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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Are we serious about PhD program - part I

The under-graduate education has expanded in India like anything in the last decade or so. But the graduate education enrollment remains very poor, particularly in engineering, and even more starkly so in IT areas, viz., Computer Science, Electronics, Communication, etc. And the PhD students are an even rare breed.

The academic community appears to be unanimous in arguing that the shortage of PhD students is the biggest challenge that they face. But are they really serious about solving the problem. I have my doubts.

I recall an incident that happened during a panel discussion in IISc Bangalore in December 2009 on this issue, where I pointed out that there are a large number of excellent students in NITs and other top non-IIT schools in the country, who for whatever reason had not given GATE, but nevertheless are interested in doing PhD. And I said that IITs would not consider such students because they are too rigid about the GATE requirement.

When I made this comment, one person came on the stage, introduced himself as a Dean of one of the IITs, and said that I don't know what I am talking about. I am outdated and worse. He said that his IIT admits students without GATE, if the student has excellent academic record.

It was very embarrassing, and I really did not know what to say at that point. But just a couple of months later, a student came to my office. I was Director of LNMIIT at that time. This girl was the topper of the graduating batch (and indeed received the Gold Medal after that semester), and she had the best paper award in ICC, a tier 1 conference in Communications. She wanted to do PhD but had not given GATE. I promptly asked my friends in this IIT, where the Dean had proclaimed that they admit students without GATE.

I am sure most of you can guess what would have happened. I was told - no admission without GATE. When I pointed out to this incident in IISc Bangalore, I was told that that IIT had indeed admitted a couple of students in the previous year without GATE, and that is why the Dean was right in saying what he was saying, but they found the quality of those students not so good, and hence have decided not to admit any more non-GATE students.

So, here is a student, a topper of one of the best IT schools outside the IIT system, and who has got the best paper award in a tier 1 conference, and she cannot get admission in any of the 4-5 IITs that she enquired from. Forget admission, she was not even considered eligible to be considered. Now, how many times have you heard of an Indian under-graduate student getting the best paper award in a Tier -1 conference in the world. And if most IITs would consider her ineligible for admission, then the obvious question is, are we serious about PhD program.

One of my colleague once said that we talk about PhD program because it is in fashion to talk about research, and we need to justify not doing research. But we really don't want to admit more PhD students because we are afraid we will have to work harder. I didn't believe him at that time, but when this incident happened last year, I remembered his words.

I have since talked to many faculty members in different NITs and other good schools outside the IIT system. I am told that most of the top students don't write GATE. The form has to be filled up at a time when they are sure of a good job, and by the time they feel that they may consider higher education as an option, the deadline for submitting the form is over. And all these students are rendered ineligible as a result.

I have heard the primary excuses. Ministry of HRD insists on GATE requirement is the excuse offered most commonly. Well, MHRD only says that you can't pay assistantship from MHRD funds to a non-GATE qualified student. Today, all IITs have enough alumni funds to support a few non-GATE students. (And we are talking about supporting the student only for the first 8 months or so, since you can always ask the student to give GATE next year, and give financial assistantship out of MHRD funds after s/he gets a good GATE score.) The second excuse is that if we do not have "objective" barriers to admission, then there will be lot of poor quality admission because of "pressures." Frankly, if a faculty member feels that s/he can be forced to admit several poor quality students, then s/he is in the wrong profession. Should resign and leave.

I am sure there are other more innovative excuses. I am all for innovation, so please share your excuse with me. Write a common on this blog.


dailyreadings said...

Professor, we need to have a structural change in our PhD program at IITs and NITs (I am not including state colleges and universities because I desire to take one step at a time). You have only discussed about entry barrier in your blog and I wish you would discuss on other issues in your subsequent articles.
I agree that GATE should not be a mandatory requirement for getting into a PhD program but it can be one of the desired requirements. The institute can conduct their own tests. However, the requirements of individual institute should be objectively defined and it should not happen that PhD entrance is reduced to favour.

gs said...

