Sunday, April 17, 2011

My job search story: a choice between building Rome and living in an already-built Rome

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.  


The Interviews
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.  

Decision-making
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.

Aftermath
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.  


18 comments:

M said...

Congratulations! Sometime old established places are very arrogant because they have been given special treatment for number of years. You made a right decision. Good luck.

New prof in new India said...

Thank you for your comment and your wishes, M. I felt exactly what you said when I was on one of the campuses.
Good luck to you too.

Anonymous said...

I think I can make a decent guess about what N1, O2 and O3 are.

I have a question for you: are you happy with the quality of students at N1? If these institutions are what I think they are, O2 probably has the best students followed by O2, followed by N1. Are you satisfied with the progress made by your research students?

Thanks for writing the blog! As someone looking at a future academic career in India, I'm sure this is going to be a great resource.

New prof in new India said...

Anon,
most of the PhD students in my department either moved here from O-type institutes along with their supervisors or had already done short-term projects with the department before. Their supervisors have been fairly satisfied with their progress.
I will start supervising my first PhD student starting next semester. His performance in the selection interview was outstanding and one of the reasons he may have preferred joining N1 instead of any O is his specific interest in my research area, which is not currently represented in many institutes.

So, yes, although, as per your guess, the best students are likely to go to O2/3, N1 type places are also getting good talent, because there are more qualified students eager to do a PhD than there are faculty members willing to supervise them.

Glad to hear that this blog might be of help to you. Feel free to ask more questions. All the very best with your job search.

Vijay said...

Hi New Prof in New India,
I really enjoyed this post. Its wonderful for those joining new places in particular but also for those looking for faculty positions anywhere to hear about your experiences. You write politely and well and I am sure no one will take offense if you identify the places you are writing about. N1 can only become better and even more responsive! I would love to recommend N1 to others and perhaps apply myself if only I knew where it is :-)). In any case congrats and thanks to Nanopolitan for pointing me here. Keep writing.
Best wishes
Vijay
K. VijayRaghavan, Bangalore

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

Thanks for your blog. To answer your questions, it has been almost 2 decades since I went through the decision to return to India and join academia. My decision to join IIT Kanpur was because I was an alumnus of this place, knew all the faculty members well, knew that it had the best social setting, extremely friendly, and they, of course, treated me very well when I visited them. So basically, non-academic reasons for joining IITK.

I wasn't asked my marital status, but at one of the Institutes, several faculty members (more than 10) asked me why I applied to that institute when I am not from that region and I don't know the local language.

New prof in new India said...

Hello, Vijay and Professor Sanghi,
I am delighted to hear from both of you.
Vijay, I also responded to your comment on nanopolitan and would like to say the same thing: it is a good idea to apply widely to many institutes and not write off any new ones before visiting them.
The current generation of job-seekers in India is very lucky because of the wide variety of academic jobs available and we should take full advantage of that.

Professor Sanghi, thanks for your answer to my questions. I have been following your blog for some time and enjoy reading your mature and well-informed perspective on many important issues in Indian academia.
I think I can roughly guess where you were questioned about not being from that region :) I had a similar experience.

chitta said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ajit R. Jadhav said...

Re. your question on being asked about your marital status.

It just happened to remind me of what Prof. Mary Boas had narrated in the "To the Students" pages of her famous book on mathematics for physical sciences. I quote her:

quote:
There is a story about a young mathematics instructor who asked an older professor "What do you say when students ask about the practical applications of some mathematical topic?" The experienced professor said "I tell them!"
unquote.

Tch, NewProfWhatever, ...it doesn't work that way in India---not the way you imagine. Sexism has nothing to do with it. Yes, I am a man, and I have sometimes been asked that question, too. (Since I have changed jobs a lot, the "sometimes" here actually means: "oftentimes.")

When people in India ask such questions, very often, they are just trying to place you the person in some kind of a social or cultural context on which they could relate to you in a more informal way---and hardly anything more.

No, I am not being wooly-wishy types in saying so. I have worked long in India (both before, in between, and after spending a total 7 years in the USA, for both graduate school and work). I know that by the time Indians at all come to asking you this question in a personal settings (as against ticking boxes on the application form), 9 times out of 10 (or may be 99 times out of 100), they have already made up their mind that you are basically worth hiring, and, *therefore*, they almost inadvertently are, in a way, trying to find a bit more about what you are and how you react, at a bit closer personal level. (And, probably don't always know enough of tact to know how to go about doing that).

If your marital status were to matter, they would have dropped you much earlier in the selection process.

