Dr. Sanjay Goel, Head of Department , JIIT, Noida
Guest Author’s Profile:-
Dr. Sanjay Goel is heading the department of CSE & IT at JIIT, Noida, since 2004. He is an alumnus of BITS Pilani and IIT Delhi. He has nearly 25 years of experience in teaching, software development, and interactive multimedia content development. Prior to joining JIIT, he was working as Director (Multimedia) at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). At IGNCA, he played key role in establishing “Cultural Informatics Laboratory.” He was the founder and principal designer of several multimedia projects and also led the completion of UNDP funded project “Strengthening National Facility for Interactive Multimedia Documentation of Cultural Resources” as National Project Coordinator. Earlier, he worked at NSIT and NIC. He has organized several national and international workshops, seminars, and conferences in India. Since 2008, he is co-chairing the annual International Conference on Contemporary Computing (IC3). He has two passions - (i) invent and introduce pedagogies of engagement in higher education especially computing education in India, and (ii) integrate computing with humanities and arts. He also writes a blog called "Learning & Computing Education: Reflections and Ideation".
This article focusses on the rigour and quality of PhD education in India. Instead of viewing PhD as a means to nurture five P’s, i.e., Passion, Patience, Perseverance, Perspective, and Purpose, a very large number of PhD scholars, supervisors, and academic instututions are increasingly approaching it with a mindset focussed on three D’s, i.e., Degree, Designation, and Dough (money).
One of the main objectives of postgraduate education, especially PhD education, is to prepare intellectual leaders who will do the groundwork to create new paradigms and products for tomorrow . Postgraduate education needs to provide deeper experience in the values, norms, and practices of the chosen profession while also developing the skills, tools, and habits of inquiry within a discipline [2a]. Hence, when it comes to postgraduate education, especially PhD education, the quality concerns ought to become much more important than quantity concerns.
In India, so far, the main employer of PhDs was the university system. There was hardly any requirement or feedback about the quality of Indian PhD from industry. This absence of feedback created an atmosphere of complacency with reference to quality of PhDs. In the last two decades, the exponential growth of higher education, especially in disciplines like engineering, computing, and management has created a huge demand for faculty with PhD degrees. As a response to this general demand, and also their own internal faculty requirements, many universities increased their PhD production without necessarily being sufficiently ambitious about the quality benchmarks. Due to the absence of any other agreed metric, a simplistic criterion like 2-3 published papers in some journal/conference proceedings (even very short papers at sub-standard conferences/journals) is sometimes considered as the goal of a scholar’s PhD work.
According to a 2010 Nasscom report  , India’s fast growing engineering R&D services industry has reached $10 billion. As per this report, there are over 300 captive Engineering R&D facilities in India employing about 85,000 engineers. Further, the leading twenty independent service providers that serve multiple verticals, employ over 60,000 engineers. Nasscom forecasts that this industry will reach $24 billion by 2015, and possibly $45 billion by 2020. During this period, India has the potential to capture a 40% share of global offshore revenues in 11 key verticals of engineering R&D services—Aerospace, Automative, Telecom, Semiconductor, Computing Systems, Consumer Electronics, Medical Devices, Energy, Infrastructure, Industrial Automation, and Construction/Heavy Machinary.
In developed economies, a very large number of PhD graduates join industry . For example, in the USA in some disciplines, e.g., psychology, chemistry, chemical engineering, etc., only 20-30% PhD’s join academics, and more than 50% in Computer Science join the industry. A 2005 study showed that 46% PhD’s in chemical engineering from six Australian universities joined private industry. Another study showed that 40% of engineering PhD in Norway have industrial collaboration.
Trends emerging in the Indian industry are now showing signs of opening similar opportunities in India. In the future, Indian universities can play a very active and constructive role to support and accelerate the growth of Indian R&D industry by taking the responsibility to prepare high quality Masters and PhDs suitable for industry. Only a few Indian universities and institutes have recognized this opportunity and are responding to it accordingly. The fast growing engineering R&D services industry will anyway fulfill their manpower requirements from such select few places in India, and from western universities. However, if a good size set of Indian universities do not appropriately respond to this emerging need, the larger national dream to see India as a knowledge superpower cannot be realized.
Rigour and effort are most essential inputs (though insufficient) for high quality education. European universities typically require 180 credits for completing PhD work, which is same as the credit requirement of a bachelor’s degree and three times the credit requirement of a master’s degree. According to Bologna process, one European credits is normally equivalent to 25-30 hrs of work. Hence, broadly speaking the PhD should require 4500 – 5400 hrs of work. According to Bologna process, the normal projected duration of a doctorate should correspond to 3–4 years of full time study. Wrt to part time candidates, some European universities require a minimum of 6 years of work. A survey  of around 200 PhD students at York University, Canada showed that 6 years was the average time to complete their degrees. Out of these students only 8% started as part time students and 66% never switched to part time status.
