Thursday, April 28, 2011

To have or to be

Most of us will agree that an established group in one's research area is a highly desirable attribute in a school where one hopes to work.  If such a group does not exist, it helps if the department concerned has a few senior professors with productive research programs.  These people, apart from maintaining a research-oriented and intellectually vibrant atmosphere, also provide leadership and much-needed guidance to the new entrants.

When you join a baby department of a very new institute, the presence of such people may not always be possible.  In my subfield, for example, there are only three research institutes in India with groups of  > 1 people.  As these places do not have undergraduate programs and I am a strong believer of the IIT/IISER/North American model of departments with both undergraduate and graduate programs, I did not have the luxury of joining an institute with readily available research collaborators.  Most of my colleagues are in a similar situation.  The institute provides us with all the professional support we need, but because it is itself very new, it cannot give us previously formed research groups.  In fact, it expects us, the newbies to get our research programs going and build the groups that we want.  In other words, it wants us to be what we cannot have.  
People looking at academic careers in India would want to keep this in mind and think about this issue carefully.  
For precisely these reasons, when I decided to join my current institute (following previous notation, let's continue to call it N1), I met with mild disapproval from some friends and colleagues and stern warnings from some senior colleagues from the O institutes that I was ruining my future (in general, people in India can be very direct in expressing their opinions and do not sugarcoat their words, especially when they talk to people younger to them, male or female.)   I respect their point of view (without agreeing with their forecast for my future).  Fortunately, the people whose opinions mattered the most, like my former PhD advisor and senior, experienced mentors through grad school and postdocs, encouraged me in taking this step. 
I have already explained in a previous post the various reasons why N1 was attractive to me: a highly supportive and dynamic leadership provided by the director and deans, efficient administration, friendly colleagues, absence of the politics imposed by the old boys network, flexibility to travel, but most importantly, the desire to build something from fresh along with other like-minded people.  
As my colleagues and I settle down into our new jobs, we have to grapple with the challenges and take concrete steps to "convert dreams into reality".  Before building up the department, we have to build up our own research programs and put them on a firm basis.  In this context, I've had to deal with the following issues (and I expect that a lot of people would have similar issues in this situation):
1) When I joined, I was in the middle of pursuing a research project, which was progressing slowly but surely.  This project was independent of my PhD work .  I personally saw this project as an important step in severing the umbilical cord with my PhD supervisor.  Within the first two months of joining N1, I seemed to have reached a dead end in this project and did not know how to proceed.  It felt like my mind was unable to think beyond a few ideas that really weren't going far.  I sorely felt the need to talk to someone in my research field and discuss this, but that was not a possibility.  Fortunately, I was able to take an entire semester off to visit a university in North America where I got a chance to discuss this with an expert in this field.  This has been immensely helpful, we have made a lot of progress on this project and we will be soon submitting our paper. 
N1 allowed me to take this "sabbatical" within a few months of joining and supported me in many ways ( my application for leave was promptly approved and I was also allowed to retain my house on campus).
However, it is not possible to hop over to North America frequently and for long intervals.  Once I return, I will have to actively form collaborations within India.  This might result in generating more visitors to N1 or hiring a postdoctoral fellow, which will also be good for the department.  Another way to avoid research deadlocks would be to expand my research interests a little and find common ground with other members in the department.  The institute seems to encourage this approach. 

2) On joining N1, I did not intend taking on a PhD student for the next two to three years.  This is clearly a very serious responsibility and I wanted to wait until my research program had developed more.  However, an interesting turn of events left me with no option but to accept a student much earlier than I thought I would.  Our department received a lot of PhD applications and the administration made it clear that since research was an integral objective of the institute, we had to start a graduate program without delay.  We ended up interviewing a large number of candidates, out of whom we shortlisted three. Let's call them A1, A2 and A3 in order of their scores.  The performance of these three students was good and it would have been cruel to turn down their application (not to mention that the administration would have seriously frowned upon us).  The research interests of A2 and A3  matched with colleagues who were ready to supervise students.  A1 was interested in my area.  The scores made it impossible for us to admit A2 and A3 without also admitting A1.  How can you reject a student whose past academic performance has been excellent, who has great reference letters and who does well in the interview?  Refusing him admission just did not seem right.
I consulted my former PhD advisor and other senior mentors who all unanimously told me that I should not shy away from supervising this student.  This student will start working with me in the coming semester.  I have a couple of projects in mind for him, but will wait to decide which one would be more suitable.  This is the story of my first "unplanned" grad student.
Moral of the story: in a country which has many more qualified and interested students than faculty willing or available to supervise them, newbies have to be ready to start supervising graduate students sooner than they had planned.  

3) While in North America, I was pretty visible on the conference circuit.  I had the good fortune of working with very nice people who not only taught be great science but also gave me the opportunity and necessary funding to attend a lot of conferences and talk about my work.  It was also much easier to travel to conferences within the same continent.  Now, back in India, I feel a bit concerned that it may not be as painless to attend international conferences.  In fact, my fear is that my geographical location will make it less probable for me to be invited to talk at these conferences and interact with potential collaborators.  
On the other hand, thanks to generous research funding by the Indian government, institutes now have more opportunities and resources to host international conferences within India.  

People planning to start academic careers in India should keep these issues in mind.  Joining a new institute is not for the faint-hearted.  We may not have all the resources that one takes for granted in an established set up.  However, this lack of resources is temporary and will not last long because funding is not the problem.  One simply needs to take the initiative to ask the management for things they need for their academic growth and work patiently along with the management to get what they need.  With some careful planning and a positive outlook on the part of its employees, there is no limit to the growth of an institute. 
But, not all people fit into or are willing to join such a set up.  I have some friends who would be very unhappy being in a place like N1.  They either already have positions in O type institutes, where they are doing very good work,  or are looking for such positions.

At the end of the day, we will be productive and will contribute our best to a department only if we are happy there.  The choice has to be made carefully but firmly, because once the decision is taken, there will be no time to look back.

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