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Is India ready to boost its postdoctoral training?

Ron Vale

India faces a dilemma in its scientific training program in the biological sciences. India’s best” trainees are expected to study abroad for their postdoctoral training. However, India also needs to develop its own scientific training program, from undergraduate, graduate, postdoc and then all the way to professional employment. The most obvious and gaping hole in this pipeline is postdoctoral training. Currently, Indian research laboratories are populated mostly by masters and graduate students, and few laboratories have postdoctoral fellows. This blog explores how India might shift the current status quo to encourage more scientists to do their postdoctoral work in India. 

It is useful to look at some numbers. Research in the USA is driven by a very large population of postdoctoral fellows. At UCSF alone (my institution), there are 1,040 postdoctoral fellows. I am not aware of an accurate census of postdoctoral trainees throughout India, but the number is likely similar or lower. Regarding numbers for DBT-based postdoctoral funding, the DBT Postdoctoral/​Research Associateship funds 70 – 90 individuals per year and accepts ~25% of the total applicants1. Through this scheme, DBT’s budget could fund as many as 100 individuals per year. Thus, there is a lack of perceived qualified applicants for the positions available. The same situation is true for the prestigious Wellcome-DBT Early Career Fellowships (a postdoctoral award), which has the capacity to fund up to 40 highly qualified individuals per year. Yet, since the scheme started in 2009, only 34 Early Career fellowships have been granted (this number includes 9 Fellows who have yet to activate their award). Thus, this Indian postdoctoral fellowship is vastly undersubscribed, in contrast to the converse situation for prestigious American postdoctoral fellowships which are oversubscribed (e.g. Jane Coffin Childs, Damon Runyon, etc). 

What is the problem and why are available Indian postdoctoral fellowships going unfulfilled for high-qualified application? The biggest issue is the current perception of the value of postdoctoral training in India. Many institutions and scientists view Indian postdoctoral fellows as second-rate” compared with Indians who have trained abroad at prestigious American or European institutions. They judge Indian postdocs with skepticism, feeling that they lack the scientific ability and competitive spirit of postdocs who study abroad. Because of these perceptions, good Indian graduate students also view doing postdoctoral training in India as a potentially fatal career dead end”. How can they produce the high impact papers as postdocs in US/​Europe labs, which are demanded of current job applicants, and how can they convince institute directors that they are high quality scientists? A second problem is the relatively low salary for many of the postdoctoral fellowships in India2. The result is a vicious cycle – good graduate students go abroad, Indian postdocs have difficulties with their status and job opportunities in India, and research labs in India lack the postdocs that could help their research. The national Indian science effort suffers as a consequence; it is very difficult to compete with US/​European labs without a vibrant postdoctoral culture. Postdocs, with their extra years of experience, not only produce high quality science, but they also act as valuable mentors to Masters and Ph.D. students. 

On an encouraging note, there are some positive emerging signs for the job prospects of Indian postdocs. For example, two Early Career Fellows have recently secured faculty positions at CCMB and IIT Bombay. But how can the job prospect for Indian postdocs be changed more dramatically and visibly? First and foremost, prestigious Indian institutes and universities should strategically consider recruiting Indian postdocs in their 5 year hiring plan. If a single Indian postdoc were to be hired at each of the major academic institutions over the next several years, this trend will be notice by Indian students and seen as a major change in the career pipeline. The pool of talented postdocs in turn will increase rapidly. Thus, Indian institutes should more actively discuss hiring the best individuals from the current pool of Indian postdocs. Second, DBT may need to court” the best graduates students in India more actively. While offering a great fellowship plan (e.g. Early Career Fellowship) is a great start, good graduate students need told in person that there is a good career structure for them in India. In the current environment, Indian students hear a great deal about studying abroad but get less advice and encouragement for training in India. By the time that they hear about Indian postdoctoral programs, they likely have made up their mind to go abroad. Third, postdoctoral fellows should be incentivized to join junior or mid-career scientists in India. There is a perception that postdocs should join the lab of a senior scientist, who could politically support them in their later job search. However, many of the best and most active biologists in India are individuals who have been recruited within the last ten years. These scientists have exciting projects for postdocs. Furthermore, for these young independent investigators, having a postdoc would greatly accelerate the research work. In turn, the opportunity to have a postdoc makes an academic career in India more attractive to a prospective PI (versus taking a job in the US or elsewhere). I am not exactly sure how to incentivize such a choice, but fellowship selection committees should not penalize a perspective postdoc for choosing a young investigator and this message could be actively conveyed. Fourth, it is useful to consider how to offer some international training experiences to Indian postdoctoral fellows, even if for 3 – 6 months. The Early Career Fellowship allows their grantees to work in an international lab for a portion of their time (up to 2 years) and augments travel and salary support. Perhaps a 3‑month stay could be built into the formal structure of many postdoctoral fellowships as a training experience, particularly with a group of partner universities. 

While I am advocating for increasing opportunities for postdoctoral training in India, I do not think that India should follow the exact path of the US. A major problem currently plaguing US biomedical research is the very large holding tank” of postdocs. As jobs (particularly academic jobs) have become scarcer, the time of postdoctoral training has become longer and longer, as postdocs try to accumulate better credentials and more impressive CVs in order to get a job. Thus, the purpose of the postdoc is shifting from true training (indeed many senior postdocs are no longer really learning new skills) to a somewhat underpaid research job during a prime period of productivity. You might be interested in Greg Petsko’s iBiology talk on this subject (http://​www​.ibi​ol​o​gy​.org/​i​b​i​o​m​a​g​a​z​i​n​e​/​i​s​s​u​e​-​1​0​/​g​r​e​g​o​r​y​-​p​e​t​s​k​o​-​t​h​e​-​p​o​s​t​-​d​o​c​t​o​r​a​l​-​s​i​t​u​a​t​i​o​n​.html).
Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in-between the current Indian and the US situations. In the US, there has been little planning or discussion of the right balance and the purpose of graduate and postdoctoral studies, and it is hard to change a large system that is already in place. However, since it is still forming, India has a chance to think through these issues and strike a better balance and perhaps identify outstanding young people earlier and get them independent jobs earlier, as the situation used to be a few decades ago in the US. 

Prejudices of the past often color the present, making it difficult to visualize a more productive future. Indian postdoctoral training is at an inflection point where it needs to look ahead. Young students and institute directors must both be willing to take a chance and help one another. If this could happen, the transition to complete career pipeline within India might occur within a decade and not a lifetime. 

Footnote1: In addition to DBT, there are postdoctoral schemes for CSIR, ICMR, ICAR as well intra-institutional funding and support from MHRD (Ministry of Home Resources and Development) which combined support approximately 200 – 250 fellowships each year. Many of the institutes also offer their own postdoctoral fellowships. In association with the release of this blog, IndiaBioScience has assembled a list of postdoctoral fellowships available in India and helpful information for exploring more details about them. 

Footnote2: The DBT postdoctoral fellowships are currently set at ~30,000 Rs/​month; although this stipend level is likely to increase in the near future. Other government fellowships (e.g. CSIR, etc) are in a similar range or slightly higher. On the other hand, the Wellcome-DBT Early Career Fellowships are significantly higher (~67,000 Rs/​month), and may increase soon. Several research institutes also offer their own postdoctoral fellowships with higher salaries. For example, NCBS offers postdoctoral fellowships at a salary of ~60,000 Rs/​month) and TIFR also has a competitive postdoc fellowship program. Thus, while postdoctoral salaries have been a problem in the past, they have been and will likely continue to improve in the future. 

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