The 3rd National Post-Doc Symposium was held from 10 — 13 December 2019 at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune, and was attended by over 70 postdocs and late-stage PhD students from around the country. The proceedings and key take-home points emerging from the meeting are discussed below. Registration is currently open for the 4th National Post-Doc Symposium, to be held on 3 – 4 April 2021 in a virtual format.
The National Post-Doc Symposium is a platform to promote career interests of post-doctoral scientists pursuing research in India. The organization of this event brings together postdocs and potential academic/non-academic employers with the express purpose of networking, participating in broad scientific exchange, and sharing practical tips on crafting science-related careers. This is a grassroots level effort for the professional growth of Indian postdocs in the life sciences. With the current standards for hiring in place, postdocs from India can still make sizeable contributions given the opportunity.
Previous national meetings had been organized by the PDFA in partnership with CSIR-Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, in 2018 and at NCBS-InStem in 2016. The trajectory of this event is guided by one vision – that Indian postdocs should build the skill-sets and contacts that would allow them to utilize opportunities available in India, while partnering with employers and policymakers to facilitate this process. We postdocs are certain that we have much to offer to organizations in India. This annual event is an attempt to actualize our potential.
Recommendations for PhD-holders
There are a vast number of fulfilling professions that employ the skills gained through a PhD which can be as satisfying, remunerative and competitive as academic jobs. The notion that non-academic jobs are a step down is false and severely limiting. Considering the percentage of PhD-holders hired into academia, postdocs need to be aware and prepare for wider avenues.
Most critically, PhD-holders need to evaluate where their talents actually lie and assess what careers are best for them.
The Indian higher education and research establishment, both private and government-supported, is expanding right now. Being part of a new and upcoming institution can have its benefits. Teaching is an irreplaceable and much-desired ability in most of these.
Making the effort to reach out, in addition to doing research, is critical. Take the initiative to actively meet people for professional interactions and betterment. The expectation that a job awaits because you are qualified is not founded in reality. In fact, one’s publication record plays a much smaller role in hiring in non-academic establishments. Soft and transferrable skills matter a great deal everywhere.
Established industries are looking for good people who can contribute to their organizations. PhD hiring differs immensely from post-graduate hiring. PhD-holders need to find roles where they can make an impact and approach team-leads in their target organization for those roles. Update your LinkedIn profile to increase visibility.
Mentoring matters. It is not often discussed but must be actively sought and utilized. Mentorship can come from people other than one’s advisor, especially for those with non-academic career aspirations.
Communicate your research through interesting, simple, easy-to-understand stories. Convey your scientific work in regional languages as well to ensure a wider reach to all factions of the society. This is a social responsibility and the benefits will come in the form of prepared talent, funding, and an informed electorate that promotes wise policy decisions.
The Indian funding and business incubator environment are increasingly conducive to biotech start-ups. For people interested in taking an idea to the market, grants and basic infrastructure are available from various sources and incubation centres. Treading carefully and talking to entrepreneurs in similar situations is crucial.
For any career choice, taking initiative, leveraging networks, and staying in the loop are underestimated and irreplaceable traits in today’s scenario. We need to care for our science and advocate for ourselves too.
Action points for institutions
Indian labs can and should be an attractive destination for freshly-minted PhDs. Training students to be exported abroad makes little economic and social sense. Postdocs given due freedom and infrastructure have produced quality research right here in India. Competitive salaries with tenure durations that afford some peace of mind are crucial.
Group leaders must note that postdocs can be auxiliary brains and aid the functioning of a lab, thus gaining valuable on-the-job training in the process. Treating them as technicians is a lose-lose situation.
Establish a career development unit on campus that provides training and guidance to students and postdocs with inputs and mentoring from PIs. Grant writing, scientific communication (writing and presenting), and professional development activities should be an integral part of such forums. Such activities also give confidence to young scientists to make the right career moves.
