Thursday, September 13, 2007

Micro-moolah

“You are pursuing your masters in Microbiology? That's wonderful! It is one of the most upcoming fields.” This is one of the most redundant statements I have come across in the five years that I have been pursuing Microbiology, as I'm sure most of my other life science – Biotechnology and Genetics – peers, seniors and juniors have. The statement in itself is very true but most often comes from a third person's perspective, someone not from a life science background. It's an interesting, if somewhat clich├ęd observation. At the cost of being redundant myself, I'd like to say that this observation is quite accurate with the recent boom in the so called BT-sector in the past decade. However, the one question I ask myself repeatedly is: how relevant is this boom, this ‘upcoming field’ to me and to those around me who will enter this industry in less than six months? And I see myself answering this question in my head with one word: hmmm.

Looking at the bigger picture, locally, nationally and globally, I would have to say that this field has lead to many ground-breaking discoveries that have in turn benefited human-kind. These are the long term outcomes of various scientists having worked 25 hours a day for a similarly absurd number of years. These scientists are from the generation that preceded mine. But does today's youth, my generation believe this strongly, this passionately for the subject, for the nation, even the world? Do we think of the bigger picture, the “greatest good” or are we just a bunch of over-practical, over-cautious, self-indulgent individuals? And even if we are, is it necessarily a negative streak in us are is it just another example of the age old Darwinian theory: survival of the fittest? Hmmm…

Another question to answer these questions, and an important one, would be: what drives the youth of today? The answer, undoubtedly is: money. It is that carrot in front of us donkeys, if I may, that brings the dollar signs in place of our pupils with a distinct “ki-ching” sound and takes us left, right or painstakingly ahead, if that's where we will finally be able to munch on it. Money not only guides us, it drives us. However, with over 5,000 graduates stepping out of Bangalore University from Microbiology alone, the competition is cut-throat, to be polite. The companies offering even a semi-reasonable salary have an option of picking out the best of the best. And needless to say, they do. The remaining ‘good’ or even ‘average’ are left with peanuts, at most. Not that these graduates or post graduates don't have an interest, if passion were momentarily sidelined, in the subject but their drawback is only in terms of the competition. With this boom in the BT industry, newer companies are coming into the market and thereby increasing the number of jobs for us. They offer more number of jobs, not necessarily more money. The companies dictate terms and rightfully so. They are the choosers; we remain mere beggars. Their motto is simple: this is what we offer, take it or leave it. It is at this crossroads that we bow our mighty high heads down and consider: to take or not to take. Hmmm?

It is a researched and proven fact that a great percentage of the urban youth between the age group of 16-26 years aspires to become millionaires. With this mindset, would we be wise to take up a job that shells out less than the minimum taxable amount per year? What are we willing to compromise on? Our passion or our drive? The three or five years that we've dedicated to the subject or the luxuries of life? More often than not we pick the latter and let the former go. Thinking practically in terms of supporting a family, living in comfort and the increasing standard of living, I'd say why not? And this decision is supported by a number of instances which come to light, such as research analysts earning just about 5 lacs per annum after having invested a good 40 years in this field. Standing at this fork in life, we choose the path that has been walked and leave the one less taken. In doing so, most of us opt out of life sciences altogether and jump into a ‘comfortable’ 1.8 lacs per annum salary package of a BPO or a KPO. Else, we step out of the country and work in the same field, but add to the much discussed ‘brain drain’. Although this topic has gone stale and even begun to stink of rotten meat, the discussion, somehow, hasn't ceased. And of course fingers are still pointed and accusations made to those who leave their country to pursue a career they could've easily pursued in India. Agreed. But are we being paid enough in this country to stay back? Well, you've got to take some risks and begin something on your own, some would say. If there's a will, there's a way. Agreed. But how many of us can afford to take such a risk? How many of us have that kind of a support? How many of us are willing to put in all that we have, financially and emotionally, with the risk of it all collapsing? Food for thought, hmmm?

