Tuesday, October 02, 2007

How to attract new faculty in large numbers: Offer them a high probability of success


A bright young man -- let's call him Prakash -- visited us sometime ago. Armed with a newly minted PhD from a top US university, excellent publications and expertise in a hot field, he was looking for a faculty position at several Indian institutions (as well as at several universities in the West). He told us that while low faculty salaries in India are a bummer, he was confident -- because of his field's high hotness coefficient -- that he would be able to earn more through consultancy.

"I am interested," he said, "in knowing more about the other things." Since his field is resource intensive (requiring fancy equipment, gadgets, materials), he started with the start-up grant. He was aghast when he learned that his budget -- several tens of millions of rupees -- was way beyond what is common in almost all the institutions in India. [IIT-B, for example, announced -- just yesterday! -- an increase in start-up grant from Rs. 300,000 to Rs. 1000,000]

"I'm not in this game to play in the little league," he retorted. "My field is extremely competitive, and I want to play in the Big League."

* * *

If you you are a Big Leaguer (who isn't? ;-) in the market for a faculty position, many people assume that you would not choose to join an Indian institution because of low faculty salaries. They cite the acute faculty shortage even in our premier institutions such as the IITs [Again, the report about IIT-B's new initiative also informs us that they need 900 new faculty members!]. They look at the grand plans unveiled by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to create many new IITs, IISERs and central universities, and they go, "Tsk, tsk, where are they going to find people to fill their faculty?"

That this pessimism is widely shared is an understatement. But, can something be done to get rid of this pessimism?

Move beyond salaries

An obsession with low salaries is pointless and counterproductive. Let's face the fact that salaries are not under an individual institution's control; since faculty salaries are mixed up with those of other Central government employees, no institution can hope to create a salary structure that benefits its employees exclusively. Bottomline: we have to (learn to) live with what we have in India: government-funded institutions with government-imposed constraints [1]. (What about private institutions? Yeah, what about them?)

As of now, institutions can do certain -- admittedly limited -- things: (a) point out that salaries will be revised upwards by the Sixth Pay Commission in the next year or so, (b) play up the fact that faculty salaries can be augmented through consulting for industry.

In addition, I have also argued for a reform that would allow faculty to earn a salary component in research grants (currently, grants from industry allow this, but those from the government don't). To the extent that our academic institutions have any clout, they should use it to get this feature implemented by our funding agencies.

Who are the real competitors?

Many people -- in particular, our business press -- appear to insinuate that the private sector industry is the main competitor for faculty talent, and they urge our academic institutions to 'do something' about faculty salaries. I don't even agree with this assessment. First, getting into a pissing match with private sector on salaries is a game that government-funded academic institutions can never win, and therefore, should not even get into. Second, while private sector salaries may be great, private sector jobs are not -- specifically for academically oriented folks. This is true not only in India, but pretty much everywhere: academics everywhere forego fat salaries in industry when they choose university jobs.

Thus, in the war for talent, the real competition for Indian academic institutions is from research and academic jobs abroad (primarily, the West).

When you talk to those who emigrate to the West, most would insist that it is not just the money (though it is nice!), but the opportunities that make them choose to leave. So, the key question boils down to this: How can Indian institutions create an environment that offers lots of opportunities for their faculty to thrive professionally?

I can think of several steps.

  1. Start-up grant. I have a long rant, but here's a blunt summary: A low start-up grant in this era of institutional affluence is scandalous, and betrays how seriously misdirected our institutions' priorities are. By offering sub-optimal -- if not downright abysmal -- start-up grants, they are setting up a significant fraction of their junior faculty for a mediocre career at best, or a disastrous one at worst.

    This situation must change. Our top institutions must be able to promise every faculty recruit that he/she will get everything he/she needs for the first three years: lab, equipment, students, post-docs, lab assistants, supplies, the works. Even if it requires half a million dollars (Rs. 10 millions or more) per faculty, I would say, "So be it. Give it to your hot young recruits, and set them up for success!"

