The Indian Institutes of Technology may indeed be lagging behind the world's best institutions in research, as environment minister Jairam Ramesh recently said, but the career profile of their students suggests the faculty alone may not be responsible.
The most comprehensive study yet on the career paths chosen by IITians suggests that students who leave the country's top engineering schools after their undergraduate or masters rarely pursue research or teaching. But the study of IIT alumni from over 50 years, conducted in end-2008 by the Pan IIT Alumni Association, the apex alumni body of the institutes, also offers a ray of hope. It suggests that the number of IIT alumni settling on research or education careers is increasing.
While 58% of IIT PhDs are involved in research or teaching — either at the IITs or at other institutions around the world — the number is much smaller for those who pursued undergraduate or masters studies at the institutes. Only 14% of students who pursued their bachelors or a dual degree — a combined course of bachelors and masters — at the IITs are currently teaching or are in research.
Just 22% of masters students from the IITs have taken up research or teaching. The rest of the undergraduates and masters students are, instead, contributing to industry and society in diverse roles (see charts below).
"That a vast majority of our undergraduate and masters students have eventually chosen careers away from research and teaching is a fact we have recognised, and are addressing. Unlike Jairam Ramesh, we have to improve the IITs and cannot get away by merely criticising what is missing," an IIT director said on the condition of confidentiality.
Two other IIT directors argued that the figures thrown up by the alumni study point to "the wider problem that we have been screaming ourselves hoarse about — that bright youngsters today rarely want to take up research, and instead prefer more lucrative careers".But blaming IIT graduates for the absence of adequate quality research at the IITs may be as simplistic as blaming faculty members alone, warn academicians and administrators.
While some of this may be a result of the recent recession — when several IIT graduates lost lucrative jobs — the number of IITians picking teaching and research is, slowly but definitely, increasing. From just 13% among graduation batches up to 1976, the share has gone up to 20% among those who passed out after 2001.
The findings bust several myths. It shows that most students do pursue further degrees after IIT, and that they don't necessarily need an MBA to reach top leadership positions in their chosen fields. A majority of IIT alumni (63%) live in India, though a majority of those who go abroad (65%) stay abroad
Engineers and entrepreneurs, politicians and venture capitalists, bureaucrats and social activists — the IITs have produced leaders in sectors apparently far removed from the engineering and science studied as students.
Does India want it any other way?
Some IIT grads who didn't take up research or training
Venture capitalist, co-founder of Sun Microsystems
Vinod Khosla may figure in the 86% of IITians who, after their undergraduate studies, did not pursue research or teaching. But he has made sure that his money contributed to research at IIT.
After completing his BTech in electrical engineering from IIT Delhi, Khosla went to Carnegie Mellon University and then to the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
But it was with Sun Microsystems — which he co-founded and headed from 1982 to 1984 — that Khosla first became truly known. The firm — Sun is an acronym for Stanford University Network — was started with Stanford classmates.
He left the firm to become a venture capitalist, helping numerous start-ups take birth and eventually take flight. Clean energy is another passion for Khosla, who received the support of former British prime minister Tony Blair in pushing technologies focused on the environment.
Khosla also provided the endowment that has helped IIT Delhi create a novel IT research institution. The Amar Nath and Shashi Khosla School of Information Technology at IIT Delhi aims to foster inter-disciplinary research, innovation and post-graduate studies in the field.
CEO and co-founder, Husk Power, Patna
Jairam Ramesh has a sympathiser in this Patna-based entrepreneur, who has had to face repeated challenges as he has tried to use husk to light up villages in Bihar.
Gyanesh Pandey, who has won several awards for his work at Husk Power, insists that environment minister Ramesh is correct in stating that the standards of faculty and research at the IITs are shoddy.
"I agree with what he says completely. Anyone who has seen the standards of research and faculty at institutions in the US, cannot but agree," he states emphatically. Ramesh studied at Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after his BTech from IIT Bombay. Pandey studied at the Rensselaer Polytechnic, the oldest technology university in the English-speaking world and one of the top engineering schools in the US, after his graduation from what is set to become the youngest IIT — the Institute of Technology in Varanasi.
"The diversity you get on campus is something I learnt a lot from. But from the teaching point of few, the IITs are not very special. They use antique syllabi and there is hardly any worthwhile research on," he says, his words sounding remarkably similar to Ramesh's.
The IITs, Pandey argues, provide no academic provocation to probe the frontiers of knowledge.
Vijay Singhal IAS, Commissioner of Kolhapur
At 39, Vijay Singhal knows his pay package could have been significantly higher had he taken up one of the many lucrative campus recruitment offers available to him after he completed his MTech in civil engineering from IIT Delhi.
But few professions, he says, would have given him the opportunity to serve people the way his job as an IAS officer does. And, as he has found out, his work has frequently benefited from his education as a civil engineer at an IIT.
"I remember the chairman of the Union Public Service Commission asking me why I was moving from an IIT education to the civil services. At the time, my answer sounded like rote learning. I now know why much better, as I told the UPSC chairman when I met him at a function later," Singhal recalls.
Singhal completed his BTech in civil engineering at IIT Roorkee before joining IIT Delhi for his masters. But it is as an IAS officer — he joined the Maharashtra cadre in 1997 — that Singhal could merge his educational training with his desire to contribute to larger social causes.
Earlier, as collector of Jalgaon, he used his engineering knowledge to complete a river linking project that won a prime ministerial award.
"When builders know that the Commissioner is a civil engineer from IIT, they don't even try to cheat. That's one of the many ways my IIT years help me everyday," he says.
Ajit Ashwalayan Shukla
Founder of Bharat Punarnirman Dal
Shukla joined Infosys after his BTech and MTech from IIT Bombay, but left the company in a few months. He joined a PhD programme in economics in Mumbai but had to leave that as well because it was not fully funded and he was facing financial constraints.
It was then that the now-32-year-old Shukla decided to follow the instincts that had been tugging at him since his undergraduate days: to do something to improve India. He and his friends started out with social work in rural Uttar Pradesh, and in 2007 launched the Bharat Punarnirman Dal, aimed as a party for professionals keen to join politics to provide clean governance.
Many critics dubbed their political views juvenile and the BPD's opposition to caste-based reservations has attracted charges of casteism. But this time, Shukla has not given up.
So what drew him to politics?
"At some point in time, I realised that we needed better people at the top of the country… better people leading us," he says.
"The IITs have mechanisms — like the pan-IIT groups — to encourage their students to take up careers in the corporate world and other spheres, but I saw nothing similar for IITians keen to give back to the nation through politics."
NR Narayana Murthy
Founder and mentor, Infosys
Had it not been for an IIT, NR Narayana Murthy, co-founder of India's second largest information technology firm Infosys, may not have gotten close to a computer at the time he did.
And this was someone who couldn't take up BTech at an IIT because his father could not afford the fees. He did his undergraduate degree at the National Institute of Engineering under the University of Mysore.
But Murthy did make it to IIT Kanpur for his MTech in computer science. Collaboration between IIT Kanpur and eight top American research universities meant that Murthy had access to the then wonder-machine called the computer in the late 1960s when most Indians had not heard of it.
And it was the draw of the machine that took Murthy to the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad for his first job as a chief systems programmer. Using a mini-computer, IIM Ahmedabad became the third business school in the world — after Harvard and Stanford — to install a time-sharing system.
It started a career that went on to define the Indian IT industry.