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Careers in India
Director, National Centre for Biological Sciences
Hiring in India: Understanding a coordinate system made of noodles.
If you want a job in India, you need a sense of humor and a good CV. A thick skin, which makes you insensitive to real and imaginary slights, and a personality that is sensitive to the concerns of others also helps. Please don’t mistake my message- I think that there are great opportunities in India and many more opening up. But, boring through the many barriers to entry to get a happy research home can appear complicated. So, here is a primer on what institutions ‘think’ and how you may want to approach jobs, so that you find the home and establish the research programme that you want. Bottom line: You can make the difference and it is not difficult.
The sorry state of institutional hiring processes.
As I started writing this, I close my eyes and make imaginary phone calls and send in three types of imaginary applications to a range of institutions in the country. The first application was one with an absolutely stellar CV. The second was a good one and the third was an ordinary one. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, I run through institutions one by one and mentally note down their responses, as I imagine them. What did this virtual survey tell me? First, that very few institutions have formal processes for interacting with applicants. Replies to mail are few, if any. Information on the process is scant. More is written about what you should not do than on welcoming an application. And institutions tend to choose those who are likely to join, rather than do everything to make themselves attractive to the best. Usually, this means hiring an alum, who understands the place, rather than an ‘outsider’ who will rock the boat. What most of us seem to be telling applicants is that we are not particularly interested in your application, but should you still persist, recognize our talent and squeak your way in; oh well, come on in. Terrible isn’t it? Yes, but how can we change this? We’ll come to that soon but lets look a bit at your application now.
The sorry state of how faculty applicants stake out their options.
I then performed another imaginary experiment. I transform myself into a applicant, exploring the strategies of hundreds of applicants. I ask myself how I chose where to apply, what I said about my research plans, how I prepare my job talk, how I communicate to the places I was applying to etc. What did this survey tell me? Shockingly, most applications were poorly planned, poorly executed and expected institutions to make every effort to recognize talent without making much effort to ensure that it is seen.
Both institutional leadership and faculty applicants are cut from the same cloth.
What do the above defects in the hiring process tell us? Both applicants and faculty at Indian institutions share a common ideology reflecting their common socio- cultural training. Both groups demand care, professionalism and understanding of the other, but both are wanting in these respects themselves, exceptions notwithstanding. Unless both groups change, the many opportunities we now see around us will slip away.
How can we change institutional hiring practices?
It is actually quite simple. Each of us should decide that we are the system and not just blame the system. We can do this politely. No reply to your application? Drop another mail. No reply still? Make a phone call. After all your efforts, did you get a reject? No problem. Write back thanking them for their effort and request them to put up their recruitment process on their website. Write to your friends in the faculty about how their processes can be improved. You got a great job? Congratulations. Once you are in, insist on being involved in new hiring and set an example on how to do this well. Are you told you are too junior? Insist that this is just the time to be involved. Invite applicants, host them well, and take them out to lunch or dinner if you can. Set an example. Remember, what we have in institutional hiring today was created by your ‘clone’ a few years ago. If you only blame the system for what it is, you are to blame as well. You can change the system in a year or two, even as you apply and certainly after you join.
How can institutions change their hiring practices to make them more professional?
Institutions need to make sure that the entire faculty is involved in hiring. You can help to make sure that everyone sees that the purpose of hiring is to improve the quality of faculty, not to search and identify people who will join us no matter what we are or do. If institutions want to attract quality faculty, they need to not only to make essential improvements in infrastructure (the easy part), but also need to make changes in institutional hiring processes (less easy) and in institutional culture (even harder). Unless a culture of inclusiveness is nurtured early, the attractiveness of an institution is low. Within institutions, the most effective agents of change can be junior faculty. And junior faculty can be most effective if they participate to make hiring better and more effective. Grumbling about the old- fogies who may be running the place is good fun, but the main effect is only to make them older- and foggier. So institutions cannot change unless young faculty members take the lead in running them, in a sensible, inclusive and forward- looking manner. Don’t take “no” for an answer! Just take charge.
Finally, how can you change your application process to make it better?
I often get e-mails, which only say: "I would like to apply for a job, here is my CV attached". Unless you are an obvious superstar, this is not the best way to start (and even if you are a superstar, I do not recommend this). Here’s what I normally say in reply, if asked for advice:
"Thank you very much for interest in applying for a faculty position at NCBS. In addition to knowing the process at NCBS, the following general points may be of help in applying to institutions in India. It may be useful to understand for yourself what your scientific strengths and interests are and what flexibilities you have in the research directions you want to take. You should then write up a research proposal for your independent research career based on these. Rather than write-up one standard proposal with your CV, it may be worth keeping in mind that you may want to tailor your proposal according to where you are applying. For example, a proposal that is heavily technology intensive may make sense in one context and not in another. However, make sure that what you say you want to do is genuinely something that strongly interests and motivates you! It will be very worthwhile if you make informal visits during this process (this is very useful).
There are many very different places where you can apply to and each of them has their own special attractiveness or negative aspects that may make you want to go elsewhere: In the end, much depends on your ability to fit in and transform a place. While it is always difficult to make a decision and start a new job, do remember that you can be the person that can change a place for the better, as much as an excellent place can bring out the best in you.
Apply when you can give a good talk and when your manuscripts are accepted. Waiting for too long is not good, and applying too early may not be wise (though erring on this side is less of a problem than waiting too long). Apply widely and do so about 18 months before you want to join and plan on making a formal visit a year before you plan to return. Be in touch after you apply. Make sure your referees send in their letters fast, when asked to do so. Look up our website on how to apply to NCBS (http://tinyurl.com/kvj673). You should also look up the Wellcome-DBT programme (http://www.wellcomedbt.org/) and see the broad resources that are becoming available on IndiaBioscience.org (http://www.indiabioscience.org). I hope this helps. If you need any further feedback, please do not hesitate to let me know."
I cannot stress the importance of being in touch early when applying for a position. It’s your life! Visit places when you are doing your PhD. Visit when you are doing a post- doc. People will get to know you and that can only be good for you. They will call you up and say: “Here’s a great job, just for you. Why don’t you apply?” Or: “You know, this place is not the best for your talent, but here is another one that might suit you better”. Work hard on your application and your talk and run it by the best mentors. Read about and understand the place to which you are applying. Are people happy there? Will you be happy? Can you do what you want there? Be in touch, through informal visits or discussions with faculty, with places for possible future hire well in advance of your application. Do you homework. Finally, no place is perfect. Some places are willing to be flexible and are seeking improvement; they will view your hire as a way of growing or transforming their institute. They will be inspired to change themselves. That’s the type of place where you want to go. Wherever you decide to go, you will want to do good science but also be a role model. I welcome you to a new and changing India and encourage you to apply now!