Monday, March 7, 2011

Doctor, who?

It has been a while since I've done a lead story for a newspaper. I'd almost forgotten what it feels like to wake up in the morning and see your name on the front page! Thanks Shraddha, for giving me another opportunity to write on education. 

An allocation of Rs 52,057 crore for  education, the proposal for a knowledge network to connect 1,500 institutes of higher learning and research across India and special grants to recognise excellence in universities and academic institutions - the Union Budget 2011-12 does promise a lot for education and research.  Why then are fewer people opting for PhDs? Eisha Sarkar looks for some answers

Lagging behind in the rat race
According to Trends in Higher Education: Creation and Analysis of a Database of PhDs, a study conducted by Anitha Kurup and Jagadish Arora of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, only 0.65 per cent of the total number of students in higher education are enrolled at the PhD level. The study published in May 2010 notes, "India invests only about three to four per cent of its total R & D in academic research. Despite the annual growth in the number of PhDs awarded (an increase of 30.6 per cent from 1990 to 1999...), India still is far behind countries such as US, China and Germany in terms of the number of researchers added to the country's workforce."  

In most cases, PhD is the most advanced academic degree offered by universities. Its focus is to create new knowledge by formulating questions and providing some answer to these questions. A candidate has to submit a project or thesis, often a body of original academic research, which is worthy of publication in a peer-refereed context. He/she must then defend this work before a panel of expert examiners appointed by the university. In India, this process can take four to seven years and often proves a deterrent to even those who are inclined towards research.

"Typically two kinds of people go in for research - those who can't find anything else to do and those who seriously want get into research," says Darshee Baxi who has just completed her PhD in Endocrinology. While in the US even undergraduate research is backed by the government and the industry, in India students are conditioned to join vocational courses such as engineering and MBA so that they can earn more. Baxi complains, "We don't understand that there can't be any growth without research. Wouldn't it benefit the economy if we developed research and manufactured our own drugs instead of copying what the West has to offer?" 

Greying scientists, bleak future
While some scientists say it’s the 'herd mentality' among students that is killing the spirit of research and enquiry here, Dr S Limaye, Associate Professor, Department of Life Sciences at University of Mumbai is worried that the gap that ageing researchers will leave behind after they retire will be hard to fill. "I recently attended a seminar at the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa where in just the last one year 25 scientists have retired. This year, some 20 scientists are slated to retire.  There are more vacancies than qualified scientists now. For research, you need people who are passionate about the subject, something students lack nowadays."

So in spite of fact that the University of Mumbai saw a record 2,174 candidates sign up for its first-ever PhD entrance test on February 26, professors remain skeptical about the number of students who will actually complete their PhDs. Kurup notes that from 1998-2007, the completion rate of PhD in India was only about 50 per cent. "There are lots of reasons why students in India prefer to opt for other career options instead of research. The amount of time spent in getting a degree is not compensated by the eventual pay, the opportunities for good positions after you get a PhD are limited and so is the funding and the quality of science is poor compared with institutions abroad," says Ketki Karanam, who is currently pursuing a PhD in Systems Biology at Harvard University.

From having to pay for laboratory equipment and animals to fighting off red-tapism, students have more on their plate than they can chew. The University Grants Commission (UGC) preconditions for faculty employment have also prompted many teachers to acquire PhD degrees even though they may not have the aptitude to do research. "Guides play a major role in research. Unfortunately there aren't too many good ones left. I wanted to do a PhD and had submitted all my research material to my guide. She never bothered to review them. I kept calling her and then she told me that she had lost all my work. Frustrated, I gave up," says a visiting professor in the German Department of M S University of Vadodara. Little wonder that few choose to pursue research after they get a permanent job at institutes or in the industry.

Making research attractive
The government has attempted to redress issues of funding by facilitating tie-ups between government research institutes and the industry. In order to make research more attractive for students, the Department of Science and Technology has developed the Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research (INSPIRE) and Kishore Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojana to facilitate seminars, camps and  grants. And dispelling the notion that it is only for PhDs and post-doctorates, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has started offering fellowships and scholarship schemes to even secondary school students!

Besides those in the teaching field, a growing percentage of professionals are also looking to do their PhDs. "Research helps an individual grow. Many professionals are taking on research projects and doing PhDs to enhance their qualifications so that they can get a better profile at work. There are also those who want to specialise in a particular area their job demands," says Meenakshi Upadhyay, assistant professor, Department of Communication and Journalism, University of Mumbai. Upadhyay, who is currently pursuing a PhD in public relations, believes the degree will help her get better research projects in the industry.

In a survey of students from Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, Kanpur and Bombay nearly 42 per cent of the candidates said they would be willing to do PhDs if the job opportunities after PhD increased and provided compensation of more than Rs 1 lakh per month. The fruits of labour have to be ripe enough for harvest, if India wants to see more researchers in the future!

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