As promised our ‘Away from home‘ blogging series will feature sporadic entries under the ‘Away from home’ category of the Indigenus blog from time to time. The series was earlier a weekly featuring one Indian postdoc working in a foreign lab recounting his/her experience of working there, the triumphs and challenges, the cultural differences, what they miss about India, as well as some top tips for postdocs headed abroad. You can join in the online conversation using the #postdochat hashtag.
We promised than when we hear something exciting or interesting from an Indian postdoc abroad, we will bring it to you. So here’s the first ‘sporadic’ entry coming from Anupam Jhingran, a postdoc fellow at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSK), New York. Anupam tells us about an extremely important facet of the Indian postdoc’s life abroad — finding the right match to marry! Anupam has been successful in getting a bride for himself but recounts for fellow mates what it has been like go through the process. He gives us a blow by blow account of what all an Indian postdoc might encounter before he strikes gold! Read on and leave your comments — have you had a similar experience, do you know someone who has or are your bracing up for this now?
[At MSK, Anupam studies host response to Aspergillus fumigatus (Af) infection. His lab got relocated from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC), Seattle where he was originally recruited. “Moving from a relatively laid-back (but equally productive) West coast culture of Seattle to a lot busy and fast East coast culture is an experience in itself and I am currently adapting myself to this new environment, ” he says.]
The postdoc’s dilemma
The postdoc culture is relatively unfamiliar to the non-academic crowd in India. The education system is such that students take up medicine or engineering right after high school. Those who earn a bachelor’s degree in other courses often target professions like business administration or civil services, resulting in fewer students taking up PhD positions. This mindset has led to non-recognition of the PhD/postdoc career path in our society and a postdoctoral stint is often perceived as an extended study period as opposed to a full time job.
Right from the beginning of PhD, we always struggle to convince our families about the importance of our job, its potential to solve biological problems and improve living conditions. But the inability to convey that in easy-to-understand language couple with the fact that PhD scholarships, despite being very competitive to earn, provides a modest income, doesn’t usually help build a good reputation of research as a career options.
As a result, we stop indulging in such discussions to avoid unnecessary frustration.
This peace of mind doesn’t stay for very long. At some point, we find ourselves in a situation again where discussing career prospects with someone uninitiated to a scientific career becomes inevitable. This is the time when we start seeking a matrimonial alliance through the ‘arranged marriage’ system. In a typical arranged marriage, it is always the families that get in touch with each other to talk about cultural compatibility and career prospects of the groom, but it usually doesn’t happen with postdocs as our families refuse to talk about something they themselves don’t understand.
The matrimonial process
So for postdocs it’s a different modus operandi, something pretty similar to finding a postdoc position. Although there are no applications cover letters involved but we have to have our biodata (or CV) ready! The biodata generally describes our education, profession, career path and prospects, birth information (astrology), caste and hobbies.
The traditional method to initiate the bride-search was to send the biodata to families who would then pass it on to potential ‘in-laws’ for assessment. However, with the recent emergence of matrimonial websites, the biodata dissemination process has become a lot easier and expeditious. These websites require us to register our details, upload a picture and then begin the process of “expressing interest” (something like a “friend request” on Facebook) in profiles of people we consider a potentially suitable match.
The profile moderator at the receiving end (usually a guardian) then visits the profile and conducts a preliminary screening based on our registered information. The problem with this profile-based, non-verbal representation of ourselves is that, our profession is not clearly understood by the visitor and a message is sent back to us stating “interest declined”. Some postdocs showcase their foreign resident-status to impress the visitor but since we have a huge number of Indian physicians and software engineers abroad, the poor postdoc is relegated to the back seat again. We are also required to state our annual income but an honest postdoc always leaves the salary column blank for the simple reason that his honesty will only have unfavorable implications in this situation.
The second phase in the search process is the interview with the would-be partner’s family members. During this entire conversation there are few things that we try to avoid, such as the discussion on funding situations, contract period with the employer, visa status (implications of 212E rule for J-1 visas) or anything, which in reality makes the postdoctoral stint look unstable. We try to hard to make them understand that postdoc is a full time job and not just a continuation of higher studies!
The third phase involves talking to the prospective bride and discussing compatibility. This is a very long phase and involves brutal revelation about job-related insecurities and financial limitations and ends with a mutual agreement to shower affection, provide support and long-term commitment, which would always withstand professional calamities.
How I fared
The first two phases were relatively quick for me because my future partner, Pooja shares a similar professional interest and background and luckily therefore her parents were familiar with the scientific career path. My only challenge was to convince them that except for my career, everything else with me is fairly stable, which I successfully did and cleared for the third phase.
This third phase, however, has turned out to be the longest. Pooja is a highly career oriented woman and was in the second year of her PhD at the University of Nottingham, UK when we met. I was a first year postdoc at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle. Relocation at that point for any of us was not a sensible option. Therefore, we continued dating on Skype thinking that at some point, one of us would be ready to start a fresh job hunt.
Two years hence, nothing much has changed but only marriage dates. We still Skype but thankfully her PhD is coming to an end and so is our families’ eternal wait to see us married.
We leave you with our interactive ‘Away from home‘ map, the one-stop resource for Indian postdocs headed abroad. Hope you enjoy our future posts as and when we update this series.