Whenever I have distanced myself from the seemingly monumental events in life, everything has looked comical from a distance. I was recently in India for a job interview (never thought I would do that, especially after living abroad for 9 years and loving every bit of it). I realized that I was missing the black box with the knowhow of the workforce there. I no longer knew about the work life there, how much people earn, and who the important people are. So this was my opportunity to understand the job market, and the way interviews happened. The eyebrow-raising experiences started no sooner had I reached the European airport wherefrom I would catch my connecting flight to India.
It seems like competitiveness is in-built in the Indian gene, even for those who are now the proud owners of foreign passports. As I waited for the flight at the gate, I observed that 80% of people around me were Indians, the rest mostly Europeans. The moment the person made an announcement for only Zone A members to board, the entire 80% Indians belonging to the zones A, B, C, and D jumped in and stood in line. The Europeans looked like they did not care much. Perhaps it has happened in the past that a plane left without taking all its passengers.
By the end of the flight, I was tired and irritable. I hadn't slept a bit the night before. The flight was long, the layover longish, the food insufficient, the leg space cramped, and the temperature freezing. This was no vacation, there was no home cooked food, and I would have to figure everything out once I landed. I realized that I was whining and complaining. I was grumpy. I was almost sleeping while walking. The flight had landed 10 minutes before time. Millions of people from another flight that had landed the same time as ours were running past me, bumping into me, inadvertently hitting my knees with the corners of their suitcases. It was 4:45 am.
Standing at the immigration line among millions of people, I heard a certain intriguing conversation:
Man A: Bhaiya, kya yeh Air India ka immigration line hai?
Man B: Pataa nahi. Mera to US passport hai.
I stood there, trying to figure the correlation between the two sentences. I constantly felt pushed forward by my heavy backpack, only to realize that people do not keep distance from one another in a line. Although I spent the first part of my life this way, I had forgotten the essential skills to survive in India. I was just whining like the many NRIs I dislike, who are constantly complaining about India. I turned behind to see not one person, but a volley of people. Perhaps an alien from Mars would feel less disoriented than I did during my first few hours there.
The next four days were packed with excitement of the highest degree. The drill consisted of a job talk (an hour long presentation), followed by a personal interview. I think I am a lot more observant than I used to be, so every two minutes, I was noticing something that amused me. The high traffic noise levels on campus (situated right by the main road), how natural ventilation still ruled (compared to air conditioned rooms), how I was sweating already while it was freezing in Germany, and so on. Anyway, I have summarized ten of the many things that happened during the interview.
One: Ghar ki murgi is worth a lot more here.
67% of the candidates were alumni or currently working in the same institute. I know this, since we could watch each other’s presentations (many universities in the west do not allow it). It seems like inbreeding is rampant in Indian universities, even the top ones, which is something frowned upon in the schools I went to. If this had happened to me in the US, I would be living in a nice little condo in Seattle or Washington DC right now. I see the advantages of both. When you spend time and money training someone and building a working relationship over the years, you want to employ them. However, US universities (the ones I know of at least) come from a different mindset. Letting your students go to find a job elsewhere helps them get diverse experiences, and increases the overall diversity of any institution. There is a reason marrying into your family is genetically frowned upon for evolutionary reasons. Not in the academic kingdom in India it looks like.
Two: Do you have questions? Wait, we don’t care for them.
During my interview, I was surrounded by 12-15 professors sitting in the shape of a horseshoe magnet, while I sat at the center. Initially, they gave me a choice to sit at the center or by the corner with the other professors. Since this was my show, I was going to be at the center. I did not tell them this, but they remarked how brave I was, and someone even snickered. The interview went on for about an hour, maybe more, since I lost track of time. They asked me a lot of questions. However, not once did they ask me if I had questions for them. I had prepared my own set of questions to ask, the job expectations, the focus on research versus teaching, the funding structure, and so on. “Do you have any questions?” is something I have heard everywhere in the US- in classes, job interviews, and so on. In fact, not having questions is severely frowned upon, and people do their homework to ask intelligent questions. I have been severely criticized by my adviser too often for not asking enough questions. Asking questions shows that you have done your homework, and you are capable of critical thinking. But my perception of the Indian interview is still the same where I left it a decade ago (the one for my first job was back in 2005). People do not care about your questions. They want you to be shy, afraid, and take orders, rather than ask questions. While sitting at the center and making eye contact with everyone did not perturb me a bit, everyone was wondering why I was not cowering.
Three: I already have an answer, and your job is to figure out what that answer is.
