Should I join the Ph.D program?

Q) How do I apply for the Ph.D program during/after an M.Tech?
A)  There are two methods. If you are an IIT student, then after the first semester in your M.Tech/MS program, you can apply for conversion. If you have a CGPA that is more than 8.0, the DRC (departmental research committee) can then consider your request and admit you after following due procedure. Otherwise, you can apply for the program after you complete your M.Tech/MS degree as a regular applicant. For IIT students, conversion is a good idea because this saves time. Otherwise, the work done for an M.Tech thesis will go waste. It cannot be a part of the Ph.D thesis.

Q) Can I apply if I just have a B.Tech?
A) Sure, you can. We in fact receive a lot of applications from B.Tech students. Please see the brochure from our PG section.

Q) I have a 15 lakh rupee job, why should I do a Ph.D?
A)  First, the philosophical answer: A Ph.D is done for the love of research, for creating more knowledge, and for creating something new, money should not always be a factor.
A slightly more practical answer: Why did you enroll for a 4 year B.Tech and not do a 3 year B.Sc?  Clearly because you thought that the job prospects are better after a B.Tech. It is true that a B.Tech takes one more year to finish but the gains in the long run outweigh the losses during that extra year.

The same logic holds for every additional degree. A person goes for an M.Tech to get a better job, which is more superior to the job that she was getting after a B.Tech in terms of pay, perks, job security, and future prospects.

Now, if you need more (pay+perks+job security+prospects), join a Ph.D program. In today's market a Ph.D salary is significantly more than a B.Tech or M.Tech salary. It can easily be to the tune of 10 lakhs more than what is offered after B.Tech (if note more in some cases). Along with the salary there are additional advantages of job security, flexibility, and social respect. If you want you can join many other professions that are closed for non-Ph.Ds such as academic institutions, and research labs. The additional time and effort is correlated with material gains.

Q) Nobody in my family has done a Ph.D. They are wary about it and are worried about the interim. Especially, the few more years with little money.

A) That is a fair point.

Well, India is changing, and is changing very rapidly. I am pretty sure that very few in your family are doing a job in an MNC, but you are still joining or thinking of joining an MNC, without understanding the dynamics of a purely capitalist system all that well.

The fact that if you know more, can do more, then you deserve to be paid more, is a matter of common sense. Clearly doing a Ph.D to know more and to learn more involves time and effort. However, there are benefits. Also a Ph.D is not that much of a sacrifice as it is made out to be.

Consider the medical profession. A doctor with an MBBS can start her career at 24 after 5 years of study, and 1 year of internship. However, a lot of doctors prefer to go for super specialization. They need to do an MD for 2 more years, and an internship of 1 more year. This is again not enough to be a nephrologist, for example. Doctors need to study for a few more years, get enough work experience, and then start their own practice. One of my relatives who is now a top nephrologist in Mumbai started his career when he was about 35. It is true that now he is established and spends his holidays in Europe. But, you also need to factor in the long years of hard work, the long hours of working with patients in the dead of the night, with very little earnings.

If it is perfectly wise for a doctor to start his or her career in his early thirties, why is doing a Ph.D for an additional 5 to 6 years after B.Tech unjustified? You will become a similar super-specialist and then make up for your years of hard work with little money like doctors do.

Q) Hold on, listen to this. If a Ph.D takes 4-5 years, and an M.Tech takes 2 years, then by the time a Ph.D graduates her M.Tech class mates would have already had a few extra years of work experience. Their salaries would have risen. Does your argument still hold water?

A) This is correct. But, the fact that the instantaneous salary after let's say 3 years of an M.Tech will be more than the starting salary of a Ph.D is somewhat unlikely. Again, exceptions are possible and it is always possible that a student has a stellar performance in his or her job and gets fat pay raises and bonuses. With the same argument, it is also possible that a student has a stellar performance in her Ph.D and then is invited to a very prestigious foreign university to spend some time after her Ph.D, or gets a job with a very high pay package after her Ph.D. The general trend is that our Ph.D students have gotten good jobs in the past, and have been more than justifiably compensated for their time here.