Now, I know a thing or two about being dropped early enough in the selection process, too. I have been dropped in job applications by *all* potential employers for *six* full *years* in this *new* India. Also, for PhD admissions at IITs, in the same new India. Neither of which would have happened in the old (pre-1990s) India in which I had done both my graduate studies and 5+ years of jobs. And, I have been dropped despite my being a man, despite being a higher caste Hindu, and right in my own home-state (Maharashtra).

So, my point is: Don't rush to your conclusions. Since the 1975 Women's year, it's been fashionable, nay, even obligatory for (by now) a generation of women to cry victim-hood at the first perceived instance of sexism, but reality isn't always like that.

And, BTW, I am a divorcee of a brief marriage 20 years ago, and still a single (not out of my choice). When people ask me, I *tell* them. In my experience, the situation invariably becomes awkward to *them*. Invariably, they try to change the topic, after a brief silence. Usually, once out of the interview office (say once we are having the lunch or a cup of coffee), someone or the other tries to me offer me a word or two of moral support. (Usually, they are incompetent on smoothly performing that part, too! But, more importantly, invariably, they also are genuinely well-meaning.)

Tch... It's India which you know already, NewProfWhatever. Just keep that in mind. ... Now if your purpose is to keep talking to your American friends and all, then that's fine, too. Then, what you say does make sense. But then, a public blog is just that. Public.


Best,

--Ajit
PS: Recommended reading: A few pieces by Times of India's columnist Jug Suraiya, on the scenes at Indian wedding, on how Indian relatives take you for granted, etc. However, recommended *out* is watching Meera Nair's child molestation-featuring movie "Monsoon Wedding." In the Indian work context, what the first view conveys applies far more often or accurately than what the second one does.

PPS: Yes, I always write at exasperating/killing length---even my casual comments are no exception.

New prof in new India said...

Thanks for your comment Ajit. I see what you are trying to say. Now, a few months into my job in India, I have got used to being asked about my marital status and also realize that most of the time, it is only because in our culture, people assume easy familiarity and ask questions without any "hidden" intentions. So, I am learning to take it easy :) In fact, sometimes the conversations are hilarious.

However, I did not know this at the time of my interview and interpreted it differently. Till that point of time, I was only interacting with friends who were in the USA job market and as per them, it is illegal to ask any questions about the marital status of a job candidate during the interview process.

chitta said...

The way N1 treated your application and recruited you is really wonderful. I hope the head honchos of the other institutions read about it. May be someday you can write an article (in a popular science/education magazine) based on this posting.

best wishes
Chitta Baral

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your blog. Came across it last night. All your articles are interesting and very positive. My wife and I can guess what N1, O2 and O3 are. If our guesses are correct, then I work at O3 and I attended your job talk at O2 (which I enjoyed). After reading your entries, both of us feel interested about visiting N1 and will do so the next time we visit N1 city sometime this year. You are making a very important contribution by allaying the apprehensions of people who are looking for jobs in the N institutes. Keep writing, you are very good at it.

Anonymous said...

I know a true incident about the spouse/marriage issue at the time of selection. One for my friends got an offer from a new IIT and her husband is also about to complete PhD. Her new employer was not bothered about her status but she tried to get her husband there by mentioning and doing little bargain for her husband! She get another offer and did not join take first offer. the first institute called up and said that we can do something for your husband etc!!


Also, I feel employers wants to know the marital status to know whether you are going to stick to that job or will change depending on your spouse job! After all, they will be equally interested in retaining !

Anonymous said...

By the way, why are you not married yet!! :-) :-)

Milieu said...

I came across your blog through Abi. Must say that when I read this post, i wa thinking along the line of Dr. Jadhav. I am glad that you handled that comment really well.

Congrats on making such a brave decision to join a new place! Best of luck!

PS I returned back two months back after a Phd in NA as well though joined industry. So far it has been going good and I will follow this blog for your insights.

Athulaprabha Murthi said...

Hello,

A new venture- India Bioscience (www.indiabioscience.org) was started with the aim of providing information about Indian lifescience research/institutions. We hope to have a greater impact over time. At present, this is an effort by a few faculty around India and two employees at IBS. It would be great, to have someone such as yourself contributing to our blogs/opinions so people considering returning to India would have some relevant information- the good and the bad. If you are not comfortable, it would be still nice to hear from you- any suggestions, comments as to what would have helped you when you were applying for positions.
my mail is amurthi@gmail.com

Thanks,
Athulprabha Murthi

profile said...

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Prashant Saxena said...

Dear New Professor,

A very interesting article indeed. My wife and I are both completing our PhDs soon and have similar plans to come back to India.
Just like you were, we are also really confused about these O-type and N-type institutes. If that 'marital status' thing was really serious, I guess we're in for a bigger treat as both of us would be trying to get a job at the same institute.