Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Poaching as a strategy to fight faculty crunch at IITs?

Whenever the topic turns to the creation of new institutions -- be they IITs or Central Universities -- you get people expressing this concern: "But where will they get their faculty from?" The latest to join this grumpy and not-so-gruntled group is Pankaj Jalote. The picture he paints is pretty grim indeed.

... As a PhD is necessary for a faculty position in an IIT, we ... need about 500 fresh PhDs in engineering every year to provide the faculty for the IITs.

Let us look at the supply side. An IIT produces about 100 PhDs a year in engineering, which means a total of about 600 PhDs are being produced by the top institutes every year. More than half of these will join lucrative careers in industry or go overseas (the actual percentage is likely to be higher). Of the remaining, many will not be acceptable to IITs for faculty positions (as not only a PhD is required, the quality of work and past education record also must be good.) So, even after stretching the limits, there will be less than 100 suitable candidates available for these 600 faculty positions!

Clearly, the problem is not solvable by resources within the country. There is, however, a large pool of PhDs in the US (and elsewhere) of Indian origin. According to one report, the number of Indians who got PhDs in the US in computer science (CS) in a year was 275 (out of about 1,000), which, incidentally, is about 10 times the number of PhDs produced in India in CS. The number of PhDs in other disciplines would be of similar order — according to a NSF report about 1,500 Indians were awarded PhD in science and technology in 2006. If we consider the graduates of the last few years, a thousand-strong pool of Indian PhDs exists in the US in each discipline.

It is this pool of resource that is our only visible hope for meeting the faculty crunch — if only we can attract some of them back.

I agree with much of what he says, and I certainly don't want to downplay the challenge that the IITs face. All I want to say here is that the pool of candidates is far larger than fresh PhDs, and it's not clear why Jalote doesn't want to consider the other options in this bigger pool.

Who are these "other options"? Professors at other colleges and researchers in our research labs.

The IITs may want to pluck them from their current places, but why would they want to move to IITs? There are many reasons, but the bootomline is that the IITs are still the best bet in India for folks interested in teaching and research. To begin with, IITs enjoy enormous prestige and respect. They offer a great deal of autonomy. They offer a research environment -- infrastructure, research grants, travel money -- that people at other institutions can only envy from afar. They offer access to some of the best student talent India has to offer. And, salaries are much better at the IITs than at research labs, NITs and universities!

In most disciplines (except perhaps computer science and allied fields), India's vast system of research labs -- CSIR, Defence, Atomic Energy and Space -- employ a huge number of researchers. Similarly, the NITs and university engineering colleges also have a fairly large number of faculty members. Granted, not all of them are going to be of great interest to the IITs (and not all of them may even want to move to the IITs), but given the advantages of moving to the IITs, they should be able to attract some of the more successful professors and researchers from these places.

Are there examples of high-profile institutions that have poached from our research labs and universities? IISERs. I know of a few people who have moved to IISERs from research labs and universities. [If you have some statistics, please share them -- either through comments or by e-mail. ]

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However, there is a cost to this kind of poaching: it will shift the HR challenge to the other institutions and research labs. They will have to find ways of becoming attractive destinations for promising faculty members and researchers. This task, however, is not easy because many of them carry the burden of their past in terms of hierarchical organizational structure (and mindset), poor infrastructure (not applicable for labs belonging to the strategic sectors), and a salary structure that puts them at a disadvantage.

Let me admit (once again) that the challenge posed by the faculty shortage is a big one. However, my (somewhat) limited point is this: because they can resort to poaching as a part of their faculty development strategy, IITs enjoy a huge advantage over the other institutions in facing (and overcoming) this challenge.

* * *

BTW, poaching is available as a HR strategy to NITs and Central Universities as well; they certainly are better places to work at than are many of our State Universities and Colleges. I'm not so sure about whether they offer any advantage to people in our research labs, though.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Yeah, right. IITs don't even acknowledge the applications they get, and conduct interviews like any other government department. Poaching needs work, clear thinking about what is needed, and who has it.

    Also, IITs are in rather unattractive places. Who wants to move from say, Pune/Mysore/Karaikudi/Trivandrum, to Kanpur or Kharagpur or Guwahati? Or even Delhi, Bombay or Chennai for that matter?

  2. Anonymous said...

    Professor Abi,

    I agree with most of what Prof. Jalote says; your views are rather
    interesting too. Let me look from the other side - why IITs are NOT AT ALL attractive to senior talent even from within India - for that matter why 'poaching' as a strategy may not work on a massive scale.

