The Greyer Side of Indian PhD programs


As of the time of writing this post, I have completed more than a year at IISc. This post tries to sum up what I have seen, known and (somewhat) understood about the culture here at IISc and in Indian academia in general.

Do bear in mind that this note is a reflection of my views as a first year PhD student. My opinion is probably coloured by the myopia of a beginner’s lack of understanding of how the system works.

Or better stated, this is like reviewing a movie right after getting out of the theatre. Your first impression is that the film was a three on five. Next day on your way to the office, you remember that funny joke or the well-shot scene to conclude that it was a good movie after all!

Admissions and Coursework

The admission process here at IISc (and most IITs too) is pretty straightforward. Qualify in the GATE exam, appear for an interview (and also a written test at some places) and ace the interview.

At IISc, I guess your interview matters more than anything else. At other places, your grades from undergrad, GATE rank, etc. is sometimes factored in with a significant share to make the final decision (I’m speculating based on inputs from friends and personal experience). I feel strongly about this because I have seen toppers from my batch during undergrads blurt out nonsense and back-benchers give logically sound answers.

So past academic performance should not matter in principle. But sadly, it does or at least that is what I have experienced.

I have always felt that the grading system is a test of how well you can take exams. At the research level, I think the key is to know a specific section of the field well rather than knowing some aspects about a range of concepts. An A+ in any exam does not necessarily imply in-depth understanding.

Of course, this is a design problem. There is a limited set of thought-provoking questions that a professor can ask on the test given that coming up with such questions for a test is a time-consuming process. We have a kludgy system in place given the constraints, but that does not mean it can not be made better, does it?

(More thoughts on coursework here and here)

In applications to PhD programs outside India, SOPs and GRE and TOEFL scores are mandatory. Apart from serving as a first-level test of rejection because of the high number of applications, they highlight the idea of communication as a parameter to consider for someone planning a career in the academia.

While nothing beats the quality of your research in the list of skills you need to be successful, communicating your analysis is also essential. Not having a filter on this aspect at the admission stage itself is not a limiting factor though because not all candidates join with exposure to such a skillset a priori. Our system does not include this aspect, not just in the admission stage, but also throughout the other milestones in the PhD program.

Such lacunae can be overcome by forcing the inclusion of communication as a testing parameter in the course of establishing candidature, albeit with only a small weightage, but including it nonetheless. Why am I talking about this? Because I have heard people talk about instances where advisors write papers instead of the usual routine of students writing papers and advisors reviewing them which brings us to the next topic of discussion.

Research in Indian Academia

Again, a disclaimer. My exposure to research is somewhat limited at the time of writing this post. But when you have frustrated grad students around you, you tend to hear things.

The distribution of talent is somewhat Gaussian. This situation implies there would be some groups working in “hot” areas with significant collaborators and publications while others get by chipping off solutions from the mound of problems slowly, at their own pace in their style. But I want to discuss the other side of this equation - the incoming students.

Getting jobs is difficult for most undergrads. Our system does not make you employable. You may be thorough with the knowledge but lacking basic skills that employers look for, like communication. If you are from a reputed college, you’d probably land a decent job because of the availability of more opportunities.

But what about that final year undergrad from a lesser known university who knows his core technical field well but is not employable? They join a Masters or PhD program.

If you don’t land a job during the placement season in the final year of the master’s degree, you tend to join the PhD program. Why? Probably because the stipend in a PhD program is better than the median salary of the first job that you could have got right after your undergraduate program.

Since most recruiters are from IT (i.e., Tech Support and not development work which pays more) and core fields like Manufacturing are not hiring anyway, this seems to be the better choice.

A PhD program ends up being a fallback option for such people. Agreed, this is not a representation of the current lot of research students in the country, but this number is not insignificant either.

Anyone seeking a job needs a qualifying degree (not my opinion but just how the world mostly works, unfortunately) but not everyone needs a PhD. Such situations are what result in unemployed PhDs or even worse, incompetent people in academic positions just because no one better was available for the job.

But now, to motivate young, bright students in the country to pursue a career in the research, we have the PMRF scheme, don’t we?

My thoughts on the PMRF scheme

The stupidest thing ever.

I wish I could have just said “Enough said” and leave it at that.

For mostly similar work, one person gets ₹75k while the other gets ₹25k. If not a good way to create a divide, I don’t know what it is!

Having said that, if you meet the requirements to apply and get funded under PMRF, why would you not want the extra money? The system is stupid and when it is available, why pass on the opportunity? Maybe I’m just whining because I am on the other end of this stupidity.

The (somewhat) brighter side

So, is everything sad in the world of research in the country? Nope. In spite of multiple suboptimal settings, the system works to a large extent.

Every year, outgoing PhD graduates get absorbed into the academia or the industry. Probably they’re doing something right too, because how else is it that the wheels of this machine are turning?

I have been told you end up learning a lot of handy stuff when you do your PhD here. Unlike in other places where you have operators to maintain infrastructure and deal with the back-end stuff, here you end up doing everything by yourself: procurement, maintenance, and training juniors. And all of this helps you when you set up your lab as you start your career in the academia.

Also, the sarkaari funding is a good thing for anyone who wants to pursue research in the “not-so-hot” research areas. The faculty does not pay stipends for grad students out of their project funds.

For someone who is motivated to pursue a PhD in a field which is not highly funded, it ensures that financial constraints will not block the way.

In countries like the US, you sacrifice the opportunity to earn a fat paycheck and settle for a meager stipend in the interest of your intellectual pursuit. Our model ensures that money will not stop you from making this jump. The pay is not that bad if you let the joy of working on problems that interest you compensate for the temporary cut in your monthly draw.

Final Thoughts

A lot of what I have written here is based on inputs from my peers, friends, and professors, both in IISc and otherwise. Also, since as a first-year student I was at the receiving end of a lot of gyaan (as opposed to being at the fag end of my duration here and disseminating it I guess). I have summarised such exposure to varied opinions here. Do take all of this with a pinch (loads?) of salt.

If I have a different experience by the time I leave IISc with my degree, I will write a sequel to this post. Hopefully, unlike in case of most movies, the sequel will be better ¯\_(ツ)_/¯