At good US Universities, it normally takes 4-5 years of work for full-time scholars to complete PhD work. A study  of PhD students at Rutgers University showed that the mean time for completion of degree requirement for students who spend more than 52 hours per week for their PhD studies is 4.5 years. This was found to be 6.7 years for those who spent 44 hours per week. In a conversation, Prof. Sartaj Sahni of the University of Florida indicated that for full-time students, it takes around 5 years of regular work to complete the PhD requirements. Demanding advisors normally expect and engage the PhD candidates to work for 60-70 hours per week. In another conversation regarding part-time PhD, Prof. Rao Vemuri of University of California, Davis, told that he had supervised two part time PhD scholars, and both took around 8 years for completing the required work.
In a conversation, Prof. A.B. Bhattacharyya, who supervised more than 30 PhD’s at IIT Delhi told that most of his PhD candidates were full time research staff of funded projects at CARE, IIT Delhi. Their PhD problem and work was part of the goals of the funded projects and these candidates had no other responsibilities like teaching etc. As per Prof. Bhattacharyya, these students at IIT Delhi took 5-7 years to complete their degree and more than 80% joined industry after completing their PhD.
The PhD ordinances at many Indian Universities normally expect the candidates to complete the PhD work in 2-5 years, even for part time candidates. Government scholarship is available for 5 years to full-time candidates with a BTech degree augmented with GATE/MSc. and NET. The full-time PhD candidates with M.E/M.Tech. get higher scholarship for four years. Hence, even the Indian government’s financial support system expects 4-5 years of work for full-time candidates after the master’s degree. Naturally, the duration has to be higher for part time candidates.
A very large number of PhD candidates in India, especially in engineering, computer science, and management disciplines, are part-time candidates who register at a very young age of 25 – 30. This is very different from developed countries. For example, in UK, less than 30% PhD candidates choose the part-time option . Interestingly they do so after good years of work experience. The average age at the start of their PhD registerations has been found to be 38 years which is 10 years higher than the respective age of full-time candidates.
In India, the part-time PhD candidates usually work as full-time faculty members at same university or some other college. The main motivation for majority is to improve their prospects in an academic career. This is in contrast with the data reported in the UK report  where a larger fraction of UK-domiciled researchers were found to be mainly motivated by interest in the subject rather than to improve their prospects in an academic career.
In India, a typical young (age: 25-35) faculty member who also pursues part-time PhD has to devote at least 35 -40 hours per week for their teaching and administrative responosibilities. Most of them are married and even have parental responsibilities. Normally in Indian families, the home responsibilities become even more demanding for married ladies, especially mothers. Hence, part-time PhD candidates are normally not in a position of spending more than 10-20 hours per week for their PhD work. Consequently, it is only natural that they cannot normally produce high quality research before 6-10 years of work as a part-time PhD scholar. Indian universities, supervisors, research committee members, examiners, and even PhD candidates need to seriously consider whether it is appropriate for them to expect and encourage the completion of required work for PhD before such a duration of active engagement. Such expectation and trends can lead to a culture of mediocrity, and lower benchmarks, and will ultimately thwart the efforts to improve the quality of undergraduate and master’s level education.
Based on his direct interactions with some sections of Indian academia, Prof. Rao Vemuri commented on this issue, “What bothers me most is the quality of Ph.D.’s being produced and especially the mad rush to get Ph.D.’s. I am appalled to learn that Ph.D.’s are for sale by some universities (and professors). Equally disturbing is the naivete of candidates’ concept of what it takes to get a Ph.D. Only today, a prospective Ph.D. student gave me his vision of a dissertation: it is about the size and scope of a term paper in my graduate courses at the University of California. This sorry state of affairs is the direct result of the apathy of guides (advisers) not doing their job. In the US, the emphasis on the process (course work, comprehensive and qualifying examination, and the like) more or less acts as a safety net. Even if the dissertation (the product) turns out to be of average quality, the process guarantees some minimum quality. In India there is a growing need to put more emphasis on course work because many of the students and new Ph.D.’s that I encountered are ill-prepared to provide the intellectual leadership we expect of a Ph.D.” “… A typical Ph. D student in India, it appears, is a part-time student who spends one hour a day and gets the degree in about 3 calendar years. You do the numbers.”
