Goodbye Academia

23 02 2018

This is for my friends who are struggling in academia.

Funny how things turn out. A few years ago, well, when I say few, I mean 1994. I had written an essay on “What I want to be when I grow up”. That time, my future was extremely clear in my mind. I wanted to become a scientist. I wanted to know. I wanted to do. I wanted to build. I wanted to help. Of course, like people say, life takes over. It took over for me. But one thing never changed, I wanted to become a scientist. And I worked towards it. And I was pretty good at it too. Mostly good grades in science. Lots of summer projects and internships. A PhD. Great postdocs. A lot of publications. And in all this, without losing the childlike enthusiasm and curiosity. To know. What changed is what I wanted to be – at a finer level. From a nuclear chemist, to a theoretical chemist, to a spectroscopist, to a surface scientist, to a material chemist. It was mostly an evolution and there wasn’t too much to worry about because I had my lab to go to. Somewhere I read the definition of job satisfaction – “Imagine you have 100 million dollars in your bank account and you still want to continue doing what you are doing.” And when I would think of this, of course it was true. I could easily get into an industry and earn a lot more money but I was happy doing what I was doing. My experiments, my instruments, my lab. How could I even sell my soul to a multinational company? I wanted to help people with my research. Expand the human understanding.
And then life did take over. The next step didn’t happen. I applied for faculty position. In a lot of places. In India, believing that a position lay there waiting for me because there was nothing that was missing from my CV. Top of the class in bachelors and masters, a PhD from the best institute in the country, a postdoc from the best place in continental Europe – the places where people like C. V. Raman, Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli and Richard Ernst had walked. Excellent recommendations, excellent publication – in numbers and quality. In fact more than a few of my friends who already had a faculty position. There were new IITs, NITs, IISERs. People were welcoming. Everyone wanted to listen to me talk. Everyone loved my work and told me how they wanted someone with exactly my profile in their institute. I was articulate, friendly. It was just meant to be. Except that it wasn’t. Academia is a cold place if you do not belong. In the end, nobody really offered me a job. At 34, I didn’t have a job. I was doomed. A depression followed. Medicines were taken. And a lot of curses were cursed.

We had joy, we had fun

We had seasons in the sun

But the stars that we reached

Were just starfish on the beach

How could I not get a faculty position. Nobody could tell me what was missing from my CV. There were open positions. How in the world could they not hire me? You know what, Fuck you. And it just went all downhill from there. There was nothing more to be done. Well-meaning people told me to be patient but an year passed and nothing happened. My life was wasted. What else was there to be done than becoming an old postdoc. Changing labs every year or two and hopefully finding a new one. A two-year postdoc. Where you spend the first year in adjusting to the new lab environment and the second year worrying about and trying to find the next postdoc.
But again, and thankfully this time, life took over. Becoming a father sort of changed a few things. Most importantly, taking the responsibility. And selling my soul. I applied for a job in a company. A tire company that was looking for someone who knew about polymers and other materials, about some spectroscopic techniques and few other things. I applied and guess what, they selected me. And here I am. And you know what – it’s not so bad. The pay is good. The job is permanent, as permanent as jobs can be. I don’t have to keep looking for open positions and send them a 200 page application. I am still doing basic research and my soul, is more or less unsold. And then you remember someone like a Shockley, who actually worked in industry. Anyway, my point is it is fine if you don’t get a faculty position as long as you don’t give up. I do not have to complain about lack of funds for my experiments. I am accountable for what I do. It’s not too bad, as long as you get to do what you want to do.

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One response

23 02 2018
Pravin

Nicely articulated. Unfortunately Indian academic scenario is not conducive. Please don’t give up.

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