Part I: Introduction and Motivation
Welcome to this blog post which will talk about the possible career opportunities once you finish your BS-MS degree at IISER. I am currently a fifth-year BS-MS student at IISER Pune and I am starting this journey with my batchmate, Aditya Kolhatkar. We both are doing our masters in physics. Since we are still students, this is not a guidebook prepared by experts; rather, the approach is pretty straight forward: We have talked to some of our alumni and ask them some questions that we had and pasted their answers here. This way, we can learn about those who have chosen paths other than academia.
What motivated me to start thinking about options other than academia? As a school kid, I thought the path to be a researcher was very easy: Bachelors – Masters – Doctorate – Professor – Done. But, now as an adult, I am aware of the practical constraints in this path. It is quite natural to doubt whether this is the most appropriate choice of career for many of us. As science students, we have learnt to critically analyse all the problems that we face. Choosing a career is surely one of those challenges and we must think about it thoroughly before committing ourselves to a particular choice.
There are good and bad sides to each and every profession and it is very difficult to understand these nuances without gaining proper exposure to them.
For me, academia is a career where your job involves research, teaching and guidance. Broadly, these are the jobs of professors in universities. Based on my experience at IISER (and talking to seniors, looking at the lives of researchers around us and so on), this is what I feel about a career in academia:
- Work satisfaction: After doing a BS-MS course and having worked on some research projects with actual researchers, if the curiosity to decode interesting questions is still there, then you will very much enjoy the work that you will do throughout your life. But, remember that academic institutes are not the only place where research is done; there are plenty of other places in industry where people do a lot of good research. So, you must explore all of them and choose what you like.
- Independence: You are free to answer the questions that you are curious about. You are not working under anyone. Basically, “you are your own boss”. This is a massive, massive factor, I believe.
- Teaching and interaction with students: I believe that teaching is one of the most satisfying jobs there is. You can contribute a lot directly to society. To mentor and be a part of the journey of young students must be really exciting as well.
- Personal Growth: The amount of hard work, patience and lessons that you learn in your journey make you a very good person in the end. Based on my very limited experience, I think that professors in IISER and those outside are just extremely humble, patient and down to earth. That kind of behaviour nurtures the next generation as well and I think that is very evident from the work culture and the behaviour of the students at IISER.
- Intellectual Growth: In academia, you actively learn every day. You have to keep reading a lot of literature and books throughout your life to keep your research at the cutting edge. This is very exciting since every project can potentially throw a new set of challenges at you. This is one of the aspects in which it is better than a 9-to-5 job.
- This is the career that our course at IISER has prepared us best for.
- Social Life: Your work will acquaint you with people from across the globe and take you to a bunch of different places too.
- Career path: The path to a permanent (i.e. tenured) job in academia is a long and difficult one. If you aim to settle in India and want a good research environment and good pool of students then there are very (very very) few places—universities with a focus on research and independent research institutes—for you in India. In addition to this, the number of job openings at these places is extremely low. For example, only one new physics faculty has joined IISER Pune between August 2017 and July 2021, that too when another faculty of the same expertise left the institute. Even if there is a job opening at a certain institute, it typically applies only to a certain area of study within the subject, which makes things even more competitive, not to mention, dependent on you being at the right place at the right time.
- Simple statistics: Let us say, 60 physics students complete their graduation from a college every year. Then there are 7 IISERs + 1 IISc + 1 NISER + (say) 10 IITs (which gives physics degrees) + 1 CEBS = 20*60 = 1200 students. Now, very optimistically, let us say, only 5% of these choose academia as a career; this amounts to 60 students a year. The number of vacancies in the physics department in these 20 institutes every year: 5-10 (?). So, you have to have luck and a very good profile to land a faculty position. This is just a back-of-the-envelope estimation, but gives the idea.
- Time it takes: Most of the “good” universities now require a minimum of 3-4 years of postdoctoral experience before you are eligible to apply. So, basically, after 5 years of BS-MS: 4-6 years of PhD + 3-6 years of PostDoc before you are even eligible. Certainly, you will be in your thirties when you join as an assistant professor. It is hard to maintain your passion for the subject and high quality work for a period this long (especially when you are paid peanuts, as we see below).
- The financial aspect: It is no-brainer that most of us start thinking about contributing financially to the family after graduation. However, the PhD stipend, while enough for subsistence, does not leave much room for savings. Some numbers:
- USA: Students in the US do manage to send a reasonable amount of money home (For example, one of my seniors saves ~ ₹ 40k per month while he does his PhD in the US), but this amount cannot be compared to the contribution that a peer in engineering or finance can afford.
- Europe: In countries like Germany or Switzerland, there is good chance that you will be saving. It is less likely in some other European countries (It depends heavily on which stipend you get and the city you live in). But, if you plan a PhD in a developed country, you will be able to save a decent amount.
- India: It is a pity, I don’t want to quote numbers, but you can see the stipend of a JRF fellow or a SERB postdoctoral fellow. It is just way lower than some other “good” job or something. PMRF is a good scheme, but again, only a few would get it.
- Of course, I know that we select a PhD based on the faculty, department, work-culture and the interest. But, I believe, financial constraints are equally important.
- Very low Rewards:
- Finance: If you do a job after your fifth-year (or after an additional MBA, MS or even PhD), then after years of promotions, you will be earning twice or thrice as much as an assistant professor at the same age. On the financial basis, you might feel your hard work didn’t pay off. The peer pressure of your friends earning well in other fields might haunt you as well.
- Recognition: To the outside world (outside the scientific community), you will most probably stay an unknown personality. I will be honest, no one except the science community cares about a large chunk of research. Most of them don’t even know what you are being paid for. You must have experienced this while trying to introduce yourself to your relatives 🙂
- As a PhD or a postdoc, you would tend to remain cocooned within academic circles. I have a growing feeling that our scientific community does not fully integrate itself with the rest of society.
- Family Life: You will likely have to make sacrifices in your personal life and relationships to meet the demands of your career.
- Risks: PhD and Postdoc journeys have their own set of risks and we all have heard of them very often. To list them out: if your guide or your department is not good, you might end up finding in the midst of a PhD that whatever you are doing is not your interest at all, and the usual problems of staying abroad.
This list is endless. But, it inspires us to talk to the people who have done a BS-MS degree but are doing something other than academia. To keep this post shorter, that part is mentioned in this post.