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Most people try to work in the academia of rich and developed countries. I suspect that the rationale for not working in developing countries includes factors such as low-quality healthcare, weak transportation, corruption in the system, etc. I wonder if there is any rationale for working in developing countries.

Is there a rationale for working in academia in South Asia (excluding India)?

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    Is your question "I am a citizen of a country of South Asia, does it make sense to start a carrier in academia there, as opposed to a carrier in something else there?", "I am a citizen of a country of South Asia, does it make sense to start a carrier in academia there, as opposed to a carrier in academia somewhere else?", or "I work in academia in some country X, does it make sense to pursue my carrier in a country in South Asia?"?
    – jcaron
    Nov 16, 2022 at 16:14
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    I usually work where I want to live, and I can think of many reasons why I would want to live at some place that is not related to its development status..
    – Mark
    Nov 16, 2022 at 18:10
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    I am seeing some of answers and comments in this page that are borderline to xenophobia and to "my country rocks" or "your country sucks" comments, even the question itself as presented. Be careful about your tone, people. Nov 17, 2022 at 6:31
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    Related.
    – Trang Oul
    Nov 17, 2022 at 9:52
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    Lots of prejudice being shown in this question. You would expect more from an academic SE.
    – Neil Meyer
    Nov 17, 2022 at 19:56

10 Answers 10

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At some point you have to do something that puts food on the table. You can't sit around forever. If all the job applications are being denied (and the job market is significantly more competitive in developed countries), then you must eventually accept an offer that you do have.

Put another way, would you rather:

  1. Be unemployed while writing job application after job application, or
  2. Be a professor in a developing country?

PS: this doesn't mean that every professor in a developing country would rather work in a developed country. There are many possible reasons to want to avoid working in so-called developed countries, e.g. here is an article in Nature interviewing several early-career researchers on why they don't want to work in the US. The reason above is just the most pragmatic of them.

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    There are many other developed countries beside the US. The fact that one does not want to work in the land of the free does not mean they want to work in a developing country. Nov 14, 2022 at 12:52
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    Further to @VladimirFГероямслава's point, only one of those researchers in the Nature article (Umar Ahmad) is currently working in a country that's not in the OECD — and he's landed a position in Canada and is waiting for a visa so he can move there. Nov 14, 2022 at 13:51
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    Yes, from a quick glance at the nature article, I don't see reasons not to work in developed countries, just not to work in the US.
    – Kimball
    Nov 14, 2022 at 19:13
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    "At some point you have to do something that puts food on the table." Being an academic anywhere is not an efficient way to do that. Nov 14, 2022 at 23:07
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    @AnonymousPhysicist: Well, it's more efficient than doing nothing. And it's usually easier to do actual research while doing that, as opposed to most ways of putting food on the table (as well as perhaps being unemployed).
    – tomasz
    Nov 15, 2022 at 12:03
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I've spent 11 years in the US doing my Bachelors, masters, PhD and postdoc in Math, and currently I am a Professor in Malaysia (which I think counts as South Asian).

I had a lot of personal reasons for going back (I am a Malaysian citizen, I have family in Malaysia etc) but leaving those aside:

  1. It is easier to get grants and promotions. The requirements for getting grants and promotions in a country like Malaysia is lower. In countries like Malaysia the government has decent funding for grants, but less people are competing for them. I have applied to three grants in the Malaysian version of the NSF and one grant in the Chinese NSF (my university is a branch campus of a Chinese university located in Malaysia, so I am eligible for both) and have had a 100% success rate so far. I think if I were in America my success rate for the NSF grants would be much much lower. I was also able to achieve a full professorship much more easily than I would have in the US.

  2. Easier to obtain leadership/professional opportunities. For example, I got the opportunity to be an editor for the top math journal in Malaysia, which has been a cool experience. Earlier this year I got to give a plenary talk at the annual meeting of the Malaysian Math Society. Again, there is less competition for roles like this in a country like Malaysia.

