Columns Indian Scenario

Perspective on finding a job and starting a lab in India

Aurnab Ghose

I started looking for an Assistant Professor or equivalent positions in research-led institutions in India in early 2007 hoping to get one by the third quarter of the year leaving me sufficient time to wind up my affairs and return by the end of the year. To put things into perspective, I had a number of worries to contend with: a two-person problem (my spouse is also a Biologist), a solid but certainly not stellar CV and having left India for my postgraduate studies – being clueless about the machinations of Indian science with no contacts within the establishment who could advice me on the application process. Because of these reasons we applied fairly broadly. As things played out, by the end of 2007, we had few offers, had resolved the two-person situation and was back in India to take up a position in 2008 after a 4‑month break (highly recommended).

While acknowledging certain intangibles, like timing the application to suit the temporally labile predilections (which are not usually advertised) of departments and institutes and for which there are no apparent ways of fine tuning the application process let me discuss a few issues that may have aided my candidature. It is imperative to note that I am discussing these in retrospect and did not have coherent strategy at the time of applying. Further, this discussion is relevant only for government run research institutes and university departments, as I did not apply to private or public-private ventures.

Let me suggest the following based on my experience: 

1. Talk to peers who have completed their PhDs from India recently. This helps in understanding some nuances and quirks of specific institutions. However, be aware that the picture painted will be unrealistically grim and laced with an unhealthy dose of pessimism.

2. If possible, time your application such that when you are interviewing you are well under 35 years of age. While there is nothing official about this, it is certainly strongly preferred.

3. If you have been away from India for some time, it is worth visiting some institutions informally (not as an applicant), perhaps a year before you apply. This develops perspective for the application process, allows interactions with Indian faculty who may evaluate your application later, develops an understanding for what these institutions may be looking for and establishes contacts that stand in good stead even if you join a different institute. The latter is invaluable during the next step – establishing an independent research programme.

4. Prepare an application package with your CV, 3 – 5 page proposed research programme and a cover letter which clearly indicates a period of time (say 15 days) that you will be available in India and be willing to visit and present your work. I sent my package in the latter half of January and indicated I would be available late April- early May. The proposed research programme should be realistic – not purposefully grandiose in order to impress and neither deliberately watered down in order to appear frugal. Write what you really want to do in a pragmatic manner; usually this also ends up conveying the excitement of your research area.

5. Be prepared to hear nothing back from about 40% of the places you write to. A gentle reminder few weeks later helps. If you still here nothing, it may be worth contacting some of the young faculty close to your area of interest – this worked for me at least in one case. While finalizing the dates for you visit, try to ensure that the Head of Department/​Chairperson/​equivalent is available during that period. Also, indicate that you would like to spend time meeting as many faculty members as possible. Insist on this when you arrive – this is not normal practice in some places. Send the title and abstract of your talk in advance.

6. For the presentation, focus on the Biology and do not attempt to overwhelm with techniques and data. A single, coherent story, even if it is open-ended, is likely to make a bigger impact – there is always your CV and one-on-one contact with faculty for the rest.

7. During your visit, also try to get answers for questions you may have. Housing matters, funding, specialized research facilities you need, mentoring, childcare support, organizational structure, teaching/​research balance are some topics worth exploring. It is also worth discussing with the Chairperson or equivalent about your specific research needs.

8. If your application is processed further, this is the time Letters of Recommendation are sought. A lot of value is placed on these and it is advisable to request your mentors to be prepared even before you send your application package. Ensure your mentors have a copy of your CV and research plan, which helps them to write a strong, personalized letter. The number of letters requested is typically 4 – 5 but can be up to 10!

9. Assuming all goes well, usually one receives a rather cryptic email indicating heightened interest in your application and enquiring if they should process it further. Apparently there are a lot of bureaucratic hurdles to be crossed in order to generate an offer letter and equally as many to withdraw one if you decline. Thus standard practice is getting a firm commitment before generating an offer letter. Some places prefer the less confusing option of calling and discussing this telephonically. In all cases it is well worth asking for a few days to think and proceed further telephonically in order to avoid confusions and misinterpretations. Effectively, in most cases one receives an official offer letter only when one has accepted the offer in principle.

10. This is also the time for securing reassurances for research support, start up funds, space, moving allowances, etc. This varies according to need and it may be well worth sending the list of requirements with a timeline – say, those needed immediately, those in 3 yrs, those in 5 yrs, etc. The dialogue that follows allows the applicant and the institution to develop a programme of commitment to each other. Note, typically, none of this will be assured in written form – the rather sterile Government offer letter format precludes this.

11. Next, comes the excruciating process of choosing which offer to take up. While there is no fixed formula for this, the following are some issues I took into consideration. Is there an overarching mission that the place has? For e.g., my current employer is committed to marrying scientific research with undergraduate teaching; academic freedom and liberty to pursue my research interests; support available and committed for my research programme; the academic environment and scientific critical mass; presence of potential mentors and collaborators; personal issues related to location, family concerns, etc.

There will usually be a gap between acceptance of an offer and starting. I decided to take 4 months off to travel before I started my new job. However, as if starting a lab of my own wasn’t daunting enough, I had chosen to go to a newly established 2‑year old institute. This posed some special problems but the following are some general suggestions to have a working lab ready as soon as possible.

1. If possible, convince your employer to have you visit briefly (for a week or so) even if you’re actually going to take up the position months later. This opportunity will provide a perspective very different from when you came as a candidate and should be used to assess the space to be given to you, learn about funding, recruitment and procurement methods. Further, it is an opportunity to solicit help from existing faculty for building your laboratory.

2. With the support of existing faculty and the administration, it may be possible to start making procurements even before you physically start. If shared equipment purchases are being made see if you can piggyback on these. For example, upon learning that a research microscope was being bought I suggested the inclusion of certain configurations that would make it suitable for my use. Even for material to be used exclusively in your own research it is well worth initiating purchase of such items before joining – my employer was generous enough to help me with this.

3. Similarly, piggybacking on departmental advertisements and procedures for recruitment helps to have potential candidates for various positions shortlisted for interviews as soon as you join.

4. Once you have started, it is worth making an effort to develop a relationship with the administration, particularly the purchase section – not only to learn the procedures but also to be able to inveigle ones way out of needless delays.

5. Recruitment of staff and students requires special care as this impinges on the lab environment and is particularly critical in the first few years. There are multiple possible strategies; personally, I put equal emphasis on intellectual abilities, demonstrable laboratory skills and personality. Initially, at least a pair or two of hands are required to get the lab off the ground but I am of the opinion that care should be exercised in not conceptualizing initial hires as just manual labour.

6. Interact with other new faculty within and without your institution in order to tap into the collective experience for innovative solutions for shared problems.

7. A large number of funding opportunities are available in India. International funding is also accessible. It is advisable to secure independent funding to achieve independence and to smoothen vicissitudes of core institutional funding. Further, a positive peer review process, where available, often strengthens the research programme.

There are multiple ways of getting it right while looking for jobs in India and subsequently establishing a laboratory. I have mentioned few that I have experienced over the last year or so. These are neither comprehensive and nor a one-shoe-fits-all strategy, rather they are documented to merely provide pointers.