Institutes and PIs should encourage participation in meetings that help postdocs network and explore employment opportunities within and outside academia. We have occasionally encountered resistance from PIs saying that this particular symposium is a waste of time. Without a top-down change in mindset, our long-term attempt at maximizing contributions to the research, teaching, and broader scientific ecosystem will delay bearing fruit.
Institutes should encourage work-life balance amongst scientists and researchers at all levels to prevent mental health issues and maintain a steady gender balance in academia.
Action points for policymakers
Year-long delays in the arrival of funds are unacceptable if the system is serious about supporting research in India. Funds need to be released at the stipulated time.
Increase the number of years for which fellowships are provided. E.g. National Post-Doctoral Fellowship (NPDF) for 2+1 years is barely sufficient for any progress in research in many biological disciplines.
Make all fellowships an open competition where Indian PhDs or postdocs are eligible to apply. These should be administered on the basis of merit, without excluding India- trained talent.
Age limit on hiring for assistant professor positions is unreasonable. Combined with the high bar on publications for academic hiring, most of Indian talent and potential is precluded from applying. We strongly recommend that policymakers commission a study asking how much has Indian science gained and/or lost by placing this 35-year limit on hiring for entry-level academic positions. Such age limits give rise to the leaky pipeline. Some of the best minds are lost due to age restrictions, especially women scientists.
There is a need for channelling talent into the Science and Industry ecosystem. An open forum posting jobs for not only academia but also industry, science communication and science policy for postdocs may prove beneficial.
Proceedings of the 3rd National Post-Doc Symposium
The 3‑day event consisted of work presentations (oral/poster) by participants, invited talks by eminent speakers from academic and non-academic backgrounds, career talks, panel discussions on relevant issues and skill-building workshops. We also had sessions on networking and mentor-mentee interactions.
Keynote addresses were delivered by Jayant Udgaonkar (Director, IISER Pune), Sanjay Singh (Gennova Biopharmaceuticals), Dhrubajyoti Chatterjee (Vice-Chancellor, Amity University, Kolkata), and Sanjeev Galande (IISER Pune). The keynote speakers discussed various aspects of career development, including identifying self-aptitude, choosing a career path, and surviving in a chosen field. Shannon Olson (NCBS) spoke about communicating science at various levels in society.
The symposium also included mini-workshops on grant writing (Divya Tiwari, DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance), manuscript writing (Shivani Singh, Cactus communications), graphical abstract design (Ipsa Jain, Ipsawonders), and resume building and interviewing (Smita Jain & Lakshmi Ganesan, IndiaBioscience), which were valued and appreciated by all participants.
Panel discussions provided a platform for direct dialogue and exchange of ideas. The flagship panel discussion on postdoc issues led by Sunil Laxman (InStem), Sorab Dalal (Advanced Centre for Treatment, Research and Education in Cancer (ACTREC), Navi Mumbai), Praveen Somasundaram (DST- Science and Engineering Research Council), Thomas Pucadyil (IISER Pune), and Shambhavi Naik (ex-Post-Doc NCBS + CloudKrate founder), came up with useful suggestions to improve work environments for the postdocs in India, which have been listed above.
Panellists for a discussion on women in science included Tuli Dey & Vineeta Bal (SPPU), Anjan Banerjee & Mayurika Lahiri (IISER Pune), Anindita Bhadra (IISER Kolkata), and Meenakshi Munshi (DBT). They shared experiences of their academic journeys, managing work-life balance, unreasonable age limits on fellowships and awards, and other challenges faced by young women scientists. Early-career women scientists were advised to believe in themselves and be confident and resilient whilst navigating academia.
The entrepreneurship panel was led by Shambhavi Naik (CloudKrate), Venkata Palle (Lupin Pharma), Sundarlingam SP (Syngene), T. Srinath (Genophe), Premnath Venugopalan (NCL Venture Center), Sudheendra Rao (Organization for Rare Diseases India), and Rohan Kamat (Immuneel). The panellists shared what they look for in new employees – mindset and goals, and day-to-day work-life in industry versus academia. Panellists also shared the stumbling blocks they experienced while establishing their respective start-ups and highlighted the need for leadership and team-work with stricter time constraints.
