Days and Nights in Cambridge, Massachussets
The Post-Doc Grind: An Immigrant Scientist’s Perspective
Summary of Chapters 1-20: In the early eighties I came to Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a post-doctoral trainee at MIT after completing myPh.D. at the Washington State University in Pullman, a campus town in the middle of nowhere but close enough to be impacted significantly by the eruption of Mount Saint Helens, a sleeping volcano in the Western part of the state. In Cambridge my wife, Swapna, and I lived in a rent-controlled high-rise building for people with meager income. There we lived among people of color, and surprisingly in the midst of a large number of Bengali post-doctoral trainees and students. Life was hard, but not without its charms. Moving to Cambridge/Boston was like re-joining the rich cultural life that we had left behind in Kolkata. We were fortunate to be able to nurture our cultural interests and linkages and make ourselves happy. We also made many friends, particularly with Swapna joining the Massachusetts General Hospital. Through these friendships, we slowly but surely started taking baby steps to join the American mainstream. And we began to discover the many charms of the Greater Boston area. Another pleasure was listening to National Public Radio (NPR) during my daily commute. NPR brought back memories of my childhood and young adult days when radio ran supreme in my cultural development. I also discovered the game of cricket in a land where this game is hardly played and is even ridiculed. I was an avid cricket player in my younger days. Hence, ‘finding cricket’ in a most unexpected place was like traveling down the memory lane.
I came to the United States to obtain a Ph.D. degree and then follow an academic career. Working as a post-Ph.D. scientific trainee for a few years was not an attractive option because of very low pay, leading to hand-to-mouth living. Nevertheless, many among us felt that we were fulfilling a glorious responsibility to ourselves by choosing an academic career. We had little idea what that actually meant. It was a bit like the self-flagellation that Shia muslims engage in during the event of Muharram to pay homage to martyrs Hasan and Hossain, grandsons of prophet Mohammed.
Our Indian heritage taught us that thousands of years ago, Rishis and Yogis routinely lived an acutely austere life to attain knowledge. As if, adoption of such a life-style is mandatory to obtain supreme wisdom. As a young boy, growing up in Kolkata, I heard the story of ‘Buno Ramnath’, who could only afford boiled Tentul (tamarind) leaves to feed his family, yet he was fully satisfied to be a teacher. Before, and shortly after the year nineteen forty seven when India became independent, many teachers and academics felt the need for austerity in their chosen career-path to ‘build’ the future generations of Indians. For ages, writers have been busy glorifying their sacrifice. Moviemakers made several movies on the same topic.
However, a great deal has changed in the last three decades or so. The world has decidedly moved away from the austere model for teachers and other academics, or for that matter any idealistic path prescribed by the likes of M.K. Gandhi. Instead, accumulation of wealth and desire for creature comfort have become the motto of a majority of people in the Indian society, possibly following the model of capitalist America.
Despite the teachings of nineteenth century idealists like Henry David Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson, seeking austerity is not considered to be a true American value. Therefore, in those days, when groups of scientists and other academics (including myself) were living simply and thinking high, we were actually dwelling in a sort of fool’s paradise.
After getting my Ph.D. from Washington State University, an average grade university for all intents and purposes, I came to Boston as a post-doctoral trainee at MIT -- a highly prestigious institution. My expectation was that a training from a lab in MIT would erase the ‘averageness’ of my alma mater and help me launch an academic career in a college or a university. I presumed that a couple or so years of post-doctoral work at MIT would be sufficient to reach that goal.
I was a friend of Ramtanu-da and Bani-di, the husband and wife team in their seventh year of post-doctoral fellowship at MIT and a Harvard University-affiliated hospital, respectively. Ramtanu-da was significantly older than I was, and I looked up to him like my elder brother for direction and advice. We had spent a considerable amount of time standing outside MIT's Building 18 , smoking Benson & Hedges and talking about various things, or simply shooting the breeze. One day I gathered up enough courage to ask him:
“Ramtanu-da, what are you thinking about your future?”
A clear pall came over his face. He hesitated, then said haltingly.
“Short answer is – I don’t know. Post-doc-ing is definitely not the path to obtain a meaningful academic life. I work hard in the lab. I help my boss publish papers in prestigious journals. That makes him very happy. He gets tenure, obtains promotion. I get some boost in the salary. But, he is not eager to find me a job, lest he lose my valuable service.”
Between drags on his cigarette, he spoke slowly and with firmness. It was clear that frustration had been building up inside him for a while, and he was happy to let it out of his system.
He paused. I felt acid rising in his voice. He chewed his words.
“You may have a better chance because you are young, and you got your degree from an American university. But I feel doomed.”
“Have you tried to apply for a faculty position?”
“Oh, yes.” He said – “I have been applying relentlessly, but no luck. Those things are reserved for you people.” He said with a bitter laugh.
Ramtanu -da was an affable man, and I knew that he did not say such a thing to poke fun at me, nor did he say things out of jealousy. It was a hard reality for him. Our conversation ended for the time being and we went back to our labs.
