Saturday, January 15, 2011

Is going back the new way forward?

We all have been subjected to this all important question at some point or the other, whether we intend to go back to India after "finishing" our studies. Some answered honestly, some gave more of a politically correct answer. Some said they do not know. But as it was a purely speculative question at that point, and none had to give a "final" answer, so what we said did not really carry a whole lot of weight. We knew we will cross the bridge when it came to that, unless of course we were pushed out into the water.

Undoubtedly that has happened to people. Some lost funding, some did not clear their qualifying examinations, some had personal issues and had to go back. I am not talking about those forced departures. Suddenly I am seeing a lot of my contemporaries from India, doing well in US or Europe in academics, deciding to go back in their free will, often abandoning their current positions. I also have examples of my family members or other senior folks who went back, again mostly in their own accord. Is there a generation-independent common thread in these homecomings, or individuals just acted according to their own personal situations?

The one underlying thread is always taking care of family. None of our parents are getting younger, and being in the same timezone rather than a long flight or two away is certainly more comforting. It is also true that for some, industry jobs in India are as good as what they would have gotten over here, minus the hassles of visa, green card and immigration lawyers. But for people looking at academic positions, is India equally tempting? Or is it not about career, but more about security? Priorities changed, or it never was about loving the work?

Career is always a very selfish pursuit, and uncertain too. In spite of working our backside off, while ignoring social obligations and family responsibilities, there is no assurance that we will ever get a permanent academic position in US (or in Europe, for that matter) which we will like. Specially for those of us in fields, where supply far outweighs the demand, we spend years as "postdocs" before even thinking about permanent positions. That is essentially like waiting in a queue, without knowing what it is at the end. So after unsuccessfully exploring all possibilities, if you still like what you did all these while (and realize that you not really good for anything else!), and going back gives you an opportunity to continue in academics, albeit in a slightly more frustrating setup, it does make perfect sense. The money is not so bad either nowadays.

However, many are going back much earlier. Yes, there is a glut of faculty positions in India now, after all these new institutes were created, but did we work hard all these while just for a safe job? We survived hard deadlines and meager graduate student salaries, not because we knew there is a job waiting, but because we enjoyed what we were doing. Few do research which changes the world or wins Nobel prize, but just being a small cog in a big wheel is no less motivating. And truth be told, the academic ambiance in a random American university is usually better than that in a random Indian university. Research is more streamlined, there is less political interference in everyday matters, and the professors are more respected in the society. Without exploring that option, and actually comparing if staying back can be better for a career in research, bolting for a safe job appears a bland cop out to me.

Now of course there is the other stream of thought that, it is obligatory for homegrown Indians to go back. A foreign country can never feel like home, and one should not spend one's life abroad, uprooted from the familiar surroundings, and not getting fully integrated there. This may have some merit, but in that case, it would rule out most of India for me. I would feel more of a stranger in Chennai without knowing any Tamil rather than how much I feel alienated in US, where I even though I cant speak like them, I can understand what they speak. Another school of thought goes that since our education in India was essentially subsidized by tax payers money, we owe it to take our skills back. Without going into a long argument on whether higher education should be free, I would say that knowledge transfer in today's connected world does not necessarily require continuous physical presence.

I do know if I will get an academic job here. I do not know if I would like one a few years down the line. I do not know if in that case I prefer going back and get an academic job there. What I do know is this, that whatever I do, it will be driven only by career aspirations at that point, making sure I enjoy doing that. That has always been the primary motivation, and abandoning that will make all these years meaningless.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Completely agree with you on this.Smz