Sumithramma (not her real name) is in her late 40s. It has been nine years since she enrolled for a doctoral programme and she is almost on the verge of getting disqualified from the course. She was working with a guide who was a senior faculty member in a well-known state university in south India. “I did not make proper referrals before agreeing to be her student,” rues Sumithra. She recalls with horror the amount of mental torture this lady gave her. “It is often said that women are women’s biggest enemies. It proved to be true in my case. In state universities you don’t have much of a choice when it comes to a doctoral guide.” Sumithra suffered such mental agony and depression in the last few years that her family suggested that she abandon the course, instead of allowing her health to get affected.
Luckily, for Sumithra, she diverted her mind to spirituality and has now finished writing the thesis. “I have run every errand possible for my guide. Shadow-writing books and research papers for her; booking tickets for her family vacation; carrying home-cooked food for her; visiting banks and post offices…” Sumithra stops for a while and then she says “I would not recommend that anyone does a PhD, at least not in India. It is not worth the effort, unless you are lucky to manage a job in a government institution.”
If you do a PhD in India, the guide should be someone who should lead you towards the path to completion. Most guides lead their doctoral students into a rabbit hole. Out of the total number of enrolments in a doctoral course, only 8%-10% of the scholars manage to complete the programme. Guides play no small role in this. The moment a student’s doctoral degree becomes dependent on a guide, ego intervenes. In state-run universities, the torture is in the form of asking scholars to run a number of personal errands for the guide. In private universities, the fees are much higher; but the torture manifests in a different form. Guides end up asking scholars to do lot of unnecessary stuff delaying the completion of the degree by two to three years. Then, there are universities that have made a mockery of the doctoral programme by (literally) selling the degrees. Imagine scholars completing the doctoral degree in 18 months or 36 months.
Unless the scholar has a passion for research and unless the guide has the mental aptitude to guide the scholar, the entire experience of working for a doctoral degree faces numerous challenges. Many educational institutions do insist on a doctoral degree while recruiting faculty but fail to estimate the rigour with which the research has been pursued. Acquiring a degree and acquiring knowledge are not the same. This is the reason why the corporate world has an aversion for doctoral students. The main component of a doctoral dissertation is the research question and identification of research gap. Gap identification ideally takes anywhere between two to three years and is the result of an exhaustive review of existing literature. Most students manipulate the process by reading only the abstract and conclusion of research papers, to cut short the time. This ends up short-circuiting the process of knowledge acquisition.
Research is about offering something new—not offering old wine in a new bottle. The Western world is years ahead of us in terms of path-breaking research. In India, despite having skilled people, we end up succumbing to the lure of selecting patently absurd topics for research. Be it marketing, human resources or information technology or finance, the area of research is a fecund ground for exploring areas that have not been hitherto explored for their research potential. But this needs one to arrive at the precise statement of the problem based on the identification of the research gap.
Private universities in cities like Pune, Chennai and Bengaluru have been luring software geeks to pursue a doctoral degree. Some of these universities have amassed huge sums of money in the form of fees. While the total cost of pursuing a doctoral degree in a state university is somewhere between Rs2 lakh and Rs3 lakh (excluding the ‘other’ costs of the course), private universities charge anywhere between Rs5 lakh and Rs7 lakh. Return on investment? Your guess is as good as mine. For young doctoral graduates, the starting salary in an educational institution varies from Rs25,000-Rs40,000—the salary an MBA from a middle-rung business school draws. Strangely, none of the Indian universities seems to have a feedback mechanism for evaluating the capabilities of their doctoral programme guides. As most students drop out even before the course work is complete, universities end up with loads of cash.
One of the doctoral research guides says, “I request scholars not to have huge expectations from the degree. The lesser your expectations, the lesser is the stress that you will subject yourself to. On most occasions, a doctoral degree produces a halo effect that is temporal in nature.” Unless the individual pursues his passion for research, the doctoral degree becomes a full stop.
After acquiring a doctoral degree, individuals generally join educational institutions. Very few join industry. Some become entrepreneurs, if they have some financial backing. Some pursue a post-doctoral fellowship abroad. Others keep their interest in research alive by publishing papers in renowned, peer-reviewed journals and guiding young doctoral scholars.
Through this column, I make a humble appeal to all doctoral guides to support the deserving scholar in every way possible. Leave your egos aside. Doctoral scholars, who shirk work and have joined the course only for its (so-called) prestige value, do not deserve any mercy or empathy. But doctoral scholars passionate about research and those who are keen to make significant research contributions deserve empathy, attention and kindness.
Scholars need a reasonable level of emotional intelligence to deal with the doctoral guide and committee members. They must develop inter-personal skills. If there is a problem, postpone thinking about it and then revisit the problem. Hours of reading in solitude and taking down notes creates a lot of pressure. So, scholars need breaks in between. A good effort in research entails reading anywhere between 250-350 research papers—though the number may vary depending on the topic. Scholars need to develop highest levels of patience while skimming the literature, to identify the research gap.
Research is not just about usage of statistical tools. Tools exist to validate your study so that your research outcomes are aligned with the objectives. Modern tools, like structural equation modelling, are useful to validate the conceptual model.
But age-old tools, like multiple regression, factor analysis, discriminant analysis and Chi-square are no less relevant. Most statistical software programs are available for a free trial for three-months. Most guides insist on using a modern tool without realising that the tool must be relevant for the research in question.
Some scholars have the tendency to outsource the statistical part to statisticians, but that is a grave mistake on their part. Every scholar should devote considerable time to learn new tools to support his/her research effort. Doctoral guides must avoid playing to the gallery. Their style must be an ideal blend of firmness and accommodativeness.
This is, of course, easier said than done. Some institutions invite scholars to take part in doctoral consortiums. But a word of caution is necessary here. Ideas can easily get stolen in these so-called consortiums/ conferences. Additionally, few institutes organise such consortiums to earn money and get credits from statutory/ regulatory bodies. The scholar has to be careful not to share his research agenda with anyone outside the circle of influence.
Unless an individual is ready to face all these challenges while pursuing a doctoral degree, it is advisable that he/she stays away from such a pursuit. There are those with a doctoral degree who are denied a promotion and languish in the same role for years together. I once asked an HR manager from Accenture whether she would recruit PhDs and there was a deafening silence from her end.