Should I go to US or Europe for a MS/ Ph.D?

This is a very common question that students, and their guardians ask us. Unfortunately in India, this question is a subset of a larger family of questions. All the questions are of the same format:

Should I go to US/Europe for *** ?

Here, *** can be anything starting from high school to undergraduate education to a vacation to even designer shoes. This is just dependent on the amount of money a person has. Traditionally, using imported materials has been a status symbol.  Even in the US, people make it a point to inform their guests that they have used Italian marble, fixtures from Belgium, and upholstery from Turkey. I am pretty sure that in Italy, Belgium, or Turkey, people pride themselves about goods from some other countries. This points to a basic feature of human psychology, i.e. every oddity is a style. Something that is foreign, obscure, and in some manner sounds remote, is reflective of opulence.

Let us take the case of tanning salons in the US. A tanning salon has a set of ultraviolet incubators. People stay in them for half an hour to one hour, and come out with darker skin. This is also referred to as "tanned skin". It is considered very fashionable in the US to show off one's skin tan. The expensive way to achieve a tan is to go on a vacation to the Carribean. Because of time and monetary constraints, a cheap and small-town way to achieve the same is to go to a tanning salon.
An American friend once jokingly told me that in any town in America, you will find three things: McDonalds, Walmart, and a tanning salon. This is probably true, or very close to the truth. The interesting thing to note here is that since Americans have fair skin, they consider tanned skin fashionable. In India, we have the reverse situation. Since we have a dark skin, people crave for fairer skin. This explains the popularity of fairness creams in the market. Here again, we see that for every culture, grass on the other side is greener.

Leaving luxury apart, let us take the case in which using imported commodities or services actually makes a tangible difference other than mere perception. One sector is definitely education, and the other is healthcare. We cannot compromise on quality in both of these sectors.

Let us consider medical treatment first. One of my friends in Malaysia, once told me that he had to go to Singapore for an appendicitis operation. Fortunately, in India we don't need to go to Singapore for an appendicitis operation. The reason for this is that the technology for such operations is very well established in India. An overwhelming majority of the operations
are successful. Even if there is a complication, it happens only for a vanishingly small number of cases. We can say the same for a large number of medical procedures. Secondly, every year more and more procedures are getting added to the list. In fact in some areas like stem cell therapy, or heart surgeries, India is a world leader. This explains why medical tourism has become so popular in India. Patients from the US, UK don't just come to India because of cheaper treatment. They are also finding a value for money, and world class care.

However, we can't make a sweeping statement for all areas of medicine. A lot of  advanced medical procedures especially related to organ transplants, and brain surgeries, are still not performed in India, or are not at an acceptable level. In this case, it makes sense to go abroad.

We observe that there is a line. Below the line, it makes absolutely no sense  to go abroad. Imagine a person going to the US just to treat a minor flu. Not only is this a bad idea, it is also not advisable from a medical point of view.  The person is avoiding rest, subjecting himself to the strain of a long flight, and not gaining anything in the process. Secondly, in India there are friends and relatives who can provide some support. Doctors are well aware of viruses prevalent in India, and can provide much better treatment. I know of at least two tragic cases in which doctors in the US could not diagnose cerebral malaria. This wouldn't have been the case, if the patients would have been treated in India.

If a disease is on the line, then of course it depends on the amount of money a patient has. And, if the disease is above the line, then a patient should go abroad, and get himself or herself appropriately treated if he or she can afford it. We need to note that every year this line is going up. Ten years ago, patients use to go abroad for heart bypass surgeries. Now, doing so is not considered a very wise decision. It is advisable to get it done locally.

We have a similar situation in the case of higher education. Students need to first know where the line is. Secondly, they should try to evaluate if they are above the line or below the line. If a student is extremely exceptional and feels that faculty members in India cannot do justice to his or her talent, then he or she should definitely seek opportunities abroad. Alternatively, if a student is interested in an area, which is not well represented in India, then also he or she should look at getting trained in the US or Europe. We can classify these cases to be above the line.

However, if a student is well below the line, and desires to go abroad just because it is fashionable, then there is a problem. It is similar to seeking treatment for flu in the US. Not only will the quality of treatment be similar or in most cases inferior, the additional overheads will become prohibitive. We need to understand that when somebody goes abroad to study, he or she should be prepared to lead  a very difficult life.

First, the stipend that is offered is minimal. In fact it is a couple of hundred dollars below the poverty line. For most Indian families, parents are not in a position to financially help their children studying abroad. Students have to adjust to an extremely frugal lifestyle. Since there is no concept of a mess in most places, and eating out is expensive, students need to cook most of their meals. Along with cooking, students have to  manage all other basic tasks like washing clothes, ironing, and cleaning utensils all by their own along with a very heavy amount of course work. We take all of these services for granted in India. Secondly, the stipend is not enough to afford good quality housing. Students are typically forced to share rooms with one or two more students. Most of these houses have pretty bad quality, and are often in unsafe neighborhoods.

Along with the lack of financial support, the other issue is the "culture shock". It is hard for most people to adjust to an alien culture. The Indian academic system is characterized by a very good amount of interaction between students and faculty members at the personal level. This is not the case in the US. Relationships are  extremely formal. Students who have some special requirements feel left out in such situations. Especially, in the US, the entire system is based on the simple notion of "survival of the fittest". This makes the life of students extremely stressful. It does ensure a lot of productivity though, at a price.

Given, the tenuous situation, most Indian students who go to the US in the hope of doing a Ph.D, drop out after an M.S. Students who finish their Ph.Ds are those who feel that their Ph.D degree will finally outweigh all of this hardship. This is the case for students who are, "above the line". Otherwise, students also realize that  the overheads of pursuing a Ph.D are prohibitive abroad, and drop out in the middle. Given the fact that the difference between the west and the east is increasingly narrowing, a degree from a mediocre institution in the US or Europe for an
otherwise good student has questionable value. A person will not do a Ph.D again. Hence, he or she should be concerned about the brand value of the institution that he or she seeks to study at. If a person does a Ph.D from a top institute in India or China, then at least he can say that he used the best available opportunity in his country. Secondly, the prestige of these institutions is expected to increase with the rising GDP of these countries. It is widely believed that degrees from top institutes in developing countries like India or China will stand the test of time.

The obvious question that arises here is how do students find if they are above or  below the line. Overestimating oneself is basic human nature. Left to themselves, most students will consider themselves to be above the line, only to realize later in life that their basic presumption was wrong. In this case, it is the duty of academics and educators like myself to advise students appropriately about the right choice of career.

The first thing that academics need to do is publicize their research such that students are aware of the nature of work being done in Indian academia. Secondly, students in India also need to find out more about the nature of work being done locally. In this regard, students need to learn how to evaluate a list of publications. They should not go by the number of publications. They should rather look at the prestige of the conferences and journals at which the papers were published.
It is possible to get the list of top conferences and journals in an area by just googling.

Once students have identified faculty members who are doing in their area of interest, they should initiate a process of dialogue, and find out more about the requirements for doing research in their area of choice. They should also look at the profiles of other students who have pursued research with the Professor, and talk to them. After this initial round of research, if students feel that their talents and aspirations are way above what is available locally, and faculty members also concur with the view, then the student should definitely consider pursuing a higher degree from abroad. Not only is it a very good thing for the student, it will also help academia and industry in India bridge the skill gap.

However, if this is not the case, then it is probably more advisable to pursue higher studies locally, and make the best use of the opportunity. It is definitely possible to do world class research in India, and a lot of people are already doing it. We just need to expand this community from hundreds to thousands.