Columns Indian Scenario

Coming as a pair: Finding jobs and managing careers in India

Jonaki Sen

My husband Amitabha Bandyopadhyay and I decided towards the beginning of 2005 that we would be looking for jobs in India. Two factors mainly contributed to this decision:

1)The opening up of job opportunities in India and
2)The possibility to being close to our families.

I was a postdoctoral fellow in Prof. Connie Cepko’s laboratory and Amitabha was a postdoctoral fellow in Prof. Cliff Tabin’s laboratory. Both the labs were in the Genetics department of Harvard Medical School, Boston. Our postdoctoral labs were unique, because the labs were in a joint-laboratory set-up that shared space, instruments and reagents while maintaining the individual identity of each lab. Connie and Cliff were friends from their graduate school and had decided to set up a joint laboratory early in their careers. There was no spatial distinction between the two labs; the benches of lab members were intermingled and the facilities and equipments shared as well as many reagents bought with a common pool of money.

Being in this kind of a laboratory environment inspired us to try to establish a similar set-up, if possible, in India. The advantages of a joint lab both monetary and resource-wise were obvious. However, if this was to be done, both of us would have to get jobs in the same Institute. We realized at the very beginning that getting two jobs in the same institute in India would be very tough. Unlike the US, where couples are very often accommodated in the same Institute, it is much more difficult in India. Thus we decided that we would look for jobs in those cities or towns where there was more than one institute that could employ us.

The number of research institutions has gone up to a large extent in India in the last ten years and yet the total number of institutes is still very few compared to the US. We were only considering research institutes and not universities, because our impression was that the resources and facilities available for research at Indian Universities were poor in comparison to the institutes. Thus with the classic two-body problem”, we were restricted to looking for jobs primarily in very few cities, namely Bangalore (NCBS, IISc, JNCASR), Mumbai (TIFR, ACTREC) and Hyderabad (CCMB, LVPEI). We left Delhi and Kolkata out, because we did not want to settle down in these two places.

Our initial list did not even include IIT-Kanpur, where we finally joined as faculty. The primary reason being that we were unaware that the IITs had biological sciences-related departments where we could look for jobs. It was simply by chance that we became aware of IIT-Kanpur as an institute where we could look for a job.

A friend of mine at MIT, Boston invited me to attend a symposium at IIT-Kanpur. Some prominent people associated with Indian science were expected to come to this symposium, and thus presented a great opportunity for us to interact with them. I could not go to the symposium but my husband Amitabha went, representing the two of us. The Director of IIT-Kanpur was there at this symposium, and he announced at the end that there were many job-opportunities at IIT‑K. Amitabha then spoke to him and thus we were put in touch with the Head of Biological Sciences and Bioengineering at IIT – Kanpur. Since we had already planned to visit the above-mentioned institutes at Bangalore, Mumbai and Hyderabad during Jan-Feb of 2006 to give job-seminars, we included IIT-Kanpur in our itinerary. 

Our trip to India on a job hunt was very interesting, because we became aware several factors that we were unknowledgeable­­ of while in the US. For example, we came to know that CSIR Institutes have a policy of not employing a married couple in the same institute. We enjoyed our visits to all the institutes in Bangalore, Mumbai and Hyderabad and our talks were well-received in each place. Wherever we went, we highlighted the advantages of having a shared laboratory set-up. Many places simply did not have the space to accommodate two people and some places could not employ a married couple in the same institute. We were pleasantly surprised by our visit to IIT-Kanpur. This was the only place where we were actually shown lab-space and where there was no rule against employing a married couple in the same institute or department. In mid-2006, we were offered two Assistant Professor positions in the Biological Sciences and Bioengineering Department of IIT-Kanpur, which we accepted. This appeared to be the best solution for our two-body problem”. We were going to be faculty members of the same department, and this would allow us to establish a joint lab that shares lab-space, equipments and other resources.
We are extremely happy with the decision of choosing IIT-Kanpur; here, we have been able to establish our labs very rapidly within a year and half of our joining. We were advised to apply for grants to Indian funding agencies even before arriving in India. Each of us applied for one grant to Department of Science and Technology, Govt. of India (DST) and to The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Our grants were approved for funding, and as a result of this early application, we received funds within 6 – 8 months of our arrival. This was the key factor that enabled us to buy the equipments and reagents that we needed. The facts that we received the money soon after arrival and we were able to pool our resources in a joint-laboratory set up made establishment of the laboratory a relatively quick and smooth process.

We had not done any research in India prior to this, as both of us obtained our PhD degrees and performed our postdoctoral work in US universities. We were completely unaware of the difficulties that could be faced when doing research in India. Several people warned us that we would be facing a very difficult task for which we were completely unprepared due to our lack of Indian research experience. Our difficulties in starting were compounded by the fact that 1) almost no scientist in India was using the same system and model organisms as us, and 2) we were trying to establish vertebrate developmental and neurobiology labs in the primarily engineering institute of IIT-Kanpur. However, these factors did not prove to be insurmountable, and we were able to establish our labs quite soon after joining. The Indian funding agencies of DST, CSIR and DBT have funded our projects very generously, and the administrative set-up in IIT-Kanpur also made the whole process of set-up relatively smooth.

We would like to add a couple of notes of caution for couples applying for jobs in India.
1) You should not settle for jobs in different cities or for two jobs in institutes in the same city at a considerable distance from each other. Commuting in Indian cities can be quite a nightmare and this would not be conducive for a young family.
2) Do not resign from your current jobs before receiving final and confirmed job offers for both from India.

I would like to end on an encouraging note with the following advice for people looking for academic positions in India: The situation is much better in India now, both with respect to the number of academic positions and the funding for research that is available. Many new research institutes have been established even after we joined in Dec, 2006. The funding agencies are also very generous, and one can tap into several funding sources. Furthermore, from our personal experiences, it is possible to obtain funding as a new faculty with a project that is off-the-beaten track, a little unconventional or too ambitious. For some of you, this may be an added advantage. Our experience suggests that one should not pre-judge a potential employer by its track record or name (something that made us miss IIT-Kanpur in the beginning) rather by the people who are there currently. Many more young talented researchers should apply for academic positions in India. We really need to increase the critical mass of good quality scientists in India, if Indian science is to make significant progress.