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25 June 2008

How Doctorates Are Doctored In India

A student wants to write a thesis on an untouched subject. He approaches a 'guide', a professor in the know of previously researched topics and also the person who can fetch the student his research degree. The latter exploits the former to the extent of extracting personal, menial jobs from the poor student. If the young chap obliges — which most of PhD aspirants do — he gets a doctorate, irrespective of his knowledge in the subject concerned. If not, he is thrown out of the system. That's the story of research in India
Sandeep Nagar

One wonders how many people give a serious thought to the fact that India is a premier country to supply scientific human resources to developing countries and yet we are so backward when it comes to scientific research.

We took 23 years (1984-2007) to make a Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) when aviation just completed its first century and that too by assembling foreign parts*. We always get second-hand accomplishments in semiconductor technology. We still lack state-of-the-art fab (fabrication unit for electronic chips) in this country˚. When the world is moving towards 45 nm technology, we are struggling to get 130 nm technology and that too imported. We manage the world's biggest software industry but when it comes to making a big foray into software research, our companies shy away from 'adventure'. We still count upon CV Raman, Chandrashekhar and Hargobind Khurana to get the country some 'credit' for Nobel prizes, conveniently forgetting that two of these Nobel laureates did their work outside India.

Refer to any volume of a science journal and you would find at least 10 articles with Indian names but very few from Indian institutes; never mind that 12% medical practitioners in USA and 36% of NASA scientists are born in India †. We rarely see a headline which says that a certain experiment was conducted for the first time in the world by an Indian in India, whereas seeing a foreigner achieve scientific feats in his native country is so commonplace. Indian research journals have such a low impact factor rating that even Indian scientists do not want to publish their research here ‡. Two Indian journals had crossed the mark of 1.00 impact factor in 2004 while prominent journals abroad crossed impact factors of 50 long ago.

Few such Indian names can be recalled readily that stand for a scientist's just and successful fight against an anti-research environment. On studying the success stories of achievers in the field of science and technology, one finds that the system never contributed to the individual's success in a positive way. Former president of India Abdul Kalam's autobiography is just a single case in point.

An explanation of an anti-research environment is merited here. The field of research is based purely on creativity and innovation. One has to be innovative to see what is new and then transform the new idea into a product. For PhD students, it's the thesis. Everything depends on your approach. First you seek someone who already knows a lot about the subject (an animal whom we call "guide" , as if we are some sheep to be herded!) to know about the subject. He can explain to the aspiring doctorates what work has already been done in the given field. Then it's the student's job to find a new phenomenon in that subject which has not yet been discovered.

The very first mistake is usually done at this stage, as the students tend to depend too much on the guide. They expect him to do things for them. This is partially an outcome of a spoonfeeding educational system one has thus far grown up on. Anyway, the guide provides the service sought of him most of the time, but every service has a 'cost' — loss of self-esteem. You do whatever s/he says. Unfortunately we have a whole generation of guides who did the same when they were PhD aspirants. Now they seek to justify their actions by citing their servile past. Once you submit yourself, you lose your creativity.

The description so far was based on individual experiences. Nationally, most projects are allotted on the basis of 'contacts' rather than actual scientific abilities. All interviews and presentations are a staged dumb charade. The recruitment process is no better. Everybody in the scientific community knows this and meekly subscribes to it.

One needs to have 'good contacts' in order to get a project. It does not matter whether you have shown any capability which is required. My Indian PhD project was allotted to my guide, who knew nothing about the central idea of the project. He used to come to me for preparing his presentations!

Helotry is one of the most favorite ways to ensure that you get a PhD when you know nothing. If the guide asks you to run a DC motor with an AC current, the serfs would better run it that way. A majority of PhD students in universities cannot clear the basic examination for lectureship (National Eligibility Test). Most of them take admission in PhD programmes because they have nothing else to do after completing their masters.

And what do you get, if you refuse to do all this. My scholarship was somehow delayed for a full year. I had to wait that long to experiment on an instrument, since the man who handled the equipment did not have 'good relations' with my guide. My friend (who follows the same) had to move the court to get the required signatures for his final viva-voce session to be held in the department after submitting his thesis around one and half years ago.

All the cases above are of those people who cleared a national level examination and claimed national scholarship. Now what do you expect sincere seekers of knowledge to do in India except approach a different laboratory for their experiments Surprisingly, the better labs are mostly located outside India. Readers will not find it hard to reason out why.

The status of research in India is in a shambles. In the last few years, thanks to a scientist who was our president until recently, the Government has increased the inflow of money in research. But this has to be managed properly and in a professional way (deadlines should be deadlines; extending a deadline does not justify the term). India needs to change its age-old higher education policy and introduce more do-and-learn themes — rather than rote-and-learn themes — for educating the youth. Also, it must be wisely understood that research is a kind of investment for the future of the nation. The country's media should also highlight Indian achievements just as they do petty criminal cases or political scandals 24X7. The media has to show its mature outlook towards researchers as they are the backbone of the scientific progress that a country undergoes.

With a huge population, India can become self-sufficient if only it choose to. Mismanagement of human resource should be stopped immediately and efficiency should be the basis for the government while drafting policies.

The private sector is the key to improving the situation of research in India. It can develop a competitive research community as has been proved by foreign companies like IBM, Intel, AMD and others. This has worked well in the field of biotechnology. It can work in every field.

I hope that reader will understand that this article was written with clear intentions to portray the challenges ahead. We can do better if we rationalise our approach as we used to do in our golden era.

* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HAL_Tejas
˚ http://www.gartner.com/DisplayDocument?id=503240

The writer was once a PhD student from India. He is now pursuing his PhD in spintonic materials from Kungliga Tekniska högskolan (Royal Institute of Technology), Stockholm, Sweden

1 comment:

Surajit Dasgupta said...

I am not surprised. The plight of a research student in India is a familiar story. I, for one, decided not to pursue my postgraduate education in India back in 1995 when I saw a friend running around in a neighbourhood market, looking for a mechanic who could repair a dysfunctional 'Hawkins'. The pressure cooker belonged to his not-so-friendly 'philosopher' and 'guide'.

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