Sikandar Kumar doesn’t think his path to the History PhD program at MIchigan was all that unusual, despite taking several gap years to pursue volunteer interests.
“Most people seem to have taken different professional paths, but there is some similarity in the type of people we are. We are all researchers and teachers. We have these interests in common.” Sikandar says that it was all the teachers he had growing up who inspired his academic work, people who built institutions and were committed to both their research and public service.
For Sikandar, research, public service, and teaching have always been connected. With interests in history, literature, and theater, he pursued a Masters in Oriental and African Studies in London after finishing a BA in History at the University of Delhi. He volunteered for Music Basti, an initiative to rehabilitate and inspire at-risk children through creative music education. Many of the children came from histories of drugs and abuse. The project aimed to reorient them to better employment and life opportunities by encouraging their imaginative and creative impulses. After finishing his MA program, Sikandar also volunteered with the Delhi University Contract Laborers Unions, supporting contract laborers and staff who were paid below minimum wage. These experiences intersected with and contributed to his intellectual interest in the histories of childhood, child labor, factory legislation, and the legal constructions of childhood and consent.
As an undergrad, Sikandar wasn’t thinking about an academic career. He explains, “I was more interested in theater and literature.” He discovered his love of history and archival research only while completing his MA in London. His research questions emerged later from his volunteer work. “The work I was doing [before] did not give me time to reflect on the issues as deeply. I wanted to study history, which is dissociated from [my previous work] but also really connected.”
To anyone considering a PhD program, Sikandar says, “Take a big long break [beforehand] because you won’t get one for a long time!” Some of the challenges, aside from the rigor and workload of the Michigan’s history PhD program, include being open to your intellectual questions changing. “But this was also one of the main reasons I was drawn to the Michigan’s History department,” he says. His research interests have changed somewhat from when he first applied, but his advisors and the structure of the program have supported this intellectual development.
After the PhD, Sikandar hopes to find a tenure-track position and is open to going wherever that job takes him. He is not that worried about living in new places—he’s survived several years now of Michigan winters! Even while unsure about what may happen next, he remains hopeful and excited about the prospect of continuing his research and inspiring future students.