National Summit Part 2: Managing PhD programs for impact

Managing PhD programs for impact

From a PhD scholars point of view, the period of graduate research is a long process of learning to be a researcher. This journey for the student is made possible both through their own work and also through the work of a large number of other professionals, including their mentors, collaborators, peers, their institutions and funders. Management of PhD programs therefore requires an understanding of the expectations and requirements of all the relevant stakeholders.

Prof Shantikumar Nair, Director Research, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham: Managing expectations of diverse stakeholders for a PhD program

PhD programs differ considerably from equivalent programs for undergraduate and postgraduate students. Institutions aim to nurture a vibrant atmosphere for their PhD students and work towards creating both an excellent academic experience and education that helps their students be connected to the real world beyond. Institutions can adopt best practices in management of PhD programs from across the world and ensure that the implementation of these ideas is done with sensitivity and in alignment with the needs of students in India.

In India, the students tend to be driven. They are ambitious, dynamic and work hard. Our role as the Heads of academic programs is to somehow channel ize all this energy in a good way, give them the freedom to express themselves and independence and agency to make their own decisions” said Prof Raj Ladher, Head of Academic Activities at NCBS, Bangalore. 

Prof Raj Ladher, Dean Academics, National Centre for Biological Sciences: What should an academic program offer PhD students in India?

Wellness and the PhD student

There are several systemic issues impacting the well-being and progress of PhD students in India. The current level of financial support available for students may not be adequate, particularly in comparison with salaries being earned in other sectors by peers in a similar age group. Some institutions, particularly private universities have tried to address this issue by offering generous stipends and incentives such as intramural funding support for attending international research conferences. Furthermore, PhD students can experience stress due to conflicts with supervisors, the nature of the project and over doubts about whether their research work would qualify for a well-earned thesis and degree. The pandemic has additionally resulted in huge challenges for PhD students in terms of access to their research laboratories, disruptions in project schedules, social isolation and personal pressures.

Panelists at the summit concurred that it would be extremely important for universities to have mechanisms in place to provide professional support for mental health and wellbeing and with services such as childcare, to their students. This discussion resonated deeply with several students attending the summit.

Prof Geetha Venkatraman: Challenges faced by PhD students

Dr Anirban Chakraborty : Aligning vision and operations in management of PhD programs

The role of technology in managing PhD programs

Technology plays a significant role in the conduct of research. Graduate students now have access to a diverse set of specialist digital services, ranging from digital tools for searching for relevant literature, specialised platforms for genomics, proteomics, microscopy, data science, AI and other fields, myriad databases, research information systems and data management solutions. 

 

Additionally, the dissemination of research output is enabled through the use of technology platforms for compiling, reviewing and editing of manuscripts, generation of scientific illustrations, plagiarism checks and related tools. Furthermore, digital technologies can play a key role in communication. The pandemic has clearly demonstrated the value of virtual platforms for organising meetings and conferences. Access to a large range of online resources has been of great benefit to students. 

Additionally, technology can also play an important role in the management of research. Unlike students pursuing undergraduate or masters level training, PhD scholars typically have individual timelines and directions for their research programs. In addition to the PhD mentor, the progress of a PhD scholar is reviewed by experts via mechanisms such as Research Advisory Committees and Thesis Committees. All these activities, through the duration of an individual project, require sustained monitoring and follow-through. Delays and communication gaps between stakeholders along this process chain can have an impact on the progression of PhD students through their scholarly journey.

In parallel, institutions are mandated to report to the UGC and other national bodies, the progress and outputs of their graduate programs. This requires data monitoring, tracking and analysis at an institution-wide level. If the information required for such reporting is managed via disparate mechanisms spread out across departments, this would pose a real challenge for an institution. The panelists suggested that it would be extremely beneficial for institutions to have systems for mapping the life-cycle of each PhD student, their progress, courses, reports and theses, along with timely prompts, centralised data gathering and robust data analysis for the stakeholders.

Prof Geetha Venkataraman:  Insights on the different aspects of managing PhD programs at Ambedkar University of Delhi and highlights how technology could play an enabling role

Prof Raj Ladher:  Insights into the role of technology platforms in management of PhD programs.

Peering into the future

The new National Education Policy (NEP) introduced by the Government of India after a gap of nearly three decades, provides both the overarching vision and a comprehensive framework for change in educational systems across the country. Panelists at the summit expressed their hopes that the NEP would be useful in ushering in changes to PhD programs in India, as an essential component of the country’s education plan. Such developments, coupled with funding, growth in the number of PhD students and increased awareness of research integrity would help improve both the quantity and quality of research in India.

Dr Anirban Chakraborty: Implications of the New Education Policy for PhD programs in India

The panelists also shared their hopes and aspirations for the future of PhD programs in India. “I think one of the problems we  face in India is that we are too focused on a PhD as a degree program. In my view, a PhD is not just a degree. Rather, it is a way of taking on knowledge and learning to innovate and apply it to problems around us. And for that, we have to be creative and develop a stronger culture of research. Such a culture of research requires us educators to serve as better mentors to our students and give them the space to be creative and to let them innovate. An increased emphasis on research is very important because the economic strength of the country is directly in proportion to the amount of innovative research that is done. And if we get our young people excited about research as a way to contribute to society, we will really grow in leaps and bounds.”, said Prof Shantikumar Nair in his concluding remarks. 

The national summit organized by AuthorCafé was an excellent forum for the participants to explore diverse aspects of the management of PhD programs in India.

 All the panellists agreed that leveraging interdisciplinarity and societal connect in PhD programs were clear priorities for the future and that technology solutions could be utilised to streamline the management of PhD programs. 

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