    (1) First and foremost - Salary. I think your statement " And salaries are much better at the IITs than at research labs, NITs and Univs" is plain wrong. This is an impression most of the general public has, and even some newspaper articles carry this impression forward - Nothing could be farther from truth. And people tend to believe this - due to the prestige factor you mentioned! Faculty salaries at IITs - compared to universities - were better (albeit marginal) till 1973, after that the pay scales were equalized - ostensibly to
    promote mobility between them. What happened to mobility after is all too known. Now when it comes to national labs, salaries of top scientists have always been one step higher than full profs at IITs - more abt this in point 4.

    (2) Again back to salary. One would be inclined to think salaries in the teaching sector follow the order: IITs/IISc --> Central Univs/NIT --> State Univs --> Ordinary colleges. NOT SO. Across the board - Right from IITs/IISc to 16000 or so ordinary colleges dotting indian landscape -Salaries in comparable/similar posts are THE SAME. There may be differences in titles: -Asst/Assoc/Prof in IITs, Lecturer/Asst.Prof/Prof. in NITs,
    Lecturer/Reader/Prof in Univs, Lecturer/Reader/Sel. Grade Lect./Prof in Colleges. Most of the state govts. have UGC scale for college teachers - essentially similar as in IITs. For those readers not familiar with the
    situation, here is the link - go to Annexure I at the end - Central Univ/NITs too have the same structure - these are easily seen in the public domain.
    (Some states don't have UGC scales for college teachers - but ensure near-parity)

    (3) Now let me elaborate - this is one of the most insane policy in public edu. Critics say most college teachers don't work even an hour a day - yet get equivalent salaries to their IIT counterparts - many of them have to work 10 hrs a day: More abt their work in point 4. And don't forget - College teachers
    can join at the age of 22 after MA/MSc/Mcom. How abt IIT teachers -at 33+, after PhDs in engineering + some postdoc exp. This leads to rather grotesque situations, like in Kerala - where a college teacher at 35 yrs who joined at 22 gets more money than an IIT teacher at that age! I know this
    from my cousin. The standard route is: join at 22 at lecturer, get a run of the mill MPhil degree after 3-4 yrs, move to next level (10000-15000) at 35 you'll earn more than a new Asst. Prof at IIT. Now I am not against people with genuinely similar qual. being paid the same from IITs to ordinary colleges, but the provision is simply being abused in India.

    My comments are getting rather long. Excuse me for posting such big ones. I would send in the rest only if Prof. Abi permits it, thanks all.


  3. cipher said...

    @ the comment above:
    I think Abi has pointed out umpteen times that being a Professor is more about getting a good environment for research than salaries and other emoluments.
    @ Abi: IITs are not great avenues research wise and provide a better undergraduate education than most other places. Thats why I think people prefer working in IISc s and TIFRs than IITs.

  4. Anonymous said...

    I doubt that serving scientists will be interested in teaching. Teaching involves a lot of work epsecially in places like IIT with under-grad students (IISc and TIFR are different) and these senior scientists are already past doing so much work.

    Why not employ retired professors and scientists ? They can be taken on some contract basis. But they may have to be payed very well to get them interested, atleast the good ones.

  5. Animesh said...

    As someone with a B.Tech from IT-BHU, a recent PhD from the US and currently working as a postdoc in a top European research lab, all I can say is [source]:

    Sayeen Itna Deejiye, Ja Mein Kutumb Samaye
    Main Bhi Bhookha Na Rahun, Sadhu Na Bhookha Jaye

    Give so much O God, suffice to envelop my clan
    I should not suffer cravings, nor the visitor goes unfed

    Sure, researchers choose this track for intellectual pursuits [otherwise, I strongly recommend getting a masters and minting money], but that should NOT mean that the powers that be can treat them like dirt.

    Sure, many perks exist at IITs etc, but going by the recent ads posted for the new IITs and the great discussions on the rri yahoogroup, I can say for sure that our institutions think that posting a standard 1990s ad will get them the hordes of top-grade researchers that they need, no matter how low the quoted packages are, and how badly the perks are omitted.

    Well, I beg to differ. Sure, some crazy desh-sevaks will come and join no matter what, but not in the numbers needed. The IITs [and the GoI in general] needs to wake up to the reality that in the end, even for academicians, a visibly more lucrative place [with better research infrastructure and higher pay] is after all, well, a more lucrative place.

    And with regards to poaching -- I would like to ask -- poaching with what? Last time I checked, you could not poach a rhino if the only weapon you had was a tree branch and you did not want to upgrade to a rifle.

    My 2 centimes.

  6. Anonymous said...


    I was just trying to correct the statement, "And, salaries are much better at IITs..." - which has the benefit of legitimacy, since Abi is a Professor at IISc.