Is Today’s PhD Education in India Aiming To Create Inspiring Intellectual Leaders of Tomorrow?

Posted on December 14, 2010


Author:  Sanjay Goel,

Article was republished by ‘India Education Review’  on March 21, 2011


In the previous article [1], I had raised some questions about the rigour in higher education in India.  This article focusses on the rigour and quality of PhD education in India.   Instead of viewing PhD as a means to nurture five P’s, i.e., Passion, Patience, Perseverance, Perspective, and Purpose, a very large number of PhD scholars, supervisors, and academic instututions are  increasingly  approaching it with a mindset focussed on three D’s, i.e., Degree, Designation, and Dough (money).

One of the main objectives of postgraduate education, especially PhD education, is to prepare intellectual leaders who will do the groundwork to create new paradigms and products for tomorrow [2]. Postgraduate education needs to provide deeper experience in the values, norms, and practices of the chosen profession while also developing the skills, tools, and habits of inquiry within a discipline [2a].  Hence, when it comes  to postgraduate education, especially PhD education, the quality concerns ought to become  much more important than quantity concerns.

In India, so far, the main employer of PhDs was the university system. There was hardly any requirement or feedback about the quality of Indian PhD from industry.  This absence of feedback created an atmosphere of complacency with reference to quality of PhDs. In the last two decades, the exponential growth of higher education, especially in disciplines like engineering, computing, and management has created a huge demand for faculty with PhD degrees. As a response to this general demand, and also their own internal faculty requirements, many universities increased their PhD production without necessarily being sufficiently ambitious about the quality benchmarks. Due to the absence of any other agreed metric, a simplistic criterion like 2-3 published papers in some journal/conference proceedings (even very short papers at sub-standard conferences/journals) is sometimes considered as the goal of a scholar’s PhD work.

According to a 2010 Nasscom report [3] [4], India’s fast growing engineering R&D services industry has reached $10 billion. As per this report, there are over 300 captive Engineering R&D facilities in India employing about 85,000 engineers. Further, the leading twenty  independent service providers that serve multiple verticals, employ over 60,000 engineers. Nasscom forecasts that this industry will reach $24 billion by 2015, and possibly $45 billion by 2020. During this period, India has the potential to capture a 40% share of global offshore revenues in 11 key verticals of engineering R&D services—Aerospace, Automative, Telecom, Semiconductor, Computing Systems, Consumer Electronics, Medical Devices, Energy, Infrastructure, Industrial Automation, and Construction/Heavy Machinary.

In developed economies, a very large number of PhD graduates join industry. For example, in the USA in some disciplines, e.g., psychology, chemistry, chemical engineering, etc., only 20-30% PhD’s join academics, and more than 50% in Computer Science join the industry [2]. A 2005 study showed that 46% PhD’s in chemical engineering from six Australian universities joined private industry.  Another study showed that 40% of engineering PhD in Norway have industrial collaboration [5].

Trends emerging in the Indian industry are now showing signs of opening similar opportunities in India. In the future, Indian universities can play a very active and constructive role to support and accelerate the  growth of Indian R&D industry by taking the responsibility to prepare high quality Masters and PhDs suitable for industry. Only a few Indian universities and institutes have recognized this opportunity and are responding to it accordingly. The fast growing engineering R&D services industry will anyway fulfill their manpower requirements from such select few places in India, and from western universities. However, if a good size set of Indian universities do not appropriately respond to this emerging need, the larger national dream to see India as a knowledge superpower cannot be realized.

Rigour and effort are most essential  inputs (though insufficient) for high quality education.  European universities typically require 180  credits for completing PhD work, which is same as the credit requirement of a bachelors degree and three times the credit requirement of a master’s degree.  According to Bologna process, one European credits is normally equivalent to 25-30 hrs of work. Hence, broadly speaking  the PhD should require  4500 –  5400 hrs.  of work. According to Bologna process, the normal projected duration of a doctorate should correspond to 3–4 years of full time study.  Wrt to part time candidates, some European universities require a minimum of 6 years of work. A survey [6] of around 200 PhD students at York University, Canada showed that 6 years was the average time to complete their degrees. Out of these students only 8% started as part time students and 66% never switched to part time status.

