Meghna Krishnadas is a Project Scientist at the CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad. She is one of the Young Investigators selected to attend YIM2020 in Mahabalipuram. In this invited article, she writes about her unconventional path into science and the challenges this threw up due up by the unusual rigidity of the present academic system.
I am an accidental academic. This career had never been mooted by the wise elders of my extended family comprising many doctors and a motley crew of the usual vocations. My parents, a teacher and a geophysicist, agreed with received wisdom that medicine was a good (and safe) choice for a kid who liked biology.
Midway through med school, I went walking in a forest. To this day, I know not what it woke in me — there was always an inherent curiosity — but the natural world captivated me. A conventional career in medicine was not my calling. Volunteering for wildlife research organizations opened my eyes to the possibility of studying ecosystems as a systematic science. I had a medical degree but was hooked to ecology. After stints as a doctor in remote forest areas, I eventually decided to do a Master’s in Wildlife Biology. Today, with a PhD in Ecology, I like to say that I left the hospital halls for the forest trails, and it’s been a good walk.
You might be wondering why I recount the story of my meanders into the sciences. Well, because I exemplify the case of one falling in love with science relatively late in life. I never planned for academia but also never saw my circuitous path there as a problem. I believed that my unusual background would be an asset, bringing in a rich palette of learning. I was confident that my interwoven tapestry of experiences would stand me in good stead, alongside good science, in running a lab where so much was about managing people and unexpected situations.
Until I started looking for a job in India.
After a fulfilling PhD at Yale, working in a great lab with an excellent advisor, I was all agog to contribute to ecological sciences in India. Despite good postdoc offers from reputed institutions outside India, I opted for the fellowship at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) because I wanted to do my own science without relying on the resources and status of a Western team. Wishing to spend a couple of years immersed in research, a faculty job was not an immediate priority. Best-laid plans, however, were cut short by my 37th birthday. My unconventional trajectory into science meant that I was hovering close to the point where my job application would be rejected just because I was ‘too old’. I was unaware of this until a chance conversation with a senior scientist!
Clearly, I did not have the luxury of savouring postdoc years devoted solely to research. Instead began a frenzied search for positions and convincing people that I am good enough for a faculty position even without the now mandated requirement of 3 – 4 years of postdoc experience. It helped that my publication record was reasonably good for my career stage, but I was competing against those who ticked this alongside other boxes. Doing a postdoc would render me too old for jobs. Without a postdoc, I don’t qualify as competent enough. To add to it, not doing a postdoc abroad apparently cuts my value and shuts out grant opportunities. Call it a pickle or a stew, I was cooked.
I am not caught alone in the age-trap. Others have faced the same impasse for different reasons. The situation has prompted some senior academics to acknowledge that age and postdoc experience should not be the sole criteria for screening and what matters most is how well one can articulate their work and demonstrate a firm grasp of their chosen field. I have also heard it said that the PhD itself should train one enough to start their lab; postdoctoral stints mainly build academic connections and ramp up the CV for publications. Of course, postdoc time also helps build and hone new skills, but this can and should happen at all career stages. Good intentions clearly abound, but we need that translated to systemic change.
Here’s the thing. I understand that academic jobs are scarce in India. You need criteria that will help sort the large applicant pool, but should suitability for academia be defined by a narrow set of parameters related to age and postdoc stints at overseas institutions? Should science, collegiality, and mentoring capacity not be the main filters? One might argue that age and a diversity of experience can provide a more mature and holistic ability to run a lab and illustrious postdoc affiliations do not guarantee that you will do good science. Can an eclectic background, so long as it includes good science, not be an asset for research and teaching? Is there no space to recognize individual talents and potential to contribute to the institution on a case-by-case basis?
The situation reminds me of erstwhile tropes of women being ‘too old’ to find a life partner, for women had to fit a very narrow bill of suitability and function. As a society, we have moved in the right direction away from these arbitrary numeric impositions. Perhaps it is time that academia also reconsiders their basis for choosing their members. After all, human resources are the lifeline for science. People matter, not numbers.
There have been other challenges. Poor mentorship and a lack of concern for your well-being from some senior colleagues. Ecological science being classified as ‘not real biology’ — it appears that the study of life outside a lab or without experimental manipulation is somehow not life science. The question “how is any of this useful to us?”— a belief that only science that bears tangible application for human well-being is science “good enough”. On the other hand, I have gained immensely from peers and senior colleagues alike, whose generosity, guidance, and support have helped me navigate the rocky road to academic reality. I am building newer life skills to better tackle the everyday challenges. Mostly, I make sure to keep a positive outlook.
I am now at Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) where I am learning more about the biological sciences from a diverse array of colleagues. It is still early days, but I am excited to help grow a program in ecology and evolution at an institute that so far focused on the cellular and molecular. I will give this my best shot, refusing to succumb to the condescension that my age, unconventional path, or choice of field makes me somehow deficient. I am also assured by the fact that academia is not the end. I can find respect for my skills outside the academic world.
My love for science will not abate, but academia has much room to improve. Mainly, we need an openness to introspect on our policies and practice to build systems that offer a dynamic, respectful and equitable environment for a diverse set of ideas and individuals. To attract and retain talent, we should reflect on the breadth of our scientific vision, inculcate nuance in choosing members, develop systemic support for early-career scientists, and put in place measures to stem burnout and prevent disillusionment.
I sincerely hope that the right winds of change will soon sweep through our academic halls.