  3. These countries can be fantastic places to live. Malaysia is one of the best places in the world for nature tourism, our beaches are phenomenal, our culture is fascinating and our food is exceptional. A lot of countries in the South Asia region can be similarly appealing.

  4. It is easier to make a difference. I think I was good enough to land a tenure-track position in the US - but I think for any job I could get, the next best person they could hire would be almost as good as me, since the job market in the US is so competitive. Whereas here in Malaysia I think there is a bigger difference between myself and the next best person my university could hire. So in that sense I am making a bigger difference with my life. It makes me happy that my department is making it so a Malaysian doesn't have to travel thousands of miles away to get a good math education, and I feel my department is giving opportunities to students who would not have had them otherwise.

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  • Thanks for great sharing! I'm Malaysian too =) Nov 15, 2023 at 6:28
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Academia is not a monolithic entity. In some fields, it is almost impossible to do relevant research without proper equipment and enough people capable of working with said equipment. In others, all one needs is to poach enough talent and assemble them under one roof, and when a government is really, really interested in advancing their technology, they may offer very cushy conditions. Some people make their choices based on that alone: maybe the research potential would suffer a bit from the stifled competition and fewer top notch researchers in the immediate vicinity, but this may well be a difference between scrambling with the job security and finances and possibly being rich, as in not even upper-middle class rich. Diverting resources specifically towards economic and technological growth and sparing no expense there while the rest of the country remains poor for a while is a well-established role model by now, especially in Southeast Asia.

Of course, personal factors play a big role in that. Family ties, background, even climatic preferences are all relevant. But the main thing developing countries lack is well-established intellectual traditions in modern fields of research, which is an obstacle one can overcome. It is a bit similar to organizing a movie night where nigh everyone's attendance is conditional on enough of their friends going as well.

Simply put, developing countries are often willing to put relatively more resources in science and tech than developed ones. They would buy top-notch equipment, let people work in their old collaborations, offer great funding, all as long as the researchers bring in knowledge, and train new people to make these high-tech facilities work. And there are people eager to learn, work, and improve their communities, too.

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    +1 for stressing how various the fields are. In some fields you need multi-billion dollar equipment and a nuclear reactor to power it, in other fields all you need is a cheap laptop and an internet connection.
    – vsz
    Nov 14, 2022 at 12:00
  • Re "impossible to do relevant research without proper equipment": Yes, it might require a mass spectrometer with high operating costs. Nov 16, 2022 at 15:51
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If you believe:

  • Education is good
  • It is good for people to have equal opportunities
  • People in developing countries have fewer opportunities to get education

Then you would conclude that working as an educator in a developing country is a good thing to do.

On many occasions I have considered doing it myself. However, malaria and similar are bad, so I do not.

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    Not all developing countries have malaria.
    – gerrit
    Nov 15, 2022 at 12:14
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    There exists simple medication you can take to prevent malaria. If that is such a deal breaker for you. It is a totally preventable disease.
    – Neil Meyer
    Nov 15, 2022 at 17:45
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    @NeilMeyer. "Totally" is less than accurate. Nov 16, 2022 at 1:01
  • Malaria map, by nation state (grey probably means absence of data). Nov 16, 2022 at 15:42
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    Perhaps it is wise to consider rewriting the last sentence. Disregarding developing countries because they have "malaria and similar" (whatever "similar" is supposed to mean) is not only starting off from a false premise, but painting a rather poor picture of the knowledge of developing countries certain academics have...
    – Pedro
    Nov 17, 2022 at 8:53
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Most of the types of activities you would do in academia in South Asia are the same types of activities you would do in academia in wealthy Western countries, so there is a substantial overlap in the rationale. Points of difference are that the money is less and the quality of the universities is lower, but you would still be doing teaching and research. Consequently, the rationale would be to get all the good things you get from doing teaching and research, while living in South Asia.

