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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Are we serious about PhD program - part III

In the last two editions, I have talked about the barriers to PhD admission. In this part, I want to talk about the treatment that we give to those who despite our best efforts still manage to get admission into the program.

When I was Director of LNMIIT, I considered faculty recruitment as the most important part of my job. I made one simple rule. I will not sleep in the night before responding to all emails from all potential faculty candidates. So the maximum delay that such a person would see in the response of his/her email would be 24 hours, though normally it would be a couple of hours.

When I met these candidates, I would definitely ask them why they are interested in LNMIIT, as opposed to new IITs and a few top rated NITs. They all were impressed by the speed with which we took decisions on faculty recruitment, but it was more than that.

What many candidates told me was that they were in a great hurry to find a job. Apparently their supervisors had told them not to apply for jobs till they submit the thesis. And after they submitted their thesis, they would have financial assistance for a limited period of time, and if they did not get a job within this small period of time, it would be very difficult for them financially. And all government institutes, even the good ones, have a process for faculty recruitment which cannot be shortened too much. So, any institute, which was decent in terms of reputation, research support, salary, etc., and considered their applications quickly, would be a good institute for them to join.

How could their supervisors demand that they don't apply for jobs. It was simple. They would not write a letter of recommendation, and no academic institute would normally consider a candidate whose supervisor is not willing to write a letter of recommendation.

And, this did happen to me in a couple of cases, when the PhD student applied without permission from his supervisor, and when I asked for a letter from the supervisor, he refused saying that the student should not have applied for a job before submitting.

And I got this story from large number of PhD students, across top institutes (we mostly considered only PhDs from IITs, IISc, etc. for faculty positions), and across disciplines (we were recruiting primarily CS, ECE, Physics, and Maths). So I guess it must be true of a large number of faculty members, if not a majority of them (at least, I would still like to believe that it is not true of majority of them).

And, in my humble opinion, this is absurd. This is forcing students to take up jobs and careers, which may not be their first choice. For the absolute top class PhDs, IITs would be willing to give a visiting faculty appointment (or the department itself would extend the support in some form), but in most cases, students have no choices. They can have a better career, if they can apply for jobs when they are close to finishing the thesis, but many of us don't permit that.

And I know the excuse. Once the student gets a job, s/he puts pressure on the supervisor to let him/her submit whatever has been done and written, and therefore, the quality suffers. And because you can't be firm with your PhD student, you will find other ways to hurt his/her career.

A PhD student who has faced this master-slave relationship, is s/he going to tell others to do a PhD. But do we care?


WebMiner said...

Rejecting the rare eligible candidate is certainly a problem that needs fixed. But, in aggregate, IIT professors canot be "serious about [their] PhD program" according to their own whims. They have to depend on the ecosystem that feeds the pipeline, which simply does not exist at scale. You are concerned that engineering colleges do not teach anything. Schools are no better. They keep kids busy without instilling any spirit of inquiry. At the end of sixteen years of dysfunctional education, one can be excused for not wanting to do research.

BTW, you might want to change the labels "funny", "interesting" and "cool" for more appropriate ones.

Prometheus said...

Great to see the real is coming out, Finally!!. kudos to you. Attitude towards PhD Student needs a big change. I clearly remember that, while talking to in an informal gathering; one of the faculty member from IIT, said " By admitting student in PhD prog. we are making you all employable, in some sense we are doing social service !!!! ". Well now how can be the student any more feel enthusiastic about his research and connected with the department and later the institute... there are many more examples .. which one can go on and on ... what is needed is a big change in the attitude .. rest will automatically get corrected. Treat them as a colleague not as a slave/object where you can practice your social service to feel good in the evening.