Columns Conversations

A career tailor-made to suit personal preferences

Asmita Sengupta

Sunita Sheel is an independent researcher associated with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and serves as Secretary for the Forum of Medical Ethics Society, Mumbai. She is also the founding trustee of the recently set up Vidhayak Trust.

Sunita Sheel
Sunita Sheel  

Please give us an overview of your academic background.

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Physics, a Master’s degree in Anthropology, and a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Pune. I pursued a second Master’s degree in Health Sciences with specialization in Bioethics from the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics, Canada. I also spent about 5 years in active research at the University of Toronto.

When and why did you decide to become an independent researcher? 

While pursuing my doctoral studies, I worked on an international project on ‘development participatory communication’ hosted at my University in collaboration with Cornell University, USA. While this was a huge opportunity to learn various skills necessary for empirical research, it also exposed me to University politics. Soon after my doctoral thesis submission, I moved to the Centre of Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT),  a unit of Anusandhan Trust, Mumbai, where I spent 15 years. CEHAT always attempted to strike a balance between academically rigorous research and socially relevant advocacy/activism. The work ethos and environment was shaped by democratic values, non-hierarchical relationships amongst colleagues, a strong sense of equity, and respect for ethics, as one of the non-negotiables.  I think my slightly negative experience in an academic set up, coupled with my satisfying stint at CEHAT, affected my views, and later, my decision to stay away from mainstream academics. Upon my return from the University of Toronto, I got many opportunities for offering professional consultation. I took up one such assignment and then gradually moved to working as an independent researcher. My father, who was 85 years old then, had been diagnosed with cancer. Having spent time away from India and family, I truly wished to have flexibility while I pursued my work. As I was working as an ‘independent professional in the capacity of a consultant’, it allowed me immense flexibility to be with my family and my father during his year long illness.  

What is the kind of work that you have done ever since you became an independent researcher? What are your current projects looking at?

I continue to work in two broad fields of enquiry: health and bioethics. It mostly involves research, writing, training, and program evaluation.  

I am currently associated with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, working on a project supported by the Department of Health Research, Indian Council of Medical Research, which deals with gender-based violence and public health care system. Additionally, I serve on the international Ethics Review Board of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF). I also work on academic writings outside of my paid commitments. 

I remain associated with a couple of academic settings more in the capacity of invited resource person/faculty to conduct workshops in the areas of bioethics, research methodology, and other more focused topical areas. 

How have you been funding your work?

I have been largely working on initiatives that are already funded and I was invited to join these initiatives as co-leads. Recently, however, I have started getting involved in raising funds in collaboration with researchers located at institutions. 

What do you think have been the major advantages of being an independent researcher?

Working in academia or the NGO sector can be extremely hectic, at times. Being an ‘independent professional’ allows me the time and space to do other things of my interest - both work related and other activities - alongside my consultative assignments. It also makes me free of too many institutional and administrative responsibilities. I do get involved in organisational activities, but it is out of interest and not a part of my paid commitments. I am also in a position to not commit to a new assignment soon after wrapping up one. More importantly, I have a choice to accept only those tasks that interest me and when I want to do paid work. Another thing I truly love about working as an independent researcher/professional is to not have to travel for work every day in a city like Pune.  Saving on travel time to work place adds to the number of hours available to me.  I also find this arrangement eco-friendly. 

Have you faced any difficulties because of the lack of an institutional affiliation? Especially with respect to funding? 

Being an ‘independent researcher’ may mean building one’s own research projects and raising funds for the same without any institutional affiliations; or it may mean working in the capacity of a consultant on different initiatives located in institutions. And, there could be a range of other arrangements between these two notions of ‘being an independent professional’. The former is challenging as funders are not inclined to support individuals for big initiatives. However, since I have always been associated with funded initiatives, I have not had to face these issues. Some of the other inconveniences are lack of access to institutional infrastructure and access to support staff. 

Do you think having an adjunct faculty or any other honorary position in institutions are of any help?

There is an obvious divide between mainstream academics and alternative spaces about the significance attached to degrees and positions held and formal affiliations with established institutions. Designations, positions, degrees - all matter in the mainstream settings. But these are somewhat less relevant in the alternative organisational structures like certain NGOs. However, it does matter to have some kind of an institutional affiliation and often is an added asset. It is, to some extent, fair to the employer as it serves as a proxy indicator of one’s credentials. I did not particularly pursue such matters though.

Do you feel this is a financially stable career option

This would really depend upon the juncture at which one chooses this mode of work; what financial responsibilities one has towards family; what financial aspirations one has in addition to the professional aspiration.

I enjoyed my time when I worked in institutional settings, both the universities and NGOs. I also must mention that at this juncture in life, I have a better sense of stability and therefore better placed to not focus on salary scales but the type of work I get. 

I think, generally speaking, for emerging researchers and scholars it might be somewhat challenging financially.  

What would be your advice to fellow/aspiring independent researchers? 

Personally, I would not have chosen to be an independent professional soon after my doctoral studies as it may not be very conducive to one’s growth during this critical phase of one’s career. It is also important to develop resilience and build on ‘not-so-good’ experiences at work places. Peer-to-peer learning is of salience, too. A bag of mixed and diverse experiences is what one needs to aim at when we step into the “job market” after schooling.

However, I think central to this conversation is the availability of choices for independent professionals which again, is a function of one’s own circumstances, one’s credibility in the peer community, one’s ‘reputation’ as a professional, one’s own commitment to professional integrity, and one’s passion for thematic areas! If we could be true to ourselves, it would be easier to navigate through the challenges we encounter as independent professionals. To be able to build on our strengths and reflect on weaknesses and work on those as we define our trajectories is helpful. I must mention that I have been fortunate to not have to look for such work. Instead, I was approached by colleagues and friends from my network asking me if I wished to take up those projects with them. It does not mean that this would always be the case. I myself was without any paid assignment for almost a year after having done three back to back consultancies. My suggestion would be to not be bound by things around us, be open to explore, be willing to take some risks when possible, and choose what offers one to grow and be creative. I guess independence of this kind in our professional life is critical which is not necessarily linked only to being an independent professional.