K. VijayRaghavan (Principal Scientific Advisor, Government of India) discussed solutions for postdocs facing systemic challenges with their host-institutes, through a video conference. Renu Swarup (Secretary, DBT) graciously sent a recorded video message to encourage Indian postdocs to stand united in tackling challenges. Both speakers stressed the government’s resolve to promote science and technology in India and sought suggestions to improve post-doctoral research through policy changes.
To increase participation, the organizers leveraged personal contacts and wrote to directors or heads of departments of 119 central and state universities, as well as premier research institutes of India under Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Indian Council of Medical Research, Ministry of Human Resource Development and Department of Atomic Energy. To encourage participation, travel cost subsidy was given to all the outstation participants.
The attached photograph and map show the researcher participants at the Symposium and where they are currently working. Though the Symposium was attended by a large number of researchers (70 postdocs and late-stage PhDs invited) covering a fair number of states in India, we acknowledge our efforts at attracting participation can be improved. Jammu and Kashmir contributed very active participation last year, but could not this year. With continued institutional support and funding, active participation, and recognition, we hope to continue serving the needs of postdocs from all over the country.
Program outcomes and participant feedback
The benefits of networking and discussions can only be gauged over a period of years. Immediately, however, we confirm that job offers were made by Immuneel, Syngene, Takshashila Foundation, CloudKrate, and Cactus communications. We hope to hear back from participants in due time regarding concrete successes that this meeting may have spurred.
More than half the attendees rated the meeting at 8⁄10 or above in their feedback. Networking opportunities, career talks and panel discussions were the most popular categories. In a rare consensus, no one had problems with arrangements for stay. The duration of the meeting was judged too short by some and too long by others but overall, the participants displayed a strong appreciation for every session.
We would specifically like to note that the postdoc organizers were given complete freedom to decide the structure and content of this event by faculty advisors as well as funding agencies. The IISER Pune team deserves and has earned immense appreciation for executing mutually envisaged goals with the Bangalore team. The organizing teams found this a deeply enriching experience and one giant leap outside the academic bubble. Each aspect of organization was a lesson in working towards that goal.
The Road ahead
This effort has been lauded by many practising scientists in India. As the organizers inevitably move on in their careers, we hope to maintain a continuum and build on this vision. We encourage incoming postdocs to gain lessons in organization and keep the symposium alive with each passing year.
If we have learned anything, it is the value of exploring, identifying, and pursuing avenues that help us achieve our goals. We strongly hope that post-doctoral communities across the country come together in local associations for professional growth that can liaise at a national level to sustain this endeavour. For 2021, the PDFA has partnered with postdocs at IISER Kolkata to organize the next National Post-Doc Symposium (virtual, April 3 – 4 | 10 – 11, 2021). The deadline for registration is 31 January, 2021.
Funding and support
The organizers acknowledge that our zeal and vision could never have amounted to anything without the support of Satyajit Mayor, Jayant Udgaonkar, LS Shashidhara, Aurnab Ghose and Mukund Thattai. Their faith and permission to use IISER Pune and NCBS-InStem infrastructure gave us well-founded confidence to approach our partner IndiaBioscience and major funding bodies, the Principal Scientific Advisor’s Office and the Wellcome-DBT India Alliance. All participants were provided travel subsidies, accommodation, and boarding through their support. Special thanks to Smita Jain and Aurnab Ghose for giving the organizers guidance as well as the freedom to implement our vision. Additional support came from Cactus Communications, CloudKrate, and Thermo Fisher Scientific. Talk and Poster prizes were sponsored by CloudKrate.
Note on Authors
The authors have been listed in alphabetical order (first name). All authors contributed towards organizing the symposium and were postdocs during the event.