Q&A: Navigating academia and industry in India
Arjun R shares advice on choosing the career path for you
What do you do? Do you enjoy it? Why?
I am a doctoral candidate at the National Institute of Technology Karnataka. My dissertation focuses on intelligent systems for predictive modelling in financial applications. Aside from my PhD research topic, I enjoy working on problems that have the potential to make an impact through different aspects of research such as social, business and technology. Through my PhD programme, I have moulded research skills to work on funded projects or serve as independent consultant.
What were your early career ambitions?
After not performing well at school, my parents suggested that I take up a course at an ITI (Industrial Training Institute). This meant that I would be a skilled technician in an organisation after graduating. However, I decided to study for a Diploma in Electronics and Communication Engineering, which is technically a higher degree, as I did not want to limit my career prospects. The initial semesters were tough, but later I picked up with the help of learning in peer student groups.
How did you make the decision between pursuing a career in academia or industry?
Once I completed my diploma, thoughts of applying for jobs surfaced. However, at that time in India, a new scheme was introduced whereby diploma holders could apply and join the second year of an undergraduate programme. I stayed at the same institute where I had studied for my diploma and was awarded a BTech in Information Technology in 2007. Around this time, the economic recession was prevailing, the dot-com bubble had mostly subsided and the industry in India was changing rapidly. I felt that my place was not in industry, as I did not believe I had the excellent coding skills it required. I took up my first job as a lecturer on a contractual basis at Cochin University Engineering College at Kuttanad, which is a state-funded public university. After my first stint as a lecturer, I personally felt that academia provided a better comfort zone and space for professional growth.
What were some of the challenges on your journey?
Most of colleges where I worked already started to regulate for more qualified (PG/PhD) teaching staff. I was interviewed and received a job offer from Amrita University in Quilon in early 2008. But in that year, a breakthrough occurred while I was trying to qualify for GATE (Graduate Aptitude for Engineering), a national exam that provide chances to pursue Master’s and PhD programmes. More recently, this exam has been a criterion for selection for some positions public sector companies. I received a strong grade and rank, which I don’t think I would have got without the exposure and subject knowledge I’d acquired during my undergraduate training.
What did you do next?
After unsuccessful applications to graduate schools for Master’s programmes, I worked for a short period as technical staff at an institute for a government funded project on digitisation of a library with nationwide reach. Later in 2009, I applied for an MTech (Master of Technology) programme at a state public university and was selected for a teaching assistance scholarship. As part of the dissertation project work, I applied for an internship at ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization). Even without support from the university or a scholarship from ISRO, I worked on a two-semester project on the development of a software tool prototype for space research applications, which resulted in a related IEEE publication.
How does being based in India affect the way you work?
There have not been many drastic changes in India, from academic point of view, in recent years. There are constant checks and performance reviews either in government posts or private institutions. To an extent, although private institutions offer higher salaries, they also demand a higher workload as part of accreditations that may actually work positively in long run.
What advice would you have for others trying to work in a similar sort of environment?
There can be a sense of lethargy and inertia certain positions. The best policy is to keep searching for grants for funded projects, extend your professional skills, such as research reviewing and talking at conference and workshops. Undertake student support programmes like mentoring and community initiatives for spreading knowledge.
What do you love about living and working in India?
In my case, the government funded my research and hence I feel a sense of moral duty to give back to my nation. India has potential for growth both scientifically and economically; at least historically that has been evident.
What’s your top career tip to younger colleagues?
Stay focused and keep your eyes open for higher education and research opportunities. Reach out to your seniors, teachers and peers for advice.
What else would you say to others trying to build a scientific career in India?
From my experience, joining the best-ranked institute does not necessarily mean you will receive top training or skills, unless you have a true passion for your research. Smart work and motivation can instil students with the confidence to perform well and be recognised in academia. Make use of generous government scholarships as well as privately funded schemes.