  2. Our institutions should do every possible thing to attract first rate graduate students in greater numbers. I just talked about this a few days ago; take a look at the comments on that post where people have offered other suggestions. Many of the ideas there do not require a great deal of money, but they do require a change in mindset.
  3. Travel grants. During the initial years when there's very little external funding, it's important for an institution to ensure the visibility of its prize catch in international conferences -- at least once a year, and preferably more. [Currently, different institutions offer different levels of support. IISc, for example, offers travel support for one international conference abroad every three years. I am told that the IITs are a bit more liberal.]
  4. A reduced teaching load during the initial years. This was pointed out by Tabula Rasa in his comment on my post on start-up funds.
  5. A strong institutional support for taking care of things that are routine elsewhere. Getting lab repairs done (or purchasing equipment and supplies), for example, can be a painful exercise in most of our institutions. Many faculty members complain bitterly about administrative sloth, inefficiency and delays. Reforming this part requires a strong and sustained commitment from the top management.
  6. Fellowships for junior faculty [2] that can top up their salaries during their first three years. They can figure out, during the tenure of the fellowship, ways of earning an extra income (consultancy, industry-oriented research, etc) when they go back to their normal salary. [IIT-B's signing bonus is a limited version of the three-year fellowship idea].

Clearly, all these steps will require money, but this money (as opposed to money for salaries) is far easier to get now than in the previous decades. While our government may not be able to offer fat salaries, it is very happy to enhance science funding (much of which goes towards equipment). And our leading institutions are in an excellent position to attract philanthropic contributions from their alumni (IIT-B's initiative for its new faculty is a good example).

* * *

Secret weapons

All these things belong to the academic/professional realm. Professional success also depends on certain pre-conditions on the personal side, and in this (non-academic) realm, our government-funded institutions have at least three very powerful secret weapons: (a) excellent on-campus housing, (b) a clean, green and serene campus, (c) a good school (such as the Kendriya Vidyalaya) on campus. With urban sprawl, traffic, and pollution levels becoming worse by the day, the value of these secret weapons should not be underestimated.

* * *

What do you think?

* * *

[1] For my take on faculty salaries, go to these two posts. Here's a quick summary: in India, faculty salaries are not that low (compared to per capita GDP, and faculty positions come with valuable other benefits (campus housing, schools, etc).

[2] IIT-Kanpur has created quite a few fellowships for its senior faculty (or so I am led to believe). When some of us were talking the other day about this "incentive scheme" at IIT-K, someone quipped: "What? Have we come to a stage where our senior guys need an incentive to teach?"

14 Comments:

  1. Sunil said...

    The startup grant is a huge factor. A new assistant professor should be given as much money as they need (in the biomedical sciences now in most top schools in the US, start up grants are >700K USD). Along with this, bringing in a "tenure" system (i.e. giving the assistant professor 5-6 years to spend this money and produce something substantial and then be given a "permanent job") will be a significant improvement.

    But with startup grants, even if some schools in India cannot officially give a large sum of money, there could be ways to work around the system, and this the schools should explore. For example, say if I want to start a lab, and I will require a mass-spec or a calorimeter or a bunch of other expensive equipment (along with routine stuff like centrifuges and freezers), the costs might come up to 200K USD. Instead of me having to spend it out of a startup grant (typical), if the school in India cannot give me this startup grant, they can instead just provide the equipment, call it "department equipment", but give me direct access and control over it for all my experimental needs. That way, a smaller startup grant (say 100K USD) will serve the same purpose as a much larger grant.

  2. Ashutosh said...

    It would be good if they could guarantee enough money for a constant supply of new glassware, let alone mass specs. In a top lab in IISc, I had to go to the glassblower to get beakers and other stuff fixed. I thought that was dismal.

  3. Ashutosh said...

    I have another suggestion; please get rid of the culture of excessive deference and what Balaram calls the Indian Scientocracy, where the biggies are regarded as gods and the newbies have to be at least meek and humble in front of them, if not grovel at their feet, and make constant efforts not to come in their way so that their promotion and incentives may not be curtailed. I am not saying this always happens, but efforts have to be put in to exterminate this mental perception.

