doi:10.1038/nindia.2010.73 Published online 31 May 2010

Nowhere man

Years of neglect have brought the post-doctoral culture in India to near extinction despite the country's economic progress and enhanced scientific funding. Gautam Radhakrishna Desiraju and Arindam Ghosh argue in favour of revitalising this essential area of scientific activity.

G. R. Desiraju (left) & Arindam Ghosh.

A post-doctoral scientist is much misunderstood in the scientific set-up of India.

The post-doctoral tenure is wedged between a Ph.D degree and a full-fledged position as faculty or research scientist. Post-doctorals refresh and invigorate research through the infusion of new ideas. As they have been trained in other laboratories, their ideas reflect different and differing scientific philosophies. They provide faculty with an opportunity to diversify or intensify their research, enriching it both in quantity and quality.

A post-doc is ideally suited to tricky research problems of uncertain outcome — problems perhaps inappropriate or too difficult for fledgling doctoral students. In developed countries, post-doctoral research is taken as seriously as any other aspect of research — something India seems unwilling to accept.

Negligent nurturing

India's negligence in nurturing a post-doctoral research culture has now led to a complicated situation. A fixation for foreign post-doctoral research has taken deep root amongst our students, making emigration almost a compulsion.

A colonial hangover seems too obvious a reason, although there is still a marked bias towards Western education. Economics is perhaps the more compelling factor that propels the post-doc diaspora. A post-doctoral position in an affluent country provides the illusion of wealth, especially for those who subsist in the foreign country and repatriate the rest of their savings to India. For those who intend to return to India, the myth (or fact?) that a foreign post-doc is essential to secure a position in India, only hardens their resolve to go abroad.

A post-doctoral position increases the diversity of one's research experience. No one would object to an Indian Ph.D going abroad to a good foreign group and learning new techniques and approaches. But it becomes objectionable when the foreign group is not as good as the Ph.D group in India. While postdoctoral research abroad is perceived with legitimacy, a similar stint in India is somehow regarded as not kosher, even if it is in established laboratories. India has witnessed too many bright Indian PhDs stagnating in dead end post-doctoral positions abroad, waiting for that permanent position in a foreign country that never comes their way or that equally elusive perfect job back home.

Retain the post-doc

The Government and the academic community must take note of this continuous draining of skilled and well-trained minds to other countries. It is ironic that India is neglecting this problem at a time when many new research and teaching institutions are being announced by the government. These institutions require significant enhancement in the country's viable scientific manpower.

Measures must be taken to remove the stigma associated with being a post-doc in India. Students must be convinced that this is not unsafe for their future prospects. The financial factor also needs to be addressed. Many post-docs need to support their families, which imposes additional financial constraints. Indian post-docs abroad may save about half their monthly salary which is perhaps in the range of Rs. 50,000 to Rs 1,50,000. While the cost of living is lower in India, post-doctoral salaries still lag woefully behind. A post-doc salary in the range of Rs. 30,000 to Rs. 35,000 per month would not be unreasonable today.

Post-doctorals must be given an identity of their own. They are not students but they are also not members of permanent staff. They belong to a unique segment of the scientific workforce, and the system must recognise their separate existence and distinct relevance.

Unfortunately, this is not always acknowledged in India's administrative and professional circles. Their situation can improve with independent research, as is sometimes possible in the U.K., Singapore and South Korea and by allocating contingency and committed amounts for international travel. They could surely be involved in B.Sc. and M.Sc. teaching programmes, like in Germany.

Post-docs should be allowed to independently operate research projects, and given speaking slots in national conferences including those conducted by India's science academies. They should be regularly considered for awards and prizes that are handed out to scientists below 32, 35 and 40 years of age.

Lastly, they should be encouraged by supervisors to take up post-doctoral appointments in groups that work in a slightly different area, or at the very least change their area of interest if they continue in their Ph.D group after graduation. Above all, there should be a clear understanding that a good student who has a productive post-doctoral stint in India will get a good job in academia or industry.

Some hope

Progress along these lines is already under way. The Department of Science and Technology has recently announced an increase in post-doc salaries, as have some front line institutions. A DST Young Scientist now earns between Rs. 22,000 and Rs. 24,000 per month — about 50% higher than before. Initiatives like the DST Nano Mission and the D. S. Kothari post-doctoral scheme of the University Grants Commission (UGC) are steps in the right direction. It remains to be seen whether suitable candidates apply for these positions.

Is this too little too late? In the U.S., Western Europe and Japan, research without post-docs is inconceivable. Do we even have a consensus in India on the need for this neglected group of scientists? Or will India continue to boast about the pedigreed schools abroad where she exports her Ph.Ds?

The Indian post-doctoral machinery needs a radical overhaul, not just a few incoherent and ineffective prods.

The authors are faculty members in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, with several post-doctorals in their respective research groups.