Monday, December 04, 2006

Beyond faculty salaries: 1. Start-up grants

Sometime ago, Ajit Balakrishnan wrote poignantly about how one of his IIM professors was unable to afford good medical care in his old age. Prof. Ramu Iyer's suffering made the Rediff CEO bemoan "the way we have organised Indian society [in which] its teachers live a life of penury while their students prosper". Pankaj Jalote's recent article cites increasing the faculty salaries as a key strategy for IITs to improve their international rankings.

My own take (shorter version) on faculty salary is that while it's not awfully bad (a view echoed by Rahul), more is certainly better! I have suggested that research grants allow faculty members to earn an extra income, in the nature of a 'performance pay' suggested by Jalote. Yet another method is to offer 'chaired professorships' (Prof. Jalote is currently at IIT-D as a Microsoft Chair) or 'fellowships' (DST, for example, offers J.C. Bose Fellowships). As we are early in this game, these honours go to senior faculty, so it'll be a while before it percolates down to junior levels where they could play their intended role: attract bright young people to academia.

But I want to move beyond faculty salaries. Let's face it. While salary is an important factor when people weigh the relative merits of an academic career, it's not the only one. People choose academics largely because they are able to work on interesting scientific problems that excite them (irrespective of whether they excite others). They are willing to consider a lower economic status if other things measure up. What might be these other things?

Let's assume you are a hotshot young researcher with a stellar doctoral and post-doctoral record in a hot young field (say, Peta-band Connectivity!). You have been hired by a top institution in India. What would you need to 'succeed'? It doesn't require a degree in exa-chemistry to realize that you will need some critical initial support from your institution for the first two or three years. It is this support that American universities provide adequately, and Indian universities (with the exception of a very few elite institutions) provide at a sub-optimal level.

Well, I admit that 'adequately' is an imprecise description, but here's the key difference. American universities ask you, at the time of your interview, what you need to make a success of yourself. You bargain a bit, and eventually, come to an agreement on the level of initial support from the university.

Now, switch to the Indian subcontinent: you may mention your needs during your interview, and some informal negotiation may ensue, but typically, no promises are made: nothing is finalized until you join. In fact, the offer is made in a form letter that's about as bland and devoid of significant details as one can imagine. The real negotiation about the institution's support happens after you join the university. Needless to say, this puts you in a weak bargaining position, because you have already closed your other options (which, in principle, you could have used to play one institution against another).

So, what are the things that American universities allow you to negotiate before they make the offer? I don't have personal experience, but here's what I have gathered. You negotiate for lab space, start-up grant for specialized equipment, a grant to meet your lab's expenses (including salary for post-docs, students and/or lab assistants) for the first few years (If you know of other significant stuff that I have missed, please fill in the details in your comments). I want to focus on start-up grants.

What kind of funding can one expect from an American university? Thomas Cech talks about some of his students who received start-up grants as high as half a million dollars. Informally, I have heard figures in the 150,000 - 300,000 dollar range in materials science and engineering. This Rediff report talks about China's TransCentury project that proposes offering upto $250,000 as start-up research grants.

[Can we use the PPP argument to say that a sixth of the above figure -- which comes to just Rs. 20 lakhs to 40 lakhs -- is enough as a start-up grant for our junior faculty? No way! This is because, this money is largely for specialized equipment for which PPP factor is one (and considering some of the problems associated with working in India -- for example, chronic power cuts, requiring additional investment in uninterrupted power supply equipment -- the PPP factor may even be less than one!]

What do Indian institutions provide by way of start-up grant? Institutions funded by the Department of Atomic Energy (TIFR, IMSc, NCBS, ...) have a reputation for generous support for their faculty throughout their careers. For the other places, estimates vary. IIT-K's donations page, for example, suggests a timid figure of $25,000 as "initiation grants" for its young faculty. In their joint report to the government, the Indian National Science Academy and the Indian Academy of Sciences have made the following recommendation:

All new faculty members should be provided a ‘start up’ grant of at least Rs. 10 lakh for faculty in experimental sciences and Rs. 2 lakh in theoretical sciences.

These numbers are just guidelines; university administrators can choose to pamper their high-fliers with more. When a hotshot new recruit demands more, he/she is given a larger start-up grant, but it's still sub-optimal forcing him/her to top it up through grants. But, grants take time! It could be anywhere between six months to two years before the grant money arrives [for large sums of money, it could be even longer]. For a new faculty who's itching to hit the road running, this setback could be pretty serious, if not disastrous. It's particularly hard on those who bring in new expertise; since the institution has no presence in their research area, they cannot start being productive right away by plugging themselves into the existing research infrastructure.