Soon I learned the ropes of the life of a scientist. An academic position in most science disciplines requires several years of training in research after Ph.D., with the salary of a virtual pauper. Then, very hard work aside, he must publish a significant number of papers delineating his work in prestigious journals, which is by no means an easy task.
I also realized that transitioning from postdoctoral trainee-ship into a bona fide academic position in a college or university is difficult -- not just for myself but for anybody. I often joked with Ramtanu -da that securing a faculty position was far more difficult than getting elected to be the president of the country!
Joking aside, this statement has merits. I learned that even if someone overcomes all the hurdles and gets a tenure-track position, he must teach, develop a research program, acquire funding and publish papers to get tenure. Contrary to common belief, even when a tenured faculty is unable to get grant funding, the school makes his life miserable by dumping nearly impossible loads of teaching on him. Teaching usually plays a rather minor role towards the tenure process in most research-oriented universities; and research universities are where prestige is.
I also learned quickly that the requirement of getting funding for research puts a huge burden on the faculty who, of necessity, must get heavily involved in research. This also means that he spends most of his waking hours writing innumerable proposals to get funding to stay afloat academically, get tenure etc. He needs to do all these for a salary that is significantly less for a person outside the academic world with similar academic credentials.
Alokesh-da, a few years senior to me and a good friend, got a tenure-track position in a medium-grade university. We had spent many hours contemplating about our future. I also admired his sitar-playing which was his passion. I was very happy at his success. Additionally, in the back of my mind, I hoped that soon I would be able to follow in his footsteps.
Three years after Alokesh-da got his job, I met up with him at the annual meeting of a scientific society to which both of us belonged. I called him out enthusiastically.
“Alokesh-da, so good to see you again! You must be very happy that things have worked out well for you. How is life? Above all how is your sitar-playing?”
He looked down glumly as if he was observing the condition of his shoes, hesitated and then spoke in a monotone.
“Sitar-playing! Well, I have no time to do anything else but teaching, setting up my lab, advising students, and what not. Then I am writing one grant proposal after another to get funding. I don’t know what will happen to me if I don’t get funding for my research soon! Besides, if and when I get tenure, I will be an old man!”
“Then, any luck with funding yet?” – I asked.
“Not really. Nobody will fund you because you have a great idea. You need to show results. How can I show any result if I don’t have any money for doing research to begin with? Besides, getting results requires time. However, if I don’t get funding soon I am sure they will kick me out. Then I will have to look for a job in another school, or most likely a job in the industry. ”
“What about your green card?”
“The school has started the process. Who knows how long it will take to get it in hand!”
He sounded very frustrated.
Our conservation ended there. However, I was agitated inside - at least he has something in the making. I don’t know what will happen to me!
I was about to enter my third year of post-doc-ing at MIT. My mind was full of many thoughts and anxieties. Should I start applying for a position? What if my boss finds out, and kicks me out of the lab?
Further adding to my confusion was my visa status. I was on an H-1 visa, which was an extension of my student visa. MIT had to renew my visa annually with my mentor’s positive recommendation. What if my boss refuses to extend my visa because he is displeased with my performance, or his grant money to pay for my salary runs out? In that case, I would be forced to return home.
Besides, this visa renewal process cannot go on forever, unless MIT, with recommendation from my boss, agrees to sponsor me for a green card. In that case, I will need to stay with him in some sort of post-doc position for many years to come. Will I be able find a real faculty job after that? I contemplated, but there were no answers to these questions!
Permanent residency in this country, commonly known as green card, is granted to an immigrant person with ‘exceptional capability’, with the understanding and proof that a matching qualification would not be found among the US citizens. I strongly doubted that my adviser, and for that matter MIT, would find such qualities in me. In that case, I will have to go back!
But, go back where? In those days, getting a scientific position in India was nearly impossible, and obtaining an academic position like lecturer or professorship in a college or university was simply unthinkable. There were institutions where scientists performed research routinely. Some degree of research work was also conducted in various university departments. However, getting a job in any of these places required close acquaintance with people in high positions in the Indian scientific circles as well as in the political world. I did not know anyone!
There was another issue. By this time, all of us had a taste of high-quality research carried out at various institutions here. In comparison, the quality of research in Indian institutions was, in general, significantly inferior. This was not due to lack of intellect or personnel. Simply, infrastructure for doing research was non-existent, except in a very limited number of places. It was no surprise, because there was no real planning on the part of the central or state governments in India to support and sustain research activities. In reality, the central government in Delhi allocated almost no money for research of any kind.
There was yet another disincentive in trying to find a job in India.
Subrata-da was a post-doc in an engineering department at MIT and lived in our apartment. Ramtanu-da once demurely mentioned to me that Subrata-da was going back to India empty-handed. “Empty-handed? What do you mean?”
“Why don’t you ask him directly?” He would not elaborate any further.
“But, good luck. He hardly speaks to anybody.”
One day I caught up with Subrata-da. He was a very shy person, who by nature avoided making eye contacts. However, I was determined to engage him in a conversation, and find out what ”going back empty-handed’ meant.
