To be or not to be (faculty): Exploring careers in science

Anusheela Chatterjee

On 28 April 2019, IndiaBioscience conducted a workshop on Crafting your Career’ at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay. The workshop attempted to provide MSc and PhD students with a toolkit’ to hone their career development as well as raise awareness about various academic and non-academic science careers.

Glimpses of the workshop
Glimpses of the workshop  (Photo: Anusheela Chatterjee)

Not joining academia after a PhD is not a failure.’

Debjani Paul’s words immediately struck a chord with many of the students who had turned up on a Sunday to attend the Crafting your Career’ workshop organised by IndiaBioscience at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, in collaboration with four local institutions. Before taking up a faculty position, Paul had the opportunity to interact with professionals engaged in different careers in science – an opportunity that was made available to her during her post-doctoral years at the Curie Institute and the University of Cambridge. 

This exposure helped her exercise an informed choice and subsequently, zero in upon a career that aligned with her interests and capabilities. In addition to laying bare the bias against non-research careers in academia, Paul’s talk drew attention to the gaping holes in career guidance in most graduate schools in India. 

In 2017, a survey was conducted by Nature to identify hurdles faced by graduate students throughout the world. More than 5700 students responded to the survey with equal representation from Europe, North America and Asia. The results revealed that 60% of the graduate students surveyed were resorting to the internet for career advice. This observation highlights that doctoral programmes across the world are in want of a solid career guidance system. 

On 28 April, 2019, five organisations- IndiaBioscience, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) Mumbai, IIT Bombay, UM-DAE Centre for Excellence in Basic Sciences(UM-DAE-CBS), and Advanced Centre for Treatment, Research and Education in Cancer (ACTREC)- joined forces to initiate a dialogue between trained science professionals and graduate students who were willing to educate themselves about career opportunities in science. 

This was the second iteration of this series of workshops, the first having been held in February 2019 at the Regional Centre for Biotechnology (RCB), Faridabad. The program was carefully designed to include two components: concise talks that provided insights into the career arcs of a number of science professionals, followed by an interactive workshop that aimed to help students assess their inclination towards a career of their choice and navigate their professional paths. 

A glimpse into science careers 

The invited speakers were experts in a wide variety of fields such as research management, writing, entrepreneurship, intellectual property & law, research, and education. The talks included accounts of how they each came to be in their respective professions. 

For example, Savita Ayyar joined Wellcome Trust as a Grants Advisor after obtaining a doctoral degree in developmental biology from the University of Cambridge. A few years later, she found herself at the other end of the table when she successfully set up the research development office at National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore. Years of experience in research development came in handy while she embarked on a project to understand the gaps in research management in institutions across the country. At present, she is an entrepreneur devising solutions for research management for various institutions. Savita’s journey from researcher to entrepreneur conveyed an emerging need for research managers in India. 

Similar stories of entrepreneurship came from Lipika Sahoo and Vishakha Mangale. A fresh graduate from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore, Sahoo’s joy knew no bounds when she was offered a job at a leading biotech company. Little did she realise that in a few years’ time, she would chance upon Intellectual Property (IP) & Law, tirelessly work to reinvent her skill-set and build her own consultancy firm specialising in IP & law. 

Mangale sailed against the tide to join GE HealthCare as a bench scientist following her postdoctoral stint at TIFR. In the course of time, she transitioned from research to product design and development, later co-founding OmiX Research and Diagnostic laboratories. 

While the success stories of Ayyar, Mangale and Sahoo were united by a common thread of venturing into the unknown, the takeaway was crystal clear: Building a career is a life-long process. Reinvent your skills, if circumstances so demand.

Subhojit Sen, faculty at UM-DAE-CBS and passionate science communicator, touched upon an important aspect that often goes unmentioned – the importance of sound financial planning. An intersection of what you love’, what you are good at’, what the world needs’ and what you can be paid for’ may give one an idea of what career to choose,” Sen said. 

This brings to light the impending crisis of the number of graduate students versus the lack of suitable employment. Additionally, it may also point towards a need to review the practice of unpaid internships’ for extended periods of time. 

Quite a few fresh graduates are apprehensive of the uncertainty in a non-research scientific career. Swagata Chakraborty honestly admitted that she faced similar struggles while deciding upon a career. She started off as a scientific editor and then went on to discover her love for teaching and is at present actively engaged in teaching higher secondary students at an international school.

Cheryl Travassos successful run at a science writing career resonated with many aspiring writers in the audience. It was a welcome relief when Cheryl clearly stated that a science writing career did not necessarily involve writing manuscripts. It is interesting to note that Cheryl creates content for distinct groups of readers – from pharmaceutical companies and healthcare professionals to the general public – shifting between the different styles of writing with remarkable ease.

Building a career is a life-long process. Reinvent your skills, if circumstances so demand.

A toolbox to craft your career

Keeping in mind the existing caveats in career guidance systems in India, IndiaBioscience designed the second half of the workshop aiming to empower students to navigate successful careers. At the onset, Shreya Ghosh and Smita Jain (two of the three instructors of this workshop) set out to define a career’ in today’s times. The concept of one job, for all your life, in which you do the same thing every day’ is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Instead, one has to constantly polish their skills and remain a life-long’ learner. This should not be a problem as long as one is passionate about what they do. 

But how do you figure out what you are passionate about? This is usually the first hurdle that a student faces. The training module included a set of exercises that would help students identify their top skills, interests, relevant experience and values that matter the most. This exercise helped students gauge their Purpose’.

Once the purpose was clear, the next step focused on how one would achieve this purpose, starting with effectively researching available career options. An informational interview with a trained professional, who is engaged in a career that interests you could be a good start.Lakshmi Ganesan, one of the trainers of the workshop, explained the key points to keep in mind while conducting such an interview. She also recreated her own informational interview with Jain before joining IndiaBioscience. 

The ingenuity of this workshop may be attributed to such demonstrated examples substantiated with personal assessment exercises. Not only did this help students internalize the points to look out for, it also made sure that this workshop did not seep into the dreaded routine of all preaching and no practice’. 

During the next section of the workshop, the instructors focused on navigating the job application process, starting from properly dissecting a job ad, to crafting powerful resumes and cover letters, to preparing elevator pitches and following proper interviewing etiquette.

The ingenuity of this workshop may be attributed to such demonstrated examples substantiated with personal assessment exercises.

The workshop highlighted the importance and necessity of professionalism, sound work ethics, soft skills and networking. Gone are the days when a researcher (or a science professional) could stay holed up in their ivory tower! An entire segment of this workshop was devoted to how one could build and manage their networks with other professionals, including a quick exercise on speed-networking.

While this workshop did not give handouts about what to write in a CV or a complete list of jobs available, it taught the student how to discover this information themselves. It is crucial that such career guidance is made available to every graduate student at the institutional level. While we move towards a more inclusive scientific community, a workshop of this kind certainly signals a positive shift in perception of the diverse careers in science. 

The presentations for the career talks during this workshop can be found here. For more career-related resources, check out our page on science careers. You are also welcome to check out IndiaBiospeaks, our podcast channel and one-stop resource for science news and careers.

Written By

After obtaining a Masters degree in Biology from TIFR Mumbai, Anusheela joined TIFR Hyderabad as the science writer. In addition to writing, she organises various science communication activities- both for graduate students as well as the general public. She is exploring different ways to communicate fundamental science, through illustrations and animations.