Assistant professors are hired based on promise and potential. They come with limited experience that doesn't allow others to judge their actual contribution to their published work. Having hired them on this perceived promise, it's important to ensure that they realize their potential. Generous start-up grants are an important part of setting them up for success.

You can also see the importance of initial grant from the opposite angle. In government institutions, nobody gets kicked out for non-performance. Therefore, setting people up for failure is a doubly bad strategy. Not only does the institution get saddled with mediocrities, but it also has to deal with their continuous griping and whining which vitiate the atmosphere for the others (in particular, potential hires!). This whine is a major source of negative energy that flows through many of our universities.

Since they don't step on the ultra-sensitive toes of bureaucrats, higher start-up grants are politically more feasible than enhanced faculty salaries.

What kind of money are we talking about here? An institution (for example, an IIT) with about 400 faculty members probably recruits 15 new faculty members every year just to replace its retirees. Assuming, generously, that we have thirty such institutions, we're talking about 400 to 500 new recruits per year; assuming an average figure of 10 million (1 crore) rupees of start-up grant for each recruit, the additional expenditure is about 5 billion (500 crore) rupees per year -- a figure that's well within the realm of possibility.

What do you think?


  1. Abi said...

    Coincidentally, today's Economic Times has this story on faculty crunch at top institutions. Many of them make do with guest faculty from industry.

  2. Anonymous said...

    Abi: nice post.

    On what else US universities offer for new faculty: reduction in teaching "load" for the first two years; 2 year summer support (they are paid ideally only for 9 months as you know).

    In terms of start-up grants, depending on the stature of the school (private or govt. etc.) it could vary anywhere between 50,000 to 300,000 US dollars (this is based on the interviews i attended 3 years back and info. from a friend an year back).

    Also, there are schools where they get a big project for the dept. itself from some govt. funding agency and THEN recruit a suitable faculty or two to work on that project(s). This way the start up grant for the new faculty IS huge and is not paid by the school but by the funding agency. Last year, one of my former students took up one such faculty position in the US. Thus I came to know this scheme.

    This kind of scheme if implemented in india, could serve the iits better i guess.

    When I joined, iitm was able to offer a decent sum which was five times more than what it was an year back i joined it seems. but that sum is considered now pittance by some of the potential additions (i have heard more than one of them crib to me).

    The sum that you are talking about (1 crore indian rupees per faculty) is a good one. Would i have taken it. Yes, but only in a phased manner. that is, I would want it to be spent by me over some years that is controlled by me and not preset (like it is at present; i need to spend a startup grant by 3 years etc.)

    Secondly, if i had been given such money when i joined, my research would definitely have been something different from what it is now (in terms of the problems that I chose to study on) but not necessarily ground-breaking.

    But, definitely I will be more independent and self-assured in my job and perhaps would have put more hours willfully at work. Because, the more i am (en)trusted with, the more i deliver.

    Having voiced my thoughts on what you wanted, i think there is one more issue that the potential new comers (faculty) want (demand): quality students at the graduate level. To put it bluntly, they want the IIT BTechs to become their graduate students by continuing to pursue a MS or PhD at their alma mater. This seems to be a big incentive for many of the potential recruits which our IIT system is not able to satisfy properly at this stage.

    For instance, the BTechs I have worked with so far all have generated some good research with me, but none have stayed to do their graduate degree, if not with me, not even in india. There is some message here that I don't want to write more upon, else it will deviate into another topic.

  3. Tabula Rasa said...

    arunn pre-empted me. the two things that i consider most important for a rookie are research support and teaching load. you've written a lot on research support -- my field is far less hardware-intensive so the requirements are lower. that said, i have had the director of a premier indian institution respond to my asking why there was not much emphasis on research at his institution, by saying, "if you will come then there will be research."

    the other point that gets less attention is teaching load. the general perception by far is that "professors teach" (a fact as elementary as "dogs bark" and "pigs oink".) but teaching is not the only thing we do, and it's not the only thing we should be expected to do. teaching reductions - fewer classes, fewer preps - make it possible for a rookie to get their research streams going. of course, this means there must necessarily be a need for them to do so -- if there's no pressure such as tenure, people will merely take these reductions and goof off. but if you are to introduce a tenure system, you'll have to get prepared to fire non-performers, and i don't know if that option can even be mentioned.

    so maybe we're stuck as a nation of teachers-nonresearchers.

