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Response to “The Many Ways of doing a PhD”

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Summary

In an ideal situation, students should have enough choice in their educational opportunities and the freedom to recognize their skills and pursue the career that suits them the most. This is a far cry from what one sees in India.

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There are many forms that the PhD program can take, and though the thesis is the endpoint in all cases, the requirements for getting a PhD vary with regard to the type of problem, the nature of work involved and most importantly, the relative contributions of the PhD student and guide towards completing a PhD.The nature of the relationship between mentor and mentee has been aptly summed up into three broad types in Dr Gadagkar’sarticle. The path to getting a PhD depends heavily on this relationship of mentor with mentee. The nature of the mentor-mentee relationship also impacts the amount of learning both of theory and practice in the area of specialization, as well as acquisition of problem solving skills, of the mentee.As highlighted in Gadagkar’s article, the independent mode of doing a PhD, in which the mentee has more freedom to carve out her area of research and work out how to execute it, has the maximum benefit in terms of the intellectual development of the mentee and learning of research skills. In this mode, the mentee would have acquired problem solving abilities both in working out experimental approaches to a problem and in answering a research question.This mode or relationship requires a culture in which one is prepared to make allowance for a student to learn in her own way (despite the time needed to achieve this). It may well require that the mentor is willing to accommodate changes in the original plan and make course corrections in the process.The second type of mentor-mentee relationship discussed in the above-mentioned piece, is the collaborative mode, in which there is an equal involvement of both mentor and mentee in planning and carrying out the research.This again requires that the mentor places sufficient confidence and faith in the abilities of the mentee to contribute independently to the research problem.The third type of relationship in this category, is one that Dr Gadagkar refers to as the “apprenticeship mode”. This is a path that is least geared towards optimal development of mentee as an independent thinker and researcher. It requires little intellectual input or involvement of the mentee who is assigned to work on a small part of a bigger problem that is already defined by the mentor.This mode quite evidently, leaves the mentee with little freedom in carrying out the research.Both the problem as well as the path involved are spelt out by the mentor.This latter mode is increasingly prevalent in science in recent times, especially in experimental research laboratories. In a scenario of increasing difficulty in obtaining funds for research, and the associated pressure to ‘publish or perish’, productivity is the overwhelming concern of the research mentor and this leads to compromising the quality of mentorship as well as the learning process of the mentee as such. The mentees are essentially pairs of hands that are recruited to carry out the assigned work, and are expected to produce results in the shortest possible time.

 

Quite apart from the expectations imposed by the mentor in this process, mentees themselves have their own perceptions and motivating factors in doing a PhD. In an ideal situation, students should have enough choice in their educational opportunities and the freedom to recognize their skills and pursue the career that suits them the most. This is a far cry from what one sees in India. Academia unfortunately, is the least preferred career path as compared to the lucrative professions that are associated with either money or social privilege or both. The trend is that if one does not qualify for medicine, engineering, business or accountancy, one gets into a routine Bachelors program which follows into a Masters and then automatically, into a doctorate.The desirability of moving up in the career ladder, with the possibility of better paying jobs, means that one tries for the highest degree possible. This path leads to students with little interest in academia or in research in particular, and who have opted for it by default, or due to pressure from family (usually for perceived prestige and social standing).

 

In addition, the essence and purpose of PhD is viewed differently from one place to another. It is often viewed as a training program and in this situation, graduate students are required to carry out research using a systematic approach to the research problem. It does not matter much if the work leads to novel findings or not. When viewed as a gateway to a research career, which means competing for the best possible opportunities, whether in postdoctoral positions or other jobs, good quality publications are an essential part of a PhD. For this, one seeks challenging problems that may lead to new and interesting results. Against a backdrop of an oversupply of PhDs versus demand in recent times, even a postdoctoral position becomes competitive and difficult to get. This places a premium on novelty and originality of doctoral research.

 

Chitra Kannabiran is a scientist at the L.V. Prasad Eye Institute, Hyderabad. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Confluence, its editorial board or the Academy.

 

This article is part of a Confluence series called “Mentor-Mentee Relationships in Academia: Nature, Problems and Solutions”

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