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Dr Dolittle, PhD

Low stipend, poor university infrastructure, underpaid faculty make PhDs in India unattractive; the government is looking the other way. Kamayani Singh reports.

india Updated: Sep 25, 2009 02:03 IST
Kamayani Singh

Last year, the Indian arm of global chipmaker Intel Corp began scouting computer science Ph.D. students as it bid for a project alongside other subsidiaries of the company.

A search at the best institutes in the country, including the IITs (Indian Institute of Technology) proved to be of little use and the firm managed to get only five students on board.

Intel India lost the project to its Israeli counterpart.

Like Intel, scores of global companies have increasingly looked to move research and development work to India in recent years, but they face a formidable challenge of finding employable talent. The story is not much different for Indian companies that want to go up in the value chain.

And the government isn’t doing much to fix the problem. In recent weeks, several top universities have been asked to bring large cuts in their spending. As we write, teachers across IITs in the country are on a hunger strike, because they are underpaid.

“Of the 70 undergraduates who join the computer science department at IIT Kanpur every year, approximately one goes on to do a Ph.D. here,” said Sanjeev Aggarwal, the institute’s dean for resource planning and generation.

The issue of talent crunch is back in focus as the world economic recovery gains momentum and drives global companies to step up investment in emerging economies like India.

Intel India has since tied up with IIT, Kanpur to offer jobs to students pursuing Ph.D in computer science.

Low stipend, an inflexible course structure, poor infrastructure and lack of teacher assistantships at universities are factors that keep good students from pursuing research in India.

“Very little has been done to make research attractive in India,” said Surbhi Mahajan (25), who is currently enrolled as a Ph. D student Jawaharlal Nehru University, but is contemplating dropping the course. She wants to apply to a university in the US.

Mahajan gets a monthly stipend of just Rs 5,000 from her university.

The University Grants Commission (UGC) awards junior research fellowships of Rs 12,000 a month to Ph.D. students, only if they clear a national test. Not all get to clear the test, conducted by UGC twice a year.

Ministry of Human Resource Development states that around 50,000 students appear for the national eligibility test (NET) – the exam taken to qualify for junior research fellowship - each year but the pass percentage is a low of 5 per cent. About a thousand junior research fellowships are awarded each year.

According to the National Knowledge Commission, not more than 1 per cent of undergraduates in India opt for a Ph.D, and of them a substantial number go abroad.

The role of the private sector is crucial for research work, as has been proved by the US, which has long been the knowledge and research capital of the world.

Some of the biggest universities in the US — those forming the Ivy League, such Harvard University and Cornell University — are private.

Yet they invest heavily in research.

At Harvard, more than a fifth of its expenditure of $ 3.5 million in 2007-08 was on research work and library resources. Government grants made up only 15 per cent of Harvard’s income in that year and student fees contributed 20 per cent. The remaining 65 per cent came from non-government grants, gifts, endowment income and other receipts.

“The government should provide stronger incentives and tax breaks to the private sector to encourage it to support academic institutions,” said Shobha Mishra, joint director, education, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI).

It is also important to encourage students to do research relevant to India, to Indian industry and Indian society and retain our talent in the country. Almost Fifty per cent of over 55,000 Ph.Ds in the US each year are awarded to foreigners — including a large number of Indians — most of which are on topics relevant to only the US.

In a survey done at the IITs of Delhi, Bombay and Kanpur by Pankaj Jalote, former faculty at the computer science department of IIT Delhi, students claimed that the assurance of highly-paying jobs after finishing Ph.D., better stipends, the option of studying and working simultaneously would hugely encourage them to pursue the Ph. D.

However, one can’t rely on the private sector alone.

“Collaboration with industry solves many problems for students of science, technology and management, but students of social sciences and humanities can’t look to industry for either funding or opportunity,” Mahajan said.

But for people like Mahajan, time is running out.

“The government keeps talking of dealing with brain drain but hasn’t done much to address it.”