Postdoc culture in India and academic prospects

The following opinion piece was written by Ishtapran Sahoo, a post-doctoral fellow at NCBS, Bangalore, India. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of Biotechin.Asia or its staff. 

When you go abroad for your PhD and tell someone you are heading back to India for a postdoc, you can almost guess the expression on their face. It’s predictable. I returned to India to start my postdoc at NCBS, one of the premier research institutes in India which has state of art facilities and an amazing mix of both young and experienced researchers who work in areas that span from basic science research to ecology, wildlife and theoretical physics.

During my acclimatization period as I was slowly getting to know colleagues, I realised there existed a postdoc fellow’s association (PDFA) at NCBS (managed by postdocs) which looked into the welfare of postdocs on campus, answered queries, helped new members to settle in faster. Predictably, I became an active member and subsequently an office bearer of PDFA when it became official. In hindsight, this was the quickest way to get a glimpse of the issues Indian postdocs are facing. PDFA gets unconditional support from the faculty and department heads in not only identifying the issues but also coming up with possible solutions and ideas to deal with the problem.

Postdoc as a culture is relatively new in India; off late the Indian scientists have acknowledged the need for postdocs to augment progress in science and engineering. Until recently, most research activity in India only depended on the work by PhD students. The need for postdocs gave rise to multiple fellowship options that vary in their monthly stipend from 35-40k (PI’s grant), 45-55k (DBT-DST fellow) and goes all the way up to 80-90k (Wellcome Trust/India Alliance-NCBS campus fellow). Typically, most fellowships support between 2-5 years; this is standard. So, all this is good, where is the problem?

Some of the pressing issues that currently concerns the growth and development of Indian postdocs’ are outlined below-

Are you NET qualified?

The problem begins when postdocs in their final year start to apply for faculty positions. If you have done your PhD abroad like me, you will be slightly confused about a qualifying test – National Eligibility Test (NET), which to my knowledge is not entirely clear if you absolutely need it or not. This test was made compulsory to be able to apply for any teaching position and later it was relaxed for those with a PhD degree “deemed fit according to UGC regulations 2009”, this means those who possess a PhD degree before 2009 are exempted from the NET requirement. So, if you are not NET qualified and have a foreign PhD post 2009, are you even eligible to apply? Do check this out with the Institute you are planning to apply in future.

Can you generate high impact publications in a timely fashion?

So, a fellowship provides the salary and some contingency to start your postdoc in India for the next 2 or 5 years, depending on which fellowship you manage to get. One or more publications in good impact factor journals, is expected from the fellow that will subsequently help them find an independent position.

From an international perspective, this is not too overwhelming, but given the timelines of ordering chemical and antibodies in India, few places like NCBS or IISc or IISERs are comparatively better in comparison to other places where the delivery time can take from few weeks to months, even today. What this means is, if you plan an experiment you will have to order your chemicals few months in advance or wait for them to be delivered. This scale of advance planning is not usual for researchers elsewhere and Indian researchers suffer significantly at this front. Even at NCBS, overseas orders for antibodies are consolidated for multiple labs and there is a set date every month, for ordering. Logistic issues have plagued Indian scientific progress for decades and things are only beginning to change now. Therefore, although the scientific expectations are reasonable, the timelines to achieve them are not.

Comparatively, a faculty applicant who is returning to India after a 5 year postdoc at NIH, not only has a better CV but also international network and collaborators. Therefore, just providing a fellowship will not alleviate the quality of science, unless they invest into improving faster access to resources, organise networking events and symposiums. Personally, I think it’s unfair to compare apples with oranges. If someone survives as a postdoc in India and successfully transition into an academic position, she/he is practically the best one can have, probably with exceptional time and people management skills.

Do you get any training for an academic position?

Postdoctoral fellowships are also referred to as postdoctoral training grants but what sort of training does one go through as a graduate student or postdoc for an academic position, apart from running PCRs, western blots and pipetting on bench? Did you ever wonder why it is usual to find principal investigators (PI) who are indeed very good at the research they do but they fail miserably as mentors? Mentoring is a different ball game altogether and not all fellowships provide adequate provision to pursue them at various stages of one’s career. EMBO fellowships can be considered as an example at this point that funds its fellows to take up additional training in grant writing, science communication and lab management.

I would think, the Indian postdoc fellowships should work towards replicating the EMBO model. They could reduce the number of fellowships and rather increase funds to train each fellow who in turn would be better equipped and more job-ready.

Can you teach? Is there any provision to try teaching as a postdoc?

Teaching is an art, therefore, not everyone can teach but in an academic position, it is an important trait that can potentially affect your job stability. Indian PhD students barely get to involve themselves in the process of lecturing or tutoring during their grad days and beyond. While this is true for most Indian Universities that always asks for teaching experience, the PhD system never places enough emphasis. Even at postdoc level, there is barely any scope. Thankfully, at NCBS the postdocs are allowed to conduct an advanced level cell biology course (annually) for UG/PG students from various colleges from Bangalore on weekends. Postdocs have complete autonomy over the course content and duration; the institute sponsors the snacks, transportation for participating postdocs and a lunch for all, at the end of the program. I find this extremely encouraging, as this allows one to test if they are good at their communication skills and provides them an opportunity to improve.

Do you know the who’s who in academia?

Networking and collaborating is a must. Not only does it expand your understanding of the on-going research on campus but it also helps you reach out for help during difficult times, that requires expertise outside of your domain. Towards enhancing networking and interactions between the postdocs, PDFA regularly arranges meet up sessions where postdocs can outline their project in a chalk talk fashion without having to show any data and it allows for discussion of ideas and suggestions from peers. This turned out to be a fantastic initiative to get comments and ideas, as well as enhance one’s presentation ability. These sessions also allowed for practising job talks.

PDFA organised a Postdoc symposium, the first event took place on Oct 10th, 2015 at NCBS. The purpose was to expose postdoctoral talent pool to academic recruiters and decision makers. The event provided a platform to personally interact with representatives from various top institutions across India and present one’s case. I am sure this will help more than just forwarding your CV during a job hunt. Like NCBS, other institutes that have a sizable number of postdocs should organize similar events because it did really help in networking and getting to know the who’s who in academia.

Choosing the right mentor

This is important and difficult. There are many blogs that one can find online and in an Indian context it is even more crucial as it is not just your mentor who can make life hard. In a recent interview, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Wellcome Trust/DBT India AllianceShahid Jameel says, “We just don’t really have a culture of good mentorship in the country. People are not taking out the time that is required to give young researchers the skills to develop their careers.”

Try to make an informed decision about the institute and the mentor.

Important information links:

About Ishtapran Sahoo:

A biologist with a broad interest in neuro-degeneration and lipid biochemistry, have studied and worked in Singapore, Dresden and Bangalore. Outside the lab, I am mostly behind my camera and love to travel.

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