At good US Universities, it normally takes 4-5 years of work for full-time scholars to complete PhD work.   A study [7] of PhD students at Rutgers University showed that the mean time for completion of degree requirement for students who spend more than 52 hours per week for their PhD studies is 4.5 years. This was found to be 6.7 years for those who spent 44 hours per week. In a conversation, Prof. Sartaj Sahni of the University of Florida indicated that for full-time students, it takes around 5 years of regular work to complete the PhD requirements. Demanding advisors normally expect and engage  the PhD candidates to work for 60-70 hours per week. In another conversation regarding part-time PhD,  Prof. Rao Vemuri of University of California, Davis, told that he had supervised two part time PhD scholars, and both took  around 8 years for completing the required work.

In a conversation, Prof. A.B. Bhattacharyya, who supervised more than 30 PhD’s at IIT Delhi told that most of his PhD candidates were full time research staff of funded projects at CARE, IIT Delhi. Their PhD problem and work  was part of the goals of the funded projects and these candidates had no other responsibilities like teaching etc.  As per Prof. Bhattacharyya,  these  students at IIT Delhi took 5-7 years to complete their degree and  more than 80%  joined industry after completing their PhD.

The PhD ordinances at many Indian Universities normally expect the candidates to complete the PhD work in 2-5 years, even for part time candidates. Government scholarship is available for 5 years to full-time candidates with a BTech degree augmented with GATE/MSc. and NET.  The full-time PhD candidates with M.E/M.Tech. get higher scholarship for four years.  Hence, even the Indian government’s financial support system  expects 4-5 years of work for full-time candidates after the master’s degree. Naturally, the duration has to be higher for part time candidates.

A very large number of PhD candidates in India, especially in engineering, computer science, and management disciplines, are part-time candidates who register  at a very young age of 25 – 30. This is very different from developed countries. For example, in UK, less than 30% PhD candidates choose  the part-time option [8].  Interestingly they do so after good years of work experience. The average age at the start of their PhD registerations has been found to be 38 years which is 10 years higher than the respective age of full-time candidates.

In India, the part-time PhD candidates usually work as full-time faculty members at same university or some other college. The main motivation for majority is to improve their prospects in an academic career.    This is in contrast with the data reported in the UK report [8] where a larger fraction of  UK-domiciled researchers were found to  be mainly motivated by interest in the subject  rather than to improve their prospects in an academic career.

In India, a typical young (age: 25-35) faculty member who also pursues part-time PhD has to devote  at least 35 -40 hours per week  for  their teaching and administrative responosibilities. Most of them are married and even have parental responsibilities. Normally in Indian families, the home responsibilities become even more demanding for married ladies, especially mothers. Hence, part-time PhD candidates are normally not in a position of spending more than 10-20 hours per week for their PhD work. Consequently, it is only natural that they cannot normally produce high quality research before 6-10 years of work as a part-time PhD scholar. However, the ongoing trend has created an atmosphere of low expectation levels.  A large number of PhD candidates feel that as  a part time candidate they should be able to complete their PhD in 2-4 years.  Unfortunately such estimates are not baseless. They have seen many such examples in the recent past.  During June 2011  interviews for selecting new PhD candidates, out of 23 applicants who wanted to pursue their PhD as part time candidates, 16 felt that they will complete their PhD in 2-3 years.  Only one of them suggested that he may take more than 4  years for completing his work.

Indian universities, supervisors, research committee members, examiners, and even PhD candidates need to seriously consider whether it is appropriate for them to expect and encourage the completion of required work for PhD before such a duration of  active engagement. Such expectation and trends are leading us to a culture of mediocrity, and lower benchmarks. It will ultimately thwart the efforts to improve the quality of undergraduate and master’s level education.

