Diana Jue-Rajasingh

Money Tips for Fulbrighters (or Any Americans Living) in India

Posted in Fulbright, India, Traveling by Diana on January 10, 2014

For many Fulbrighters, one of the biggest question marks about making the move to India was around money — the best way to bring dollars into the country without paying exorbitant fees, whether or not to open an Indian bank account (and whether this is possible), the use of credit cards and debit cards, etc.

I was fortunate enough to get a few tips before I left the US for India, and after living abroad here for over 1.5 years, I’ve picked up a few more tips. Here goes:

  1. The Debit Card : Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking Account. With a $0 minimum, a $0 monthly service fee, and unlimited worldwide ATM fee rebates, this checking account / debit card serves as the quickest way for me to bring cash into India from a US account directly through ATMs, which are easily found in urban India. I also learned that wires received into Schwab’s brokerage account, which is linked to the checking account,  aren’t charged and can be moved over freely into the checking account. This was great for receiving a Fulbright stipend. Beat that, BofA.
  2. The Credit Card: CapitalOne Venture. Most fine dining establishments and retailers will take American credit cards. This particular card is for the traveler because it does not charge foreign transaction fees. The first annual fee of $59 is waived. You earn 2 points for every dollar on all purchases, and these points can be used to erase past travel purchases (and it’s super easy to get these rebates, too). However, some folks might appreciate a card that’s linked directly to an airline for the perks (as in the Chase United MileagePlus Explorer Card), such as a large number of points gained from signing up for the card and access to travel lounges.
  3. A Local Bank Account: Do it — it’s worth the hassle and the paperwork. If you come as a Fulbrighter, you’ll have to register as a foreigner because of your Research visa. With that proof of residency (or even just a lease agreement), you’ll be able to open a bank account. You’ll want an Indian bank account to make online purchases and to transfer money between individuals. American credit cards won’t work on sites like redbus.in (for the buses) or IRCTC (for the trains) or any of the mobile phone recharging sites. When picking a bank, go for a private bank that has a lot of branches, such as Axis or HDFC. I opened my account at an Axis Bank branch that was located near a university with a large foreign student population. The staff was accustomed to handling foreigners, so it was fairly easy for me to get the account opened.
  4. Transferring Money Between US and Indian Accounts: ICICI Money2India. I actually just signed up for this service, but I’ve heard great things about it. When I initiate a transfer from a US bank to an Indian bank, I’m generally charged $30/transaction (again, thanks BofA). However, this service will charge me a lot less — around $2/transaction (or so I’ve been told — I’ve yet to try it!). Regarding the exchange rate: what you see when you initiate the transfer is what you get, which is important because the rupee fluctuates a lot.
  5. Traveler’s Checks: Don’t do it. Do people still actually use these things?
  6. Bringing USD for Exchange on Arrival: Don’t do it. Most companies, especially those at the airports where people typically make exchanges, will rip you off. The bank fees aren’t terrible, so use an ATM. It’s cheaper and more convenient, too.

Hopefully you’ll find these money tips useful! And for those who are wondering where my research is — that should be coming at some point soon.

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I(de)AS

Posted in Fulbright, India by Diana on September 11, 2013

I(de)AS is a collection of thoughts, lessons, and quotations from anonymous members of the Indian Administrative Service (current, ex, and retired) and anonymous members of the academic and private sectors who work with them.

Each post comes from the Fulbright-Nehru research of Diana Jue.

The research took place in Bangalore, Karnataka, India during the academic year of 2012-2013. It was done in conjunction with the Centre for Contemporary Issues and IIM Bangalore’s Centre for Public Policy.

Read it here.

Tips for Applying for a Fulbright Student Research Fellowship

Posted in Fulbright by Diana on September 11, 2013

Fulbright application season is in full swing, which I know because of the emails and phone calls I get about how to apply, how to write a stellar research proposal/personal statement, how to secure and choose a host affiliation, how to ace the interview, and so on. I’ve even written a recommendation letter for an applicant. Since I Googled for tips on how to apply for a Fulbright two years ago, I thought I’d share some hard-earned wisdom and advice.

