I must warn the reader that this is going to be a long post.
I am writing the story about how I found my current job in the hope that some reader out there might benefit from my experience and have a glimpse of what to expect during job visits to Indian institutes. The main moral of the story: the job visits to my potential employers revealed much more than my first impressions and my final decision was based on factors and circumstances that I did not anticipate in the beginning of my search.
The job search begins
I started networking in India much before I entered the job market. As soon as I obtained a PhD, in every trip to India, I would visit a few research institutes and give talks about my work. This made me visible and also gave me the chance to figure out what kind of academic milieu I would best fit into: a purely research institute or an institute whose culture places equal importance to research and teaching. I opted for the latter. Based on various factors like the reputation of the institute and its location, I prepared a list of Plan A schools and Plan B schools. I chose three places in Plan A, namely N1, O2 and O3 (N standing for New and O for Old). I would immediately apply to Plan A schools and would move on to Plan B if nothing in Plan A materialized.
Unlike North America, in India, applications are accepted throughout the year -hence I had the luxury of applying in different phases.
Before the interview
While sending out applications, O2 was my first choice. In terms of brand value, research tradition, student quality and quality of life, it appeared to be way ahead of all the other places.
O3, on the other hand, though not as big a school as O2, is also very well known and has a research group with a non-trivial overlap with my research.
I had never seriously thought about N1, but had applied anyways because it is situated in a city which I like very much and also because Indian academic circles were buzzing with news about the rapid progress it had made since its inception.
As I was applying, my preference was for O2, O3 and N1 in that order.
Getting ready for the Interviews:
As soon as they received my application and letters etc, O2 invited me to visit them, but told me that they would only consider me for a visiting position instead of the regular position that I had applied for. I was a little offended but decided to visit them and keep that as a back-up option just in case...
O3 was looking for a person with my research specialities, welcomed my application and invited me to visit. This took the sting off O2's reply and I started to feel more confident about my prospects.
N1's response is straight out of a dream. The director himself wrote to me, and invited me to visit the institute, give a talk and spend time exploring the campus and interacting with faculty and students. (Note: O2 and O3 invitation was specifically for job talks/interviews. But, N1's invitation came across as being very warm and open, not to mention that it came straight from the director).
At this stage, it wasn't clear to me what job I would like the most, but I was starting to get very excited about these interviews and at the prospect of returning to India.
As per geographical and other constraints, my first interview was at O3, second at N1 (where I decided to stay for 4 days, taking full advantage of their generous invitation) and the last at O2.
The interview at O3 went well and my job talk was well received. The department chairperson and other members were friendly and showed me around the institute. But, I was warned that their hiring procedure was much longer than what I had accounted for. So, I came away with the impression that although it was almost certain that they will make me an offer, it was not clear when it would happen. If I wanted this position, I would have to really, really wait.
My next interview was at N1. On the evening of my arrival, I was invited to have dinner with the director and a distinguished scientist who was visiting N1 at that time. It was a most memorable experience. They both regaled me with stories from the 70s when they were just starting out as young assistant professors and how things were in India back then. Both these scientists have contributed to building up several departments across India from scratch and I was inspired by them. The next morning, I had a formal meeting with the director and chairperson. I was told about the objectives of the institute and what are the institute's expectations from my department. Instead of asking me where I see myself in 5 years, they told me where the institute sees itself in the next few years!!
The 4 days at N1 were wholesome and productive! In this period, I was given an exhaustive tour of the campus, spent time with my future colleagues and got a good understanding of the academic environment.
I concluded my visit to N1 with the following impressions,
a) Other than pursuing a strong research program, the institute expects its employees to play a strong role in capacity-building of the institute.
b) On its part, it will do its best to provide the necessary help to employees for their academic growth and personal well-being.
c) Most people had procured generous seed grants to build up their labs and other research facilities.
d) Faculty members, however junior, have immediate access to the director and the deans. The functioning of the institute is highly democratic.
e) The institute has an efficient administration. Requests made for purchasing equipment, library books etc and funding for organizing conferences are approved quickly.
While leaving, I was told that the selection committee would be meeting within a week to discuss my application.
By this time, I had a great feeling about N1, but it was still not clear if I would prefer it over O3.
