The basic objective of a PhD program is to develop researchers. PhD programs across the world vary a lot in the method they follow to achieve this objective. There are programs which have no course work (e.g. in UK and Australia), to programs which have a huge amount of course work requirement (e.g. in some Universities in US). Some programs have elaborate, and often time consuming, PhD thesis evaluation process (e.g. in almost all IITs and most Universities in India), while some have far shorter with greater reliance on the evaluation of the PhD supervisor (e.g. most Universities in US).
How long it takes a student to finish a PhD in Computer Science also varies a lot – from 3 to 4 years in UK and Australia to 5 to 7 years in many universities in US, as well as in IITs. I have strongly believed for a long time that it is possible to have a high quality PhD program where PhD students can expect to finish their PhD in 4 years. To achieve this objective of completing in 4 years but without diluting quality, we took some key decisions.
- Course Requirement. A PhD should have some course requirement – that was very clear as I had seen that often graduates of PhD programs with no course work requirement often do not have the breadth and rigor in their approach and are insufficiently prepared for a career in research, particularly the academic career (this is the primary reason why, for example, PhDs from Australia, where course work requirement is minimal, are often not preferred for academic positions in India, particularly when compared to PhDs from US, where most universities have decent course requirements.) After a lot of discussion and thinking, we settled on a requirement of doing 8 courses after BTech (and 50% of this after doing MTech), while keeping the option open to increase/decrease it, depending on the background of the student. This is equivalent to about 2 semester’s worth of effort (though a student may spread it over 3 or 4 semester, as he/she may spend some time doing research even in early semesters). This requirement will ensure that our PhD students will have decent breadth.
- Identifying the area of interest early. It is well known that in PhD programs that take 5-6 years, the first 2 to 3 years are spent in identifying the area the student wants to work in and the problem to work on. We decided that we will require students admitted to the PhD program to have some clear ideas of the areas they want to work in, and we will take them only if we have strength in those areas. Towards this end, even in our fliers and advertisements, we listed the areas in which we are looking for PhD students. By “forcing” the student to identify the areas early, we hoped to reduce the front end of the PhD cycle – the student can then easily identify the group and the advisor almost in the start (our rules require the student to identify the advisor within 2 semesters), and start identifying the problem to work on. This approach has the disadvantage that it disallows exploration, and it does not allow “uncommitted” students, but we felt that it is better to stick to students who have a clearer idea of what they want when they are coming to do PhD. This seems to have at least one desired effect – students are getting involved in research and publishing early – within the first two years, many of the PhD students of the first batch have published some papers.
- Tight progress monitoring. Given the unstructured nature of PhD, it is very easy for a student to lose a year or two if the student relaxes a bit – it is far too common to see students who spent a few years just reading and exploring, but not pursuing any focused agenda. We decided that we will monitor each PhD student regularly for progress. For this we instituted a rule that each PhD student has to give a seminar once a year, which will be attended by most of the faculty, who will carefully evaluate the progress. (Of course, this also helped improve the communication abilities of the PhD student.) Later we added that in the winter semester, a short presentation will be given by the advisor of each student on progress of the student to the faculty. In other words, the progress is monitored each semester.
- Thesis evaluation. Thesis evaluation can easily take a year or more in many Indian Institutes. This is clearly one area where at least six months can be saved easily from the PhD duration, without any effect on thesis quality. We took the basic structure of evaluation in IITs, which requires the thesis to be evaluated by a few external examiners, and combined it with the use of technology and the evaluation process used in CS conferences, in a hope to reduce evaluation time. Essentially, the evaluators will be like PC committee members who are assigned a paper (the thesis) for review – they will submit their review in 8 weeks, after which there will be a PC meeting (the thesis defense) in which the final decision will be taken by the committee.
With these measures, we feel confident that a good student can comfortably complete his/her PhD in 4 years, without diluting the rigor and quality of the PhD.