  4. pradeepkumar pi said...

    Some real numbers of start-up grants:

    University of Illinois Urabana-Champign (Chemistry & Bioengineering): 1-1.2 million US$

    Rockfeller University, NY: 2-3 million US$

    University of Rochester (ECE): 400,000 US $

    University of Neveda at Reno (chem Eng): 200, 000

    Natioanal University of Singapre (Chemistry): 200-250, 000 US $

    IIT-Kharghpur: 5-10 lacks

    NCBS, Bangalore: 50-60 lacks

    All these numbers are gathered by talking to friends who have joined/interviews at those institutions.

    There is another side of faculty crunch talk by Indian officials: They simply dont recruit people with good calibre. This is very much true in Science and I know from friends who are working at top Universities in Europe and US (including UC-Berkley) that how some of the so called top institues in India even refused to acknowledge their job applications. Will tell my own experience some other time!

  5. gaddeswarup said...

    Just a query. Is there some comparitive study of GDP and salaries in different professions in different countries?

  6. Anonymous said...

    In American Univs, after the startup grant period, the faculty is expected to raise money through grants. There is about 48% overhead in these grants in our Univ. It means that if you win a grant of $100K, $48K directly goes to the Univ.
    Are you thinking that you can raise this kind of money in India? I say it is not possible now!

    And I know for a fact that most people who join as Asst Prof get easily tenured. It is only a formality as opposed to the case in US Univ.

  7. Anonymous said...

    Abi: Wish you were my funds guru (of course, hoping you wouldn't change your views, once you become lethal!) . The amazing thing about the start-up experience is, apart from the amount of slush funds that do get routed to repainting sidewalks in different colour combinations/ constructing floors that spatially emulate white noise patterns etc., the kind of money that one can actually garner at the end of February(if one is fortunate enough to be in/ be put in touch with "The Loop"). It just reflects upon the lack of planning and inability to budget (given the quality of the support staff, one can empathize with the head honchos). My point is that if we can actually do a realistic budgeting exercise, then I believe there is enough funds to offer about 40- 50 lakhs per new recruit, upfront, instead of trying to commit left over govt. funds before March 31st (Which may or may not reach the asst. levels). Besides finances, the lack of professional and efficient support staff is also an impediment to setting up a lab (another time).

  8. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    That's a huge subject... a few comments:

    1. Yes, startup grants are important. But even with startup grants, I know very bright people in the US who've taken nearly 2 years to get productive. And I've known people who've been quick off the blocks in India, by using inherited instruments.

    2. TR - on paper, there is a tenure-track system in India (one gets a permanent job only after 5 years) but in practice hardly anyone is dismissed at that point. However, people have been encouraged to leave (some institutions do this more than others).

    3. TR again -- in most research institutes in India, teaching load is negligible compared to what young faculty members in the US do. And if all you need is computers, research support is excellent in the better science institutes (I can't speak for your field). So if those are your two most important criteria, and if you were a scientist, you should head here.

    The other thing one needs is foreign travel money. The situation is improving but could be much better. Government funding agencies still seem to think that a trip abroad is an unjustified "perk" that they should ration out very sparingly. It's now a bit easier to get money for conferences, but visiting labs for collaborations often ends up being at the other lab's expense, or funded via bilateral schemes (Indo-French, etc).

  9. Anant said...

    Well gals and guys, excuse me but I think that
    research is the privilege of a few in a very
    poor country. We can keep asking for more,
    but then why should not plumbers, electricians,
    labourers, farmers, etc.? I also think that there
    is simply too much emphasis on things like
    foreign travel, which is hardly necessary for
    dissmenating one's work and ideas, and to absorb
    other's people's work and ideas in this age of
    electronic communication. [I thought I had
    posted a comment a few moments ago, but it
    has not shown up!] I had stumbled across
    the sad story of Prof. Ramu Iyer already sometime
    ago. It is undoubtedly a tragedy; but is there a
    shortfall of tragedies in this great land of ours?

  10. Abi said...

    First of all, a big 'thank you' to all of you for your comments with lots of interesting details.

    Arunn, TR: I wasn't aware of negotiations about teaching duties. I see your point, though. Teaching is only *one* of the things we do, and to the extent that a young researcher needs to establish himself/herself in research, it does make sense to negotiate a lower teaching duties.