For those who are interested but don’t know, the Fulbright application process when applying through your university looks like this:

  1. Talk with your campus representative about applying.
  2. Secure a host affiliation in your host country.
  3. Find three people to write you recommendation letters. These people should know you and/or your project well. Preferably both.
  4. Write two essays: your research proposal and your personal statement.
  5. Fill out the application.
  6. Submit your essays and application for your university’s internal review.
  7. Interview with your university’s selection committee. At my university, the committee consisted of people who have won prestigious grants before (e.g. Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, Fulbright). Interviews are more helpful than scary, even though your interviewers are evaluating you. Their scores will contribute to an internal ranking within your university, which is passed on to the national selection committee. The higher the internal ranking, the better.
  8. Revise your essays using feedback.
  9. Submit online for the national round.
  10. Hear back about the national round in December/January. You either make the cut or you don’t. It’s a form email.
  11. Troll GradCafe for months. Lots of people are waiting for host country decisions along with you.
  12. Hear back from your host country. The decisions are made country by country, so you might have to wait awhile — like April or May. You’re either accepted, rejected, or wait listed.
  13. If you do get the fellowship, congrats! If you don’t, then no problem — apply again next year. There are no penalties for repeat applicants. If you’re wait listed, go through the grueling process of deciding whether to hold out for the Fulbright or to carry on with other plans. I have known of people who have gotten off the wait list, so I’d advise to not give up hope.

Cool? Aiyte, good. Now here are some tips that I can recommend from my application experience:

1. Do not insult the host country. After talking with a number of American Fulbright applications and reading their applications, I was struck by how many people basically insulted their host countries — especially if the country was an emerging economy and was struggling with socioeconomic/political issues. Applicants want to study where the country has failed in a certain area (e.g. health, sanitation, poverty) and want to apply their knowledge to “fix” these issues. Even if unintended, these applicants come off as having a “savior complex.” And that’s pretty unattractive to the host country.

If your’e studying a relatively touchy topic (like, ahem, public administration), then one strategy could be to identify “stellar examples” of initiatives/people/organizations that have made a difference in the host country. Perhaps you could study these and discuss how to scale them up. Bring your own background, knowledge, and skills to the table, too.

2. Demonstrate that you will be a good cultural ambassador for the US. This helps you get past the US round. Something I realized after arriving in India for our Fulbright Orientation is that the US side cares more about the cultural exchange than the research. Most of our introductory sessions were about how to adapt to a foreign culture — what to do and not do in different situations, cultural norms with respect to gender differences, how to dress, how to stay safe, how not to offend, etc. Even though the application asks for a research proposal, the research is secondary. Honestly, there weren’t too many checks on my research throughout my time there. I almost think that the US Fulbright staff in India assumed that most of us wouldn’t be able to complete our research because of the difficult environment. I believe that, for the most part, this was true.

Therefore, in your essays, discuss how you’d be a great cultural ambassador. Write about your times abroad or times when you were exposed to and adapted to different cultures, whether internationally or in the US. Write about how you want to make friends and get involved with people outside of research. Your explorations and learnings should move you beyond your realm of studies.

3. Write your research proposal and personal statement as if they were a New York Times or New York Magazine article. This was the best piece of advice that I got. It was from a professor in my department who won a Fulbright to Vietnam back in the day. Your evaluators are not experts in your given research field, but they’re smart. Avoid the jargon but don’t treat them like dummies. Engage them fully. Definitely include your personal story — what motivated your interest in the topic, how your personal/academic career led up to this research project, and why your topic is important to study during the next year. I wrote my research proposal in the first person, asked a lot of seemingly simple questions, and began smack in the middle of a story. In a group of essays, an easy-to-read, entertaining essay stands out among the boring ones.

4. Do not freak out about the interviews. Instead, take full advantage of them. What’s unique about the Fulbright is that so much of the application process relies on your written submissions — your research proposal and your personal statement. However, in my experience at least, there were two interviews at the university level. What I found, though, was that my interviewers were more interested in helping me write a better application than picking my application apart. After all, more Fulbright wins for the university ups the university’s prestige. My interviewers asked smart questions of me, and I replied to the best of my ability. They wanted to see if I had what it took to carry out my research — in terms of my skills and my connections.

What’s super cool about the Fulbright application process is that you can take all of these comments from your interviewers and edit your essays before submitting your application to the US round online. I benefited greatly from the viewpoints and opinions of my interviewers. I recommend that you take advantage of them, too.