In an interview at this level, people usually ask open-ended questions. These are questions that do not necessarily have one correct answer, and how well you defend your answer distinguishes you from the rest. The interviewers asked me open ended questions alright. But right into my interview, I realized a key point. When someone asked you a question, they already had an answer in their mind. Your job was to guess that answer by some mind reading. It often happened that I started responding to a question, only to be stopped and led in a different direction, because my answer was not what the person had in mind. So much for open-ended questions. Let me give you a funny analogy. Let’s say someone asked me, “What color shirt was the man walking by you in the morning wearing?” Now even if you were observant enough to notice that the man was wearing a brown shirt, the interviewer might have the answer blue in mind. So as you start reasoning your answer, the interviewer might throw a strange bone your way, saying something like, “But what color is the sky?” This question has no relationship whatsoever with the previous question, but has the answer the interviewer wants to hear. You might get a little creative and say that the sky is red, orange, blue, or black, depending on the time of the day. But this analogy makes him angry, because this shows you can think, and perhaps think more than he does. For every open-ended question they asked me (questions about designing a study, designing an intervention, framing policy, and not necessarily what color shirt the man was wearing), they already had the “right answer” in mind. My challenge was to guess that answer. It did not matter what answers or ideas I had, and how creative I could get. It so happened that at one point, someone got really frustrated and said, “You are not answering my question. This is the answer I have in mind.” Any further conversation or reasoning was useless.
Four: “Grant”ing a wish.
I was not aware that grant writing is not considered one of the coveted skills for a position of this kind here. Having seen cut throat competition for getting grants from the NSF and the NIH, this was news to me. I was trying to direct the conversation to the two grants that I have applied for, listed in my vita. At some point, someone got irritated and said, “Forget grant writing. What else can you bring?” I realized then that some part of the puzzle was missing. I eventually found out that I was right. Competitive grant funding was not considered important where I was interviewing at, even though it is a research institution. Everyone who writes a grant gets the money. I was not sure if this is good news or bad news. Competition ensures quality control, and that people do not waste time and money studying unimportant things. It was like being trained to be a Mughlai chef, and going to a five-star hotel to interview and realize that biryani is not a part of their menu.
Five: Sartorial elegance.
It was interesting to observe what the interviewers and the interviewees wore. First of all, I do not understand why so many people wear clothes a few sizes bigger. Let me burst the bubble, it does not hide your obesity. It’s not that you are in your teens and still growing (unless you account for lateral growth too, which perhaps answers my question). It’s not that I haven’t seen sharply dressed people in other fields in India. Just not in academia. Oversized salwar kameez, and running shoes to go with them (someone told me that it is the typical Punjabi auntie look). Formal trousers and running shoes. Dupattas, which no matter when present or absent, look weird. Tight slacks that end above the ankle and show socks. Pink shirts. Kurta pajama and chappals. An interviewee wore white formal shirt, trousers, and tie, and while this is great, he also wore a red jacket to mar the look. I do not claim to be an expert in dressing. But this was a job interview, not a carnival or Halloween. I wore a simple starched white shirt, black trousers and black suit, and felt like the most overdressed person.
Six: I was in the US too, you naïve and stupid interviewee.
The fact that you studied in the US might be held against you, especially if the person interviewing you could not make it. Given the nature of my field, I had to bring up the US and German references once in a while (social science is very context-driven, and the research problems vary across countries). I mean, no shame in admitting where you studied. While explaining how to address a particular research problem, I remarked that student grades are never openly displayed in the US, and unless someone tells you their grades, you can never know. So I never knew the grades of my classmates, and focused more on competing with myself and not the others. I must have hit on a raw nerve somewhere, because a youngish faculty sharply interjected, “I have been to the US too, it does not happen like this and you are wrong.” Wow. That was some rudeness. But when the “jobgiver” says that “You are wrong”, it is perhaps a good idea to shut up. (This is another interesting thing. In the US, no one will openly tell you that you are wrong. It reminded me of my university days in India where professors did not bat an eyelid to tell you how wrong, stupid, or worthless you are). Other than this singular episode, I kept hearing many a sentences from senior professors that started with, “When I was in Michigan in 1965 ….”, “When I was a scholar in Germany in the sixties ….”, “When I was visiting New York….”. Now these sentences might not have any context or relevance to the ongoing discussion. It is acting Asrani in Sholay, and being the angrezon ke zamaane mein jailor. It is their way of letting you know that you are not the only person who went to the US.
Seven: Forget the future. We still believe in history.
The questions asked to me were mostly to test what I did not know, and not what I knew. It focused on the limitations (even calling it weaknesses), and not the strengths. No one pointed out what I can add to the department. Everyone told me what I do not have. No one wants to see what you can build. They just want to see what you cannot build. I cannot justify how someone looked at my vita, went back to the year 2001 when I was studying biology, and started asking me content-questions from then. Not your typical open-ended questions, but very subject-specific question. Can you give me an example of this in evolution? What follows mutation and genetic drift? I was aghast. At one point, I told them that it would perhaps be more fruitful if they focused on my more recent qualifications, since the job did not require specific knowledge of biology per se. But here, a biology professor might have looked into my CV and decided to test my knowledge. It came as a shock all the more because I do not remember taking a closed book exam since I started my PhD. The factual answers, everyone can find the answers to. So the focus was always on critical and creative thinking. But most of the questions I was asked here were nitpicky, fact-based questions.
