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October 2011: Samiksha Sehrawat

1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?

I became interested in British history when my work on the history of hospitals in India clearly showed British influences on colonial medical policies. Although my research focuses on colonial Indian history, it is often useful to have an understanding of contemporary British developments to explore how colonialism works. For instance, my work on health care for Indian women benefited greatly from analysing its links with white medical women who spent their entire career in India. The work of these women doctors in India was closely linked with their struggle for professional identity in Britain.

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

I have benefited enormously from the high quality of training that I received in the BA and MA programs at the University of Delhi. Historians like Biswamoy Pati, who works on the social history of marginal groups, such as tribals and peasants, has influenced my academic sensibilities profoundly. Social historians like Sumit Sarkar, Shahid Amin and Anshu Malhotra have encouraged my early efforts to engage with the range of possibilities offered by the history of gender, caste and peasants. Mark Harrison has helped me understand the importance of institutional history and how British ideas have influenced colonial medical history. I have always been attracted to inter-disciplinary approaches and the use of a range of methodological tools.

3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?

I worked as a copy-editor as a post-graduate with a future in publishing, and was encouraged to take up Fine Arts and English. However, academics allows me to engage in reading, writing and teaching – all of which are very rewarding.

4. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?

It was fulfilling to rise up to the challenge of converting the drab sources I encountered when exploring the history of hospitals into a meaningful understanding of the social and political roles these institutions played. I am enjoying returning to gender history in my current British Academy project on the history of Indian women’s health, and looking forward immensely to working on the oral lore of women in the Haryana countryside.

5. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?

Current political and social conditions demand a better understanding from Britons of how Britain became a multicultural society which includes more than the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish. For British society to engage with the challenges of ‘home-grown’ terror or a new international economic regime where ‘former colonies’ are in the ascendant, British history urgently needs to take into account what colonial history says about Britain.

6. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?

My advice is to combine a research topic of absorbing interest with hard work and attention to the practical aspects of research, including the skills and achievements that can build a career. Seek some important sources of such practical advice – I recommend Ms Mentor’s column in the Chronicle of Higher Education, seminars and informal academic gatherings to everyone. To publish, write your research up to as high a standard as you can and aim high – submit it to the best journals. Even if you do not get accepted immediately, you will get useful comments. Try to look for the constructive when faced with criticism, if unfair try not to take it to heart. Set up a local writing group to provide support. A senior academic willing to offer constructive feedback can be invaluable as a mentor.

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