty ideals, vulnerabilities masquerading within complex jargons. Our experiments with false starts against the institutional clockwork meant we had to develop our own internal performance appraisal mechanisms. The doctoral program had a clearly established performance appraisal system. The expectation was to build coursework in the first year, to get at least a B+ (or better), which will somehow automatically transition you to your research topic. It will then automatically transition you to finding the right sorts of documental resources for your work and then writing a fantastic PhD thesis. That is a textbook version that rarely works, at least not in my case. In keeping with these expectations and the rules of the game, I had to learn on the fly. I came out of the PhD program in 2017, and I had a much better understanding of the academic IR field's working.
In a nutshell, you became professional.
Yes. If that was the goal and if I could go back in 2012, I would ask myself to be sincere and slowdown.
So, do you think that the first year of courses with all the mandatory ones was too intense? You had to take lots of classes in the MA program as well.
Yes, that's true. In the case of the MA, we had to take courses during the fall and winter semesters. Then write a thesis, and you are done. At the doctoral level, the intensity of the courses was important to be aware of the development across the field. Here I might disagree with mainstream views about DSPS. I still believe that the first year's courses gave me a good grounding. From an IR perspective, I gained a lot of essential knowledge from political economy and political theory, to research methodology. It comes in handy when we have to teach a different course at a different institution.
But then you managed all of these courses. Which course was the one that helped you to identify the topic of your doctoral research?
That's a very good question because to apply to a PhD program, you are supposed to have a clear research proposal. So initially, I was really interested in the questions of grand strategies of rising powers examining India, Brazil, and China. In my first-semester coursework, I already dropped my ambition to pursue this research. That is because I was fascinated with international relations debates in the DSPS at that time, which were more about Critical IR, meta-theories, and philosophy of science debates on the study of world politics. I engaged in a limited way with a much more critical approach to IR. It shifted me from Erin Jenne to Paul Roe. Erin realized very early that both Paul and Xymena would be a good fit in the trajectory I was moving. Thereafter, I took several other courses from Paul and Xymena that set the ball rolling. Courses on International Security (Xymena), International Organizations and Law (Friedrich), and Critical Security Studies (Paul) were helpful. Some of the courses that I took from other departments were also helpful for my doctoral research project. Here courses from the Department of Philosophy were important such as Pragmatism (David Weberman), Rationalism and Empiricism (Michael Griffin) and Hermeneutics (David Weberman), among others.
Did you change your topic before the doctoral defense?
I defended the prospectus with a project, "Variations in the grand strategies of rising powers," but I ended up writing a thesis about a different one, "Normativity and Practical Reasoning of Brazil and India in International Politics".
How did you like the DSPS as a community, including your peers and professors?
In that sense, I have an overwhelmingly positive experience. In retrospect, I was pleased there. CEU is a great institution. I could talk to most professors about my research despite (and because of) the lack of clarity on my project. All IR professors were kind, tolerant to the vagaries of an unsure PhD student, and importantly helpful in many ways. I have had several important conversations with Erin, Alex, Paul, and Xymena. Those conversations shaped my thinking about the field. My CEU friends' community was small but was very good. Here Amanda, Bastian, Alex, Andrea, among many others, were always there to lend a shoulder. That turned out to be a great support for me. If I look back to this from this pandemic-laden time and the future of PhD and teaching, I think this is precisely what the online courses might miss—the personal connection. Discussing international relations and other topics at the coffee table is completely different from sitting at my own table at home, even if it saves time, money, and energy.
That's 100% true. So, you defended your prospectus. What happened after that?
In 2016, a year before defending my prospectus, I had clear ideas about where I am heading to. The program forced me to change some prejudices about the field of IR, but also more and more strengthened my view that there are right and wrong ways to research this field. In other words, CEU trained me to be a critical thinker. I defended my PhD in 2017, examining the reasons in political choices of Brazil and India in world politics. With this topic, I applied for a bolder postdoc position to examine India, Brazil, and China's reputation in world politics.
So, basically, Brazil was already on your radar, and you took another look with fresh eyes given your newly acquired skills?
Yes, but the crucial new focus is China. In this postdoc project, I am concentrating on Chinese foreign and security policies. Thus, my current work entirely fits with my CEU training.
How long is your postdoc?
It's a three-year position.
Did you know about this postdoc opportunity before you finished your program?
No, I did not. I came to Brazil for my doctoral fieldwork, and then I came to know about this opportunity. If I had known about this postdoc before the defense, it would have made my transition more manageable, of course. I will be happy to talk about this post-doctoral fellowship opportunity and application process to those interested in studying the Global South at DSPS. Also, I think Brazil, along with India, China, and South Africa, are great places to explore the questions of the Global South rather than from obvious places like London or New York.