5. Do your due diligence on your host affiliation and talk about expectations. Some host affiliations are great. Some are not so great. But the definition of “great” greatly depends on the Fulbrighter. Some folks need hands-on guidance; others prefer to work solo and occasionally check in. I’ve seen relationships thrive and relationships die. Know who you are, and know what your host institution can provide. Most organizations are open to having Fulbrighters — it boosts their prestige, and they even get some money out of hosting them (I found this one out later).

Actually, more important than your host institution is your research adviser who is sitting at the host institution. Snoop him/her out if you can. You can read up on previous Fulbrighters’ research topics and host affiliations online, so get in contact with alums. We’re usually more than ready to help.

Well, that’s that. At least, these are the application tips that first come to mind. Good luck!

A Quick Thought: On Indian Democracy

Posted in Fulbright, India, Traveling by Diana on December 29, 2012

This is a very quick thought, but I’m recalling one conversation that I had with a private real estate developer and another that I had with someone who was in the IAS but then quit to enter the private sector. They both had general comments on Indian democracy and its inability to direct the government toward decisions that would be “good” for the entire country.

In their eyes, politicians promise a lot of things to the people to chase the “vote banks,” and as a result, most policies here are envisioned for the short-term and cater to the bulk of the population. Now, most of the population is rural, agricultural, more or less illiterate, and opposed to change. They’re easily won over by promises (this I have seen through my other work in Tamil Nadu – families are still holding out for free LPG from a particular political party that’s been promising it for five years). The rural population isn’t as supportive of policies that support industry or the foreign investment that is required to spur the industrial sector here.

Ultimately, it is the people who are supposed to hold politicians accountable. The people are consumers of public services, and they pay with their votes. But if the public isn’t well-educated or informed about policies that would help them in the long-run, then there’s no one holding politicians accountable for these types of decisions that may hurt now but are beneficial for the country’s future.

Well, I’m not well-versed on Indian government or democracy, so I don’t know how much this weight this issue holds. Nor do I know where you’d begin to address this problem. I mean, how do encourage decision makers to have a long-term vision when they’re not held accountable for that long-term vision? Or, how can you translate the long-term into something that helps them win votes in the short-run?

Risk or Perceived Risk?

Posted in Fulbright, India, Traveling by Diana on December 29, 2012

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is whether or not IAS officers actually face real risk. A few weeks back, after I brought up my ideas on risk to my research adviser, he asked me, “But what do they really have to fear?” And then I was talking with a retired businessman (amazingly, he led the Microsoft India initiative), and during our discussion about public administration, he brought up the same point. In his opinion, it’s not that officers have much to fear. They just think that they do.

I contrast this view with some of the officers I’ve been speaking with – particularly the one who did end up in trouble with his political bosses. Some, but not all, think that being an IAS is particularly difficult because of all of the watchdogs and the centralized, hierarchical structure that, in my understanding, seems to strip away true authority and space to act. For them, being an IAS officer is like running a marathon in shackles. The public might be demanding that they do something, but for some reason or another, they cannot.

Now, is there real risk involved in taking decisions, or is there just the perception of risk? How do I even figure this out? I think that a lot of things must go on without my or the public knowing about them. And if there is no real risk, then why do so many officers think that there is? Where does this understanding come from? And how have those officers who have “stood up for what they believe in” done so? Did they just have an above average amount of bravery, or did they see something that others didn’t see? Were they privy to information that others weren’t?

I want to believe that there’s real risk involved and that this risk can be mitigated by granting more authority through decentralization and by letting IAS officers innovate through their positions by implementing risk management. I want to believe that a system can be created in which officers can be rewarded for doing something (despite the outcome) and punished for doing nothing (the system currently works the other way around). If there is no real risk but rather the perception of risk, then the problem and solution become different. We then focus more on the leadership capabilities of individuals – their management skills, ability to see opportunities, self-initiative, and courage. Then, I think, the process of becoming part of the IAS needs to be changed significantly.

Refining the Research Methodology: Short-Term vs Long-Term (Structural) Interventions (aka What am I Actually Doing?)

