‘Swades’ for scientists: The return to India journey - IndiaBioscience

Returning to India is often a long-cherished dream for Indian scientists working and living abroad, but responding to the call of home is never easy. This is particularly challenging when you have lived abroad for several years, completed advanced degrees and professional milestones, received exciting and lucrative job offers, and adapted culturally and socially to a new country.

Nevertheless, every year, a bunch of Indian-origin researchers undertake a huge professional transition, deciding to return to India. Having undertaken the professional and personal transition ourselves, and after discussions with fellow colleagues in the Indian ecosystem who had made similar return journeys, we recognised the need to discuss and highlight the opportunities and challenges associated with the return.

We conducted a webinar, ​‘Return to India’, catering to early-career researchers planning to come back to India in the near future. The panel comprised seven scientists at different career stages from a range of institutes and with varied sources of funding to support their initial research. The panellists represented diverse geographic locations (both in their previous overseas experiences and current affiliations in India), genders, and scientific areas.

The panellists included Anand Krishnan (DST Inspire Faculty Fellow, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune), Chandana Basu Mallick (Assistant Professor/​Ramalingaswami Re-entry Fellow, Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Varanasi), Deepa Agashe (Assistant Professor, Reader F, National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru), Divya Kumar (Assistant Professor/​Ramalingaswami Re-entry Fellow, JSS Medical College, Mysore), Karishma S Kaushik (Assistant Professor/​Ramalingaswami Re-entry Fellow, Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU)), Nagraj Balasubramanian (Associate Professor, IISER Pune), Poonam Thakur (Assistant Professor, IISER Thiruvananthapuram). The discussion was moderated by Snehal Kadam, a research fellow at SPPU.

The webinar hosted over 500 participants from across the world. Here, we share some takeaways from the webinar, with the aim of serving as a repository of information for colleagues looking towards this transition. The discussion slides and recording can be accessed online.

Taking the ​‘call’ to return

There are various reasons that may prompt one to make the decision to return to India, and the motivations and considerations are almost always very personal. For example, Thakur mentioned that her calling ​‘struck’ when she received an award, and her affiliation announced was ​‘Sweden’. ​“It should have been India,” she remembers thinking. For Agashe, it was her long-standing goal to contribute to the small field of evolutionary biology in India. Similarly, for Kaushik, it was the idea to contribute to the niche pool of physician-scientists in the country.

Some other common reasons included wanting to be close to family, the opening up of a good career opportunity, and a desire to contribute towards shaping the country’s next generation of people in science.

While the decision-making process and subsequent timing of the move may be unique to you, once the decision has been made, it is a good idea to initiate ​‘active engagement’ with the science community in India. This could involve looking for host institutes looking to recruit, giving guest talks at your preferred institutes, building relationships with scientists in India (via email and Twitter), as well as seeking networking opportunities such as the Young Investigators’ Meeting by IndiaBioscience and the Sci-ROI forum.

So, once you have the decision and timeline in place and have initiated the process, what are the next steps?

The right host institutes

Working in the Indian ecosystem after spending a substantial time outside of India has a unique set of challenges. Choosing the right host institute is a crucial and important step to facilitate this transition. For this, it is important to give seminars and talks to meet potential colleagues, assess the facilities and infrastructure in the institutes you are considering and get an overall picture of the working of the organisations. If possible, a prior visit to the institute in person is helpful before planning your application.

“Every place has a vibe, and this has to speak to you. The people define the vibe, and that is what you are looking for. This will be instrumental for your research later. So, go and see for yourself,” says Balasubramanian.

Agashe shares similar thoughts, ​“It is important to know that you will be happy and you will be able to function in the place you will join. At the end of the day, you want your science to move ahead, and it is important to ensure that the host institute and colleagues respect your work and vice versa”.

How do you approach a potential host institute? In general, it is advisable to approach the director or head of the department via email and ask for a one-on-one meeting either when you visit India or via a virtual interface. Alternatively, you could write to a faculty member in your subject area and request a meeting. You can also suggest the possibility of giving a talk at the institute.

Getting the application ready

As with fellowship applications, it is important to start early. Start your fellowship or job hunt at least a year in advance of the move. Explore the eligibilities and deadlines of different schemes for which you wish to apply (e.g. Ramalingaswami Fellowship, DST-INSPIRE, DBT-BioCARE for women, DBT/​Wellcome Trust India Alliance). Some institutes have faculty applications open all year round, while others fill positions based on advertisements.

“Your proposal and your host institute should go hand in hand”, says Kumar. In other words, do not base your proposed work on a piece of equipment or facility that is completely absent from your potential host institute. Basu Mallick adds, ​“If you have any preliminary data, do include it in your application. Also, ensure that the proposed work is feasible and in line with the timeline of funding.” Regarding the level of technical depth in the proposal, Krishnan says, ​“The proposal should be such that it can be well understood even by non-experts of the field.”

While starting the application process, a common and serious consideration is the ​“two-body problem”, which refers to married partners finding professional opportunities in a common geographic location. For this, Thakur suggests that If one of the partners has secured a long-term faculty position, then the other partner can apply for various fellowship schemes and activate them at the same or nearby institutes.