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Other scenarios:

  1. After doing grad schools in the First World, someone from a developing country may just wish to return home to rejoin their family / friends, and live within their home culture
  2. Some developing countries (e.g. China) actively compete for their citizens who have done PhD in the First World and can offer very attractive compensation packages for those are willing to repatriate: the repatriates may actually enjoy a higher standard of living / community prestige than what they would get if they remained in the developed country
  3. An international student with a PhD may be technically well-trained but may not be comfortable in conducting research / instruction full-time in English or French (or whatever language the PhD has been done in)

Scenarios #1 and #3 only apply to international students, but #2 can also apply to those born in the developed country. See Darren Ong's answer.

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Poorer working conditions (associated with developing countries) mean there's less competition, so it's easier to stand out. Some people, like Caesar, would rather be first in a village than second in Rome.

Besides, developed countries are attractive to people of any profession, not only academics, yet developing countries have their own share of IT specialists, engineers, etc. Most of the reasons that can make e.g. a web designer work in South Asia (higher social prestige, lower cost of living, personal preferences) would also apply to a university professor.

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  • On what basis other than 1st world prejudices are you making the claim that working conditions are poor in India?
    – Neil Meyer
    Nov 17, 2022 at 19:55
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Organizing available knowledge trasferrable to the coming generations with clear discrimination of usefulness is essential in developing countries. Native knowledge, black and white, are often hidden for ages, while the new generations crave for anything labelled "modern" or the "latest" from the "developed" countries. This disturbs the pace in learning as a people generating imbalance in "status" and appearance.

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(I'm adding a second answer because it's fundamentally different from the one I wrote above, and also because I know quite a few people who've chosen to base themselves in developing countries.)

Some of the most common reasons for not working in developed countries:

  • Personal reasons. This is very common. If your family/friends/partner are in a particular country, then it's a powerful reason to work in that country.
  • Financial reasons. Sure you earn less by working in a developing country, but you also spend less. See the Big Mac index as a highly simplified example. If you work in Switzerland, you pay $7.30 on average for a Big Mac. If you work in India, you pay $1.62. That means that unless your salary in Switzerland is 4x your salary in India, it's actually cheaper to work in India. (To some extent. It depends on what else you want to do, e.g. if you want to take holidays outside of India then the discrepancy can matter more.)
  • Financial reasons #2. An extension of the above. Many developed countries charge high income tax. Check the table. For example, if you work in Austria, your highest tax rate is 55%. If you work in Bangladesh, your highest tax rate is 25%.
  • Ideological reasons. As linked in my first answer, some people simply will not work in certain countries, regardless of whether those countries are "developed" or not. The reasons given are varied, but ultimately if one does not feel comfortable about X country, it's a very strong reason not to work in that country. Another example.
  • Ideological reasons #2. I have a friend who cited racism as a reason to work in Kenya - they say they don't experience racism there.
  • Cultural reasons. If e.g. you are Hindu, then Diwali is one of your most important holidays. However, in many developed countries, Diwali is not a public holiday, so you might not be able to celebrate it. You might even be forced to work on that day. Same goes for other cultural events like Chinese New Year.
  • Cultural reasons #2. In certain countries, it's rather common to socialize by going to the pub, drink alcohol, and watch the World Cup. If you're from a culture/religion that doesn't drink alcohol and/or care about football (or, even worse, don't know the rules of football), then it'll be awkward.
  • Political reasons. It's significantly harder to get a job in a country which you don't already have the right to work in, especially if that country is also tightening immigration rules (example). By the way, some people will interpret such tightening as "I don't want you", and therefore ask "why should I work in a country that doesn't want me?". See ideological reasons above.
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India has a incredible tech scene. It has massive industries that you as a person from South East Asia can be a part of. All the international tech giants are all open to Indians.

It has low cost of living so it does not take an incredibly high salary to live well.

It is not a country without problems but as long as your finances are in good standing you can have a good life there.

I really want to visit India at least once in my life. It certainly is on my bucket list.

Indians do not give there country enough credit. It has some real problems with poverty that is certainly a big problem, but as long as you earn enough you certainly can.live extremely well there. It has an intoxicating culture and I would consider it a life affirming event if I could ever visit India.

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