Saturday, September 26, 2009

Mr. Sibal, Please Scrap OCAP!


Let me first thank Pratik Ray for articulating some of his concerns about the On-Contract Assistant Professorship (OCAP) scheme, and how it will treat its victims (see also his comment, and a few others following his comment).

Okay, here we go!

* * *

Dear Mr. Sibal,

I have been enjoying your verbal fireworks over the last couple of days. While I agree with much of what you say about the pay hike scheme your ministry has notified (and amended), there is one clause in the scheme that deserves to be dumped.

I am talking about the on-contract assistant professorship (OCAP) which, in the first month of what I hope will be a very short life, was also called lecturer-cum-post doctoral fellowship.

It is not at all clear to us why this new position was created -- totally out of the blue, without any prior debate and discussion.

No matter. Please dump it. Get rid of it. And, please do it quickly before you and your ministry become too invested in this bad concept. Before it starts wreaking havoc on institutions and individuals.

* * *

OCAP has been created to prevent IIXs from hiring people with short (or no) post-doc stints as assistant professors. But this is a wrong way to look at this issue.

First, there is this incontrovertible fact of academic life: PhD durations have a huge variation -- across disciplines, across subdisciplines and at the individual level. Some people take 3 years, and some take seven years.

Similarly, within the same subfield, there are people who publish a dozen papers during their PhD, while most others have just a handful.

With such a wide variability, what is so sacrosanct about the number of post-doc years?

Potential as an independent researcher and as a teacher, academic orientation and maturity are the qualities one looks for in a fresh hire.

While it is true that these qualities can be assessed better when the candidates have a longer track record (and work in different environments), an administrative focus on the number of post-doc years cannot be justified.

The world of academia is filled with success stories that started their academic careers soon after their PhDs, just as it has sad stories of those coming in with multiple post-docs and ending up with mediocre careers.

In other words, there's not much evidence to say that more years of post-docs is necessarily better. What one should focus on is a comparison of candidates' records and choose the best.

* * *

This is precisely what the IIXs have been doing for decades.

IIXs hire PhDs with short post-doc stints as 'real' assistant professors largely because they are forced to. There are fields -- mostly in engineering -- where the supply of qualified people is far too low.

Even in these disciplines, it is not that IIXs don't have applicants with longer post-doc stints; they do! And yet, IIXs choose PhDs with a short post-docs (or, even fresh PhDs) only because their records are better than those of the other applicants with longer post-docs.

Procedurally, too, what the IIXs do is pretty fair. Hiring decisions always take into account inputs from multiple people with independent perspectives -- faculty members in individual departments, deans, directors, and a selection committee with external (and independent) experts. Thus, when some short-stint post docs are preferred over their competitors with longer post-docs, this decision carries the weight of collective wisdom and judgment of people with a lot of stake in the success of their institutions.

The freedom to select candidates -- based primarily on their record, but with due consideration given to their experience -- is something IIXs have used judiciously. For example, it's exercised rarely in those disciplines where the applicant pool, on average, is more experienced.

It is not just the IIXs that should (continue to) have this freedom -- our universities should have it too.

If anything, your ministry must be amending the rules for our universities to give them this freedom!

* * *

So far, we have been looking at OCAP from the institutions' point of view. Let me turn now to examining its badness from the point of view of its real victims: those who will actually be hired as OCAPs.

  1. OCAPs will have to teach. This comes with all the associated time-sinks: grading, committee work, academic mentoring, undergrad advising. This is too much work especially because OCAPs do not have a guarantee that they will be re-hired as regular APs.

  2. What kind of research output is even possible for a freshly minted PhD who's trying to establish a reputation for independent, high quality work, when he / she has so much of other work? Three years down the road, how will his / her record of research accomplishments compare with those who are hired after a three-year long 'real' post-doctoral stint?

  3. As post-docs, OCAPs will end up working under an existing faculty member. There's nothing wrong with this arrangement; except that when OCAPs become real APs, their ability to chart their own course is grievously harmed by it.

    There's another word for this: In-breeding. And this is a bad, bad deal -- not only for the institution, but also for OCAPs whose early years as real assistant professors will be spent trying to get out of the orbit of their post-doc advisors!

    As a rule (with very few honorable exceptions), in-breeding is evil. Do not give it institutional sanction through the OCAP scheme.

  4. In an era when our IIXs offer sub-optimal start-up grants, OCAPs' grants will be even less -- because they are only "on contract" and because they are just post-docs, anyway!

Even though OCAP sounds like a post-doctoral fellowship (PDF) that has suffered grade inflation, what it has actually suffered from are inflation in work and responsibility, dilution in research focus, and decimation of independence.

It is hard to combine the worst features of PDFs and faculty positions, and the OCAP scheme has somehow achieved it!

As a post-doc, OCAPs will have teaching and committee work, no research focus and no guarantee of a regular job at the end of their tenure. As assistant professors, they will have no independence, little or no start-up grants, and no guarantee of a regular position.

* * *

The OCAP scheme is bad for the institutions. And it's bad for the victims hired under that scheme.

Do the right thing, Mr. Sibal. Please scrap this scheme.

Sincerely,

Abi.

6 Comments:

  1. Anonymous said...

    Thank you for writing on OCAP. It should be scrapped ASAP.

  2. pradeepkumar said...

    Abi you may want to address this letter to your own director and ex director as well because they are the big proponents of OCAP.

  3. Anonymous said...

    This OCAP position should rightly be called Assistant professor on three year probation (or four?)!

  4. Animesh said...

    Ouch!
    Even US universities do not -insist- on a post doc. How is this supposed to improve quality? To me this is as ill thought as the x-journal-papers rule, which says nothing about the quality of those journals.

    Animesh

  5. Chitta said...

    I listened to the NDTV debate. I think Mr. Sibal does not have a full understanding of the tenure system in US. There is not a big raise in salary when one gets tenure in most US universities.

    So one middle ground may be to make the OCAP salary and perks similar to the AP salary and perks and let OC only denote that their position is not a permanent one. Then that would closely resemble the tenure system in the US.

  6. Pratik Ray said...

    Thanks a lot for high lighting the concerns on OCAP. Couldnt agree more with you on this.