Thursday, March 30, 2006

Research career in academics and other options: Think after you have leaped

Some people who come to pursue research careers come mainly to satisfy their innovative thinking and love for doing something challenging. This is the motive for young people after finishing their school days and early part of their university lives, when their worldly needs are taken care of by their parents (at least in most of the Asian countries, which supply the majority of scientific workforce worldwide).

At the beginning of our formal education in schools, most of the intelligent students get attracted towards physics and mathematics, simply because they can do the experiments and get the results soon. That time they perform known experiments and become delighted when they observe the expected results that are taught in their classes. If they do not get the expected result, they start thinking and try to solve that. It motivates them and excites them to think novel. This lot of students should matter for research career, for the betterment of the society. At later life, these students find themselves at a disadvantageous position because their curiosity and intelligence. Their thoughtful nature dent to their academic results. A fraction of them become successful to adjust to the system and score higher marks while most of them get lost. Naturally, in higher education and research, mainly the students with mechanical thinking, mostly unable and sometimes scared to question existing knowledge and/or authority, are the overwhelming majority. Our Education system favours the rule of mediocrity by replacing genuine talents with private tuition and coaching enabled students with great mugging up ability.

It’s not very surprising that the quality of Indian research is going down day by day despite of much better monetary support from Government these days (1, 2, 3). Even the highly hyped Indian institutes and research organizations are nothing more than teaching institutes. They enjoy special status mainly due to their ability to send students to manpower starved Western countries, not for their ability to innovate or invent. No wonder India is among the least innovative countries in the world.

The only research organization that went public scrutiny is DRDO, the much hyped organization for its many high profile projects. DRDO failed miserably so far accountability is concerned (1, 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D, 2, 3, 4).

If some of the innovative/novel thinkers still manage to get a PhD, they realized that life, as a “researcher”, is a pathetic journey ahead. The dream they once had, lost since long. Now they are forced to think as “others” think, they are forced to do as “others” do. Most of the time they are simply the extension of hands for their bosses, particularly as postdoc and PhD candidates. Their “independent thinking” is welcome so long it matches with that of the authorities/boss. Then they realize that this was not their dream when they decided to join research. They also realize that they are deviating from their dream day by day! The worldly matter also does not look good for them. Parents are long gone. Now they need to support themselves and their families and also face the consequences to satisfy their curiosity, which drove them to take research as their career in the first place. Research is no more the "search for truth” but only to publish and get grants. Most of the time it’s to generate data for data sake, without having a long-term goal and without asking what the society will get for such an “academic research” (mainly for government funded research institutes).

Salary is at its minimum as compared to other “equivalent” professions. Mentoring good students or, in other words, managerial skills are almost absent in the field of academic research. Quality of life is at its lowest. The demand (responsibilities) of the profession is too high while accountability is at its lowest (this also explains why salary is low). They hardly can devote time and also money for family duties, hobbies etc. Most of such people are forced to work for more than 10-12 hours a day on a regular basis, even without proper weekends, besides the fact that many also cannot go their home (country) for several years (while doing postdoc, PhD abroad). This picture is more or less true for USA and majority of Asian countries that follow the American model or crowded by US trained “scientists”. Picture in west European research labs are a bit different, but still have many of the foresaid problems.

In this backdrop we need to think does it worth to continue the path of “research” and if not, what options do we have. The answer varies from person to person depending on their history, ability and ambition (both research and quality of life wise). If a person got some good publications and good “pedigree” at an early stage of his/her career, then s/he has an advantage to continue to pursue academics or institutional research career. Even then some facts argue against that. To me, it seems that to pursue research career in academics is not worth it, if you are not highly motivated (not in terms of time spent in the lab, as meant by majority of US advertisements for postsocs, but productivity and own satisfaction-wise).

The best and ideal way to change the situation is to join politics to enter in policy making. A couple of good scientists hardly matter for the society or the country or even for the research community. Until or unless we can make a system that reward novel thinking in both education and research, we cannot utilize our able manpower and other resources to the fraction of its potential.

In more practical term, we can shift to other professions that are related to science (at least to have an entry). If we cannot change the system now, we can compromise our dreams for the time being. After all these experiences, we are no more the ideal thinker as we used to be in our teens. We can successfully use our skills in many other professions.

The most evident is to join industrial research. Though you cannot expect groundbreaking research there, but at least you will be better paid to have a decent life. 

Once you have some experience about practical problems in a real world, you are ready to venture out for jobs, e.g consultancy. Academic degrees are mere decorative in almost every field in real sense. There are too many venture capitalists to invest good amount of money if you have a sound plan and product/service to offer. To evaluate your plan and the quality of your intended product/service, you need some experience in market/business, I think.

If you have some alternative skills, like photography, debating ability etc, then there are many more options open. But you need to have a stable flow of money from some other source, at least initially.

Novel thinkers joined research mainly to satisfy their intellectual ego and love for doing something challenging. Policy makers should ensure that. Else many able candidates will leave education and research while whole society will suffer due to reign of mediocrity and dishonesty in the long run. At the personal level, the consequences for not trying are far greater than the risk for trying. “I cannot do much” also must not be the excuse for not trying at all.