AuthorCafé Connect: From the research management desk
“It’s the direct quick real-time impact that we’re making on the lives of scholars and on the output of the university is what gives me joy and serves as a motivation to constantly strive for excellence” were the words of Dr Anirban Chakraborty, Assistant Vice President, Ashoka University. As a researcher-turned-research-administrator, he walked us through his experience of pivoting to a non-traditional career path in research management (after a scientific research-based PhD), the challenges associated with setting up a PhD programme, and Ashoka’s unique PhD model and approach to interdisciplinary collaborations with a larger purpose of solving societal problems. It was a great learning session for us as he gave an eye-opening view of what the country needs to improve in the higher education sector and how new-age universities with a progressive vision can contribute to it!
Foray into research administration
In 2011, after completing his PhD in nanoscience—specializing in nanoparticle synthesis, reaction kinetics, and sophisticated imaging techniques—Dr Chakraborty was looking forward to starting his postdoctoral research in Kanzawa, Japan. But, a fortunate turn of events led him to take up a research administrator position instead at Presidency University, which had just acquired the status of a university from Presidency College and thus was at a crucial stage in terms of management. He had personally borne the brunt of inefficient management of PhD programmes when he was a scholar, thanks to manual paperwork and long administration cycles, which is what inspired him to work towards research management so that the future generation of scholars does not suffer!
“Research administrators ensure that there is alignment between scholars, faculty, and general administration because they speak and understand the language of researchers and administrators and hence can mediate the gap between them,” says Dr Chakraborty when asked about the role research administrators play in an academic setup. Research administration involves managing the research programmes, recruiting faculty members, and raising and managing funds for research. He attributes his interest in the work to the wonderful learnings and mentoring he received from eminent personalities—Prof. Malabika Sarkar and Prof. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya. And so, he continued his journey there for 5 years after which he moved to Ashoka University.
Move to Ashoka University
To ensure streamlined, efficient running of research programmes and to support researchers, Ashoka University established a four-vertical research development office (RDO) comprising—grants management (pre-award and post-award), research infrastructure management, scholar management, and academic communications—and had its first batch of PhD students in 2017. Dr Chakraborty heads the RDO, and he is also pursuing another doctoral degree—DBA in higher education management from the University of Bath—to better address the challenges of contemporary higher education.
On how he manages to juggle between his Ashoka and DBA commitments, he says:
“If you’re truly passionate about something, you go pursue it, and time won’t be a limiting factor!”
Challenges in a PhD programme
A PhD programme is complex with many stages involved not only from an administrative viewpoint but also from a scholar’s and supervisor’s viewpoint—admission, registration, regular progress monitoring, and thesis writing and defending. Funding of the scholars—stipend and for research—is one of the major factors that need to be considered.
“PhD scholars lie at the juncture of studentship and employment. They are extremely prone to personal, societal, and professional pressure,” says Dr Chakraborty.
“The culture of a university should be such that the scholars feel supported in every respect of their journey—personal and professional—so that their time can be utilised efficiently in focusing on the core task, which is research.” Dr Chakraborty
PhD programme structure
Ashoka’s PhD programme is designed in such a way that the scholars are trained to not only be great researchers but also amazing teachers—they have mandatory teaching assistantships. Each scholar has a dedicated doctoral thesis committee, comprising faculty members specializing in several domains, that monitors their progress and provides them with constant feedback and guidance on their research projects. Our conversations with several of the PhD students at Ashoka confirmed the effectiveness of this PhD model.
Since academic writing forms a huge part of a scholar’s research journey, there are dedicated centres and mentors to provide suitable training to the scholars in this domain. In addition, the scholars are also trained in research ethics required by academia. Mental-health-related support is available to all in the university. Special support—academic, financial, and mobility—is extended to differently-abled scholars.
In terms of finances, scholars are well funded by the university, and the externally funded scholars are also supported by Ashoka if and when the external funding expires or does not arrive on time. The university also allocates international travel grants to each individual scholar, not research groups, to enable them to attend international conferences held abroad.
Truly interdisciplinary research
It is collaborative interdisciplinary research that can offer practical and effective solutions to various social problems. Several institutions in the country have introduced the element of research in their undergraduate programmes. “New-age universities are trying to go up a notch by fostering a mixing of disciplines by looking at societal problems as a whole rather than individual chunks operating in silos. In fact, the Covid pandemic has taught us that while scientific research will help devise treatments, psychological, social, political, and economic considerations must also go hand in hand to curb the overall situation,” says Dr Chakraborty on what true interleaving of research disciplines means.
“While focusing on fast, short-term achievements, is alluring, one should equally focus on building solutions to long-term problems as well whether it is global health or climate change.” Dr Chakraborty
With such a philosophy, centres such as Centre for Economic Data and Analysis (CEDA), Centre for Interdisciplinary Archaeological Research (CIAR), and Centre for Social and Behaviour Change (CSBC) have been set up on the campus. Moreover, Ashoka’s infrastructure has been designed in such a way that the labs/groups of various disciplines are placed in the vicinity of each other to encourage interactions and conversations among researchers.
The way forward
Ours is a growing nation with great potential and one of the largest youth population. Producing creative thinkers and future leaders with a problem-solving mind-set are the goals of new-age universities such as Ashoka. Remodelling the university research sector by designing policies based on research and experience rather than borrowing them from established foreign universities is what is required of the institutions within the country to develop a robust research and education system. “According to the National Education Policy, the gross enrolment ratio in higher education should go up to 50% by 2035 from the current 28%. This policy has been promoting holistic and multidisciplinary education with an increased focus on arts, humanities, sciences, vocational subjects, and soft skills,” notes Dr Chakraborty, “And, Ashoka is an experiment working in this direction.”