Remember this op-ed that I linked to two days ago? In it, Jaideep Srivastava and Pankaj Jalote address the issue of increasing the number of science and engineering PhDs in India. In particular, they propose creating a new fellowship program for PhD students who could use it to spend two years -- say, their third and fourth years -- in labs of their advisers' collaborators in universities abroad. They cite China and Pakistan as the countries that have adopted this method to boost the number of PhDs. They feel that this will "pump-prime" academic R&D and PhD programs in India.
Let me come right out and say I don't like it. When we bemoan the (generally) poor state of R&D in India, we ought to be examine the bottlenecks within our system and make every effort to remove them. An option that uses an external source of help can at best be a a crutch; in my view, Srivastava and Jalote elevate this crutch and give it a privileged treatment! The US researchers are placed on a pedestal, and the opportunity to work in their labs is being cited as the 'feature' that will attract bright PhD aspirants to our universities. It demeans the expertise of Indian academics by making them, at best, second class partners in the PhD students' development. (Even if this is not what Srivastava and Jalote meant, I certainly don't see how the collaborative arrangement proposed by them can be thought of as one between equals). This is just not on.
[Aside 1: There are also other problems with their proposal: it's too small, and it's quite expensive. The numbers they cite for China (4000) and Pakistan (400) clearly are too small to make a big difference. Even their proposed numbers for India -- about 1000 every year in science and engineering -- for India represent less than 20 percent of the current PhD output! Thus, even with their program in place, India will still have to deal with the problems that plague the remaining research enterprise.]
[Aside 2: Does India really need to increase its PhD numbers? If all we want are more PhDs, we can get them -- including foreigners, and desi PhDs who are working elsewhere --- by paying the right price. If we believe this report, this price may not even be too high! Also, do we know what our current PhDs do after their graduation? For example, do we have a thriving market for PhDs in India, and if so, how big is it? Our R&D labs are notorious for selecting bachelors graduates for filling the bulk of their staffing needs. Finally, how many of our PhDs go abroad, never to return?]
[For the rest of this post, we will assume that there really is a strong need to increase India's PhD output. Read on ...]
Coming back to the proposal by Srivastava and Jalote, does India really need this external help for increasing its PhD output? In engineering, the number of PhDs is admittedly small (about 800 per year). Across all our engineering institutions, there ought to be at least 5000 faculty members who could, in principle, be graduating 2000 PhDs every year without asking for any special favours! If I may put it using industrial terminology, there is ample "spare capacity" that we can press into operation, if only an adequate supply of "raw material" were available. The raw material that is in short supply is the bright young research talent with a solid academic training at the undergraduate level.
[Aside 3: Money is certainly a very, very important factor. We know that India's support for university research has been abysmally low; we really have been running our university research on the cheap. Unless funding levels increase, asking for more PhDs is futile. It does not require great deal of smarts to realize that if you want to double the PhD output, you should be willing to double the funding for academic R&D. Given the decades-long neglect of our universities, we may actually need to more than double the funding for academic research during the initial years]. Fortunately, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has announced huge increases in education funding over the next five years, so money for higher education may no longer be such a major constraint.]
Thus, the key question is: what are the ways in which we can ensure an ample supply of the right raw material to run India's PhD enterprise?
The supply of students with a good undergraduate training. Out of some half a million engineering graduates, less than 25 percent are deemed by NASSCOM as employable. Let us use employability as a proxy for quality of undergraduate education. Then, if we can improve our undergraduate institutions to double this employability figure to 50 percent, our pool of PhD aspirants would also double. Clearly, this requires rethinking and reforming our undergraduate programs and institutions. I have written about it before, so let me move on.
Enhanced supply need not translate into enhanced PhD enrollment. We live in an era when our bright stars have tons of options to choose from. This implies that that we ought to find ways to make doctoral studies in Indian academic institutions attractive. This, in turn, demands that we address financial and non-financial needs of our PhD students. Here are some ideas to start with:
- World-class academic infrastructure: well-equipped labs, excellent internet bandwidth, great academic library that works 24x7, uninterrupted power and water supply, etc.
- An increased stipend: currently, it's around Rs.12,000, and it should be higher. [How much higher? Is the starting salary in a public sector company a good benchmark?]
- Good on-campus accommodation. They should preferably be studio apartments for everyone (it should definitely be better than hostel accommodation), and one-bedroom apartments for married students. Nobody should be made to wait in a queue for on campus accommodation (which happens routinely in many of our institutions for married couples).
- Academic autonomy: they should be able to work with advisors of their choice (with the advisors' consent, of course). In case they run into trouble with their current advisors, they should be able to switch to someone else without much trouble.
- Financial autonomy: An annual grant of, say, Rs. 20,000, placed at the disposal of each student.
- A comprehensive health coverage for the students and their spouses and children.
- A reformed administration that treats PhD students with respect. Currently, our students undergo a lot of procedural indignities, which must be removed. Payment of stipend, for example, must be automatic unless there's a good reason to withhold it.
- Generous travel grants, that allow a student to participate in conferences within India at least once every year and in international conferences abroad at least once during the PhD tenure. [Right now, students scrounge around for travel grants from multiple agencies.]
- A well-maintained non-academic infrastructure, including facilities for games, sports, yoga, dance, aerobics, a swimming pool, a well-stocked, non-technical and multilingual library, and good places for socializing (eateries, coffee houses, ...).
- A graduate student hall (with a refrigerator, a microwave, and a TV) in each department: PhD students do spend long hours -- even after dark -- in the Department, and they need some non-lab space to chill out.
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What else do you think Indian institutions need to do if they are to become attractive destinations for a great number of bright young PhD aspirants? Feel free to pitch in with your ideas.