How difficult was it for you to get this postdoc? How did the interview go?
The postdoc is organized by a research funding institution called the Sao Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP). It is a competitive fellowship with a generous salary and research benefits. All applications require a research proposal submitted through the FAPESP portal. It requires lots of documents but not as complex as a Marie Curie application, for example. Then they rank the candidates according to the potential of their proposals. In other words, the proposal goes through a comprehensive review process. I applied to the two-year fellowship and got a one-year extension.
Did you publish any articles before your defense?
I did not publish during the doctoral program. My papers have been published after the PhD.
Was your doctoral dissertation a monograph?
Yes, it was the traditional monograph format. In retrospect, writing a monograph first and thinking about publications later helped me organize my ideas and clarify what I was going to say. But I am also aware that there is a rival view that says one must have publications before leaving the doctoral program because that makes you a better candidate for the job market. Perhaps it does. Yet, there is always a requirement to publish more and the bar is always raised thereby making anyone overwhelmed. My idea was to wait till I was clear in what I really want to publish.
You are right; these are indeed conflicting views on best publishing strategies. But you had another fascinating opportunity during your Sao Paulo postdoc. Could you tell us this story?
That's correct; I spent a one-year program at the American University, Washington DC. I think there are two conflicting views again: according to one view, your PhD dissertation should be continued as a book project. That is a conservative strategy for long-term engagement in the field. Another approach says that your PhD dissertation should produce several papers to be competitively ready for the job market. This is a pragmatic strategy for credibly building a network with fellow scholars and securing a teaching or research position. I chose the conservative strategy and looked at my stint at American University to strengthen my book project.
You mentioned networking as an important way to find an academic job. Did CEU provide you a relevant network? Did it give you the necessary skills for successful networking? In general, do you believe that the IR track provided you the essential skills to do what you are doing at the moment efficiently?
To answer your first question: I did not look at CEU to engage in an extensive network. Furthermore, I am not a networker. I do not talk or engage anyone in a conference for a job opportunity. I believe the complexity of IR field, institutional rules, and availability of talents is such that no one could offer a job over a cup of coffee. The second question is a really good one. Surely, the department of IR gave me the skills for successful networking. The courses that I took in the first academic year in the PhD program definitely helped me to be a clear communicator. The whole program made me take IR seriously. But the final question whether the program enabled me to work efficiently, I am not sure. For efficiency is measured in publications or finding academic jobs. The IR department itself was not too keen on these. There were no such things as placement talks. It did not bother me at all. As I mentioned, I went to CEU to get to know more about international relations—and I did come out from the program as someone who knows about this field.
How did you hear about the Washington opportunity?
My postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Sao Paulo through FAPESP had an additional funding opportunity for me to conduct my research at American University, Washington DC. My PhD external committee member was Patrick Thaddeus Jackson. We had several interesting conservations on my PhD project. He was very helpful in inviting me to DC.
Was there any formal application for you to go from Sao Paulo to Washington?
Yes, I went through the usual process of submitting a research proposal. The grant application went through a comprehensive review committee, and fortunately, I was successful. However, having Patrick Jackson at American University helped a lot, particularly because he wrote a recommendation letter. That is one of the essential skills to learn for PhD students: building external connections and relying on your supervisor and the external examiner's suggestions and recommendations on the PhD's next steps. Furthermore, organically building such an external connection is important especially because many places require you to submit three or even four reference letters.
So, you have more than half a year in Sao Paolo. What are your plans after that? Where do you want to continue?
I applied for a couple of positions, waiting for results. Of course, I don't know where I will end up.
Given your field, do you consider a governmental job in the future?
No, I had such a job before I came to CEU. I don't think I ever want to go back to being a spin-doctor. Would I fit in? I think yes, but I am not interested.
Finally, what do you like to do in your free time?
In my free time, given the pandemic, I do engage in light readings. Otherwise, I would have tried craft beers. I am now fascinated with Brazilian literature, Indian writings in English, and some experimental philosophy work. From Brazil, I recently read some works of Mário de Andrade and Machado de Assis, including literature on the artworks of Anita Malfetti. Similarly, I went back to my Tamil roots and read some classics such as Silappatikaram and the biography of U. V. Swaminatha Iyer. Thinking about these works, along with my ongoing limited conversations on some of the ideas of John Dewey, Richard Rorty, and Robert Brandom makes me happy about the wonders out there.
These are indeed fascinating philosophical topics and questions. Thank you, Sashi, for the interview!
Thank you too!
Keep your record updated at the Alumni Relations Office.
Read the other alumni stories.