Photo of Vasundhara at South Hall
Political science Ph.D. student Vasundhara Sirnate (photo: Dick Cortén)

There are no guarantees, but applying for fellowships can pay off, and sometimes we hear about it.  Case in point: the $30,000 Guru Gobind Singh Fellowship for the 2011-2012 academic year. Two winners were announced in early June, and one of them, Vasundhara Sirnate, is from Berkeley.

“A journalist by training, an academic by choice, and a storyteller at heart,” Sirnate is an advanced doctoral candidate in political science whose dissertation investigates variation in strategies used by Indian tribal states to counter insurgency.

Curious about how she went about her successful fellowship-seeking venture, we ventured an inquiring email, and got back a dispatch that is at least as much an instructive object lesson as it is a story about Vsundhara the person.

“I just found out about receiving the GGS fellowship myself,” she wrote. “I have been traveling on the east coast and did not see the letter, but just received an email. So there is much excitement on my front.”

Point one: she did not apply on a lark or a whim.  She’s been at it for a while.

“The Guru Gobind Singh fellowship and I have a long relationship. I have applied for this fellowship three times in six years. They usually prefer someone who is on the cusp of completing their project and I guess my time is now, since I am now done with research and fieldwork and have a pretty mature writing project on my hands.”

Point two: anyplace you get useful information is a good place.

“I initially found out about the fellowship through the eGrad newsletter. I have scouted  eGrad almost every month looking for funding opportunities. It is such a wonderful and useful resource. However, my home department, Political Science, has been sending me this information every year as well, since they know that I am not eligible for most fellowships out there, as they are not open to international students. This one is.”

Point three: persistence pays.

“I finally got it after trying three times. Students just need to keep applying for fellowships and not be disheartened if they don’t get something instantly. Most fellowship ‘godzillas’ (students who seem to get fellowships all the time) apply relentlessly for whatever opportunity opens up.”

Point four: even though waiting is agony, sometimes the timing can be fortuitous.

“I work on counterinsurgency in India. I study how the Indian state fights tribal insurgent groups in northeast and central India. I have spent three years now doing this research. I am building a comprehensive dataset on insurgency and counterinsurgency in India since 1955 and so the award is very timely and will allow me to become a little more ambitious about my project.

“It also comes to me at a time when my life is in flux. I am an international student with few resources in the US. I am transitioning from intense fieldwork experiences in conflict zones of India to a normal life as a graduate student.

“Traveling for months at a time can be very disorienting. Many people don’t realize that fieldwork and deep research that graduate students undertake often come at certain emotional and personal costs. Often conventional methods courses do not prepare graduate students for situations and circumstances that they encounter in the field. Getting fellowships is then sometimes more about believing that the costs incurred during research are somehow ‘worth it’ because someone or a committee of experts has faith in your research and thinks it has promise.”

Point five: having a well-thought-out plan makes it easier to take advantage of good fortune.

“This fellowship will enable me to deepen my research considerably by giving me resources to finish the dataset on Indian insurgency since 1955. It also will allow me to keep in place research assistants in India who have been helping me me track parliamentary debates on tribes and also have been gathering news reports on the Maoist insurgency for me. And it will allow me to undertake travel to more conflict zones in South Asia.”

Point six: it’s not only about you. Applying is a team effort. Vasundhara offers this handy background observation.

“What a student does need to get one of these fellowships is a supportive committee that not only encourages and guides but also gives a student the freedom to be creative and set a comfortable pace for the completion of the project. I have one such wonderful committee that consists of Professor Pradeep Chhibber, Professor Jason Wittenberg, Professor Leo Arriola (all from Political Science) and Professor Raka Ray (from Sociology). They have been pretty relentless in writing letters of support for me every time I apply for a fellowship or a grant.”

Note well: Vasundhara is a master of preparation. She keeps “at least three differently framed but similar project statements” on hand “which can then be sent out to different fellowship committees depending on what they are looking for.” She also notes deadlines in a diary and makes sure application packets arrive at least three days before the deadline.

It’s probably fortuitous that Vasundhara has made all this information available before the next fellowship-application season arrives in earnest.

Good hunting!

Dick Cortén

Vasundhara with troops
Vasundhara Sirnate in the field, at the Counterinsurgency and Jungle Warfare College at Kanker, Chhattisgarh, India (whose photographer snapped the image), where she learned how commandos are trained to fight India's Maoists.

More about Vasundhara

She earned her M.A. at Berkeley in 2005. (She has a previous M.A. from Jawaharlal Nehru University and a B.A. from Lady Shri Ram College of the University of Delhi.) When not doing doctoral fieldwork, she is sometimes a Graduate Student Instructor. Not all GSIs have entries on, but she does, and they’re lively. Excerpts:

“I had trouble with studying India, but she packaged it in a funny, interesting way. Lots of puzzles, lots of stories and analysis.”

“Make sure you do all the readings as she notices who participates with thoughtful comments and who is just bs-ing. I should have studied more for this class; she rewards effort.”

“Easily one of the top GSIs at Berkeley. she is incredibly dedicated to her students. If you have her as a GSI, consider yourself blessed.” The first part of that last comment is reinforced by a more authoritative source: the GSI Center lists her among the 2007-2008 recipients of the Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Award.