Columns Opinion

Navigating the early-career track as a faculty fellow in the Indian science ecosystem

Karishma Kaushik

Karishma S Kaushik returned to India in 2018 as a Ramalingaswami fellow to start her independent research group at Savitribai Phule Pune University. Now, as a fifth-year faculty fellow in the Indian science ecosystem, in this article, she shares specific considerations to enable colleagues in navigating this professional opportunity.

Karishma S Kaushik
Karishma S Kaushik 

With faculty recruitment challenges across institutes and universities, and insufficient scientist positions across the country, faculty fellowship programs are a means for early-career scientists to continue, or return, to work in India. These programs, such as the Ramalingaswami Re-entry Fellowship, DST INSPIRE Fellowship, and DBT India Alliance Early Career Fellowships, provide seed funding and a fellowship (to cover salary) to scientists looking to establish their independent research groups. With support for a substantial time period (at least five years), faculty fellowships provide opportunities for scientists and institutes/​universities to engage in mutually beneficial collaborations. Still, an early-career scientist navigating the ecosystem in this role faces the well-known challenges of being an independent investigator and the unique considerations of being a faculty fellow (as opposed to permanent faculty hired by an institute or university).

Based on my experience and learnings across five years, I share a few important considerations relevant to early-career colleagues looking to start as faculty fellows in India. These considerations could also be helpful for institutes/​universities looking to engage with faculty fellows and funding agencies when they consider revising or reimplementing these programs. 

1. Choosing a host institute: Faculty fellowship programs are typically open for applications once or twice a year, so it may be necessary to start looking for potential host institutes a year in advance. It is essential to visit the institute and facilities, give a research talk, and interact with colleagues (maybe even over a few days) to establish if the research you intend will be well-supported. It may also be the time to assess the overall work culture at the potential institute and the conditions of hosting the fellowship, which may include additional teaching and institutional responsibilities. 

2. Office and laboratory space: A critical aspect of these initial conversations would be negotiating office and laboratory space. Most established institutes with running research faculties will have a shortage of space. Given this, it is necessary to understand the space arrangement, whether dedicated or shared, including the ability to access common research facilities at the institute, to facilitate the proposed research. 

3. Designation in the academic hierarchy: While negotiation of lab/​office space and other institutional privileges may vary depending on the institute, faculty fellowships provide a clear academic designation (for example, the Ramalingaswami fellowship states the designation as Scientist D, Assistant Professor). This is important to consider since personal time off (leave) and, if provided, medical benefits and accommodations are dependent on this designation. 

4. Start-up grant and subsequent funding: The research component of the faculty fellowship is often considered the start-up grant for the scientist fellow. While a faculty fellow may receive additional institute funding, applying for extramural grants would be essential for growing the research program. It is best to do this early because some grants will need a specified tenure duration at the time of the application. Many grants are open to faculty fellows, including short-term collaborative and travel exchanges. Also, the Assistant Professor’ designation implies that the scientist is eligible to apply for independent extramural funding, but it is advisable to clarify the same with the potential host institution. 

5. Temporary, tenure-track or permanent: Faculty fellowships provide an opportunity for mutual evaluation between the scientist and host institute, but a permanent position’ may not be a given. It can be due to various reasons, ranging from the lack of an available position in the institute to finding a more suitable candidate, particularly important when government-supported institutes host faculty fellows. In any case, these conversations are best had early and followed up on regularly, during which faculty fellows could consider the fellowship as a quasi tenure track’ period, and build a strong portfolio of work for future applications. 

6. Mentoring PhD students: Given that mentoring PhD researchers is both a big responsibility and a long-term commitment, faculty fellows should consider the ramifications of not having a regular position after the duration of the fellowship or having to move institutes. It can have massive consequences for the PhD researcher, in terms of the continuity of their degree, as well as limit the mobility of the early-career scientist. In light of this, faculty fellows can consider building research groups with research fellows (supported via grants), and Masters and undergraduate students. Alternatively, co-advisor arrangements with like-minded colleagues can be an option. 

7. Teaching responsibilities: Often, faculty fellows contribute to the teaching program at institutes and universities focused on undergraduate education. As no stipulated time is allotted to non-research duties in certain fellowships, this is typically negotiable between the scientist and the host institute. Again, this is a conversation best had early. 

8. Administrative and infrastructure-related responsibilities: In most Indian institutes, faculty members perform substantial duties related to the overall running of the institute. This will mean time away from research duties for faculty fellows, which the explicit mandate of the fellowship, and should be considered in the context of building a strong body of research work for future applications. Taken together, the roles and expectations from faculty fellows in teaching, administrative and infrastructure-related duties are rather nebulous, and unfortunately, can be a source of consternation. 

9. Engaging with the wider science ecosystem in India: Being an early-career and non-regular faculty in India, given the rather grey zone’ one falls into, can be a challenging track. It can help to reach out to colleagues across the ecosystem, both for professional opportunities and overall perspective. Being a part of larger initiatives and discussions related to science in our country can help foster a sense of belonging and connectedness to the ecosystem. This can also lead to informal mentoring and helpful guidance from colleagues across the country.

10. Staying open to diverse career opportunities: Faculty fellowships enable early-career scientists to launch independent academic careers, but they can also help them better understand the ecosystem and the diverse roles one can play within it. This is important for scientists, including women scientists, with limited geographic flexibility to seek regular positions and two-body challenges. A tenure as a faculty fellow can lead to roles in science education, communication, administration, grants and project management, and human resource training, to name a few. 

On a personal note, securing the Ramalingaswami fellowship was the turning point in my decision to return to India. It has enabled my independent career in India across multiple fronts, including building a young and dynamic research group, teaching undergraduates at a state university, and engaging school students with science across India. It provided me with an opportunity to work and contribute to an ecosystem that I deeply care about. Faculty fellow programs are a gain for scientists, host institutes, and the larger science ecosystem in India. With a few thoughtful considerations, they can continue to be a win-win-win’ situation!