Based on his direct interactions with some sections of Indian academia, Prof. Rao Vemuri commented on this issue, “What bothers me most is the quality of Ph.D.’s being produced and especially the mad rush to get Ph.D.’s. I am appalled to learn that Ph.D.’s are for sale by some universities (and professors). Equally disturbing is the naivete of candidates’ concept of what it takes to get a Ph.D. Only today, a prospective Ph.D. student gave me his vision of a dissertation: it is about the size and scope of a term paper in my graduate courses at the University of California. This sorry state of affairs is the direct result of the apathy of guides (advisers) not doing their job. … In the US, the emphasis on the process (course work, comprehensive and qualifying examination, and the like) more or less acts as a safety net. Even if the dissertation (the product) turns out to be of average quality, the process guarantees some minimum quality. In India there is a growing need to put more emphasis on course work because many of the students and new Ph.D.’s that I encountered are ill-prepared to provide the intellectual leadership we expect of a Ph.D.” “… A typical Ph. D student in India, it appears, is a part-time student who spends one hour a day and gets the degree in about 3 calendar years. You do the numbers.”

Sandor Kopatsy, a Hungarian economist, well known for his writings about the relationship of economic prosperity and social well being in society, wrote a paper (1999) “The Intellectual capital is the most Important.”  He argued that Intellectual Capital cannot be treated and measured like tangible properties. He proposed an equation –Intellectual Capital = Knowledge x Effort x Talent x Morality.  Absence of any one of these four components makes Intellectual Capital ZERO.

PhD is not just simply yet another degree.  In Spain less than 10% PhD candidates are finally granted the degree. In USA, around 50% candidates across disciplines do not complete the degree.  It is respected in the society because it symbolises a high level of intellectual (and supposedly moral) growth of the person. For example, the social standing of PhD  in Spain is so high  that only PhD holders, Grandees and Dukes can sit  and cover their heads in the presence of the King.   Intellect is grown by developing  intellectual capital.  Koptasy’s model has already been viewed in the context of PhD work [9].  Here, I elaborate further looking at it from the perspective of effort.   Knowledge and talent of a candidate depend on the accumulated intellectual capital of the candidate.  Effort and Morality are the  only new inputs in  the process that are  under candidate’s control.  Hence, both are essential for ensuring required intellectual growth of PhD candidate.

With good effort and high academic morality, even mediocre knowledge and talent, can  create good  intellectual capital.   However, increasing tendency to accept low/mediocre effort  for awarding  PhDs will encourage the growth of  a negative academic morality. In such a situation, irrespective of the knowledge, telent, and effort, negative academic morality will only enable the creation of negative intellectual capital and harm the academics as well as society.   If this issue is left unaddressed for long by the academic community,  PhD that has been traditionally considered as a reliable (often the only) benchmark of the college/university faculty quality, will also fast lose  its respect like many other degrees.  As can be seen in the responses of various experts, the process has already began.  It is for us to consider, reflect, and respond.

Issues for Reflection:

In the light of the above discussion, there is a need to reflect about some of the following questions:

1.   With reference to tomorrow’s needs, what should be the parameters of quality for PhD education?

2.  In order to identify quality work, is there a need to grade the PhD work?

3.  Is there a need to define some guidelines for the required study and research effort for completing PhD?

4.   With reference to tomorrow’s needs, what should be the desirable attributes of a PhD graduate?

5.   How much of breadth and inter-disciplinarity must be incorporated in PhD education?

6.   What should be the role of an advisor in guiding a PhD candidate?

7.  What should be the role of the department in educating a PhD candidate?

8.   How much of industry collaboration/idea exchange should be encouraged in PhD education? How can this be achieved?

9.  What should be the attributes of a good PhD advisor?

10.  How do we encourage  enrollment of R&D engineers from industry as part-time/full-time PhD candidates?

11.   Should it be mandatory to publish the thesis on the Web along with the names, affiliation, and summary reports of thesis examiners?

12.   In India, is there a need to create profession specific doctoral study programs on the lines of  D.Engg, D.Ed., or DBA?

Some Valuable Comments by others

1.  Prof. Alfredo Russo, Universidad Virtual de Quilmes, Argentina

“why India sends best students to USA or UK to get their PhD’s? Snobism or  academic rigour? I’ think is the second….from the outside of India, your country is seen as an emerging superpower, all you have to do is to work to make it real.”