    Rahul's response about low teaching loads is relevant only to the elite research institutions -- such as IMSc, TIFR, IISc -- all of which offer only post-graduate courses. The teaching loads are substantially higher in undergraduate institutions such as the IITs. I know that the junior faculty get saddled with above-average course loads there.

    Pradeep: Wow, those are very interesting figures. Biomedical field is so rich!

    You must tell the world about your experiences. Even the little you reveal in your comment indicates that our institutional practices need great improvements.

    Anon: Once a researcher is well established, he/she is expected to generate funds through grants. This holds in India as much as it does in the US.

    Venu: You may be right about institutions hoarding money until the last minute when they scramble to spend the left-overs (which could be substantial). But this can be true only for rich institutions. What I have written here would apply to less endowed institutions too.

    Rahul: All I am arguing here is that the current method of sub-optimal start-up grants sets up a lot of people for a mediocre career. The probability of success can be enhanced with little additional resources.

    You are absolutely right about travel money. That was going to be my second post.

    Anant: Each profession / activity needs certain conditions to be fulfilled. Without them, one may still get some (small) success rates; I'm only suggesting -- not demanding! -- here some methods of increasing this success rates. Could you please stick to this aspect of the topic please? Specifically, do you think enhanced start-up grants would help creating many more success stories? If not, could you share some of your ideas? Thank you.

    If we are willing to live with the tragedies among us, so be it.

  11. Anant said...


    I was responding to the early part of your
    article about enhancing faculty salaries, etc..
    It is clear that under the aegis of market
    forces talent will simply go where it maximize
    profit. This is the reason why talent does
    not come into teaching and research at the
    rate we desire. My polemical remark was to
    spur debate on how a poor country should
    evolve a strategy to get people into teaching.
    It is simply so that publicly funded institutes
    cannot offere salaries that are totally out of
    sync with the economic conditions of the
    bulk of its people. It cannot look at one corner
    of private sector. Regarding start up grants,
    of course I agree that such things are extremely
    important and I think it will definitely make a
    difference to success rate. We know of examples
    where people have gone to NCBS rather than
    come to the great IISc due to massive start-up
    grants. Regarding tragedies, my polemic was
    again to ask why the tragedy of someone that
    comes from our socio-economic, cultural and
    professional class should be more poignant
    than that of someone else from a different class.
    I would rather do with tragedies from no class.


  12. Niket said...

    Here are my views as someone who is soon to start as an assistant prof in India.

    I agree with your point about the salaries. Although, I would definitely like if my starting salary wasn't one fifth of what I get paid currently as a postdoc (even with PPP, it is only marginally higher than my current pay).

    My concerns, in approximate order of importance, are as follows:

    1. Two body issue: Do we have enough breadth of jobs in India for both spouses (in a number of cases, both "well qualified") to get jobs in the same city without them having to make "unreasonable" sacrifices?

    2. The quality of graduate students: From my experiences taking to grad students in India during my undergrad research, the better grad students seem to avoid the "risk" of joining a faculty without a proven track record.

    3. Start up package: Enough has been said in this post. But just to add a personal flavor: a friend of mine, who will soon join as an assistant professor in an American university gets a start up grant 10% more in just the numeric value. One important difference: mine is in Rs., his in USD.

    4. Support staff / infrastructure

    5. Teaching load: It sounds reasonable at 2 courses + 0.5 labs per year. Will I get a one-semester break from teaching in my first two years so that I can concentrate on my research? My undergrad institute, UDCT, was ruled out simply because I couldn't see myself teaching 3+ courses per year.
    [I had originally thought of 7 points... will write another comment if I remember them.]

    Regarding Anant's comment:
    I am not sure I agree with your assessment. I don't look at India as a poor nation per se, just a nation ruled by people with misplaced priorities.

  13. Anant said...


    Thanks for your comment. Happy, as an alumnus, to see someone from UD returning home. Your points are all well-taken and suffice it to say that this is neither the first nor will it be the last discussion on the whole issue of salaries, start-up grants and what not. While I agree (who wouldn't?) that the whole thing is very badly mismanaged, it is my claim that the debate around salaries in an inequitous society is not an integral one. If we think academic salaries in institutes are poor, what about college teachers who earn half of what we do, school teachers who earn far less than a half of that? (Abi: sorry to digress!). How about start-ups for University faculty, and for college teachers who may want to set up teaching labs.? etc.?