Eight: Manpower versus machine power.
I have observed this generally in India. A lot of people are employed in positions that do not matter. Although my friend reasoned that this is how you address unemployment, this was not very apparent to me at first. We went to a restaurant, and three people were hired just to open the door, salute you, and hold the door. In my opinion, people can open their own doors (however, three people found employment this way). Similarly here, there was a constant volley of people moving in and out of the interview room, serving tea and coffee, serving biscuits, serving “tiffin” to the faculty in the middle of an ongoing interview or talk, which was very distracting. I am coming from the perspective of not one, but two countries I have lived in other than India. There is a well-stocked kitchen with tea bags and coffee and milk and sugar. People get up, move their ass, go heat a pot of water, and make their own tea and coffee. They even clean up after themselves. You do not hire a gang of people to constantly serve you food and beverages. It was very distracting, taking interview questions, only to have the committee room’s door open and someone ask from behind, “Upma khayenge sir?” (Will you eat upma?)
Nine: We have casteism here too.
Although we were on our own for breakfast, we were invited for a huge spread of lunch and dinner (vegetarian, which brought back earlier memories of working at a Marwari school. I had almost forgotten that workplace rules can actually dictate what you can eat, or cannot eat). The way I see it, lunches and dinners at meetings and conferences (not to mention happy hours and drink sessions) are actually avenues for people to network and socialize professionally. The uptight, formal environment at meetings and interviews make many uncomfortable, and these food and drink sessions are for people to ease in. In this case, I was wrong. Sure, we were invited for dinner, but dinner did not mean socializing, networking, or getting to know the faculty better. The two groups of faculty and interviewees sat separately in two different corners of the dining room. The faculty talked and laughed and joked among themselves, while the interviewees made nervous, quiet conversation with one another. There was no interaction. It was a plain and simple- “Come have your dinner and leave” affair.
Ten: If you aren’t good at filling forms, you do not deserve this job.
The sheer amount of forms to fill, paperwork, and signatures baffled me. Getting into the campus needed paperwork and signatures. Getting out of the campus needed more paperwork. Getting internet required more forms, with someone actually asking me to go get a faculty’s signature, else he cannot validate it (and to think that I was new on campus and had no idea who this faculty was, and needed internet only for two days). Someone came to drop me because I had a suitcase. The first guard must have taken pity on me and just asked me to sign. Soon, the second guard came running, reprimanding the first one for not taking signatures of the people with me, and perhaps every pet, squirrel, and fly that entered the campus. Asking for a ground floor room instead of a first floor one (since there was no elevator and I had a heavy suitcase and a recent case of lower back pain) earned me more disapproving glances and paperwork, until I got frustrated and asked the guard to lift my suitcase and see how heavy it was. There were three separate forms I had to fill out (with a pen, and not online) before taking the interview, where they asked me irrelevant questions like “father/husband/guardian’s name”, past salary in the last five jobs, and so on. I had to provide a passport sized picture, not knowing if I am actually getting the job. I can understand Amitabh’s frustration in Deewar, asking Shashi Kapoor to get the signature of all those people who had maligned him and his dad. The system lives on forms, signatures, time logs, and information no one has any business of knowing. On that note, I sneaked out of the guest house at night, to spend time with my school friend, and come back the next morning before the interview. As I was reentering the gate at 8 am, I was stopped by the guard, asking me in the local language, “Aren’t you the one who left at 11 pm last night?” Another one from last night had asked me when I am coming back, a question I had refused to answer. I think these questions were not part of the protocol, but the guards got a strange sense of power, knowing when random people left and reentered the campus. I haven’t answered questions like “Where are you going?” and “When will you be back” in a decade, and do not plan to answer them anytime.
I guess navigating your way in India, and getting things done takes different skills. The idea would be to not take things personally. It is a chaotic system undoubtedly, but the system can be tamed. For example, I saw how the paperwork and signatures decreased as familiarity increased, and how smiling and making small talk with the cooks actually earned me brownie points, since they started asking me if the food is to my liking, and served me extra helpings. So when I should be networking with the faculty during dinner, I was making small talk with the cooks, and getting more food. It is a funny system, but definitely something you get the hang of soon, especially if you grew up here. Sure, the lines are longer, the bathrooms smellier, and I was surprised how my room reeked of odonil and naphthalene. But once you move past the sweat and dust and cobwebs and naphthalene balls, the system can actually be controlled. Somewhat.
I never got the job. A part of me is hugely relieved that I do not have to make a decision, wait, or relocate. I just got here, and am immensely enjoying the European chapter of my life. More on that later.