Ways to approach some common challenges

Securing the ​‘right’ host institute may take a few trials: It is important to point out that several grants and fellowships do offer a provision to change the host institute if, for some reason, the initial choice does not work out. This is not unheard of and is sometimes the path towards finding the right institute.

Substantial paperwork: Basu Mallick says, ​“One of the challenges I faced outright was a large amount of paperwork, coupled with physical signatures and stamps, to initiate the process of starting my grant. It is important to have supportive colleagues and non-teaching staff to help you through this.” In most institutes in India, applications, procedural processes, recruitment, and expenditures require many institutional and signatory approvals and still operate with physical copies of documents. This means these processes take time and will have to be initiated and planned well in advance of deadlines, keeping in mind pay cycles and the financial year-end.

Delays in the procurement of consumables: In general, procurement in India does take longer than that experienced in the US or Europe. For Thakur, who started her lab in the pandemic, procurement of consumables was a particular challenge.​“You need to be a little brave, very patient and hugely resourceful,” she says. ​“There might be several delays in the initiation of the fellowship, in the procurement of chemicals, and in hiring PhD students and postdocs”.

Teaching responsibilities: Research in India is often coupled with teaching, though it does vary from institute to institute. It is a good idea to discuss the expected teaching load at the time of application. As Kaushik says, ​“At a large state university, undergraduate teaching is a semester-long and ongoing commitment. One also has to be open to teaching courses beyond your area of core expertise.”

Other common concerns brought up by participants during the session

What about nepotism in grants, positions and awards in science in India?

As Kaushik explains, ​“Nepotism or favouritism in science has been discussed across several science systems worldwide. I describe myself as an outsider to Indian science, and I have to say that science in India has been hugely welcoming. Nepotism exists in every field, including science in India, but it does not mean that you cannot do well.”

Is it true that only established host institutes receive funding?

Kumar says she is a classic example of receiving the Ramalingaswami fellowship with a private medical college as a host. Further, Basu Mallick adds that the India Alliance initiative funded her on her return, even though she had almost no professional roots in India, with a PhD and postdoc in Europe.

What about age limits for faculty positions?

Several participants discussed the issue of ​‘ageism’ in science in India. The fact that there is an ​‘invisible’ and ​‘unwritten’ age cut-off for faculty recruitment was discussed, and many were concerned about age limits. While this is true, the consensus across panellists was that there is variability in policies across Indian institutes, so formally or informally checking with the institute is the best place to start.

Are faculty fellows considered on par with faculty?

As per fellowship norms, Ramalingaswami Re-entry fellows are expected to be at par with Assistant Professor/​Scientist D grades. Kaushik, Basu Mallick and Kumar state that in their current positions, they are considered Assistant Professors, albeit funded via the Ramalingaswami Program. However, this may vary across institutes, and once again, this is a must-have conversation with host institutes.

Advantages and opportunities of doing science in India

Unique aspects of the ecosystem: When you are setting up a research group, there are numerous challenges. A culture where people talk more and interact more does make it easier to deal with these. Kaushik says it has definitely been easier to build scientific as well as clinical collaborations in India compared to what she has seen in the US. ​“In general, medical professionals in India are very open to collaborating on projects,” she says. Basu Mallick adds, ​“You often do not have to depend on collaborators, you can have direct access to samples”. Krishnan mentions that he missed the ​“community feel” of Indian labs when he was abroad.

Build capacity in your field in India: In general, India has a relatively small and well-connected biology community. In certain scientific areas, there are very few people working in the field. So, working in India gives you the opportunity to lead the building of capacity in the field and thereby grow as an independent researcher.

Contributions to science teaching and mentoring: Specialized areas of research are often not part of standard undergraduate curricula, so having a lab in India provides opportunities for student research in these fields. Furthermore, in your own country, there are fewer language barriers in teaching. This point was driven home by Basu Mallick, who did her PhD in Estonia, where she could not teach undergraduate classes as they were conducted in the local language. Krishnan, whose passion is teaching, says he enjoys interactions with undergraduate students and feels blessed to have this opportunity to interact with them and contribute to their growth.

Areas that are difficult to ​‘break into’ in a foreign country: Kaushik says one big win from her return to India has been the opportunity to engage with the scientific ecosystem beyond traditional academic research. These include collaborative grants with industry, science communication, outreach activities, as well as science policy. She says, ​“As an expatriate or immigrant, I felt I had little or no say in the science-policy of a foreign country. I also did not possess the relevant insights to comment on them. But as a member of the committee drafting the recent Science, Technology & Innovation Policy (STIP) 2020, I felt I had the had ground to participate and contribute to shaping the next science policy of my country”.

These opportunities also go hand-in-hand with personal factors such as proximity to family, more affordable day-care and education for children, as well as relief from the pressures of immigration and visa renewals.

In conclusion, while there are challenges to doing science in India, there are also unique opportunities and gains. As Nagaraj says, ​“India is a vibrant country, and this really added to the quality of my life when I came back. Science in India is challenging, certainly, in many ways. The language of getting things done here is different, and this is something that you will learn or re-learn with time”. Deepa adds, ​“You also need to distinguish the challenges of science in India from the universal challenges of being an early-career independent investigator; this will give the right perspective”.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://indiabioscience.org/columns/indian-scenario/swades-for-scientists-the-return-to-india-journey