Posted in Fulbright, India, Traveling by Diana on December 19, 2012

Since my research project changed after I stepped foot in India, the methodology and even the outcome that we’re aiming for have been quite hazy to me. I know that our study has to do with public administration, decision-making, and leadership. I know that we’re trying to understand why certain IAS officers take more initiative than others. But then I’m also told that we’re supposed to look at case studies of “effective” public leaders. And then I’m told that we’re supposed to provide recommendations to reform the IAS.

That’s where the disconnect occurs. Sure, we can look at case studies. But in the end, a case study is a one-off example; a single “good” officer is not representative of 5,000 mediocre ones. Case studies are also highly dependent on the individual, and individuals are not replicable. Training would be the best intervention in this case, but this does not affect motives or incentives. This is more a research project on management and leadership, not on public administration.

If we’re proposing systematic reforms, then we must assume that IAS officers are more or less independent agents who make rational choices, usually based on selfish behavior (a totally fair assumption; this is what all economic theory is based on, minus the new behavioral stuff). It is not possible to propose reforms based on case studies. Thus, I do feel like the data collection methods for this project are not conducive to producing the desired conclusions.

However, if we break our project into two parts, then maybe we can be more productive and much more logically organized — at least, more organized in my head. That way, we can formulate two sets of recommendations.

The first set would be short-term interventions that are easily enactable within the current civil service. We can take lessons from the interviews we’ve been doing and from case studies we’ve been (kind of) looking at. I’m still learning, but I do believe that the keys to motivating leaders to take initiative involve mitigating his/her own perceived personal risk while keeping him/her accountable for the actions that he does and, more importantly, does not take. This combats both fear and laziness, which seem to be the big obstacles for officers. Thus, short-term interventions that will address these two major barriers to action could include:

  • Training officers how to communicate with superiors / manage external relationships. In the long-run, it’d be best if IAS officers didn’t have to care so much about this because their positions would be set up differently. But for the time being, this needs to be a skill that IAS officers have. The “successful” ones that we’ve talked with all explain that when they set out to get things done, they always work on getting their superiors onboard first. 
  • Communicating and instilling organizational goals with officers, their juniors, and their organization’s middle management. In theory, a well-defined organizational goal on paper will mitigate perceived risk and speed up the decision-making process, thus getting stuff done faster and more efficiently. However, I’m not sure whether this would actually work in practice. Goals on paper are not the same as a go-ahead from the higher-ups, especially within the current system.
  • Exposing high-level officers to their field’s international best practices and ethics. This was proposed to me by a successful real estate developer whom I chatted with yesterday. Public agencies are run by their leaders, and these leaders, in the current system, more or less set the organizational culture and direction. Thus, if the leaders aren’t up-to-date on best practices and don’t adhere to ethical conduct, then their juniors have nothing to look up to and are pretty much sunk.

The long-term structural interventions are many, many more, and they may face resistance from those within the IAS community (SK Das says this, not just me!). I’m still reading through his book, but he provides a lot of recommendations: decentralizing the service, separating policy creation from policy intervention, evaluating “success” based on results instead of process, systems of accountability for actions taken and not taken, space for innovation (which is relate to risk management; the goal is to seek maximum results instead of minimum risk-taking), lengthening tenure at a single post while emphasizing specialization over generalization, and many, many others that I am personally much more interested in than the short-term interventions.

Building a World-Class Civil Service for Twenty-First Century India — S.K. Das

Posted in Fulbright, India, Traveling by Diana on December 19, 2012

SKDasI bought this book on Amazon, and it’s probably the best piece of literature that I’ve read on the Indian Administrative Service. S.K. Das retired from the IAS as Secretary to the Government of India, and he has been in touch with my research adviser. Hopefully he’ll end up working with us; we shall see. Anyway, his writing provides many insights into India’s civil service that are rooted in solid literature about organizational theory and organizational change. I tend to think along his lines, which is actually quite reassuring. At least it shows that I’m not thinking up crazy ideas on my own.

Here is the first paragraph of Das’ first chapter. It provides some background on the IAS that we have today, which is actually built upon the remnants of India’s colonial past. This demonstrates why the civil service needs so much reform.

