New Delhi: The University Grants Commission (UGC) is worried about the quality of PhD research in India, and it has good reason to.
A PhD or Doctor of Philosophy signifies the highest degree of academic qualification, and is meant to encourage original research to yield new insights in one’s area of interest or study.
However, an investigation by ThePrint of PhD topics between 2010 and 2017 — in humanities and pure science — across Indian universities shows that topics are often hyper-theoretical without much empirical studies, or historical without any contemporary currency.
With the enrolment in PhDs jumping 50 per cent between 2011 and 2017, the UGC last month invited proposals for a six-month study to assess the quality of theses in the past decade.
Research in humanities
Some of the recent PhD topics in humanities included — ‘Tribal movements of Gujarat in 19th and 20th century’, ‘Colonisation and development problems in Kerala — a case study of evolution and nature of public action 1850-1956’, ‘Widows and widowhood in the colonial Punjab’ and ‘A survey on the condition of working women in the coal field and steel plants in Jharkhand since 1947’.
Dissertations under the history category include disconnected and tangential topics like the lives of historical personalities, studies on social and political movements and women’s role in them, religious reforms, architecture and archaeology, and cultural studies on districts and their significance. Some of them are ‘Life and works of Dara Shikuh’, ‘History of Amreli municipality’, ‘Study of tribal fairs in Gujarat’, and ‘Study of fertility deities in Karnataka’.
One of the studies under folklore focused on ‘Rangoli kale mathu samskruthi (art of rangoli and its culture)’. In Hindi literature, ‘Hindi sahitya me lote ka mahatva‘ is a PhD topic chosen by many, with some researching the vessel’s importance in poetry, and others in prose.
Under political science, in 2010, PhDs from Manipur centred on such broad themes as ‘Politics in Manipur’ and ‘Parties in Manipur’. In 2015, many people chose the Karnataka Lokayukta as the subject of their PhDs. In Odisha, students have researched the role of district collectors in the state.
Meanwhile, research subjects at Brown University, US, for example, have included ‘In this together: An ethos of sustainability for a greener globe’ and ‘Mobilization through antagonism: Populist identity formation in Trump’s America and Kirchner’s Argentina’, topics rich in contemporary relevance.
Political science research, according to Brown University Professor Ashutosh Varshney, suffers from an “odd malaise”. “Unlike universities in the US and, to some extent, the UK, Indian universities have been dominated by political theorists, who frown upon empirical research,” Varshney said in an email response to ThePrint. “The latter is neither comprehended as a serious form of research, nor promoted as a mode of inquiry.”
There is an institutional implication to this problem.
“The most systematic empirical research on India’s politics has, for all practical purposes, emerged outside the university system, not in the university departments. A lot of it is located at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (research institute based in Delhi),” said Varshney.
“Because this kind of empirical research is emerging in some research centres, it is not easily reproducible,” he added. “Reproduction, at the very least, requires training PhD students. I do not see how India’s political science can move forward and become internationally respectable until a whole range of empirical methods of research are systematically taught to PhD students in addition to political theory, and serious empirical research beyond case studies is valued and promoted in leading university departments.”
Literature research often repetitive
Indian researchers’ dissertations on English language mostly delve into the literary works of famous authors and poets, including the likes of William Shakespeare, George Orwell, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Khushwant Singh, Rabindranath Tagore and Salman Rushdie.
For example, ‘Novels of Amitav Ghosh: novelist and anthropologist’ and ‘Critical study of Amitav Ghosh’s novels’ are PhD subjects that have been pursued repeatedly through consecutive years.
In subjects like business administration, commerce, sports and economics, most studies are based on surveys. Rather than creating new information, researchers have based their thesis on some survey conducted earlier. For example, “An analytical study of diamond industry of Junagarh district” is the subject of an economics PhD, while another in commerce is “A study on job satisfaction among sales forces in pharmaceutical industry of Andhra Pradesh”.
Dissertations under geography are mostly from less-recognised universities in smaller areas. Analysis-based geographical studies include subjects like agriculture, environment, population, resources, urban poverty, tourism, and crop culture in different states.