2.  Prof. M N Faruqui, former Deputy Director, IIT Kharagpur, and former Vice-Chancellor, AMU

“The number of years a candidate takes to complete a Ph.D. is a matter of concern, and shows that the amount of effort required to qualify for the degree in Indian universities is far less. … I feel that it is the quality that is more important than the quantity or number of PhDs … the race of producing PhDs is actually harming the cause of education… The case of part-time scholars—mainly the faculty members—becomes even more difficult since they have a personal or vested interest in getting a quick PhD”

3. Prof. Prashant Shenoy, University of Massachusetts

“…At top-tier Computer Science departments (in USA), a typical dissertation consists of three to four major components. In most cases, each component ends up as a publication. Most graduating students have 3-6 publications, many in good quality venues…”

4.  Sudip Chatterjee, Principal Research Associate at National Development and Research Institute

“…Publication is not a good measure. Evaluation of structured commitment to the program on the part of both student and professor could tell us a lot about the quality of PhD.”

5. Tapas Shome, CEO, Keen Software, Canada

“(PhD) student has to come up with the question that needs an answer. The question should have academic merit, industrial relevance and journal reference and relevance. In short the question that is being asked and answered should have the reflective equilibrium as being important of the academic, industrial and journal editors. It is important that student come up with these questions on their own.
Answer to the above question is thesis and papers. Here the university and advisors can help. The answer should fit within the time slot that is normal 6-8 years in most cases.”

6. Prof. Rajeev Kumar, IIT Kharagpur

“Yes, this is true for many. For such people, getting a PhD is easier than getting a Pass in X standard.”

7.  Prof. Ravindranath Vandrangi, JNTU, Kakinada

“The problem with us is that we are very poor in doing collaborative research work and even poorer in sharing the fruits of the work …The award of the Ph.D. is thus too much localized effecting the quality of the work…. I feel that while awarding Ph.Ds, especially in interdisciplinary areas, we should insist that the examiners from the concerned disciplines  are duly empaneled as guides, examiners or experts.”

8.  Prof. Harish Sujan, Tulane University

” As I see it, inspiration and collaboration follow from institutional support–for attending conferences and learning through exposure and conversation, not just for publications but also breakthrough ideas,…If IITs and IIMs and a good size set of Indian Universities considered investing in research infra-structure, waiting some years for their payoffs, I feel the level of inspiration and collaboration that would emerge could be a surprise for the rest of the world. Hope it happens.”

9.  Prof.  Vijay Gupta (Comment posted on IER republished ver. of  this article)

“As the Director of a reputed college in north India, I was the chairman of seven PhD thesis defence in a matter of two years. All of them, except one (which perhaps could be accepted as a master’s thesis in an IIT), was not worth the paper they were printed on. We have not understood what academic research consists of. It should meet at least one of the two criteria: (1) It should explain/establish a phenomena not explained/established earlier, or (2) It solves a problem for the first time using a procedure/process not used before for the ‘class’ of problem AND giving better / more efficient results.
Most of our theses are a ‘new data point’ type, re-solving a problem with some changed parameters, inconsequential extension of processes/ procedures using well-used procedures.
One of the thesis reported some work in which data was collected, fed into a commercial software, and the resulted obtained. When asked why does that work deserved a PhD when the same work is being done daily in hundreds of design offices around the world,, the answer was: ‘nobody has done this for river Baddi’.

There are far deeper issues involved:

Our educational -planners/ controllers have this stupid idea of how research is the be all of academic institutions. For the tens of thousands of college giving undergraduate education alone, why and how the faculty will conduct research and to what end. Let us de-glamorize research, forget about PhDs and start TEACHING. There are hundreds of reputed institutions in US where no pretense of research is made and yet they do an excellent job teaching.”

