• Mohor Sengupta

Fighting It Out: how COVID-19 is impacting jobs and livelihoods - Part 2

Updated: Dec 22, 2020

I started a three-part series of essays last week about professional experiences during COVID-19. The series is about individuals and their stories of struggle and resilience. In this second part, we meet three STEM professionals who have lived and worked in different places across the globe, and faced their share of hurdles in the last several months. We (they and I) hope you take a moment to reflect on the many difficult situations that they have braved, and are continuing to face with courage and by putting their best foot forward.

Illustration by Jhilik Dasgupta

A maze called immigration

Divakara Murthy

I am not just any scientist; I am an early career scientist from India on a visa in the U.S. Despite being a qualified scientist with the credentials to advance science and technology in the U.S., and passionate about my research, a good portion of my time is spent not in doing science, but in navigating the many hurdles of immigration. Sadly, even planning a family is tied to immigration considerations.

I had to shift to the U.S. in early May of 2020, at a time when the pandemic was at its first peak globally. I started to look for jobs, but visa challenges and immigration delays make the job-hunting process a herculean task. I have worked in Singapore and South Korea before coming to the U.S. In these countries, most of my effort and time was invested on my research and career progression, and less than a tenth of my time was spent on immigration-related issues. In contrast, I find that in the U.S., many external factors are holding back immigrant scientists from realizing their career potential, particularly in the early phases. Over the last few months of the job search process, I often felt that the employers are hesitant to offer job opportunities, perhaps due to visa and travel restrictions brought in by the pandemic. The stress and anxiety of visa, immigration, and work authorization issues that I am currently facing are overwhelming my career aspirations and goals.

In the end, I found a job, but the immigration challenges continue. I hope for a future when the visa process will be more favorable for immigrant scientists to come to the U.S., get world-class training, and advance the science and technology.

Tough road

Deepti Lele S.

Among the many sectors that took a major hit with the uncertainties of COVID-19, science and technology research in India stands out.

At the time when the government geared up for supporting research and announcing grants for various COVID-19-related projects, the other research areas got less attention, and understandably so. Funding issues weren’t new to me. I faced them during my initial days as a post-doctoral fellow, at a time when there was no pandemic. My fellowship award salary used to be regularly deposited after 8-9 months of the fellowship renewal every year. However, the necessary household expenditures never wait for the fellowship to come 8 months late. This had been the case even during my Ph.D. years, but my institute made sure we didn’t have to wait till they got reimbursed with our award funds.

When it came to funds for running the lab, ordering consumables, and maintaining instruments, we have always faced delays. These incidences were normal way before the global calamity, which corroborates the fact that research scholars in India have internalized facing fund crunches and delays, and they work their way around it.

With the pandemic, the situation for research funds (except those funding COVID-19 research) have just gotten worse. I currently work as research staff, and also manage grants. Since the lockdown in our country, the approval of the grant extensions, including those that fund my work, have been pending, and we are uncertain about the future of our research. Even with a job, the professional life of researchers like us is extremely difficult at the moment. The dual problem of limited money to conduct experiments and no guarantee on the job market, points toward a dull future for many of us.

I stand at a stage where chances of new opportunities are bleak: government schemes like women scientist grants have been postponed until further notice, the current academic employment market has limited opportunities and security, and the job opportunities outside of academia are not the ideal for the kind of training we’ve got. I am at an age where I find many of my colleagues and friends who changed their field or travelled abroad, living a better and a more secured professional life, and I, after a Ph.D. from a premiere institute and a descent CV, still struggle to keep working.

Never-ending roller coaster

Dinesh Parate

I started working as a research associate in early 2018. The offer I got verbally was that of a postdoc, but I found that I was being hired as a research associate. On enquiring about the dichotomy, administrative and funding reasons were cited. Nonetheless, I joined the lab but very soon, I found the culture toxic. I was under pressure and felt harassment from my supervisor. Needless to say, these things are not uncommon in academia. I put myself first and left the lab a year and half later. At this time, I took a 3-month break after being diagnosed with clinical depression. Later, I landed up an agreement of offer from a non-profit organization in the United States. The firm demanded that I start working for them while applying for my visa; however, I never received an official offer letter. Since finding work was critical for me at that juncture, I decided to help them with some tasks while expecting my paperwork. After the paperwork failed to show up, I politely refused to work for them any longer. It was my concern that working without official documents and a visa, in the least, was not legal, and I voiced this concern to them. The decisive email finally arrived after two months of the exchange; the company founder retracted my pending offer for failing to comply with their expectations.

All this happened while a new and dangerous pandemic was quietly taking form. Like most people applying for jobs during that time, I had no way of knowing how things would change drastically in near future. I had interviewed in October 2019 for a postdoc position at an U.S. university, the final decision for which was still pending when things went south with the non-profit organization. Luckily, the PI was still considering me, and I got the offer. I was supposed to start my postdoc on April 2020, which was now delayed indefinitely due to the pandemic. After waiting out three months and realizing that this situation wasn’t about to end anytime soon, I started to look for positions in my country, but was either over- or under-qualified, or had bad interview experiences.

But now, after 15 months of being at it relentlessly, I got a job at one of the FMCG companies in India as a 'consultant'. I look forward to more professional growth in the coming months.

Read Part-1 here. Go to Part-3!

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