Could that student get PhD admission somewhere? Would she be interested in a project position which offers same amount of financial support as MHRD and carry out PhD work? The project problem and PhD problem would be same. Then there can be opportunities at IIT Kharagpur. She has to appear in a Dept. test though and qualify.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@gs, I will find out and let you know. Please send me your email address. Mine is sanghi[AT]

Arnab De said...

GATE is not mandatory for PhD at CSA dept of IISc. Please look at (especially "Note to Ph.D. applicants" in the page)

Pawan Sharma said...

a very interesting real life story in context of prof's article. this is even few levels ideal scenario

Anonymous said...

Do IITs or IISc produce anything but some good (higher level) workers. After Satyendra Nath Bose, what fundamental research has been published (NOT in journals) as theorem? What patent/s of those institutes has been purchased by the global market? Zip, Zilch, Zero. BUT there are REAL researchers who are working without the blatant help of DST or IISc or IITs...

Prashant Shrama said...

I believe that reasons for shortage of Ph.Ds is not much related to the barriers in getting admission but -
1) Financial Security,
2) Lack of self commitment to pursue a profession demanding lot of intellectual efforts at least till it becomes a habit,
3) More incentives ,respect and opportunity outside India. Mainly US, UK and some European nations.
4) Poor family support or lack of guidance and exposure towards research career and
5) To some extent lack of leadership in this front.

Sangeeth Simon said...

I am an Aero engineer. I graduated first class from Amrita school of engg, Coimbatore. I have a published research work at ICTACEM international conference- IIT kgp.Though I coudn't give GATE 2012, I quit 5 jobs ( Including and Airforce job) because i believed in my caliber for research. Every door I knocked at IIT's and IISc, had one question: What is your GATE score? With no other option, I am currently preparing for GATE 2012, so that I can be where I belong to - Top research instiutes of India.
I explained this to point out painfully, that I belong to the category of students whom you addressed in this article.

Prashant Shrama said...

@Sangeeth: Sangeeth, I believe IIT's and IISc as well do amit students without Gate score if the aspirant shows at par performance in their screening/admission test and Interview/s. I had applied for Ph.D in IIT B last year where I was shortlisted for written test. Test went quite well for me and asked to appear for interview, subsequently. But not selected on the basis of combined performances in written and Interview. Although only 5/6 were selected out of approx. 15 aspirants selected for interview.
Just to mention when I applied I had only undergraduate Engineering Degree and 3.5 years of IT experience as developer. I applied for CS department.
I can only think of reason not selecting me was that those 5/6 people were better than me.
But yes GATE score has more impact for the cause of admissions in IITs!

Typical PhD student said...

very nice read. I agree. But again, there has to be some kind of protocol which we probably can not afford to break. For example, the questions in GRE are thousand times more stupid, silly, non-sensical and irrelevant than those asked in GATE, and still a GRE score is mandatory if one thinks of applying for a PhD in USA ! One simply can not by-pass the protocols established, I guess.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Typical PhD Student, the questions in GRE are based on a huge amount of research which show that language abilities, analytical skills, etc., are the best predictor of success in graduate programs and beyond. If you have seen (or conducted yourself) research which says otherwise, I would be very interested in pointers to that.

sutanu said...

as per your last comment; if you think so; dont you think you yourself are saying "gate " is not the best of criteria for PhD?

UKS said...

I just want to ask that what is the guarantee that the students who clear gate have very good knowledge and others do not? why is there reservation for category if iits want only top knowledge students? There are students who clear gate by luck and studying subjects with an idea and just memorizing instead of understanding it very well. there are many questions appear in gate which requires good memory than knowledge and those questions are many times enough to clear the exam. whats the proof that iits are getting top class students only? no, this should not be the only way to judge quality of students to take into iits there is a need of alternative means to take students. so instead of making reservation for category (atleast for seats in iit)make reservation for best students who failed in gate due to some reasons but are eligible and comparable to any student in an iit to study in an iit pls ..... make such an alternative means.

anilintel said...

