Disposable Doctorates

Disposable Doctorates

If we want to promote a conducive research environment in the country, we need to take care of our PhDs. The latest decision of the UGC is both pathetic and hilarious. No wonder, some 250-odd PhDs recently applied for peons’ jobs in Uttar Pradesh.

Here is a confession. I wish I had done my PhD on Miller’s planet instead of planet Earth. In case you are wondering, it’s because of the time dilation on Miller’s planet!

In 2014, a sci-fi motion picture Interstellar starring the dreamy Matthew McConaughey and the pleasant Anne Hathaway hit the screens. As the crew of astronauts navigated through the space-time wormhole, they chanced upon Miller’s planet, a waterworld where, thanks to “time dilation”, an hour equaled seven years. (That is, an hour on Miller =  seven years on Earth].

Do you now see the point I was making? Had I been on Miller, I could have saved precious years of my youth. (Of course, not that I missed much of it. I was 23 when I enrolled for my PhD. In the world of academia, that’s infancy. And at 32 now, I am what they’d dub the tantrum-throwing teenager. So I am yet again throwing a temper tantrum!)

My registration seminar two years later was a traumatic tale—I was destined to be the only research scholar in my department with a registration seminar hat-trick. To say that I was embarrassed and ashamed would be the understatement of my life. I wished I could crawl back and hide in my mother’s womb, safe and secure sans the scrutiny.

Since that was impossible, I instead chose zealotry in order to become the authority on my topic. Six years later, the same professors couldn’t stop singing my praise. Hardly surprising, since everyone loves a good underdog story.

Having undergone the twin experiences of tapasya and tyaag like every PhD student must, you can surely imagine the hurt and anger I felt as I opened my morning newspaper to read that some 250-odd PhDs had applied for peons’ jobs in Uttar Pradesh. That too, when the applicant had only to be a Class V pass with the ability to ride a bicycle.

The implication, in other words, is that either the PhDs have failed the nation, or the nation has failed them. Either ways, it’s high time we talk.

The rhetoric parroted by Parliamentarians is simple—India is going to be a knowledge superpower in the 21st century based on the three pillars of Expansion, Equity, and Excellence in Education. That sounds good, as far as alliteration is concerned. But how will we ever have excellence in education, if “a dime a dozen” PhDs are being churned out by our universities? (This choicest of phrases was used by a Parliamentary Standing Committee when talking about the lack of quality amongst our doctorates). Even the Supreme Court, in March this year, lamented the lack of quality PhDs in India.

While I applaud their collective intention, the reality continues to be grim. In a country that has as little as 0.25 per cent PhD enrollment as per the government’s recent AISHE (All India Survey of Higher Education) figures, can we afford to be this unrealistic—especially since the PhD attrition is as high as 50 per cent? What’s more, even the Parliamentary Standing Committee pointed out that 40 per cent of faculty positions are lying vacant in central universities. While I am certainly not advocating the hiring of sub-standard teachers, the government must not throw the baby out with the bathwater—just yet.

I am reminded of something that a senior professor, who now serves as the Dean of the management department at IIT Kharagpur, had once said to the entire fellowship of prospective PhD students. When asked about the number of seats in the PhD programme in the department, the professor stated: “If you’re all good, I’ll accept you all. If you’re all bad, I’ll reject you all. This is not an airline, I am not filling seats.” (I am paraphrasing here, but you get the gist). That’s the commitment to quality that needs to drive our institutions and universities when it comes to PhDs.

But what the government fails to see, or chooses to ignore, is that there’s an inherent problem in the system. It’s called GIGO—a concept familiar to a computer science or a mathematics graduate—Garbage In, Garbage Out. You cannot have good quality PhDs if you cannot attract and retain good quality PhD students. How does a nation, where doctoral students have to go on a fast unto death (and this was a culmination of a year-long all-India protest involving doctoral students from IITs, NITs, and other premier institutes across India) for their overdue stipend hikes, attract quality students?