  4. Biswajit said...

    Let us just consider our engineering schools. The IITs already get huge grants from the government for their running which are significantly higher than those given to ISM, IT-BHU, and the NITs. The grants to these second tier colleges are significantly greater than those received by state colleges.

    If huge funds (do you have any estimates?) are channeled to the seven(?) IITs we will probably produce a larger number of high quality PhDs and maybe even some high impact research. However, the institutions lower in the food chain will probably be starved of resources. I feel that the result will be underprepared engineers and tons of PhDs who teach at these institutes but can't afford to do any great research.

    I would prefer a strong NSF-like review system for the disbursement of funds rather than a DOE/Navy/Army type system of funding only of top universities.

    Also, I don't understand why the government should spend huge amounts on higher education when most of the country is illiterate. I wouldn't want my tax rupees to be spent that way.

    Could you give be an economic analysis that shows that the return on my rupee is greater if I spend it in training future faculty? Why not let the US train the faculty with US tax dollars (which seems to be what's happening now)?

    Cheers,

    Biswajit

  5. Abi said...

    Sunil: You make a good point about common facilities. Most departments do have those, but by their very nature, they cannot be under an individual's control. Further, it is much better (and far more transparent) to fund each faculty member's lab directly.

    Ashutosh: You seem to have quite a bit of experience with the Indian system of funding labs. Do please tell us more!

    Biswajit: Just as the US doesn't care about where their graduate students come from, I guess one could make the argument that India needn't care about where its faculty members come from! But, stretch the argument just a little, and see where it leads: suppose we kill the PhD program, would US trained PhDs even want to enter India for joining academic positions?

    Higher level of funding going to elite institutions need not be at the expense of second-rung institutions. We live in an era where funding of higher education is going up across the board. If what our PM says materializes, it is slated to go up by a factor of four over the next five years or so!

  6. Ashutosh said...

    Well, at least three labs I saw in IISc and two IITs had a shortage of rotavap clips, with two clips being shared between 14-15 people. These were some of the top organic labs in the country, or at least supposed to be so. I also heard similar woes from other people in other labs. Shortage of such a basic and common necessity really slows down work. There were of course some labs where this was not a problem. But such a radical shortage of rotavap clips even in 10% of all organic labs is a serious problem.

  7. Vishnu said...

    Abi, IITB grant being increased to 10 Lakhs (for experimental work) wasn't announced yesterday. It has been there for some time, at least a few months (which might be "yesterday" in the grand scheme of things!).

    I totally agree with the rest of your points.

  8. anandi said...

    Certainly, the grants are necessary as honest research involves a large amount of money and I think that money has been the impending factor most of the times. But there are labs set up by different private organisations in most top instititutes of India. Are they not enough? Though I agree that they are too much influenced and controlled by the organization funding them. You talked about SECRET WEAPONS which are very true and existing. Most of the elite institutions have become more like townships and such secret weapons have been very important in providing the right environment for the faculties.

    VERY GOOD POST!

  9. Krish said...

    Abi,

    Great article and thanks for highlighting the fact that the competitors are western (and now increasingly Singapore in the case of biological sciences) research institutes than our own private sector. It is so true and somehow it doesn't gets into the head of our private sector obsessed media.

    In my opinion, it is the startup grants and the efforts to attract first grade graduate students that are more important than anything else. Salaries are the least of the worries. Whether we like to admit it or not, India is losing out our best students to western universities (US, in particular). We need to change this scenario somehow. To attract good students, we need an environment where

    1) quality of paper matters more than the quantity. The recent episodes involving a JBC paper doesn't help.

    2) we need to try and bring more and more reputed international conferences to Indian institutes. Organizing "ours too" kinda conferences doesn't help. We have to shift the attention of international scientists towards India before we can shift the attention of best Indian students towards Indian institutions.

    It is nice that you are talking about this in public. We need to get a dialog going in this regard. Hopefully the situation improves further before the decision time comes for us.

  10. Vishnu said...

    An observation is that point 1 seems very unreasonable. Where can government or institution suddenly get the money required for his startup? For example if the guy wants to start his research in some Chemical Department which required very costly equipment how can all the money suddenly come? However I think what you told in point 6 makes more sense to me. Initiative to collaborate with private institutions can help the situation.