O2 was my final stop before returning to North America. When I arrived there, I was in for a big surprise: I was now being considered for a regular position and not a visiting position as I was told before!! I don't know what brought the sudden change in their attitude ( was it because other institutes were showing interest in me?) My interview and job talk went well and I enjoyed the intellectually stimulating atmosphere. But, their flip-flop confused and stressed me out. Non-technical conversation with some members revealed some unfriendly and uncomfortable aspects of the department. For example, the chairperson advised me to not respond to other offers before I hear from O2, which could take a couple of months. I did not agree with his assumption that I am so desperate for a job at O2 or that the other institutes are so dispensable. I was also asked my marital status and was told that being unmarried would work in my favor. I fail to see any logic in this sexist remark.
All through the long flight journey back to North America, I waged a relentless battle between the head and the heart. My gut feeling told me that N1 would be the best place for me. Though still very new, it showed tremendous promise and the people there were positive, enthusiastic and honest. No one there attempted to play mind games with me. I was treated with respect and was given ample time to explore life on campus. Most importantly, at N1, I would get to play an important role in building up the institute. On the other hand, O2 is indeed one of the best institutes in the country and I would have access to excellent facilities and resources. But, clearly, at O2, I could not look forward to great inter-personal relations with colleagues.
Then there was the issue of timing. N1 had assured me that I would be hearing from them within a week. My options were to
1) Accept N1's offer and end the uncertainty about my future that was driving me crazy.
2) Keep N1 on hold as long as possible and wait to hear from the other places.
3) Accept N1's offer and withdraw my acceptance as soon as I get positive replies from O2 or O3.
I immediately discarded the third option as highly unethical. The second option was risky. Firstly, it would be disrespectful to keep N1 waiting too long before I took a decision. It was not a matter of weeks, but months. I am sure that this behavior would not be tolerated even from the brightest star on the job market. Secondly, is this how I treat an institute that treats me so well? Thirdly, what if, after all this time, O2/O3, in a sudden change of circumstances decides not to make me an offer? This would put me in a very awkward position.
Back in my North American university, I consulted my trusted colleagues and friends. Most of them had no opinions as they did not know anything about the academic culture in India. Some suggested that going with option 2 would be acceptable in the North American scenario. I did not have any close friends in India whom I could consult. The academic community here is so small that I felt it would be best to keep things to myself.
After a lot of thinking, one thing was clear: for a successful academic career and personal happiness, I would have to take into account not just the brand-value of a place, but also the overall congeniality.
N1 kept its word and made me an offer within a week.
By that point, I had made my decision. I decided I would be better off in a start-up surrounded by supportive team players rather than a great, super-competitive department, where I would have to struggle and maneuver to create my place and where I could not count on much support from colleagues. Perhaps, this was a decision taken more with heart than head, but I was happy with it. So, I accepted N1's offer without delay. I wrote cordially to O2 and O3 withdrawing my applications. O2 wrote back a terse email congratulating me for my new position. A few days ago, I met someone from O2 during a conference. He asked me (hopefully, in jest) why I cheated on O2 (in precisely these words). I laughed off his question and changed the topic.
O3 was more understanding and sent me their best wishes (and also asked me to keep them in mind for the future if needed, a gesture which I appreciate).
The joining letter from N1 arrived within 15 days of my accepting their offer.
I am about to complete a year at N1 and have not regretted my decision so far. I was welcomed with open arms and the institute gave me tremendous support to settle down and adjust to the nitty-gritty of Indian life. My request for funds to organize a winter school for undergraduate students was approved within an hour and we successfully organized this highly successful event, attended by students from all over India. The institute has been very supportive of my professional needs and has given me the flexibility to travel for the purposes of collaboration. Like all my colleagues, I am valued for who I am and appreciated for my service to the institute. I have been alloted a sweet little house on campus. Recently, the registrar's office also gifted me a bicycle to facilitate my smooth commute in the campus, which is spread over six kilometres.
Thanks to N1, I have fallen in love with India all over again.
I would love to hear back from readers (from all over the world) about the main factor that made them choose their current jobs ( was it academic, personal or a balance between the two?) Did they also contend with factors that they were not aware of while applying? How much importance did they give to the non-academic aspects of their department?
Another somewhat related question: Were you ever asked about your marital status during a job interview? How did you/would you respond if this had happened/were to happen to you.