Columns Conversations

Academia is not the only career path you can follow after your PhD

Jayashree Rajagopalan

Smita Jain, Executive Director of IndiaBioscience, speaks about the current research scenario in India and some of the most pressing challenges Indian researchers face today. She also throws in some unique but very useful career navigation advice for researchers, while revealing why she chose a career outside academia. This interview was first published on Editage Insights.

Smita Jain
Smita Jain  

Could you tell us more about IndiaBioscience?

IndiaBioscience (IBS) is a program that was created by the Indian scientific community to realize two main goals: to fill a unique niche in the ecosystem of life sciences research in India, and to be a catalyst to promote changes that affect the culture and practice of the field, through engagement with academia, government, and industry at various levels. 

IBS aims to increase the visibility of science in society by being a hub for policy discussions and science communication, and as an aggregator of information relevant to the biological science community. IBS has been nurtured within the campus of the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, from its inception. 

The program sustained its existence with the help of the community over the initial period of its existence. Over the past 5 years, IBS has been majorly funded by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India. We also have a grant from the Indian Government’s Ministry of Human Resource Development.

What activities does IBS undertake to foster a community of scientists, administrators and policy makers?

Our broad mandate is to serve the life science community across India. Some of our activities over the past few years have included mentorship and recruitment programs for exceptional faculty through Young Investigators’ Meetings (YIMs), the creation of useful content in the form of column articles, news pieces, interviews, opinion pieces, etc. on our website, the provision of career resources in the form of a booklet featuring career opportunities in science as well as general career related advice, our podcast titled IndiaBiospeaks, upcoming webinars for students and young professionals (IndiaBiostreams), and facilitation of research collaboration through specific programs. 

We have recently begun preliminary efforts towards addressing undergraduate science education in India where we are trying to build a network of educators and connect them with aspiring researchers. We also have a page dedicated to the efforts of educators on our website. We foster a world-class Indian community of scientists, educators, and policy makers through active networking and by making the IBS website a one-stop resource that has some of the best content for the community, not just from India but also abroad.

IBS aims to serve as a bridge between educators and life science researchers. What are their expectations from each other? And how do you aim to bridge this gap?

A cross talk between researchers and educators is necessary for both the communities and that is what we are trying to address by bridging the gap between the two vastly isolated groups. Educators are the ones who teach and have the ability to influence future generations. Therefore, it is very important for them to stay up to date with what is happening in the world of research. 

Also, if the educators are aware of the latest research-based methodologies and can teach those concepts to their students at an early stage, this will stimulate the students to become more curious and become true problem solvers rather than simply being rote-learners. 

Such cross talks also help educators to grow their network as well as give them access to research instrumentation facilities for their own research as well as their students. Researchers in turn, get to communicate their science to the younger minds and stand to gain from their interactions with curious aspiring researchers early on.

With these aims in mind, we have set up a dedicated discussion forum for educators on the IBS website. The discussion forum is accessible to researchers as well. We invite active educators to our regional YIMs to actively interact with researchers, thus fostering the collaborative spirit. We also want to initiate mentoring and networking meetings for educators, similar to our YIMs.

How do you think the research culture in India has evolved?

The research culture in India is definitely becoming more global. It has become more collaborative in nature as well as more interdisciplinary. People have begun to appreciate the value of sharing, networking, and collaborating. I also see that more and more members of the Indian scientific and research community are in favor of bringing in a more transparent and open culture in science education, communication, and research. There is positivity amongst the next generation of researchers. Younger researchers have also started to realize the importance of outreach and their role towards society.

India has witnessed a major exodus of talent over the years, commonly referred to as the brain drain.” What are your thoughts on this?

You may have heard of the proverb, The grass is greener on the other side” So by nature, we are always looking for greener pastures, for better opportunities in life. However, many times we forget that no place on this earth is without issues and challenges.

I feel that one should work in his/​her own country trying to address the issues that are pertinent to our country. This will have a larger impact especially because while working in our homeland, we have intimate knowledge of the problems we are trying to address. Of course, exposure to international work culture is very important and the impact this has on shaping researchers’ personalities and skills cannot be negated. But working in one’s own country has its own charm, is exciting and fun, and it provides opportunities to have a bigger and more meaningful impact.