Q) Maybe it is worth it, I still cannot commit for a few additional years. I want to get settled in a regular job, and earn a salary.
A) Sure, that is your personal choice. Any advanced degree is not for everybody. It is naturally expected that if X students get a B.Tech degree, Y students get an M.Tech degree, and Z students get a Ph.D, then X > Y > Z.

I have just one point regarding the word ``settled'' that you will only hear in India and possibly in other south east Asian countries. This is an artifact of some colonial systems and the Nehruvian era where jobs were from the cradle to the grave. If a young man joined the civil services or the state electricity board at the age of 20, continuing till 60 was his inalienable right. He could not be dismissed on grounds of performance, discipline, or any other possible misdemeanor.

That is not the reality of today's capitalist India. Nobody is really ``settled''. Most of my students change their jobs every few years like all of their peers. For a variety of reasons people find themselves to be in a variety of companies every few years spanning across different cities, countries, and even continents. A lot of my friends are now in startups and have invested a large amount of their savings in them. In today's day and age nobody is really ``settled'' in the traditional sense. Everybody is subject to the vagaries of the market. It is important to realize, ``jobs come and go'', ``degrees are forever''. 

Q) I am a female student. My parents want me to get married.

A) Think of a Ph.D as a regular job. A Ph.D, a job, pursuing a degree, are an aspect of an individual's professional life. A relationship, a wedding, a child, are a part of an individual's personal life. Let us think of them as separate.

Every person in any profession needs to keep these aspects of life separate. A Ph.D is no different. A Ph.D in no way precludes any person -- male or female -- from getting married and starting a family. There is no reason, why a female student should think of Ph.D and marriage as mutually exclusive.

In fact, as compared to a regular job, students have much more flexibility in a Ph.D program. Flexi-timings, work-from-home, and remote workplaces are novel concepts that have recently entered the jargon of our multinational companies. They are being advertised as the next in thing by their respective HR departments. These have been present in academia for a long time. Ph.D programs are extremely flexible and the advisor and advisee can decide all the specifics. Especially, in our computer science department where it is not necessary for a student to do experiments in a specific lab, dedicated lab time is not necessary. For example, I would not mind if a student works from home and shows up once a week or once a month. The final output matters, not whether it is created in the lab or at home, or in a coffee shop.

Q) What if I need to go out of town because my husband stays in a different city or country?

A) What would you have done if you were doing a regular job?

Your simple answer might be: I would leave my job, and search for a new one. This is easier said than done. There is no guarantee that you will get a job of the same quality in the new city or new country. In the new country, you might not have the necessary employment permits, and it might take several months to a year to get the necessary paper work done.

In a lot of cases, employees typically negotiate with their current company and work from home for sometime, or go for some other flexible work package till they find a new job with comparable prospects. They might even continue their old job in their current location till they have the necessary paper work.

The same can be done in a Ph.D also. Moreover, IIT has rules to convert a full time Ph.D to part time. It is possible to take 2 semesters off and pursue internships and other professional interests. Along with that, the adviser, advisee, and the department can work out different arrangements based on their mutual convenience.

Q) I have family commitments and need a good salary.

A) Well, you are the best judge on what is the right choice for you. Note that it is possible to get an additional top-up of 10,000 Rs per month from your advisor's project funds and it is possible to spend up to two semesters in industrial internships where the pay packages are much higher.

Our Ph.D stipends are much higher these days. Ph.D students get 28,000 Rs. per month. If you add the additional 10,000 Rs topup, a student gets 38,000 Rs. per month (totally tax free). If you factor in super-subsidized accommodation and food (total: 4,000 per month) the situation is not that bad. 

Q) Let us keep the salary, and commitment issues apart. What if I am not able to complete a Ph.D?

A) If a team of experts from the department are selecting you, then it means that in all likelihood you have the potential to complete a Ph.D.

As you rightly think, it is always possible that a student does not do well. She might not get the required GPA in courses, or might not be able to do research. If the latter is the course, the department offers the flexibility to the student to change topics and advisers. In spite of that if things are not working out, then the student always has an option for opting for the easier M.S. degree.