10.  Chacko Jacob  (Comment posted on IER republished ver. of  this article)

“A very thought provoking article to which I readily agree for the most part. Prof. Rao Vemuri’s comments about the PhDs in India are worth noting. I am sure that there are exceptions to the general description but any honest evaluation of PhD research across the country will only validate the article. What was interesting is to read about the recent AICTE push to increase the scope of the QIP programmes (see India Education Review March 18 – AICTE to help teachers procure PhDs through QIP). Also, the recent push to “catch up”, as it were, with China in producing more Ph.D.s could end up being counterproductive. But then are the policy makers listening to/reading about the research on “research’?”

11.   Prof. B. C. Mal  (Comment posted on IER republished ver. of  this article)

“As a faculty member of IIT Kharagpur, I guided 14 Ph.D.scholars so far. Few are still working. The scholars took 3 to 8 years to complete their Ph.D. After 2 to 3 years some of them join jobs and start working as a part time scholar. They are taking 6 to 8 byears. Ful time scholars are usually taking between 3 to 5 years. Some universities and research organizations like the ICAR are very rigid about a maximum period of 3 years while deputing their teachers or scientists for Ph.D. It is necessary for them to have flexibility. Initially they may depute them for 3 years. After receiving the feedback from the Supervisor/Head/Dean of the university where the candidate is pursuing Ph.D. , suitable extension with pay should be granted for a meaningful Ph.D.
Publications in reputed international journal/patenting should be made compulsory for the award of Ph.D. degree.”

12.   J. Karthikeyan  (Comment posted on IER republished ver. of  this article)

“As a faculty member in Engineering, I have guided three Ph.D scholars out of which two are part time one from my own university and the other from an educational institution. Regarding the quality of Ph.Ds, less said the better. Doctoral degrees are serving as a means for material gains rather than improving analytical capabilities and opening up the thinking process and problem solving skills. Absence of a proper metric and some arbitrary bench mark like 2 or 3 papers in National/International Journals/Conferences and published work of good standing is more misused rather than improving the quality. Now-a -days, publications in so called National/International Journals is easy and is after payment of subscription charges or publication charges charged on page basis making the system a mockery. Impact Factors and Citation Indexes may to some extent check the quality. Basic domain knowledge, intense interest and a minimum maturity is required for pursuing research leading to award of Doctoral degree, but how to measure is a difficult and daunting task.
Research degree cannot be pursued on a part time basis without sacrificing the quality. Even a reasonable compromise on quality requires intense efforts both by the candidate and by the guide which is not forthcoming from either. One cannot ride both the horses at the same time. One University has admitted hundreds of candidates for Ph.D without even having qualified faculty and even the programme. Availability of Guides and Theses in open markets is a reality and should serve as eye openers for the policy makers and Administrators and curb the mad rush for Ph.D. and to maintain a minimum tangible quality.”



2. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine (1995), Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers.

2a.   R. Neal Shambaugh, Refraiming Doctoral Programs: A Program of Human Inquiry for Doctoral Students and Faculty Advisors, Innovative Higher Education, Vol. 24, No. 4, Summer 2000, Human Science Press.



5.   Taran Thune, Doctoral students on the university–industry interface: a review of the literature, High Educ (2009) 58:637–651, Springer

6.   Belinda Crawford Seagram, Judy Gould, and Sandra W. Pyke,  An investigation of gender and other variables on time to completion of doctoral degrees, Research in Higher Education, Vol. 39, No. 3, 1998

7.   Lisa Gillingham, Joseph J. Seneca, and Michael K. Taussig, The determinants of progress to the doctoral degree, Research in Higher Education, Vol. 32, No. 4, 1991

8.  Universities UK Report (2009), Promoting the UK doctorate:opportunities and challenges,

9.  Howard Harris and Katalin Illes, Promoting and Assessing Integrity
in the Research Degree, Electronic Journal of Business Ethics and Organization Studies,  Vol. 13, No. 2 (2008), pp 56-60.


11. Chitleen K Sethi and Smriti Sharma Vasudeva,  ‘Original research’ for PhD on sale!, Tribune News Service,

12.  German PhD degree on sale, scandal that takes shine off the real one,

13.  Academics fear PhD quality is slipping, Times Higher education, UK, Jan 2009,

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