In order to retain the best brains in the country, we urgently need to create an atmosphere where bright young investigators and educators can flourish within the country and mature into independent world-class academics.

India is an important contributor to global research. How can the global visibility of Indian scientists be improved?

To enhance the global visibility of Indian scientists, good quality and impactful science needs to be showcased in a manner that is appreciated not just by domain experts but also a wider audience. We need to be more confident of our own science and we need to take pride in what we are doing. Also, I feel that India has a lot of potential in that it offers a lot of hitherto unexplored research problems, and if Indian researchers start picking up indigenous stories, more buzz can be created around these. What we need is to have confidence and pride in our own assets, be it research problems, home-grown researchers, or Indian journals.

In your experience, what are some of the unique challenges faced by Indian researchers today? Also, what are the areas that they need a lot of support and guidance in?

Through my interactions with a large number of young investigators, I feel that the major challenges faced by Indian researchers are related to funding opportunities, lack of conversations and information exchange between groups working in the same domain, and access to good quality, professionally managed infrastructural facilities. 

Bureaucracy is another challenge faced by Indian researchers. Many a times, unavailability of appropriate mentors and adequate and support and encouragement from colleagues also make navigation through the unchartered territories of academia difficult for young investigators.

A robust mentoring program where young researchers get pertinent advice from their mentors would go a long way in equipping them with knowledge of different ways to navigate their paths more effectively and smoothly. For example, when you are starting up your lab you do not know how to move forward, which issue to tackle first and how, what aspects to prioritize, how to deal with students, how to manage grants, where to publish, and so on. Access to a good mentor could go a long way in teaching you how you can find answers to such questions. One of the major objectives of our YIMs is to provide such mentoring to young investigators.

A lot of our readers are early-career researchers who are quite anxious about making the right career choices. It’d be great if you could share some advice for them.

My very first piece of advice would be to follow your heart, and not get influenced by someone else’s dreams and aspirations. For that, you need to understand yourself well, know your skills, values, and interests. Based on this you should research your career options. This will help you stay aligned with your career options. 

Also, talk to professionals in different roles – in the roles you are considering – to know and better understand the nuances of each of those career paths. This will help you make an informed career choice and will go a long way in keeping you content and happy. Also, it is very important to build and nurture your own professional network from an early stage. 

One comment that I would like to make here is that academia is not the only career path you can explore after your PhD, there are multiple avenues that have opened up where one can flourish and enjoy a happy career. So take the time to, know yourself and your aspirations well and follow your heart. Each career choice should be made after a lot of thought has gone into it. It is important to do this since what matters at the end of everything is your happiness with the career choice you have made.

You completed a PhD, took up an industry career and went on to explore scientific management. What prompted you to change paths?

My interest in biology and need to improve my knowledge and understanding of it nudged me towards pursuing a PhD degree. Towards the end of my program, however, it was clear to me that I would not continue in academia because that was not what I wanted from life. Inner satisfaction from what I do and the resulting happiness have been very important for me from the beginning. Thus, I did not pursue a post-doctoral program, which was (and still is) the norm for most of my peers who obtained a PhD degree. 

While I did not know what I would do next, I was clear that I certainly did not want to pursue further research. So I started to explore – I worked in industry for three years and learned a lot from corporate culture. However again, I realized that this was not for me. I needed creative freedom to work. During further exploration, I landed at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C‑CAMP) as their Business Development Manager. 

It was in this role that I realized where my true interests and passion lie – administration, management, working with different kinds of people, and working in an environment where I know each day would be different. I really enjoyed my stint at C‑CAMP. It was new and we had loads to do! I was involved in setting up the facilities and processes, taking the Centre’s mandate to the scientific community across India, and a lot more. 

After working for five years at C‑CAMP, I moved to a leadership role at IBS, a program that has really fascinated me and I knew that I could contribute in different ways to the life sciences community. This program has given me the independence to work in my own style as well as the opportunity to think and create newer activities as per the needs of our community.

I truly believe that if you are passionate about the work you are doing, it becomes one of the biggest sources of happiness and satisfaction, and I am happy to have found that niche. As I said earlier, what is important is to know yourself well, keep your confidence levels high, and be honest to yourself and your surroundings; you will find your true calling.