Higher education or a waste of time?

Hi everyone! I have just wrapped up my first week of interviews in Hyderabad – In 105F heat; wisely picked research timing. I began my fieldwork in Hyderabad with specific aims in mind: find and train a research assistant, identify 40 female interview participants above age 60, and wrap these interviews up in about 6 weeks. Living in my secondary data academic bubble at Penn, it is inadvertently easy for me to compartmentalize years of fieldwork in different parts of India to the corner of my mind. So much so, that each time I begin research from scratch in a different part of the country, I am amazed at just how long the process takes to kick start.

The most difficult aspect of qualitative research is generally the identification of potential subjects. While most surveys have specific sampling methods, qualitative interviews are fluid; there is no real survey instrument, participants are identified through community gatekeepers, and their experiences are not necessarily generalizable to a larger population. Little did I realize, that this would actually be the easiest stage- thanks in large part to an NGO I am working closely with, HelpAge India (more on that in a later post). The research assistant part was (and continues to be) the trickiest. I do not speak the dominant language in Hyderabad, Telegu, and thus rely on my RA to be my voice and ears. In an interview technique that is structured as a free flowing conversation that lasts on average, an hour, you can imagine how important it is to have the right partner. Initially, I hired 2 women in their mid-20’s with Masters degrees in Economics. One dropped out due to the time commitment- we run all over the city conducting interviews 5 days a week, I don’t blame her!- and the other is still in the process of gaining confidence.

The RA that remains was referred to me (through my referral network in the city) as one of the few students who speaks fluent English and Telegu. I spent a week interacting with and instructing her on the finer points of qualitative research, but was unfortunately disappointed with her ability to grasp the idea at the level I expected. She couldn’t understand what I mean by “marital status”, “assets” let alone English sentence structure. For this, I do not blame her. I sincerely believe it’s a larger issue with higher education in the country in general. I grew up in India until 8th grade, and am thankful to have escaped the rigid system as a whole that rewards memorization rather than creative thinking, and shuttles students in 3 streams: Science, Commerce, and Arts- all depending on their aggregate score in the critical 10th grade National examination, not necessarily inclination or interest. In a conversation I had the other day with a dynamic woman that is a History Professor by day, and social activist by night, she articulated how dismal the quality of professors is of late, and the good ones are overburdened; thus, it is not surprising that they give mediocre doctorate theses a green light, just to relieve their own responsibilities. While there has been a plethora of private colleges that has cropped up in the last decade or two, the quality of these remains questionable, and are largely money-making schemes for prominent politicians that back them. Nobody wins. Least of all, students. There is much talk about the great Indian Demographic Dividend- the youth bulge. Policy makers laud the enormous advantage India has in this century. This dividend can (and many say it is inevitable) turn into a nightmare if the country’s young are not properly educated in order to be competitive, let alone have enough jobs for when they graduate.

That lengthy rant aside, I am happy with the 5 interviews I am done with thus far. I had a very awkward moment today when a community leader had gathered a group of about 20 women for me to speak with, at her home. 5 minutes into the conversation, all the women asked me where their money was. I was perplexed, but tried to play it cool. Maybe they expected me to reimburse travel costs, which was fine. Once I started my one-on-one interviews however, I kept getting asked about the money—turns out, through some magical moment of miscommunication, the contact that I was connected to the community leader through, had explained that I was a student that was “coming to help”. By help, he meant the report I would write after my interviews, but they took it as monetary help. Uh oh. As much as I would like liked to compensate the women for their time and stories, it would be unethical to offer any money to them (since I didn’t mention that in my IRB), and the women I didn’t interview would be left out. I need to figure out a more graceful way to avoid this situation- something that I am bound to face again!

Goodbye for now, I hope you are all staying hydrated and happy!! I will leave you with a picture of my RA in deep interview-conversation with a woman. Whose grandchildren refused to leave her side. Which would be alright (although not best-practice, sssh!), but there were 14 in total. In one house. 14! Sobering.

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About apoorvajadhav

Fourth-year Ph.D. Candidate in Demography at the Population Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania. I study social norms and fertility decline, as well as intergenerational transfers and aging in India