‘Rigorous’ process to choose PhD topics
Talking about the types of PhDs being pursued in India, Furqan Qamar, the former secretary general of the Association of Indian Universities, which keeps a record of all the PhD theses submitted in India, told ThePrint that the topics were not decided by the candidate or the guide alone: The choice involves a rigorous process that takes into account the views of a number of people, he said.
The topic first goes to the Board of Research and Board of Studies at the university in question, then for endorsement to the School Board and Faculty Committee at each institution. It then goes to the academic council, which includes teachers and experts. It is only at the end of this process that the PhD topic is passed and the candidate begins work.
“Choosing a PhD topic is very rigorous exercise… If even this is not able to ensure quality in PhDs, then what else will?” asks Qamar.
‘Don’t judge research by topic’
Experts say the topic of the PhD alone cannot indicate its relevance. “If many people are researching Shakespeare, this does not mean that the thesis is repetitive. Each research might talk about different aspects of his writing,” said a senior faculty member of Delhi University.
“In pure science, people expect that every research will be path-breaking, but all research does not have to be path-breaking,” the professor added.
“There has to be some new knowledge-creation with every piece of research. Many people are still researching Einstein’s theory, and some people have reached a conclusion that his theory is correct and others have deduced that his theory is not correct.”
“Research should be relevant in a way that it leads to betterment of our lives,” the professor said. “Also, it should be relevant to the needs of the specific country. Sometimes, research is based on contemporary needs, sometimes it could be futuristic as well.”
Research in science
In areas of science and technology, experts pointed towards the lack of research infrastructure and industry-academia partnership. New ideas are not brought to the table and most people keep researching issues that no one is interested in, they said.
“The quality of PhDs is maintained in institutes like Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) because we have a certain standard below which candidates will not even qualify for getting a PhD,” said Professor Ramagopal Rao, the director of IIT-Delhi.
“At second-rung institutions, facility is sometimes a problem. For example, at IITs, we have spent Rs 100 crore in the last 18 months alone to improve the research infrastructure, but how many of the second-rung institutions will be able to do that?” he added.
According to Rao, the faculty at such institutes were often not up to date with the latest technology, which affected the quality of research.
Talking about the overall quality of PhDs in India, a senior official in the Ministry of HRD said, “We certainly need to improve the quality of PhDs being produced in India currently, but that will not come from external control. In order to produce good PhDs, the only people who can exercise control is the teaching fraternity.
“To make that possible,” the official added, “we need to make sure that we hire quality faculty at teaching institutions from the beginning.”
A small-town fascination?
Obtaining PhDs as a trend seems to be popular in tier-2 and tier-3 cities like Meerut, Rajkot, Patan, Bhagalpur, Shimla, Rohtak and Sagar.
“Demand for admission in PhD is also led by lack of opportunities. Doing a PhD is a way of getting employment for many people in smaller towns,” said Qamar. “Commitment to research is not the point for them, they are only looking at employment.”
People in small towns are able to submit their thesis in regional Indian languages, which is an advantage.
Mixed response among those who moved to foreign shores
Scholars who moved out of India after initial research have mixed observations about the quality of research in India.
“It is much better than what it was earlier, but still poor by global standards, except for those in elite institutions like the Indian Institute of Science (IISc),” Dr C.S. Prakash, a professor of plant molecular genetics at Tuskegee University, US, said of science research in India.
Tariq Thachil, associate professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, US, said there are “many fine institutions in the country that produce excellent PhDs with very learned and capable professors at the helm”. “And the quality of graduate research will be highly variable within any country, not just India,” he added.
But he said a 50 per cent jump in PhD enrolments in just six years was unlikely to have taken place unless there has been a significant dilution of standards. The requirements to produce top-quality research cannot be produced overnight, without rigorous instruction, curriculum, learning materials, and intellectual and financial support, Thachil added.
A PhD scholar undertaking research in the US said the system in India was not conducive to promoting quality research.
“I felt that some of our senior scientists were not getting the recognition and students to help do their research that they deserved,” said Yudhishtar Singh Bedi, who is pursuing a PhD in biological sciences at A&M University, US.
“A lot of promotions were seniority-based and a lot of good junior scientists were frustrated and started looking for jobs in the US where they were easily picked up,” he added.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.