Indian scientists open up about their origin stories

Not every scientist had a breezy start to their careers, and these stories of struggle are just as important for us to hear as the stories of success. A story told through tweets...

By Samatha Mathew

Even before I started my PhD, a faculty member told me, โ€œOnly 10% of PhD students go on to become scientists.โ€ The context: this particular faculty did not think I would become one. I chose to not dwell on it too much because, well, I had time to prove them wrong, or even right. Now in the last lap of my PhD, faculty and other senior researchers often ask me about my future plans. The predominant advice conveyed to us is this: if you donโ€™t manage to get a position at an Institute of Eminence, itโ€™s best to take up a non-academic career.

How justified is this advice? Of course, for someone as trained to work with high-end instruments as many PhD graduates are, there is a need for specially-equipped and well-funded labs. Yet, I dare to think of alternative endings. Having heard the stories of many established Indian scientists firsthand, I have seen that where they are today is often not where they started.

I decided to mine for such stories on Twitter.

While national labs focus on research, universities focus more on teaching and training of next-gen scientists. Illustration by Samatha Mathew.

It began with my tweet on September 27th, a Sunday.

Early career researchers Divya Kumar from JSS Medical College, Mysore and Chandana Basu from BHU, Varanasi echoed the sentiments in my tweet.

Soon my PhD supervisor at CSIR- IGIB Sridhar Sivasubbu ignited interest in the thread by sharing the story of how our lab looked one and half decades ago.

IIT Kanpurโ€™s Amitabha Bandyopadhyay joined in with a fairly detailed peek into his PhD journey. He talked about making bold decisions, the gumption to follow scientific instincts, and the importance of a right mentor who will pull you back when you are about to fall off a cliff.

The next day, I woke up to a pleasant surprise: Gagandeep Kang, the first woman Fellow of Royal Society (FRS) from the country, and holder of other illustrious titles, who is working in India, had added her own story of humble beginnings.

Needless to say, the thread got much traction then on. Few more responses, from Surendra Ghaskadbi who retired from Agharkar Research Institute, Pune, Vidita Vaidya from TIFR, Mumbai and Amit Kumar Yadav from THSTI, Faridabad, highlighted the initial and ongoing struggles of Indian researchers.

It was Tapasya Srivastava from Delhi University who first raised a crucial point which I was hoping someone would bring up: Indian research is not a single, uniform entity.

What I could really appreciate from her points is this: while the universities train next-generation scientists, they donโ€™t receive many funds for research. Plus, the teaching (the major agenda at Indian universities) that a lot of graduates end up doing, is not taken into account while evaluating for research grants. While this is definitely something Indian funding agencies should consider, it also explains why newcomer faculty compete neck-to-neck for a position at national labs or central universities.

Soon after, Hansika Chhabra, a science communicator, brought up the most pinching aspect: worrying about research output is itself a privilege among scientists. Many smaller universities — where a lot of trained scientists work — are still working to build basic infrastructure.

The entire scenario of a beginner independent researcher in India was summed up neatly by Aishvarya Venkat, a Scientist from CSIR-IMMT:

Vinita Gowda from IISER Bhopal countered the original tweet with some practical advice for students who might be disheartened.

This discussion also reminded me of a very pertinent point brought up by the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Govt. of India during a Science Policy Forum meeting for young researchers, which I had live-tweeted.

He urged PhDs and postdocs to consider spreading out, rather than applying for faculty positions at the same handful of top institutes. He also added that a network between central labs and universities will be very useful for young researchers across the country.

Of course, reality is not so rosy. If the funding is skewed, and therefore the publications and awards directly reflect that, universities will always stay undesirable for wannabe scientists. To raise the bar of training at our universities, we should be encouraging PhD candidates to look beyond top-tier institutes to take up independent research as faculty and provide the universities necessary support.

As for a young PhD like me, my hope is that I can do useful work after years of research training and not give up on research. My apprehensions come from the fact that opportunities in the country are limited and behind the above โ€˜success and struggleโ€™ stories, there are a lot more from those ahead of me on the career path that is discouraging. Meanwhile, I keep seeking out diverse stories and receiving advice to decide the best possibilities ahead.

Author bio: Samatha is a PhD student in Biological Sciences at CSIR- Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology.

By TLoS Team | Published on Oct 21, 2020 in Voices