Monday, April 18, 2005

Recruitment troubles at IITs ?


Kesavan Mukundan, in a report in yesterday's Times of India, nails down some aspects of the question: "Why do IITs (and other such elite educational institutions) find it difficult to hire -- and retain -- good faculty?". The article talks about IITs, IIMs and Delhi School of Economics. However, I restrict my comments to IITs, since I lack any direct experience with the other institutions.

Naturally, poor salary tops the list of problems. Consider this: A fresh Assistant Professor, who has a doctorate and one-to-three years of post-doctoral experience, starts at a typical gross salary of less than Rs. 20 K per month. Granted, the other perks (mainly on-campus housing) would add anywhere between 5 K to 15 K per month, depending on whether the place is Kharagpur or Mumbai.

In an age when industry offers huge salaries to the graduates of IITs (typically 25 K to 40 K per month; remember, these are B.Tech -- and not Ph.D. -- degree holders!), there just aren't enough people who wish to go for higher studies that would lead to a doctorate degree. Of course, we all know that about 30-40 percent of IIT graduates do go for higher studies, but they go abroad, and only a small fraction of them return to India. Kesavan seems to want to make you feel alarmed about how IITs are going feel a serious pinch because of this shortage; I am not so sure; all said and done, IITs do have a certain aura, which will help them attract not just good students, but also good faculty.

Kesavan also cites lack of research funds as another negative factor. Again, I am not sure; my experience is everyone with a good idea for a research project gets funded. One may quibble about the rather onerous conditions that these funds come with; since most funding agencies belong to the Government, one has to just live with them. However, the basic point remains valid: there is ample research money to go around for everyone (at least for the present).

To be fair, Kesavan's article does mention some of the charms of working in such elite institutions. What are they?

The most important is academic freedom. This reminds me of a conversation I had with Jayant Haritsa who is a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Automation in our Institute. Our conversation was about the salary differential between industry and academia (which is very large for his field, and is getting larger). He said, "See, the salary difference is the value of our academic freedom. Doesn't it gladden your heart to know that this value keeps growing ever larger, ever faster?"

The second is the joy of teaching some of the brightest students. I would really like to know how the students feel about the teaching in these institutions.

If money is really important to you, these institutions do offer you an opportunity to earn more through industrial consultancy; I am told that there is no limit to the amount you can earn this way, but I may be wrong. However, you have to be working in (and interested in) industrially relevant applied research. There is also another problem with this route: the consultancy work counts for very little at the time of performace appraisal (read promotion) unless you are able to convert some of this work into a research publication.

After taking into account all these observations, I would say there is some agreement: I think that the future of recruitment at elite institutions is not all that promising, while Kesavan seems to imply that it is actually bleak.

I want to end this post with the following rather sobering (if not scary) observation. If highly reputed institutions such as the IITs have difficulty attracting talented young researchers and teachers, just imagine what lesser institutions (NITs, University Engineering Colleges and other -- affiliated -- Engineering Colleges) must be going through. If they don't attract good, solid academics, how are they going to be able to churn out well trained students, required for country's growing economy?

Update: I have changed the URL of the article to the one in the Economic Times site, where it appeared today (21 April 2005). This one is better, since it includes sidebars and graphics that accompanied the original article in the Times.

4 Comments:

  1. sudeep said...

    Can an IIT/IISc professor run a technology company on the side while being a Professor at the same time ?

    What does it take to become one ? Apart from a PhD and some journal papers ?

  2. Abi said...

    Sudeep,

    In addition to a Ph.D. and "some journal papers", don't you think some really serious interest in teaching and living a rather frugal -- but satisfied! -- academic life would also be a pre-requisite for becoming a faculty in these institutions?

    As for professors running a company, there are some experiments that these institutions have indulged in; IISc, for example, has allowed a bunch of professors (the most famous being the gang of four who developed the simputer) to start companies. The results, to put it politely, are mixed.

  3. sudeep said...

    >> really serious interest in teaching and living a rather frugal ..

    Oh yes !! Some really serious interest in teaching is required (I am not sure whether one *has* to want a frugal life to be a professor).

    My question was more from the point of view of pre-requisites.

    >> As for professors running a company, there are some experiments that these institutions have indulged in; IISc, for example, has allowed a bunch of professors (the most famous being the gang of four who developed the simputer) to start companies. The results, to put it politely, are mixed.

    Thats neither here nor there. Relative success/failure of a few individuals can not be held against the value of a concept. Where is the culture of entrepreneurship in IITs/IISc today ? On the other hand, universities in the west where this concept has been allowed to bloom have become powerhouses of national economy (MIT/CMU/Stan/Caltech/UCB..). Itll take time for the concept to take root in India. Theres a large gap between solving technical problems in academia and solving real life/business problems, and I see huge examples of this everyday. People who churn out journal papers at tremendous rates are clueless and lost when it comes to starting a company. :-D

    Has this idea (Professors as entrepreneurs in Indian Universities) reached any level of institutional acceptance within IISc today ? Has it progressed beyond pilot/experimental level ?

  4. sudeep said...

    What I meant to ask was, how does the whole process of becoming a professor at IISc/IIT work.