There are still some of us determined enough to carry forward, to go one step ahead in hope, faith or sometimes due to the lack of anything else to do. Life for these doctorate aspirants isn't easy either. They may get a guide, a teacher to help them along the way, but research, as is no news, requires a lot of monetary support from the government or the institution. Convincing them for a grant is an altogether different ballgame. And should you get it and not be able to give the ‘desired’ results, for no fault of yours, you get another let down and that morale you'd kept up oh so well, just shatters. Into a million pieces. And thus come the comparisons. Between you and them. You sit back and compare yourself with your peers or even your juniors from another ‘booming’ field: IT. Another booming industry but with so much more growth, potential…money. A lot of money. And you wonder: am I as stressed as them at my job? Definitely. If not more than them, then at least as much as them. Am I good at my job? As good as good can get. Do I get paid as much as them for a job I do as well as they do theirs? Hmmm…

The comparisons don’t end there. More often than not, you tend to look back and reconsider your professional choices. And compare them with those who stepped away from this field and opted for another. The easiest and quickest choice of career for them being an MBA. Having said that, I’d like to clarify that I, in no way am implying that an MBA is easy or easier than any other masters course, but all I’m trying to say is that today, logistically speaking, MBA is the right career move. A lot of effort and hard work goes into obtaining the degree, but the returns are worth every minute of hard work and sincerity put in. And some of us are foresighted enough to understand this and therefore opt for an MBA instead of an M.Sc. or a Ph.D. While those of us pursuing and M.Sc. or a Ph.D. ponder about our future in this ‘upcoming’ field of life sciences, there are those who merely await campus placements and hefty pay packages with an MBA degree to back them up. These ‘foresighted’ peers or juniors of ours may just as well end up with a job in a life science based company but their change of stream cannot be overlooked. Yet, in their own way they are contributing to the BT industry, to it’s progress, success and ‘boom’. These entrepreneurs eventually market our research, our hard work and sell them. They are the face of the industry; we are the manual labor. Much like actors in a movie who get all the limelight, and the production unit that makes the motion picture a reality. They work hand in hand, complementing each other. Without one, the other cannot function and the desired outcome is impossible. The actors, entrepreneurs and the company get the attention and the money. The production unit, scientists and doctorate holders working day in and day out get their share of the credit. What about their share of the money? Hmmm?

Some might say that the tone of this article is cynical, even pessimistic. I’d like to clarify my stand and say that it is merely realistic. Some M.Sc. post-graduates and doctorate holders from this field might disagree with me completely and claim to be utterly satisfied with their jobs. I respect their sentiments and appreciate their defense. It is indeed highly commendable. However, I’d like to say that the issues I’ve tried to cover are those which have bothered me and a large number of my peers and juniors in the past. I’ve only tried to convey the sentiments of thousands of students across the nation who, all of a sudden, find themselves in a spot where they feel that they are all alone in their dilemma. This is to let them know that they are not alone. Every member of the life science fraternity has at some point or another been burdened with their own choices or lack thereof. However, what matters most is not what has been done, but what shall be done. Self satisfaction is most important, whether it comes from 25 hours a day spent in a laboratory, peering through a microscope and being paid enough to merely get through, or from accepting a job that pays luxuriously without being able to contribute substantially to a field you love. At the end, the choice is yours, as it always has been. You are answerable to one and only person at the end: yourself. Hmmm.

To quote a few lines form a song “In The End” by a very popular band, Linkin’ Park:

“I kept everything inside and even though I tried
It all fell apart.
What it meant to me
Will eventually
Be a memory
Of a time when I tried so hard,
And got so far
But in the end,I
t doesn't even matter.
I had to fall
To lose it all
But in the end,
It doesn't even matter”

Lest such a situation arise wherein you have to say to yourself that it doesn’t even matter anymore, take a stand. Look around you. You have a world of opportunities lying ahead. Take your pick. Make it wise, relative to your ideologies, your requirements and your priorities. And what makes you happy. If it’s research, pursue it. If it’s the money, go for it. Just remember: it’s never too late.

Hmmm!