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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Doing Research in India

It is an uphill journey for a researcher working in India in many ways. One of the cited reasons talks about lack of resources or of top researchers who can really do game-changing research. I find that to be the least of the reasons.
First of all, let me try and define what I consider to be a normal researcher's career goals. There are these dreams to be a top researcher whose work is cited in every conversation happening in a particular area of scholarship. This is a very lofty dream. It will not be fructified for most of us. Aiming for that just like that is a prescription for depression and disappointment. Instead, a more realistic goal is find a valid groove for oneself in the research ecosystem. That groove may be big or small -- that's secondary. It should provide a continual opportunity to think and work, to contribute, to communicate. Fame, recognition and riches may come, but as happy side-effects. The main product being a sustainable opportunity to work and produce, all while leading a reasonably happy life.

I know, there are subjectivity and loose ends in the above description. But that's Okay! As long as it shifts the focus from lofty and unrealistic dreams of greatness to realistic goals of day to day satisfaction and fulfilment. And one of the first hurdles to building fruitful research career in India is related with unrealistic goals. Please don't get me wrong in that I am trying to persuade you to give up your dreams. But dreams should arise out of your deep understanding about some problems, and an irresistible wish to solve it; it shouldn't arise out of images of heroic achievement flashed over the media. This only leads to vacuous ambitions, unrelated with the immediately surrounding reality. Work whose only meaning is associated with the fulfilment of an ambition, whether materialistic or otherwise, is by definition a chore, and can never give happiness.

So, if a person opts to do research in India with his or her expectations placed correctly, is it a cakewalk? No! So, what other problems? A list of some of the important problems in my view are presented in my cartoon that appeared today in Club SciWri, reproduced here:

The Strong Links

  1. Talent. High talent density is made highly probable among Indian researchers by the sheer amount of competition they surmount before ending up in any prestigious graduate school. I am fully aware of the caveats in this assumption, though.
  2. Motivation. The dampening influences which will be discussed below start playing out much before a student steps into a graduate school. If, in spite of them all, a student makes it to the doorsteps of a higher research degree, he/she has proved at least one point, that he/she is highly motivated.

The Weak Links

  1. Unrealistic Goals. The first weak link that saps much of a young starry eyed researcher's energies are his ignorance about what research involves. He starts off at a high note thinking he can pull it off only on the basis of his intelligence, knowledge, hard work and what not. Disillusionment sets in when he finds that these qualities barely enable him to make any dent. 
  2. Communication. Most of us hardly ever start at working on our communication skills. Those of us who do start hardly ever graduate beyond thinking of it as good English and confidence and all that. Communication is a much deeper skill. It has its roots in a practice of thinking with clarity, ability to sense lack in clarity, and seeking clarity by acquiring information through the means of listening, reading, guessing and imagining.
  3. Selling Skills. My PhD got over before I got over the feeling that no one cares about my research. This lack of confidence sits so deep in our soul that we are never able to utter a single word about our work to others with an honest fervour. Yes, many of us pick up styles from here and there by noticing 'what sells'. But, to a trained eye, they look artificial and disgusting. The marketability that arises out of a calm and peaceful confidence in the meaningfulness of our work is widely lacking in us. This again has a lot to do with the fact that we start our journey by setting unrealistic goals.
  4. Collaboration Ecosystem. A sense of deep mistrust pervades the Indian research scenario. Industries think researchers just want to talk crap. Researchers and academicians think that industries only care about money and short term goals. Both cling to their IPs like ... I don't know ... which is that animal which clings?! Yes. They cling to their IPs. And they sign such watertight MoUs that it chokes the life out of any effort. Funding agencies wait endlessly before releasing the first cheque. And they play safe by funding well known candidates. Institutes over commit, thinking that the money will take its own sweet time to flow in, if ever it flows in; so we might as well write ten other proposals. Institutes hesitate to share students, equipments, information ... unless shown businesslike incentives. What are they afraid of? Hard earned status? Disappointment on working with a bogus partner? I don't know. But, there's something in the air that prevents us from collaborating with each other. And collaborate we must, if we want to exist at all.
  5. Financial Stability. Finally, the whole process of doing a PhD simply stops making sense when it fails to get us a commensurately paying job. 5-6 years appear like a sunk investment of precious youth and avenues of securing financial stability when it doesn't even give us a foothold in the market. If a PhD student in India decides to live off Government stipend, in a bachelor hostel, eating subsidised mess food, he can easily be fooled into thinking of himself as a king. If he thinks of letting the other aspects of his life move on in a normal way -- getting married, investing, owning a house -- he will wake up to his real penury. This financially unstable condition is the cause of many a casualty.


The Stumbling Blocks

  1. Lab Politics. The stresses generated primarily by the above sources hits the individuals so hard so as to cause the internal environment of most labs to become completely toxic. Lab-mates, who should be working closely with each other (without it being forced by the supervisor), should take interest in each others work, evade each others' eyes, hide their data, lie to and about each other. Essentially, the broken collaboration ecosystem invades the very home of research -- the lab. What these labs end up being are pressure cookers with stressed out and lonely souls afraid of their inmates. It creates a terrible prospect for the work that can be expected to come out of such places. No wonder, much of the research that comes out of Indian labs is toothless. 
  2. Social Pressures. All the above topped up with social pressures deals a deadly blow to the Indian researcher's will to put in that extra amount of effort which will tip the balance favourably for him.
    • Get married.
    • Support your family.
    • Finish fast.
    • IISc? What's that? Tell me one great invention that came out that place! Why didn't you do it abroad? 
    • Dress like a human being, you geek! Smile. Attend the party... Be, or at least look, more like us all.
 An Indian research student functions in presence of continuous squabble created by his relatives, friends and immediate society. Many wickets fall under these Yorkers; any vessels are sunk by this torrent.

So, there you go. If you are contemplating taking up a research career here, please consider taking help of the above points in doing a bit of soul searching. For God's sake, start with realistic goals. There's a lot of ways in which a PhD can contribute to nation building in India. These ways mayn't quite look like those idolised by science books, magazines and journals. Preparing a society that has forgotten the faith in deductive reasoning and knowledge to start using systematic thinking for finding its way up, is challenging enough. This may need us to drop our ivory tower images of a scientist and get down on the field and get our hands a bit dirty.

2 comments:

Ved Varun said...

I really really liked your blog, cartoon and everything, thanks for writing it and sharing. Do I have permission to use your cartoon in presentation?. You surprise me time to time with your multi-facet talents!.

Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti said...

Dear Ved, Thanks for appreciating. I am obliged. Please feel free to use my cartoons in your presentations. I am sure you will mention its source and will encourage people to read it. That's more than what I can ask for! :)