While PhD students have to fast for peanuts, their siblings and cousins in corporate India are busy enjoying apple martinis. While one can argue that there is much honour in becoming a professor and therefore, the PhDs must forsake worldly goods like a decent fellowship in the present so that they can give up on a decent salary in the future, the truth is—you are asking for too much in return for too little.

There is a common adage in the PhD corridor, which goes like this: “You can either get married or get a PhD.” That’s right. Marriage is considered to be the single biggest factor that contributes to high PhD attrition, which is why many research scholars suspend their marriage plans and ignore their biological clocks (in the case of women scholars) in return for solitary confinement. It doesn’t seem fair, does it?

Furthermore, these years of self-imposed social solitude lead to anxiety and stress. Clinical depression is not unknown. In fact, to quote The Guardian, “Doing a PhD has always been seen as a long and lonely business since the early 19th century when the idea of the postgraduate research doctorate was first formally recognized at Humboldt University, Germany. It is probably the toughest test anyone can face in academic life. It is odd that students are selected for PhDs usually on the basis that they are good at passing exams, while doctoral research requires a completely different set of educational and psychological skills.”

This is especially relevant, given the intellectual assault that a PhD scholar has to bear on a day-to-day basis. While terms like “PhD blues”, “doctoral depression”, “second-year slump”, “thesis trouble”, “imposter syndrome” may be unfamiliar terms to a non-researcher, to a PhD scholar, it is the bedrock of research education.

How can “doctorate-deficient” education ministers treat the ailment when they are incapable of diagnosing the problem?

Then again, since we can’t do much about that, we are left with only one alternative. Let’s bring the problems to the forefront for a much-needed national debate. For decades, PhD scholars have suffered in silence and walked the long and lonely path, working long hours for low pay in a stressful environment. While some may say it’s simply an occupational hazard, frankly speaking, it’s hazardous for the occupation itself. Without the necessary support system in place, both physical and psychological, we are leaving doctoral education to chance.

If we want to promote a conducive research environment so that we do not slip in international rankings any further, we need to take care of our PhDs and not subject them to benign neglect—or for that matter, malignant policies.

At a time when researchers must concentrate on their research, the UGC at the behest of the government are forcing them to come out of their labs and onto the streets. Is this going to be the future of research and researchers in India—a Doctoral Disobedience Movement?

In yet another shocking move that promises to precipitate the matter further, the UGC have now decided to do away completely with non-NET fellowships for MPhil and PhD students.

What’s utterly ironical though (and has me smiling or smirking—can’t decide—in amusement) is the minutes of the meeting of the said commission. This decision to discontinue the non-NET fellowship was actually taken in a meeting on October 7. A cursory reading of Section 4.01 of the “Confidential” minutes—available on the UGC website—reads: “Considered and resolved to discontinue the scheme. However, the students who are already getting non-NET fellowship will continue to do so as per existing guidelines.” What’s surreal is that this incongruous decision was taken when the discussion itself was about enhancing or “increasing” the non-NET fellowship! (By the way, in the same minutes, Section 2.08 stands out like a sore thumb. The simple single sentence reads: ‘To enhance the payment of Honorarium to the commission member” and just below you have “Considered and Approved” in Bold. I’m speechless!)

In case you’re wondering, these non-NET fellowships for MPhil and PhD students are plebeianly pegged at a Lilliputian amount of Rs 5,000 and Rs 8,000 per month respectively. You see, sometimes a peon does earn more than a PhD. And while, I—unlike Martin Luther—may not nail 95 theses to UGC’s gate on October 31 (Halloween) as a mark of protest, I will certainly mourn the drowning of the baby in the bathwater.

Mallika is a professor-cum-author, doing her PhD in marketing from IIT Kharagpur, and author of three management books which are prescribed textbooks in universities across India. She has taught in India and abroad. She is also the author of the crime novel I’m a Woman & I’m on SALE.

Mallika Nawal is a professor-cum-author, about to complete her doctorate in marketing from IIT Kharagpur. She is the author of three management books which serve as prescribed textbooks in several universities across India. She has taught at premier institutes like IIT Kharagpur, and S. P. Jain Centre of Management, Dubai.
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