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Friday, August 3, 2018

MTech program needs change

There was a time when MTech students were the major research manpower in our technical institutions. The number of PhDs were very small, and faculty needed some hands to work in their labs. We also needed some people to help us as Teaching Assistants to support our under-graduate teaching. So the focus of MTech program was not that we are preparing them for industry. That had to happen for us to attract anyone to the MTech program, but the program was not optimized for those outcomes. Since we needed MTech students for our research and teaching support, we would offer good students not only fee waivers, but also a decent stipend.

On the input side, there were always those few students in NITs and other good institutes who had enjoyed their under-graduate education, were more curious to learn more, did not want to commit for a PhD program (and hence getting scholarship from abroad was difficult) and if IITs offered a program which did not require depending financially on parents, why not spend 2 years in a good environment (and perhaps get a tag of an IITian as well). It was a pleasure to work with these students.

But slowly, situation is changing. The number of PhD students has gone up quite a bit in the last 10-15 years and is still climbing. So the dependence on MTech students for doing our research has declined. The top students in NITs and other good institutions are going directly for corporate jobs in larger numbers. In fact, we hardly see any applicant from NITs and IIITs these days. Also, the starting of dual-degree programs has meant that our own BTech students (who are better trained than most of the students we are now recruiting in our MTech program from affiliated colleges) are continuing as MTech students. We are also becoming more open to the idea of some of the senior Under-graduate students to help us as Teaching Assistants in our courses. (Some IITs allow even 2nd year students to be TAs.)

The motivation of the students joining the MTech program is mostly to get better trained than what a typical private affiliated college has been able to do, and improve the quality of job that they can get. From a job in the IT services industry, they want to move up the value chain and join a product company (and I am told similar motivation in other disciplines as well).

So if the motivation of students have changed, and the requirement of faculty has changed, shouldn't that get reflected in the way we handle our MTech program.

What would prepare our MTech students better for industry. Currently, we have roughly 1 year of course work and 1 year of thesis. (In IITK, it is 0.75 years of course work and 1.25 years of thesis, since we had the maximum shortage of PhD students historically. So a greater focus on MTech research.) To prepare these students better for industry, we need to improve their core knowledge, and expose them to several new ideas, and finally, get them to integrate/synthesize all they have learnt by doing a substantial project. So we need to increase course work, and reduce the thesis to a project.

This will also free up faculty time, since guiding an unwilling student for 3 semester and then eventually writing their thesis is not a worthwhile investment of time when you have PhD students on one hand, and dual-degree students on the other.

Of course, if there is someone really interested in research and is academically well prepared for it, there should be an option to do that.

More importantly, if we are no longer depending on MTech students for research support or teaching support, we don't need to have a fee waiver and a stipend for everyone in this program. The financial support should be contingent upon someone either being selected (after a careful selection process) as a teaching assistant, or someone doing quality research work. In fact, research support may come through the sponsored research route rather than using the Institute funds. This will also allow us to expand our MTech program substantially and be more useful to industry as a result. This will also push those students who are interested in research to think of joining our PhD program.

In summary, an MTech program may have about one semester of refresher courses, one semester of courses which is exposing them to advanced topics in multiple areas (breadth), and one semester of courses which provide them depth in the area they want to work more, and finally, one semester project work. Of course, one size never fits all, and the basic template could be tweaked if someone comes better prepared, is interested in research. We could allow project work to be replaced by appropriate internship experience in industry. Create several such flexible options around the basic template. Financial support only if one gets selected as teaching assistant or a faculty member is willing to recruit you on his/her sponsored research project. There may be a few need-based scholarships.

3 comments:

Vikrant Kumar said...

Regarding reducing the thesis work and replacing/complementing it with industry internship, most of the private colleges and NITs already have that system. They have one year of courses followed by one year of internship and work in the internship is considered towards M.Tech thesis/project. Of course one can debate whether the internship period should be one year or six months. But internship over 6 months or 1 year definitely give students a very high chance of getting PPO from the companies as opposed to 2 months summer intern. It is beneficial for both the students and the companies.

iitmsriram said...

@dheeraj, IITM has taken a slightly different approach; though all MS (by research) programs were closed as a matter of national policy, we have chosen to continue this program. The MTech has a project, not really a thesis, so it is more course oriented. Those with research bent would enrol for MS. And those MTech's who discover research is what they want to do, we offer them to upgrade their registration from MTech to MTech + PhD after they complete one year of course work (MS students also get this option to upgrade to PhD). We are finding that almost half the MS admissions are upgrading to PhD. Also, when my (AE) department wanted to increase the MTech seats, our senate recommended to double the strength by adding non-HTTA seats, as some sort of experiment. This has been running for two years and we are finding that the seats are getting filled. However, the numbers are small, so it is not clear if we can draw any inferences. Also, the HTTA is relatively less (12400 per month) and the fees have not been revised, still at 5000 per semester (unlike BTech where fee is 1 lakh per semester), so we don't know whether fee paying students will line up. Of course, Anna University across the street from us has ME program that is essentially no-scholarship and full fee paying and they do fill their seats. We have started industry oriented MTech (Kakodkar committee called it executive MTech) via VC and this is finding very good traction. One electronics major has decided to shift their global training operations to India, with this as the centre-piece and high end of the program. OK, OK, to get to the point, IITs have not been rethinking the MTech program much but we do seem to spend much effort rethinking the UG program.

Rahul Agrawal said...

Dear Sir, indeed a good thought. I learned more from my M.Tech. course work than my 4 years of UG study, so I also agree with increasing course work. A small practice I feel can be done is to give M.Techs, research work which is essentially an extension of previous doctoral work or a well defined industrial problem. The motive should be to teach them how 'research is done' and not expect something extra ordinary. In this way they will be in better position to judge if they want to pursue research ahead or go to industry.