The civil service that we have today was founded by the British during the colonial days. Its structure and practices derived from that of Whitehall in the mid-nineteenth century, developed on the basis of a career service with tenure until retirement age, subject to satisfactory conduct. The British had set it up to exercise control over a large but potentially subversive group of native employees in the government. They had put in place a complex array of rules, regulations, and processes to maintain control over the decision-making of native employees. The organizational set-up was hierarchical to ensure a clear-cut chain of command based on a rigorous system of reporting. Since the native subordinates could not be trusted to take decisions, it was necessary to force the decision-making process upwards; this resulted in excessive centralization. The result, on the whole, was the creation of a rigid, hierarchical, centralized, process-driven bureaucracy.

Today’s IAS has many characteristics that were leftover from colonial times. It’s centralized, hierarchical, leader-dependent, and process-driven instead of results-driven. The big issue, though, is not just to diagnose the problems but also to find solutions through, for example, case studies of officers who were able to make a difference in the current system.

A Little Case Study: Access to the National Archives

Posted in Fulbright, India, Traveling by Diana on December 17, 2012

Mid-way through my last research meeting with my adviser at the Raintree Cafe, we were joined by my friend and fellow Fulbrighter. After listening to us discuss public administration for some time, she lamented about the research obstacles that she’s currently facing. Basically, she wants a pass to the National Archives, but the Director won’t grant it to her. Instead, he makes her return repeatedly to the archives and requests a different type of documentation with each visit. His last request was a letter from the US Consulate, which would require a trip to Chennai and $50.

Now why doesn’t the Director just let this US researcher have a pass? It doesn’t require any extra effort on his part. It’s not that he’s comfortable in his position and doesn’t want to lift a finger beyond signing off on papers. I mean, all he would have to do is sign off on papers! Here are some thoughts:

First, although the Director is in a position of authority in name, he doesn’t really have the authority to allow anyone into the archives. Basically, he’s risk-averse. He does not know what his superiors would think, and he doesn’t want to get into trouble for letting her in.

Second, this situation demonstrates that public organizations in India are process-oriented, not outcome-oriented. The extreme documentation and ridiculous, made-up requirements are simultaneously 1) ways to appear legitimate, 2) ways for high-up, central leaders to exercise control at the ground level and 3) safeguards for bureaucrats closer to the ground level, who don’t want to take responsibility for potentially bad decisions. Now, if someone was just like, Hey, let’s let the foreign girl in because she can utilize the National Archives to promote this country (a conclusion of outcome-orientation, which needs to be possessed by organizational leaders at al levels), then we wouldn’t have this problem. Obviously, these “official” processes are failing because of their high inefficiencies and lack of connection with positive or negative outcomes.

Funny enough, despite the ad-hoc “official” process, there is perhaps a more effective, better-trusted, non-standardized, unofficial process for getting access to the archives. My adviser more or less advised my friend’s adviser to call up the Director and vouch for her. This is more effective than any letter, since a human voice/face builds much more confident. Since she hasn’t tried yet, I’m not sure whether or not it will be effective. If it is, though, then the official process is quite the sham and a waste of resources.

An Long Overdue Research Recap

Posted in Fulbright, India, Traveling by Diana on December 17, 2012

A few days ago, I finally met with my research adviser to talk about research, that fuzzy activity that the national government is paying me to do. We had an interesting discussion that basically recapped the few interviews I had conducted before I left the country. From the discussion, I could instantly see where my adviser and I disagree. I am aiming to get to the root of why officers are afraid to take initiative as leaders in their positions, and I am utterly convinced that it’s a structural problem, not an individual problem. My adviser, on the other hand, believes that it’s more personality-based — or, at least, based on an individual’s ability to communicate and an individual’s understanding of his/her organization’s goals. [And these points are but subpoints, since getting a superior on your side and knowing organizational goals contribute to lessening risk.] In the end, I want to believe that we can enact reforms within entire Indian Administrative Service that promote autonomous decision-making and leadership by providing a safe space for leaders to be leaders.

Although my adviser may think otherwise, I will stick with my guns until I find something better: a huge reason for why bureaucrats do not take decisions is because they are afraid. They are risk-averse, and the entire system is set up for risk aversion. At the lower level of bureaucracy, officers actually have limited authority and need to get clearance from the center (the Indian civil service is hierarchical and rigid, and it is based on an outdated system that was initially supposed to be a way for the British to maintain control over the locals; more on this later). Additionally, there is very little reward for decisions that end up with good results and severe punishment for decisions that end up with bad results. Officers have many watchdogs, and political bosses can actually do things to officers that they’re unhappy with (e.g. unearth tainted pasts, file lawsuits, etc.).

