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The curious case of the missing Indian postdoc

Shambhavi Naik & Megha

Postdoctoral fellows form the mainstay of research activities in many parts of the world, yet are curiously under-utilized and under-funded in Indian institutes. In this article, Shambhavi Naik, Research Fellow, Technology and Policy Programme, Takshashila Institution, and Megha, India Alliance Early Career Fellow at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), examine possible causes and propose solutions to India’s persistent problems with retaining and attracting quality postdoctoral talent.

The curious case of the missing Indian postdoc
The curious case of the missing Indian postdoc 

The last decade has seen the Government of India increasing the number of higher education institutions and introducing policies specifically to motivate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) students. These interventions are expected to build a pipeline of education to produce large numbers of quality STEM graduates. 

How do STEM students view this pipeline? How do they perceive opportunities to pursue STEM careers in India? To address this issue with numbers rather than anecdotal information, we initiated a survey for these students in May 2018. A small vignette (~85 Ph.D. students) from the survey has been used here to discuss one node of the STEM career pipeline: postdocs.

In 2015, India had ~125,000 students enrolled in a Ph.D. program, 62% of whom were in STEM fields. Assuming a fifth graduate in 2018, and with our survey showing 56% of these would pursue a postdoc after their PhD, we arrive at ~12,500 potential postdocs per year.

Despite a large base of applicants, postdocs on Indian campuses are a rarity. India’s premier STEM research institute, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), currently hosts just 174 postdocs. To understand how low this number is, we examined the Faculty:Postdoc ratio. In IISc it is 2.8:1, while for Stanford University it is 1:1. Correspondingly, Faculty:Ph.D. student ratio is 1:5.6 for IISc, as compared to 1:1 at Stanford. This minor analysis suggests that we are under-utilizing the trained Ph.D. students we are investing in. 

Moreover, absence of a strong postdoctoral culture negatively impacts our research output. Consider one parameter: publications. In 2018, the Nature Index pegged India at 13, behind countries including USA, UK, Switzerland, South Korea, Spain and Italy. Postdocs would be an ideal workforce to contribute to our publication numbers because unlike faculty, they don’t have teaching or administrative duties and unlike Ph.D. students, they have no course-work commitments. 

Here, we identify reasons behind our poor postdoc numbers and propose strategies to develop this cohort of scientific research personnel.

Many identifiable factors contribute to low postdoc numbers: economic, social and scientific.

Postdocs are poorly paid in India and sometimes, even less than Ph.D. students. The Prime Minister’s Research Fellowship Scheme awards INR 70,000/month for outstanding Ph.D. students, while a similarly competitive National Postdoctoral Fellowship pays only INR 55,000/month. Although poor pay for postdocs is a global issue, when considered in terms of purchasing power parity, Indian PhDs prefer poor pay overseas to poor pay in India. Delay in release of salaries and grant money further compounds the poor economics of doing a postdoc in India.

The social perception of an India-trained postdoc is low. Students are strongly advised by their Ph.D. mentors to pursue a postdoc overseas. This advice is substantiated by the widespread habit of prominent research and educational institutes of hiring mostly, if not exclusively, foreign-trained postdocs. The net result: ~70% of surveyed students felt a need to train overseas for a job in Indian academia. There is of course, nothing wrong in students seeking work experience outside India; but, isn’t there something remiss in our system if students feel compelled to do so? 

Scientifically, India-trained postdocs have less glamorous publication records compared to their overseas counterparts, an inherent challenge of doing science in India. This issue is not acknowledged by the Indian scientific community. Opaque hiring processes further fuel the perception that a bias exists against hiring India-trained postdocs. 

These factors combined lead to a subpar postdoctoral population, both in quantity and quality, as well as programs that are not attractive to either domestic or foreign postdocs. Increased funding is an obvious solution for improving postdoc numbers, but more money without institutional and structural changes will be ineffective. We suggest below some broad interventions that may be considered at a policy level. 

Include a long-term (>1 year) overseas training component to Indian postdoc fellowships

Our survey suggests 60% of those wanting to go abroad will remain in India if such a fellowship is available. Overseas training would expose students to experiential learning from international laboratories. Structuring the Fellowship so that the last 1 – 2 years are spent in an Indian laboratory would help to utilize the Fellow’s foreign training in an Indian context.

Encourage foreign postdocs

We have dedicated schemes to attract overseas researchers at the faculty level, but perhaps these would be more valuable when applied to postdocs. Increasing foreign participation on our campuses will enable India to break into the Top 100 global university rankings, an aspiration which now has political momentum. At MIT for example, more than 60% of postdocs are international. Given the contractual nature of postdoctoral work, these India-trained foreign postdocs can serve as ambassadors of our research institutions. However, to promote harmony and preclude prejudice, it would be important that these postdocs are treated on par with domestic postdocs in terms of pay and opportunities.

Create mechanisms for structured postdoctoral and research student training

We currently fund Junior Research Fellows (JRFs) with the intention of developing them as PhD students. However, JRFs are provided no help or counselling to help them navigate through the research environment. Thus, many end up training in subjects and working on projects which may be vastly different from their education and ambitions. To structure JRF training, we envision a national program that asks postdocs to compete to employ JRFs (with the support of their lab head) for specific projects. Postdocs would have to write a 1 – 2yr proposal, outlining the science and the skills the JRF would learn in the training. Both pools of research personnel, JRFs and postdocs will benefit from this scheme: the JRF is guaranteed individual attention and a co-owned project, while the postdoc can improve their productivity and develop management skills.

Recognize postdocs as valuable trained research personnel for academic and non-academic careers

In our current set-up, an academic job is seen as the best outcome of Ph.D. and postdoc training. This needs to change. Even in the US and UK, just 8% of postdocs get an academic job. We, therefore, need to initiate non-academic training opportunities. Unfortunately, most postdocs are unaware that their training can be valuable in other professions such as research administration, consulting, policy making, journalism, curriculum development, teacher training, entrepreneurship and facility management. It does not help that these careers carry a social stigma by being labelled as alternate”.

Structured programs for professional development and paid internships during the postdoc training period would be helpful (for e.g., not one law school in India has an IP course that is run on a research campus). Institutions should also be allowed to create a slew of positions that allow them to utilize and acknowledge postdoctoral training for broader application in the research ecosystem. For e.g., imagine the usefulness of an India-trained postdoc as a lab manager to a newly appointed faculty.

In the current system, we train a large number of Ph.D. students only to encourage them to go overseas, of which a fraction return. Perhaps it is time we stop being complacent about losing our best-trained people. 

This article has its genesis in a career aspirations survey that we are running for BSc/MSc/Ph.D. students enrolled in India. We would like to use the data generated from the survey to inform policies that can make India a global science leader. Help us: take the survey and/​or encourage students to do so.