A similar thing can happen in a regular job also. An employee might lose his or her drive, perform inconsistently, and face termination. However, in IIT Delhi we have both formal and informal counseling services, where a serious effort is made to keep a student on track. There are regular evaluations by dedicated research committees who suggest corrections during the tenure of the Ph.D program.

Q) I have heard horror stories about a Ph.D. What if my adviser keeps me for 7 years and does not allow me to graduate?

A) These are just ``stories''. We want our students to graduate quickly. According to the institute all students are expected to graduate within 5 years. Beyond 5 years, they do not get an institute assistantship and their hostel room is taken away. It is true that they are given 2 additional years to complete their degree; however, this is meant to be the exception and not the norm. Students should set a target of 4 years, which is reasonable in my opinion. Some students might want to graduate sooner, and it is often possible depending on the outcome of the research. A lot of our students have made it in 3 and 3.5 years as well.

 Secondly, advisers are not the final authorities in a Ph.D program. It is the SRC (student research committee). If a student has any issue, she can always take it to the SRC, or to the head of the department. In IIT's system, an adviser can give all her inputs on creativity and the direction of research. However, he or she needs to play by the rules. There are sufficient checks and balances in the system to ensure that students are not unnecessarily victimized.

Q) Research is meant to do something new. I am not smart enough.

A) As I said in an answer to a previous question, if we are selecting you, then in all likelihood you are smart enough. The rest depends on your sincerity, your desire to work hard, your curiosity, creativity and passion.

Trust me, a Ph.D is more about being sincere, systematic, and hard working rather than being simply brilliant.

Q) Will it not be able to very difficult to get a job after Ph.D? Will I not be considered to be overspecialized?

A) It is the reverse in today's market.

The number of computer science Ph.Ds from institutes of repute in India are not more than 50-100. The job market is an order of magnitude bigger. There are a lot of companies that would love to hire Ph.Ds. It enhances their profile as well. We have not had any major issues with placing our Ph.D students.

Additionally, it is possible to do jobs in academic institutes and R&D labs. If you just consider academic institutes, you will find them to be ubiquitous. Later on, if you need to migrate to let's say New Zealand, you might not find a job in a relevant industry, you will always find a good position in academia.

Q) Isn't Ph.D only about joining an academic institute and teaching?

A) No, absolutely not.

A Ph.D is an advanced degree. Use it for whatever you want. Just to give an example, one of my seniors joined a business consulting firm, Mckinsey, and worked with them for 3-4 years. Then he opened his own company, which was later on bought by Google.

Universities and research labs are traditional employers of Ph.Ds. They are however NOT the only employers of Ph.Ds. You can join regular industries as members of technical staff, financial companies, business consulting companies, open your own startup, do social service, or take up a government job. Ph.D implies teaching is a wrong notion.

A Ph.D enables you to think better, reason better, write better, present better, and perform better. A wide spectrum of companies starting from technical blue chip companies to financial consultants to start-ups value such skills.

Q) Does a Ph.D from IIT Delhi's computer science department have any value? Should I not go abroad?

A) I have a related post. See this link. It depends on what you want.

A lot of our Ph.D students do very well after graduation in academia, research labs, start-ups and industry.

Q) What about the facilities? After working in the private sector for 5 years, I do not want to stay in IIT's hostels. I don't like the food.

A) That is a relevant point. We have very good housing options for married students. However, the wait time is currently about one and half years.

Here, is an idea that I would like to encourage. A student can roughly get around 38K rupees (28K stipend + 10K topup) totally tax free. If let's say 3 students decide to stay off campus, they can easily do that. They will have a combined take home income of 114K. They can easily pay a third of it as rent. The additional expenditure for food and a cook in the south Delhi area should not be more than 10K. They can thus enjoy a much superior quality of living and have food of their choice.

It is true that most students do not explore this option, because they prefer hostel accommodation to be more convenient given the proximity. However, this is a matter of individual choice. It is by no means necessary to stay in a hostel. When we were graduate students abroad, all of us stayed in off-campus apartments and cooked our own food, and washed our own dishes and clothes. Thankfully, in India these services can be purchased without spending a lot of money. In fact, students in a lot of engineering colleges across the country also stay in rented accommodation with similar arrangements.