However, I do see that at a certain level of seniority, officers also get quite comfortable and lazy with not doing anything. At this point, perhaps the issue is less about fear and more about laziness/lack of accountability regarding concrete outcomes. Given that officers rotate posts every two to three years and that promotions are based on years in the service instead of effectiveness, there is just not that much incentive for officers to put their hearts into their jobs. Additionally, top-level IAS officers both create and implement policy, which not only takes up time but creates another excuse for not taking action (that is, if officers don’t create a policy, then there’s nothing to implement and no measuring stick for failure or success to take action). As I mentioned earlier, the officers think much more about themselves and their comfort instead of their organization’s effectiveness and the people their organizations are supposed to serve.

During my discussion with my adviser, one idea that I didn’t take issue with was the fact that the IAS needs a sustainable leadership model. Basically, organizations are less known for their organizations than they are known for their leaders. When the leaders leave organizations as headless chickens, the organizations fail to function. Middle management is filled with yes-men who will do whatever the next leader wants, even if it means repealing a policy implemented by the previous leader. There is little space for middle management to take up authority, as decisions need to be approved at the top.

Another idea that came up was this issue of external management. My adviser said something along the lines of, “In India, it’s all about external management. If you’re a master of external management, then you can do anything.” That basically means that if an officer can get politicians on his/her side, then he/she can do anything he/she desires. This honestly makes me a bit wary. First, if officers had real authority, then they’d have so much space to act and to innovate. Since they don’t have real authority, they don’t act or innovate. Second, this doesn’t seem to hold officers accountable. If all they need is the go-ahead from the top, who’s to make sure that they both create and implement policies that deliver services to the public? And what about input from the public?

Anyway, more thoughts to come. I’m reading a fantastic book right now about the Indian civil service and will update with more information from it shortly.

What People Really Want to Know (aka How to Google this Blog)

Posted in Fulbright, India, Traveling by Diana on December 15, 2012

wordpress searches cut

Forgive the recent lack of updates — I’ve been away, back in the States. By being in the US, I managed to miss Diwali in India. And by being in India, I managed to miss Thanksgiving in the States.

But here I am again, back in Bangalore, and hopefully getting back into my research. I personally feel like it is coming to a gradual slowdown, since not much has happened to pursue more interviews or generate more findings since I’ve been away. Additionally, the rate at which actions are taken — professional or otherwise — is pretty slow, and it takes much time to re-rev up our research engines. Alas! But I suppose that one of the purposes of being on a Fulbright — that of cultural exchange and promoting mutual understanding — is being fulfilled by simply going through the process of attempting research here. The actual research findings? Perhaps they’re secondary.

Anyway, since I have few legitimate updates, I thought I’d post about something that I find interesting. Every once in awhile I check this blog’s visit statistics. In particular, I’m interested in what people are Googling to find this blog.

The results are pretty interesting. While my name does top the Google search term list (thanks, Mom!), a lot of people are Googling information about the Indian Administrative Service. And a lot of people seem to have the same questions/thoughts/concerns that I have. Or maybe that’s just what I know because that’s how Google works — whatever, just play along with me. Regardless, here are some sample search terms that have led here (regarding any typos: I claim [sic]):

  • why ias officer is powerful
  • making of an ias officer
  • can a ias officer really make any change
  • how ias officers make money from private sector
  • can ias officers take decisions themselves
  • what are those factors that affect iass?
  • risk faced by ias officers
  • risks in life of a i.a.s. officer
  • ias officerhelpfull for other people
  • can ias officers take decisions themselves
  • are ias officers corrupt
  • can a ias officer really make any change

So it turns out that at least a few people out there are thinking about the same questions and issues that I’m thinking about. Although this is a difficult subject to study (because it’s somewhat sensitive, because it’s rather large and requires a more pointed question on my end, because I can’t go about it on my own without going through my adviser), it’s well worth the effort. Hopefully I’ll have some answers to these questions, at least before the upcoming Fulbright conference.