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Young Investigators’ Meeting 2015: A participant’s perspective

Minhaj Sirajuddin

Five years ago I attended the 2ndYIM, Kolkata as a PDF, this year I attended the YIM, Gulmarg as a YI. Here is my perspective of the meeting from a YI point of view.

Minhaj Sirajuddin
Minhaj Sirajuddin   (Photo: Archana Shetty)

For those who have wandered in here without knowing what Young Investigators’ Meeting (YIM) is, here is a primer: the YIM is an annual meeting, held at a different city in India every year; it brings together researchers at different stages of their careers—postdoctoral fellows (PDFs), young investigators (YIs) and mentors—to network and exchange information regarding career development, resource management and leadership. This year, the YIM was held at Gulmarg, a picturesque snow capped hill station in Kashmir.

The first day of the YIM was a satellite meeting, exclusively for the PDFs to interact with the who’s who (Directors and Deans) of Indian institutes and universities. When we—the YIs—arrived the following evening, the PDFs were eager to talk to us regarding our experience in finding an academic job. Over the course of the next couple of days spent talking to many PDFs, it was clear that there was lot of confusion, anxiety and even resentment. This was most obvious during the closed PDF-YI session, during which it emerged that their main issue was the lack of clarity in the hiring process in India. Except from a few handful institutes, the applicants do not even get an acknowledgement for their applications; this is regrettable and needs to be changed. I list below a few ideas/suggestions that emerged from the discussions throughout the meeting regarding job application processes. Unlike the US, in India applications are received throughout the year, but every institute or university has a selection committee, which meets a defined number of times in a calendar year. Aspirants must make the effort to find out when through their contacts, and send in their application before the selection committee meeting to have a better chance of hearing an outcome. Many places in India don’t have an online application portal, so chances of receiving an acknowledgement are slim. The solution might be to contact someone (preferably a young PI) whom you know, or known to someone you know! Over the years I have learned that the Indian scientific community is small, and you will always find a connection. I must thank Sreelaja, one of the organisers of YIM 2015, for suggesting that YIs pledge that we should form a liaison and provide information regarding the application status of PDFs. This small service from YIs could be a great start to shake things from the bottom up to make changes in the hiring process in India.

The other major complaint heard at the meeting, this one from the YIs, was regarding the rejection of grant applications with little feedback from grant agencies. This was discussed during the grants session, where it came to light that the problem stems from the lack of enough grant reviewers to review applications in a timely manner. Since our Indian scientific community is comparatively small we should be taking more responsibility (read time) in reviewing our fellow scientists’ grants.

The YIM is not just about finding jobs and money to fund your lab, it’s more than that! Just a job and grant money will not equip you to run an academic program. Throughout the meeting the mentors gave talks about their journeys in science so far. The message from these talks all point towards finding your path. The YIM was a forum for extensive discussions on a variety of important topics. Mentorship was one: mentors can be helpful in giving advice on how to deal with your administration and or institution policies. In many institutes in India it is increasingly becoming a norm to find mentors when you join as independent faculty. In fact, from this year, the Wellcome-DBT India Alliance has made it mandatory to name a mentor who can help you with non-scientific problems, publication strategies and tenure related questions.

Then there is the issue of tenure. Traditionally in India, academic jobs are “safe bets” (for the individuals but not for the institute!); there are few instances of a faculty being fired. However in recent years things are changing and a few places in India have introduced the US style tenure system. There is a lot of confusion regarding the tenure system in India. The hope is that in the coming years there will be a unique tenure system solution for each academic institute. Scientific outreach and building a philanthropic base in India were also discussed at several sessions of the meeting as a way of giving back to the community.

The meeting had begun with inspiring keynotes from K. Vijayraghavan and Ron Vale. Vijay talked about how Indian science could benefit from not competing with the West but by finding a niche or problems unique to the Indian context. In his introductory talk, Ron assured us that we would find at least one good connection and/or collaboration by the end of the meeting. Sure enough, by the end of the meeting, I had made new friends, rekindled lost connections and found potential new collaborations. I believe that all the attendees were left with a sense of optimism that Indian scientific community is looking forward and we are a part of that change. YIM 2016 will be held in Delhi early next year—I strongly encourage you to apply and experience this one-of-a-kind meeting.