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Deliberating the future of home-grown postdoctoral talent

Harini Barath

Poster session at the colonnade
Poster session at the colonnade  (Photo: Harini Barath)

Postdoctoral researchers play a crucial role in academia — they drive new directions in research, mentor students in the lab, and maintain and often help to build new equipment. Some of them also bring in more funding for research projects through individual grants. Many go on to take up faculty positions and shape the future of academia. The number of postdoctoral fellows in India is relatively low compared to US and Europe. With improved funding and the establishment of more research institutions, there has, however, been a quick increase — both in numbers and the time researchers spend as postdoctoral fellows in India — in the recent years. 

With an aim to showcase postdoctoral research work and provide a platform for networking, the NCBS/​inStem Postdoctoral Fellows’ Association organised the first Annual Postdoctoral Symposium on 10 October 2015. The event was held at National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS); participants included postdocs from various institutes in Bangalore and mentors from institutions across the country. Featuring scientific talks and a well-attended poster session, the symposium closed with a panel discussion, Nurturing a future for postdocs in India, where perspectives were sought from mentors and postdocs on the kind of future that can be expected for this growing cohort of researchers. The US has an extremely unhealthy culture, especially in biology. We should not move to the same postdoctoral culture,” cautioned Mukund Thattai from NCBS. The discussion was an attempt to engage mentors and postdocs in a dialogue, verbalise common issues and pave the way to collectively address any problems.

The session opened with a question from the postdocs about the willingness of top Indian research institutions to hire postdocs primarily trained in India as faculty. Some mentors and directors insisted that there is no bias against researchers who have not been trained in labs abroad. Satyajit Mayor, Director, NCBS pointed out that locally groomed postdocs had a distinct advantage. Indian trained postdocs have a good exposure to the system and a sense of having achieved good work in India,” he said. Others disagreed. They admitted that there is a bias, and insisted that hiring committees must seek and hire well trained candidates rather ones who merely have big name universities on their resumes. The bias in start-up funds was also brought up. Why only returning fellowships? What about general startup funds?” asked the postdocs; a valid question, and one that has been raised before. It is believed that the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) is coming up with appropriate funding schemes that will address the issue.

Next on the agenda were mentorship and strategy. It was generally agreed that good communication and straightforward advice were key. Questions about the effectiveness of a formal structure for the postdoctoral years and management training were aired by the postdocs. Ullas Kolthur from TIFR Bombay said, PIs and postdocs come in all flavours. We can’t make one size fits all strategies.” While that seemed to be the popular opinion, there were some ideas about how mentors could help. Sriram Ramaswamy, Director, TIFR Hyderabad suggested that PIs could make an effort to involve postdocs in grant writing and in lab responsibilities. 

While the postdoc years are generally considered as training for a research career, statistics indicate that fewer than 10% of postdocs will end up as lab heads in academia. Provisions for positions within Indian funding agencies and institutions — lab manager, facility managers, grant managers — can harness and help retain postdoctoral talent. While such positions exist, or can be created within institutions when there is a need, there are not many and they are often not well paying or attractive enough. When asked about making more such positions available, Satyajit Mayor commented that, Without such people, it is hard to imagine a scientific culture. As the value of their contributions begins to be realised, the number of positions will increase.” Sudhir Krishna, also from NCBS, suggested that creating these jobs may be made easier by collecting an institutional corpus of non-government funds. R N K Bamezai from Jawaharlal Nehru University also drew attention to the University Grants Commission’s (UGC) Faculty Recharge Scheme, which seeks to increase faculty hiring, thus attempting to address the very root of this problem. 

Alternate careers in industry, science communication and policy were also broached, but mentors could offer only limited advice about fields that are outside their expertise. Suhel Quader from Nature Conservation Foundation summed up the discussion on alternate careers: We limit ourselves by our environment, but we should be curious and interested in the world as a whole. We imagine that we are only good at this while we do, in fact, pick up lots of transferable skills during our research training.” Perhaps policies on the lines of those recently initiated in California that afford postdocs time for career exploration in their contracts may help those looking to explore careers outside academia.

The strongest take home message from the panel discussion, one that reappeared in many contexts, was when mentors urged Indian postdocs to attend national conferences and make themselves and their work more visible in the community. Reach out. Be aggressive!” urged Jaysree Das Sarma from IISER Kolkata. Postdocs working abroad, the ones who want to return home, routinely give talks about their work on visits home. Indian postdocs would benefit hugely from making similar efforts to network and communicate their work outside their own institutions. Mentors were also unanimous in declaring that as a postdoc one has to do good work — it is not a time for spinning wheels, but for doing good science.

While the panel discussions didn’t offer solutions to particular issues, as some hoped it would, it opened the floor for deliberation. The mentors acknowledged that they want to strengthen the postdoc community and as a first step forward, concerns have to be aired and heard with an open mind. The symposium itself proved to be a springboard for networking efforts. Mentors were largely appreciative of the science that was presented in the talks and poster session. Some postdocs secured invitations to give talks at various institutions. More meetings that focus exclusively on postdoctoral research are certainly on the cards. Plans are also underway to examine the logistics and benefits of forming a nationwide postdoctoral association.

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Physicist turned science writer. I enjoy writing about interdisciplinary research and interviewing scientists about science and careers in science.