Sandor Kopatsy, a Hungarian economist, well known for his writings about the relationship of economic prosperity and social well being in society, wrote a paper (1999) “The Intellectual capital is the most Important.” He argued that Intellectual Capital cannot be treated and measured like tangible properties. He proposed an equation -Intellectual Capital = Knowledge x Effort x Talent x Morality. Absence of any one of these four components makes Intellectual Capital ZERO.
PhD is not just simply yet another degree. In Spain less than 10% PhD candidates are finally granted the degree. In USA, around 50% candidates across disciplines do not complete the degree. It is respected in the society because it symbolises a high level of intellectual (and supposedly moral) growth of the person. For example, the social standing of PhD in Spain is so high that only PhD holders, Grandees and Dukes can sit and cover their heads in the presence of the King. Intellect is grown by developing intellectual capital. Koptasy’s model has already been viewed in the context of PhD work . Here, I elaborate further looking at it from the perspective of effort. Knowledge and talent of a candidate depend on the accumulated intellectual capital of the candidate. Effort and Morality are the only new inputs in the process that are under candidate’s control. Hence, both are essential for ensuring required intellectual growth of PhD candidate.
With good effort and high academic morality, even mediocre knowledge and talent, can create good intellectual capital. However, increasing tendency to accept low/mediocre effort for awarding PhDs will encourage the growth of a negative academic morality. In such a situation, irrespective of the knowledge, talent, and effort, negative academic morality will only enable the creation of negative intellectual capital and harm the academics as well as society. If this issue is left unaddressed for long by the academic community, PhD that has been traditionally considered as a reliable (often the only) benchmark of the college/university faculty quality, will also fast lose its respect like many other degrees. As can be seen in the responses of various experts, the process has already began. It is for us to consider, reflect, and respond.
Issues for Reflection:
In the light of the above discussion, there is a need to reflect about some of the following questions:
1. With reference to tomorrow’s needs, what should be the parameters of quality for PhD education?
2. In order to identify quality work, is there a need to grade the PhD work?
3. Is there a need to define some guidelines for the required study and research effort for completing PhD?
4. With reference to tomorrow’s needs, what should be the desirable attributes of a PhD graduate?
5. How much of breadth and inter-disciplinarity must be incorporated in PhD education?
6. What should be the role of an advisor in guiding a PhD candidate?
7. What should be the role of the department in educating a PhD candidate?
8. How much of industry collaboration/idea exchange should be encouraged in PhD education? How can this be achieved?
9. What should be the attributes of a good PhD advisor?
10. How do we encourage enrollment of R&D engineers from industry as part-time/full-time PhD candidates?
11. Should it be mandatory to publish the thesis on the Web along with the names, affiliation, and summary reports of thesis examiners?
12. In India, is there a need to create profession specific doctoral study programs on the lines of D.Engg, D.Ed., or DBA?
1. Academic Rigour in Contemporary Indian Higher Education: Some Questions and Reflections
2. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine (1995), Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers.
2a. R. Neal Shambaugh, Refraiming Doctoral Programs: A Program of Human Inquiry for Doctoral Students and Faculty Advisors, Innovative Higher Education, Vol. 24, No. 4, Summer 2000, Human Science Press.
5. Taran Thune, Doctoral students on the university–industry interface: a review of the literature, High Educ (2009) 58:637–651, Springer
6. Belinda Crawford Seagram, Judy Gould, and Sandra W. Pyke, An investigation of gender and other variables on time to completion of doctoral degrees, Research in Higher Education, Vol. 39, No. 3, 1998
7. Lisa Gillingham, Joseph J. Seneca, and Michael K. Taussig, The determinants of progress to the doctoral degree, Research in Higher Education, Vol. 32, No. 4, 1991
8. Universities UK Report (2009), Promoting the UK doctorate:opportunities and challenges, http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/Publications/Documents/research_report_d...
9. Howard Harris and Katalin Illes, Promoting and Assessing Integrity
in the Research Degree, Electronic Journal of Business Ethics and Organization Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2 (2008), pp 56-60.
10. Guest Article: Weakness in the PhD programmes
11. Chitleen K Sethi and Smriti Sharma Vasudeva, ’Original research’ for PhD on sale!, Tribune News Service, http://www.tribuneindia.com/2010/20100409/main2.htm
12. German PhD degree on sale, scandal that takes shine off the real one, http://www.whatsonxiamen.com/news7015.html
13. Academics fear PhD quality is slipping, Times Higher education, UK, Jan 2009, http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=404928