Monday, June 23, 2003| Updated at 12:36 hrs IST
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Research is for geeks...says who?

[ MONDAY, JUNE 23, 2003 03:34:00 AM ]

It’s a three-letter word that means many thing to many people: for the brightest, it means challenges that no other degree offers; for the innovative, it holds out the possibility to innovate and create new knowledge and technologies; for the ambitious, it is the pinnacle of the academic ladder; and for the persistent, this is an endeavour where persistence and self discipline are put to full use.

A PhD is the highest degree offered anywhere in the world (barring the highly uncommon DSc). Its focus, unlike regular degrees, is not learning existing knowledge but creating new knowledge. It’s no wonder, then, that the PhD is desired by anyone wishing to ‘make a mark’.

Despite the romance of doing a PhD, young people today have a certain fear of pursuing the degree — prospective students are sometimes scared because they think it is “too difficult and they will not be able to do it”, or because “it takes too much time”, or perhaps just because “a PhD means that you have to be a teacher and I don’t want to be a teacher”. All these fears can very easily shown to be false.

What is involved in a PhD?

First, let us clearly understand what is involved in doing a PhD. A PhD is, as everyone knows, about doing research. And research is about formulating problems or questions, whose answers the research or practitioner community wants to know, and whose answers are not known. Research is a means of providing some answer to these questions.

So, the key aspects of doing a PhD are (a) formulating a question or a problem that is of interest and that can be solved, and (b) providing a useful/interesting solution to the stated problem. The results obtained are presented in national/international conferences, and/or submitted to scientific journals.

The problems that are addressed by a PhD scholar can range from very difficult open problems to evolutionary technology issues. In computer science, the problem areas can range from being highly theoretical or mathematical to modelling and experimentation or building new technologies. For example, there are a lot of open issues regarding the complexity of solving some problems algorithmically (like checking whether a number is a prime – a problem for which an efficient solution was proposed only recently by prof Manindra Agarwal of CSE/IITK).

These problems typically involve complex theoretical and mathematical development. Similarly, there are many problems that require understanding the behaviour of various systems. When approaching such problems modelling and experimentation are frequently used. Then, there are problems of the type where something innovative and useful is done using computers and software. Working on such problems typically involves building systems and prototypes. In other words, a scholar doing a PhD in computer science has a wide range of areas to choose from, depending on his inclination, ability, and interests.

Generally, PhD programmes world over proceed as follows: do some course work, pass some qualifying exam, and then write a thesis that has to be defended (sometimes, at the early stages of the thesis a “proposal” may have to be submitted). In a place like CSE/IIT Kanpur, generally, a student who joins the PhD programme after completing his/her B.Tech/BE will spend about one year doing the courses; about one to two years formulating the problem, which also requires an in-depth study of the chosen area; and about two years or more developing the solutions and writing the thesis. Once the thesis is written, it is examined by some experts and a thesis defence is scheduled. This process takes about 6 months, but the candidate can start his post PhD job once the thesis is submitted. Hence, doing a PhD takes about as much time as doing a BE, or the amount of time a doctor spends doing his residency and MD.

Granted the process is hard — and so are most things worth doing. However, the difficulty is not because extreme intelligence is necessary. Brilliance, of course, helps — brilliant people can attack hard problems and produce solid results and leave a permanent mark on the field. However, students with a good academic background and some amount of creativity can also do a PhD, and do quite well. Completing a PhD primarily requires drive, motivation and hard work. Hard and motivated work determines not only the quality of the final work, but also the amount of time needed to complete the PhD. In general, a PhD can be completed in four to five years — four years for the motivated and five for the not-so-motivated.

What are the options after PhD?

Clearly, one of the main job opportunities post-PhD is a faculty position in some university, college or institute. This option, world over, is one of the most preferred for PhD-holders. One reason for this is that in today’s world, the best quality people require freedom in their work and have a strong desire to make a mark. Both these desires are well supported by the research activities a faculty undertakes as part of his job — he has the freedom to select the problems he works on, and through research he creates new knowledge which is published under his authorship. This is a very strong motivating factor and very good people across the world sacrifice other benefits for academic freedom and the possibilities to create and innovate.

It should be mentioned that for computer science, there is a shortage of qualified faculty in most good institutions and there are always openings in places like the IITs, NITs, RECs and central universities, among others. In addition, there are now a number of private universities and institutions, that have been set up by overseas universities, which are also looking for qualified faculty (and these places pay more than government scales – up to three times more.)

However, teaching is by no means the only option for a PhD. India today is fast becoming a centre for global research and development. Due to the quality of its manpower and the lower cost, many organisations have started setting up R&D centres in India. And, these centres are desperately seeking PhDs — and not finding them, since there aren’t enough to go around. Some examples of these are the IBM India Research Center in New Delhi, GE Research in Bangalore, Mentor Graphics in Hyderabad, Cadence and many more.

Besides these research centres, most of the big Indian IT companies have started high-end technology development and consulting, and R&D centres or cells, in which they need PhDs. Almost all the IT majors — TCS, Infosys and Wipro among others — employ a large number of PhDs (upward of about 50 each) and are always looking for more people to enhance their R&D activities. This activity will only increase in such companies as they become larger. A few years back, we conducted an informal survey on salaries with these companies and were told that most of them would offer a PhD at least two times the starting salary they would offer a BE. Starting salaries for many of these positions are of the order of Rs 50,000 per month or more.

Besides these opportunities in India, people with PhDs are global citizens and move around quite a bit. Immediately after a PhD, there are opportunities for post-doctoral work in the US and Europe. While working as a researcher or faculty member, there are opportunities for appointments as visiting faculty or visiting researchers in the US, Europe, Singapore and other countries, where a faculty member from India can spend a year or two in overseas universities or research labs. Many faculty members from India avail of this from time to time.

Where do you go from here?

The computer science departments at most IITs, IISc and TIFR offer the best academic and physical environment destinations in India, and arguably among the best in the world, for pursuit of a PhD. For example, the CSE building of IIT Kanpur, which was recently constructed through a generous donation from NRN Murthy of Infosys, is very modern and fully air-conditioned with nice labs and rooms. All PhD scholars receive a fellowship from the institutes (which is provided by the government of India) of about Rs 8,000 per month.

At IIT Kanpur, this can be enhanced further, with grants from alumni, by a few thousand. Many IITs also have a few higher-paying fellowships from industry, like the Infosys fellowship which pays about 50% more. Most of these institutes also provide hostel space and married student housing. Support for attending conferences in India is also generally available. In a place like CSE at IITK, corpuses have been created by alumni through which a PhD scholar can attend international conferences of summer schools — this kind of support is not available to PhD scholars even at US universities.

Above all, these institutes are recognised world over for their work in the field of computer science. Researchers from abroad are frequent visitors and give the young scholars the opportunity to interact with international researchers. Many of these institutes have young and dynamic faculty members, many of whom are recognised across the world for their stature. A good example is prof Manindra Agarwal of IIT Kanpur, whose work “Primes is in P” shook the world sometime back and was reported in many major newspapers across the world.

So, for those with a thirst to be at the frontier of knowledge creation, the opportunity lies just three letters away.

The author is a professor, department CSE, IIT Kanpur

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