Hi professor

I will tell my story here .I worked in BEL and got exposed to latest radar signal processing technologies,But I didnt have the Math Back ground to understand the stuff in depth.I applied for PhD in IISc got selected through a rigorous interview process and Joined IISc after resigning my Job.Then I had a paper called Stochastic Models and applications(STOMA).I did my M.E from BITS-Pilani and So I was not required to have gate score for applying for PhD in IISc.
But in the STOMA class my classmates were Gate toppers below 300 rank in ECE and CSA.I was in an alien world because these people stunned me with their analytical skills!!
After some time I quit my PhD and currently I am of the view that You should follow your passion but with reason only.and GATE is a best tool to filter the gems

amit jha said...

I am really surprised that if the lady in question was really passionate about pursuing PhD then why couldn't she find time for writing gate... GATE is a very comprehensive exam and success in it is a good indicator of a persons suitability to pursue Masters/PhD...
If tomorrow a student from class 12 wins that award are we saying that he should be accepted for a PhD program without being asked to complete an undergraduate degree
Problems in India with India with regards to the quality of PhD are not because of GATE , but has to more with the preference of talented student and societal view towards... Saying that I was interested in pursuing a PhD but didn't find time to write GATE is no excuse at all

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@amit jha, I have no faith in GATE. I think it gives no indication of being good for a master's program. On the other hand, being a gold medalist from a good quality educational institution and the best paper award in one of the world's top conference is a much better indicator of performance in the PG programs. And while the PSUs have ensured that every engineering student give GATE these days, it was not the case just six years ago, and most good students in top institutions including IITs and NITs did not give GATE at that time.

Debayan Chakraborty said...

hello professor.

I had met you in march 2015 for a session of syllabus update at an NIT (newly established.I hope you remember as i am not comfortable to state which NIT i am talking about).I really enjoy reading your blog and enthusiasm regarding the education system and its overhaul.
Coming to my point. I agree as GATE as a redundant examination.I have qualified it .I was not eligible for IITS. So i tried my hand at NIT .My focus was on research (and i emphasize on WAS). But i was cheated.In the hurry to give post graduate education in the country the MHRD has started courses without facilities.You had seen the dismal state we were in and what someone who aspires to learn faces even after getting 99 percentile in GATE in the country. Were we not robbed professor. Of our ambitions and aspirations. My friends who could afford an education abroad are now eligible to research with some of the great minds in the country while we professor,we have been left at such a position where our very being is saying no more.
I had left a TCS job for what i dreamed of doing. FOR THE TYPICAL MIDDLE CLASS family from where i am it would have given me some chances which my masters cannot even think of giving me now.
But i will keep on trying .May be one day my labour will bear fruition. If not i will find solace in the fact that i tried.
My proposal professor is to make a rigid rule and examination process before starting such courses.A country like ours does not help a person who has faltered in a step. If more students interested in research face such a hurdle where they are forced day in and day out to suffer from negligence what will be the quality of scientists left in the country.
I have a lot of respect for all the scholars who work so tirelessly (like you) to impart good education and research mindset in the country. i apologize if i crossed limits some place.
But i really wish that the nation restructures the education system and tightens its grip. We do not just need quantity .
A pot of gold is worth more than few truckloads of copper.
If our country would rather have copper than gold then i feel sorry for it professor. i really do.
Thank you
A student

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Debayan, I agree that we should not start universities and institutes in a hurry. For starting a university in private sector, they have so many rules, but when the ownership is of the government, they flout each and every rule of their own.

Srishti- the Creator said...

Respected Sir,
I am a Non-Gate student of Mtech in an institute which is of central government. I am now willing to do research in cs. Till nw I am the topper in my university but my fellowmates always look down on me as their education is funded n mine is not. Though I m writing this year's Gate but this constant thing demotivates me.
Further I hv seen few application forms for phd in IITs and NITs where they say tht non-Gate candidature is also accepted. Is it really true, can I also apply. I m also in the process of writing two research papers and I wd like to get it published.
It would b kind of you if you could help me with this.
With Regards