    One more doubt, how will senior faculty already present at the institution feel about the step motherly treatment being meted out to them. I mean these young hotshot Assistant Professors get such a red carpet welcome while their grants are long pending in the government offices?? Does this mean that something should be included in the whole agenda and approach to point out to other senior faculty members that they are not being neglected in the long run. How about senior faculty guys being allotted the role of mentoring and helping new recruits??

  11. Anonymous said...

    Why can't those who desire a US lifestyle just stay back there and only those who can live like other Indians come back?

    NSF kind of support is given by DST which is already saying "somebody please propose". 200 crores a year for the next five years to be distributed. Who is proposing?

    Large startup grant has to come from Institute budget. Consider this argument - Indian Institute to Govt: "You are having a tough time disbursing funds against cute proposals. Give those crores to us, we will give them away to new faculty". Ah!

  12. Anonymous said...

    Hi Abi

    Your comments are true that the startup grants are a pittance at most places and getting money from funding agencies takes an enormous amount of time. There is another issue which I feel is equally important and one cannot do anything about it. A lot of our institutions, even some of our premier institutions don't have the correct research environment. They are filled with strong regionalism, petty-mindedness etc. When I was choosing between research and a job in the private sector, I approached a senior scientist and well-wisher and was advised against a career in research because of the frustration associated with it. I did not understand it then, but I do now. It is not the frustration of the research problems usually, but that of the environment. The satisfaction that one gets out of one's works is just not enough to compensate for the emotional torture. In the private sector you have the opportunity to change from one organization to the other if the environment is not alright, but in most research institutes this is not possible. I would NEVER ever recommend a research career to a close friend, sibling ...

  13. Pranav Dandekar said...

    Hi Abi,

    First off, I share most of your views and all of your concerns about faculty shortage at top schools in India. As someone who's been in the Us for ~5 yrs, plans to return to India in a another 5 after a PhD, I have looked seriously into job opportunities in both academic and industrial research in India. Here are a few thoughts on the topic:

    - At the highest level the problem is simply that India is a developing society. So it is unfair to compare or compete with the developed countries of the West in terms of resources (grants, salaries, infrastructure, etc.). Over the next 50 years, as India develops economically, I think a number of these problems will be mitigated/will abate. Historically, we as a country never had money to spare on teaching/research. I believe that your pay is a function of your perceived value to society. Since Indian society didn't value PhDs, Math and Science graduates, etc. it didn't pay them much money.
    Over time I think it will change, specially in the fields that will be/get hot in the years to come (nanotech, IT, biotech, etc.).

    - At least in Computer Science research, IITs and IISc are competing with industrial research labs -- Microsoft Research, IBM IRL, etc. In the US, the ratio between the salary of a fresh CS faculty and a entry level research position in google, Yahoo, etc. is may be 1:2. In India, it is more like 1:5 or 1:6. That is a serious disincentive to go into academics. Frankly, I have a lot more respect for people like you who forgo opportunities in industry and choose an academic career in India than a person in a similar situation in the US (since they have to sacrifice a lot less). I am not sure if I can do that when the time comes.

  14. Anonymous said...

    i think the main good point about anyone choosing india over any other place especially for an indian person is that you might have more academic freedom -- more respect for freedom of experimentation and ideas.. the possibility of taking loftier risks...
    that perhaps in trying to establish in aany other univ is going to be restrictive due to requiring to be personally efficient...

    this point is not addressed since most indian institutions for the sake of efficiency are not all that encouraging to any kind of freedom of thought because of the possibility of loss of resources due to such endeavours...
    the end sum of any such loss is always a personal loss in a situation that is not very supportive..

    this idea is ok if you are dealing with a person who is not at all promiising but is very very bad acc to me if its for soemone who has a decently well proven track record...

    In india , advertising such support will definitely win against any other place for indians...

    Also, attraction is better in groups than individuals, so that there actually are peers who can keep the environment reasonably highly charged and familiar