National Summit Part 1: PhD programs in the Indian Research ecosystem

PhD programs in the Indian knowledge ecosystem

The summit opened with an exploration of the importance of PhD programs in the Indian research ecosystem. PhD students are the pillars of the workforce at Indian research institutions.

The role of PhD students in driving research and innovation is particularly significant in India, given the relative shortage of well-trained post-doctoral researchers.

There is certainly a growing interest in PhD programs in India. As per the AISHE report for 2021, PhD enrolments in India have increased by 60% over the last five-year period, which is a positive trend for research in India. However, panelists at the summit expressed the view that this rise was unlikely to be adequate, particularly given the demographics of the young population in India. They were of the opinion that India would require even larger numbers of PhD students contributing to the knowledge economy.

 
Training at the PhD level is designed to prepare students for research careers, either at university or in industry, and to teach students how to discover new knowledge within their academic discipline. A strong PhD program is necessary in every University that wants to contribute to the knowledge economy and help take India forward.” said Prof Rupamanjari Ghosh, Vice-Chancellor of Shiv Nadar University, in her opening remarks.

Prof Rupamanjari Ghosh: The synergy between teaching and research

Cultivating a research mindset from early stages

If India requires further increases in the numbers of PhD students, then the conditions need to be made conducive for students to take an interest in research. Several factors are likely to influence the decision of students to enrol for PhD programs, including the extent to which they were exposed to the research process, practical skills and critical thinking at earlier career stages. Institutions in India are therefore creating mechanisms to promote a research mindset from the undergraduate stages. 

Institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs) and Shiv Nadar University have made notable efforts in this direction. The opportunity for Undergraduate Research (OUR) Program at Shiv Nadar University provides an opportunity and enables funding for undergraduate students to undertake research under the guidance of research mentors. The OUR program currently has nearly 100 ongoing undergraduate research projects. The IISERs have created a unique model with a 5-year BS-MS program that gives undergraduate students exposure to the depth and breadth of science along with the opportunity to participate in research and publish. A wide range of foundation courses offered early in the program enable the students to understand interdisciplinary research and a research project in the 5th year of the program gives the students an unprecedented opportunity to carry out their research alongside well-trained mentors. In totality, such experiences are encouraging for students to turn towards research as a future career choice.

Prof KN Ganesh, Director IISER Tirupati: Building the BS-MS program at IISERs

Building successful PhD programs

Nurturing a PhD program requires long-term investments in excellent faculty who can serve as inspiring mentors for PhD students, faculty-development programs and mentorship for early-career faculty and a well-developed research infrastructure base. These principles were highlighted in detail by Prof KN Ganesh, Director IISER Tirupati, as he related the challenges of institution-building at IISER Pune.

Prof KN Ganesh: Building the graduate program at IISER Pune

The quality of research at the graduate level

A common concern expressed by panelists and attendees alike was that India would need to ensure high-quality research across the universities and research institutions. PhD mentors play an important role in ensuring that research conducted is of acceptable quality and that the graduate experience makes a positive contribution to the career development of the student. Reciprocally, PhD students make significant contributions to the research output of their host research groups. Mentors need research funding for their programs and have to guide their students to pick worthwhile problems to pursue. For many early career faculty, becoming a mentor to a PhD student is a major transition, and often one that they are not adequately prepared for. Institutions can facilitate this transition by supporting faculty development programs and mentoring the faculty. For newer institutions, having access to senior faculty from other institutions can be enabling for their faculty development programs.

Prof Pradeep Kumar G, Scientist G, RGCB: The joys and challenges of being a PhD mentor

I would hope that in ten years time, we are able to address issues and ensure that the quality of research being produced by PhD students in India is improved. We need to inculcate awareness about academic ethics, plagiarism and related matters from a very early stage. This process should be initiated at the undergraduate and postgraduate level itself.” said Prof Geetha Venkataraman, Dean of Research and Consultancy, Dr BR Ambedkar University Delhi

Researchers from all parts of the world are under a lot of pressure to publish and this pressure can transmit to graduate students. Institutions need to motivate students and equip them to respect research integrity. The UGC mandates PhD students to be trained in research methodology, research ethics and publishing ethics. Additionally, in parallel, mentors need to ensure that students are insulated from professional pressures that they themselves may feel. They need to promote a good research culture and be good role models in this regard.

Evaluating success in PhD programs

Research output is increasingly regarded as a key determinant of how institutions are perceived globally. With every long-term investment, comes the challenge of assessing impact. How can institutions measure success in graduate research? The panelists recognized the fact that each institution would be set up with a specific vision and mandate. They agreed that it would be valuable for research programs to be viewed in light of the specific strategy set for the institution.

It is becoming clear that collaborative approaches bringing together diverse inputs are required for timely solutions to societal problems. This has been illustrated particularly well by the COVID-19 pandemic. Partnerships across disciplines and institutions and between academia and industry are required, as is an ecosystem of collaborating institutions. With collaborations, the institutions are being called upon to play a greater role both in enabling linkages and in evaluating impact.  

While metrics such as journal impact factor, citation index and institutional ranking are accepted indicators of research impact, they require time to be built up. It would be good for researchers to have the freedom to explore new avenues and arrive at solutions serendipitously. Research is a recursive process, often requiring long periods of incubation. It could therefore take decades before research activities transform into visible solutions benefitting society. Panelists at the summit were of the opinion that an assessment system including subjective assessments by research evaluators would be helpful, particularly in cases where the immediate impact of a research program is not known.

Prof Ghosh: Research as a long-term endeavour

Prof Ganesh: Excerpts from the book “The Science of Science

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