Has a PhD from IIT lost its sheen? IIT-B professor’s paper says doctoral applications have nosedived

New Delhi: The number of students applying for doctoral seats in some of the top-ranking Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) has dropped drastically in the past decade or so, according to a working paper by IIT-Bombay professor D. Manjunath.

The paper, titled ‘Engineering PhDs in Premier Institutions: What’s the Slope?’, which is yet to be peer reviewed, says that the drop in applications has been seen across the core streams of mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, as well as computer science and electrical engineering. This decline, the paper further says, has been found in premier institutions including IIT Hyderabad, IIT Bombay, IIT Gandhinagar, IIT Madras and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru. 

Professor Manjunath has based the findings on “anecdotal evidence” collected from these institutions and says in the paper that trends indicate that apart from the number of applications, the quality of PhD programme applicants has also declined. 

“Our approach in this paper is focussed on identifying general trends rather than conducting an extensive and detailed analysis. Specifically, we are investigating the hypothesis that there is an ongoing and gradual decline in interest among our undergraduates to pursue a PhD in Science and Engineering at the premier institutions in India,” the professor, who is part of IIT Bombay’s Department of Electrical Engineering, writes in the paper, which he has circulated among colleagues teaching at various technical institutions.

Among examples cited in the paper is that of IIT Bombay itself, where, in the field of electrical engineering, the total number of applications for PhD courses was 800 in 2009, peaked at 2,150 in 2014, and then witnessed a significant drop to 900 in 2022. Similarly, for mechanical engineering, the total number of applications for 2009 was 300, shooting up to 1,450 in 2016, and then dropping to 950 in 2022. 

The working paper, based on publicly available data, lists several factors — such as a rise in the number of students going abroad, students pursuing government jobs, and the ‘declining quality’ of Master’s programmes — as possible reasons for the decline in the number of applications for PhD courses. 

While some IIT professors ThePrint spoke to disagreed with Professor Manjunath’s findings, others were in agreement, and attributed the drop in PhD applications to limited opportunities for post doctoral candidates in the Indian tech space.

IIT Bombay Director Professor Subhasis Chaudhuri said the number of applicants has nosedived due to the growing scope in the tech industry for IIT graduates. 

“Post Covid, the tech industry has seen robust growth, attracting a lot of undergraduate students to work rather than pursue further education. As for PhD, once a student pursues specialised mastery in a subject, the number of jobs available to them gets restricted to that particular field. On the other hand, for undergraduates, the entry points are low and prospects are diverse. They can then build on their specialisation through experience and on job training,” he told ThePrint.

However, the IIT director also said that Professor Manjunath’s study, in its current form, requires granular and holistic study of multiple variables to come up with the reasons for the decline. 

When ThePrint reached Professor Manjunath for comment, he said that the paper was self-explanatory, adding: “I have written this paper in my personal capacity to start a dialogue among institutions and possibly more research on the issue.”

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Lure of studying abroad, jobs in PSUs

IITs have two PhD admission cycles every year — one in May and the other in December. The number of applications that come in during the December cycle is generally lower than those in May.

According to Professor Manjunath’s paper, at IIT Madras, the number of PhD applications in the field of mechanical engineering increased from 650 in 2012 to 3,600 in 2015 and then dropped to 820 in 2022. Similarly, for electrical engineering, the number of applications in 2012 was 2,050, peaked at 3,400 in 2015, and then dropped significantly to 1,050 in 2022. 

In IIT Gandhinagar too, the number of PhD applications across core subjects dropped to around 6,000 in 2022 from 20,000 in 2016. Meanwhile, at IISc Bangalore too, the number of applications has halved, to around 6,000 in 2022 from over 10,000 in 2010, says the paper.

Elaborating on his stand that the quality of PhD applicants has also gone down, Professor Manjunath writes in his paper that many Master’s programmes offered by IITs and other technical institutions “are now in dire straits”, adding that: “In most of the popular departments, the number of students that start the programme in July, the beginning of the academic year, would have dwindled down to about half to one third by the end of the first semester.” 

He goes on to say that this attrition is adversely affecting the morale of students who “could not”, as opposed to those who “did not” leave the programme, and “it appears that the former are in a majority”.

Thus, he says that these Master’s programmes “aren’t what they used to be”, and that many institutions are “seriously considering canceling, or severely downgrading” them.

One of key factors driving students away from PhD programmes is the lure of jobs in Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs), says the paper. In 2010, many PSUs started accepting the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE) — an exam students usually take to get admission in post-graduate programmes  — as a part of their evaluations for recruitment

Professor Manjunath also calls for checks at the institutional level to bring back Indian students going abroad to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) courses. His paper says, “Estimates for this number vary, but according to a report in the Hindu Business Line, around 40,000 Indian students were studying in the US in 2000. This number increased significantly, peaking at about 100,000 in 2016-17, before beginning a steady decline, reaching approximately 65,000 in 2020-21.”

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Professors divided

Professor B.S. Murthy, director of IIT Hyderabad, said applications for PhD courses often spike when the job market is witnessing a slump. “IIT H has been selecting 200+ PhD scholars for the last two years from a pool of very talented applicants. I don’t believe the number of applications has declined. However, it is important to note that most graduate students are keen on getting a job after post Bachelor’s, and very few aim to pursue a doctoral specialisation,” he told ThePrint.

He further said: “Only those who are passionate about their field of study will make the effort to go for a PhD degree and work in research-related areas.”

Another IIT professor, who did not wish to be named, agreed with Professor Manjunath’s findings, saying: “Students who pursue PhDs dedicate themselves to the study of a particular area for at least seven years. However, it is an area of concern that India still doesn’t have a large job market to accommodate skilled specialised academics. The number of research institutes has stopped growing in the country and students then have to look for options abroad.”

Professor Manjunath in his paper also suggests that in order to improve the quality and quantity of doctoral candidates, IITs need to refocus “ to develop a pipeline for their graduate programmes”. This means adopting the technique followed by US professors of visiting targeted institutions and picking the best and the brightest for their PhD programmes. 

He suggests that IITs visit other notable universities like NITs and IIITs and do seminars, conduct courses and workshops, and actively increase awareness about the rewards and opportunities associated with pursuing a PhD at an IIT. 

(Edited by Gitanjali Das)

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