Columns Opinion

Postdoctoral Culture

L S Shashidhara

When Ron asked me write this blog, one of the topics that I had in mind is about postdoctoral culture, rather its absence, in India. I had the privilege to have a preview of Shubha’s blog for this month and then thought will write this now itself to complement what she has written.

We often hear that Indian biologists don’t do well beyond a critical level, because we don’t get good postdocs. A naïve PhD student joins the lab, get trained for 2-3 years and contribute her/his might in the next 2-3 years and then off they go to West or far east for their postdoctoral research. For us a new PhD student joins the lab and the story becomes cyclical.

If only couple of good postdocs are present in the lab, who have considerable experience, confidence and ability to mentor PhD students, Indian PIs too could spend more time to review the entire field and put their work in a larger context, spend time and efforts on new science, challenging projects and take up meaningful sabbaticals and collaborations.

What is the genesis of postdoc culture? Let us assume that most PhD students in biology want to be an independent researcher or a Principal Investigator (PI).

What do we expect in an independent researcher?
(i)Ability to sift through vast amount of knowledge available in each area of science and asks relevant questions and build hypotheses to push the frontiers and/or to fill the gaps.
(ii)Ability to design experiments (or build a model) to provide proof/evidence/validation for or against a hypothesis.
(iii)Ability to provide logical explanation for conclusions drawn and build new hypotheses based on her/his own work
(iv)Ability to communicate with clarity ideas, observations, conclusions etc to non-specialists
(v)Ability to foresee and plan research in short-, medium and long-term basis.
(vi)Ability to manage (particularly experimental researchers) labs, funding, people.
(vii)Patience and perseverance to deal with referees!

How does one attain all these qualities? Most of them are learnt and acquired. These qualities are learnt from others’ experiences not by reading essays and books, but by direct interactions.

Why only very rarely does a fresh PhD student become a PI in biology? This is not an India-specific phenomenon. It is a global phenomenon. First most undergraduate courses, which are knowledge-based rather than inquiry-based do not provide an opportunity for students to know what their real interests are. Even if they do, most students may not have matured enough to introspect and identify their real academic interests. That is why, all over the world, biology PhD students spend time learning research methodology and during postdoctoral period pursue their real academic interests and slowly mature to independent researchers. Thus, a postdoctoral stint is an incubation period for young researchers to become a PI. Until recently in Germany, even people with postdoctoral experience had to go through a habilitation phase before accepted as C3 or C4 professors!

Having said that a postdoctoral stint is important for one’s career, we now ask the question, is it important for Indian students to do postdoctoral work in foreign labs before they are accepted by the academia as independent researchers? In practice, a postdoctoral period in a foreign lab has become an un-written requirement for recruitment in Indian institutes and Universities. Why is this so? Why does a faculty applicant with postdoctoral experience in a foreign lab that is not as good as an average lab in India possess a better chance to get a faculty position than an applicant with no postdoctoral experience or with a postdoc in an Indian laboratory?

Issue here is, can we provide an academic ambiance in India that inculcate all the qualities listed above to our students? If not, why not go abroad for a postdoc? Even if scientists have nationalities, does science have a nation of its own? In the zeal of nationalism, if we ignore the importance of good training, aren’t we encouraging poor quality work in India?

What is lacking in Indian training? In the Internet era, what academic ambience does an average lab in USA/Europe provide that a top scientist in India can’t provide? The answer may be a place where a large number of high-quality researchers work or visit (for collaborations or for seminars and conferences); this provides a setting for students to acquire abilities to do independent research, even if their immediate mentors/supervisors are less capable of providing necessary training. A place with large number of excellent people provides necessary criticism to the work of young researchers, which helps to enhance the quality of the training. Such places also provide insights into interesting historical anecdotes of scientific discoveries, personalities and nuisances of developing a new technology or experimental methodology. When I was doing my PhD in Cambridge (the original one in UK and not its poor imitation in USA!), amongst many people I interacted with, I specifically remember talking to HLK Whitehouse. The grand old man would talk to me about genetics and geneticists of an entire century, most of whom he had personally met. Unless we reach such a critical number of excellent people in an organization, not just in the same city, we will continue to export our PhD students. Also, we do not have sufficient number of biological researchers for our PhD students to choose based on their research interests. Money too is an important factor in life. As of today, a senior PhD student earns up to Rs 18,000 per month + HRA. A postdoc fellowship begins at Rs 21,000 per month + HRA. A mere Rs 3000 increase! What social security are we providing to a person of age ~27-28 years? Most of our students come from middle-class, often the culture demands that they take care of their parents and marriage of siblings. What rights do we, who enjoy huge increase in salary after the 6th pay commission, have in asking our PhD students to do postdoctoral work in India. Thus, we neither provide the right academic ambience nor pay our postdocs well enough.

I am in no way undermining the abilities and importance of PhD students in academic research. They are doing their best. They are the real force behind Indian biological research. What worries me is that we are not providing better learning opportunities to these enthusiastic PhD students. If developing a strong postdoc culture in India is a distant reality (although with so many new Universities and research institutes, there are hopes for an Indian academia, within the next 15-20 years, which competes with itself and sufficient peer review happens within the community), can we at least ensure better training to our PhD students such that soon after their PhD they become independent researchers? Interestingly, whenever a fresh PhD graduate is appointed as a faculty, it is almost always (at least in the recent years) she/he with the PhD degree obtained in India. This reflects the fact that selection is based on the ability of the candidate to become an independent researcher and not based on the label “just returned” from a foreign land!

In this context, some of the new initiatives such as Early Career fellowship of Welcome Trust-DBT India Alliance and INSPIRE faculty scheme of DST, which provide better career opportunities to well trained and gifted individuals, can hope to bring in refreshing changes to Indian academia.