“Subrata-da, I heard that you are going back to India. Did you get a job there? You must be very lucky!”
He clearly looked disturbed by my line of questioning, and stared away with a blank gaze. There was a long pause, and then he turned towards me and gently uttered without looking at me,
“I did not get anything. I will have to try out my luck after I go there.”
I was curious. “That is risky. Isn’t it? You must know people in high places.”
He could have walked away. But, either he could not escape my questions or he simply wanted to speak to someone.
“Not really. But I have no choice.”
“What do you mean?” He embodied my worst thoughts.
“Well, my visa will run out soon.” He stopped, looking away. Then turned to me and looked directly into my eyes.
“My boss won’t renew my visa.”
“Did you look for a job elsewhere?”
He smiled dryly. “Who will give me a job without my boss’s recommendation?”
We paused for a while. I tried to show some enthusiasm.
“At least your people in India are looking forward to have you back.”
He was very pensive. Looked away for a long time. Then he turned towards me slowly. I saw tears rolling down his eyes.
“I feel defeated. They will think I am a big loser because I couldn’t make it in America, when everyone else does.” He wept openly. Fortunately, there was nobody to witness this sad exchange.
It is appropriate to state that a few scientists did find jobs in India. However, we routinely heard horror stories that people who went back ended up doing practically no research whatsoever, though their positions were secure, meaning they received their salaries without a hitch. This was a situation exactly opposite to what we faced in this country!
Ironically, lack of opportunity for scientists is precisely the reason why so many scientists -- after obtaining their Ph.D. from Indian universities -- flock to various universities and laboratories in the United States, where the government in Washington has been actively supporting research activities by faculty with generous grants. Some other people like myself jumped the ship earlier to get Ph.D. from an American university. However, the goal of both groups of people has remained the same, i.e. finding an academic position in a university in the US or in India. Therefore, most people sought jobs simultaneously in both countries.
I caught up with Ramtanu-da once more.
“Dada, have you tried to find anything in India?”
“Oh yes. I have made some connections, but nothing is forthcoming. It is actually very frustrating. From what I hear, I am not even sure whether they want people like us back or not.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, there is a glut of home-grown scientists in India, but job openings are few and far between.”
He gave a dry laugh.
“Unless you are of Nobel Laureate quality they are not ready even to look at your resume.”
He paused, lit a cigarette and said half-jokingly.
“Even that is probably not enough. Haven’t you heard of Khorana’s case?”
“Which Khorana, the Nobel Laureate?”
“Yes, of course, Har Govind Khorana. He applied for jobs in India, and could not find any. Then he became a professor at the University of British Columbia, and eventually went on to get the Nobel Prize in Medicine.”
I was puzzled. Not everyone is of Khorana’s caliber! What do they do, join industry?
“Then if you can’t find an academic job in India or here, have you thought of joining the industrial track?”
“Yes, I have been looking into it.”
“Great. Are there any bites?”
“Not yet, but there are some nibbles.”
“Oh great! Good luck.”
Six months went by. I was working in the lab. Ramtanu-da came by.
“Rahul, let’s step outside for a smoke.” He looked a bit agitated.
“What’s up, Ramtanu-da, any news?”
“Yes. I didn’t tell you that I went for this job interview in a company in New Jersey about a month ago. I just got a call from them. They are ready to make an offer.”
“What a great news! Congratulations, three cheers!” I burst out with excitement.
“I am so happy for you. Finally, things clicked.”
“Yes, I will miss academic research, but at least I will get a better salary.”
“Yes, indeed. When do you start?”
“I am not sure yet. Probably within a couple of months. They are currently looking into my visa status.”
What about the green card?”
“Yes, I raised the issue with them, and they agreed to apply for a green card on my behalf in a few months.”
In about two months' time, on a beautiful summer morning, Ramtanu-da and Bani-di packed up their belongings and strapped Dola, their little daughter, to her seat in their old blue Honda Accord. After saying ‘bye’ to us with tearful eyes, they drove away from their abode of the past eight years for a new address somewhere in New Jersey.
New Jersey is not very far from Massachusetts. These were pre- email, -Facebook, -WhatsApp days. However, phones were available for regular long-distance communication. Nonetheless, our almost daily meetings about our lives and our future came to a halt. I did not realize how much it meant to me. It never crossed my mind that I would feel jealous about his success in getting a job, but that is exactly how I felt!
Certainly neither of us could find jobs for the other. However, each of us provided a sympathetic shoulder to clear our minds of our anxieties almost on a daily basis. I will have to fight this bleak future all by myself. I contemplated.
I stood alone at our old joint outside Building i8 in the MIT campus. . I pulled out a cigarette from my pocket and put it between my lips, but forgot to light it. I possibly stood there like that, deep in thought, for a while when Ben, my co-worker, came out for a smoke. “What are you doing here like this?”, Ben said, amused at my condition. He stepped forward and lit my cigarette.
*The situation has remained pretty much the same today for people who choose an academic career.
(Posted April 1, 2017)
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