As our goal was to develop IIIT-Delhi as a leading research-led Institute in the country, after starting the BTech program in 2008, we decided to start the PhD program in 2009. We felt that this will give a clear message that we would like to be a research-led Institute. Thankfully, by the end of the academic year 08-09, we had reasonable number of faculty acceptances, and a few research groups had evolved. So, we had decent capability in these areas to guide PhD thesis.

For designing the PhD program, the key input I took was from a survey I had conducted earlier of students from IITs at Kanpur, Delhi, and Mumbai on why they don’t do PhD in India and what will they want in their PhD program in India. From the survey a few things we picked some key inputs for designing our program:

  1. A strong reason for not doing PhD was its duration and the uncertainty in the duration – good students did not want to spend another 5 to 6 years for PhD.
  2. They felt that the stipend was too low, making the opportunity cost too high.
  3. They wanted global exposure during their PhD program itself, possibly also of spending sometime in another lab/country.
  4. GATE as a requirement was also considered an irritant by some

Reason 2 is relatively easier to handle. We decided to increase the stipend for our PhD scholars from the currently prevailing norms of around Rs 8000 to 15000 to Rs 20000 in the start (which has been further increased to 22000), which can increase to Rs 25,000 in later years – this ensured that their compensation during the PhD days was not to far off from the starting salaries in much of the software industry.

For reason 4, we decided not to insist on GATE as a necessary requirement. We also realized that by requiring GATE, we will be restricted to a very limited pool of students, which will be same as the pool that IITs are targeting. We believed that there were many good students who did not take GATE, but who might for some reason or the other decide to do PhD – good examples of these would be those who wanted to do a job, but after finding out about the jobs are not excited about the prospects; those who wanted to go abroad for higher studies, but finally were not able to do so due to visa, family reasons, lack of scholarship, etc; and those who have been in industry for a few years and now want to pursue higher studies. And for us, it will be best to target this group, besides, of course, also considering students with GATE.

This decision of not requiring GATE is one of the smartest decisions we took, as by this we opened new input sources for our PhD program, which were generally not tapped by other Institutes. And in our first batch of 8 PhD students, only two had GATE. We also later observed that most of the students who did not have GATE are doing very well in the PhD program.

Another very smart decision we took was to focus on BTech for intake into the PhD program. It is clear that the BTech pool provides the best candidates in the largest numbers – this is a fact that has been understood and used effectively by US universities for last many decades as they took BTechs from India directly into the PhD program, but not well appreciated by the more rigid Indian system which expects primary intake as MTechs, with BTechs to be taken only if they are “exceptional”. Taking BTechs also gives the ability to train them better as they will generally do many more courses in the Institute. The key to attract BTechs directly into PhD is to address their main concern about the “risk” involved in making such a long-term commitment. We directly addressed this by allowing an “exit clause” in our regulations – a student can leave the PhD program for any reason, and may graduate and leave with an MTech. This simple method, something that I had argued earlier in IIT Kanpur but was not successful in convincing the concerned bodies about it, provides a clear risk-mitigation to bright BTech students, who are then more likely to consider PhD option.

Then we took some steps for containing the duration of the PhD program such that a good student can finish his/her PhD in 4 years after BTech – this topic will be discussed in another post.  For global exposure we took two steps – one we decided that PhD students will be provided travel support for attending upto two international conferences of repute for presenting papers. Second, we designed a collaborative PhD program which allowed the student a possibility of having an external co-advisor from a top lab/institute anywhere in the world, and spending time with the co-advisor. The collaborative program is also described later in another post.

So, we designed a program that addressed many of the key concerns of the youth about doing a PhD, without diluting the rigor of the program. For selecting the PhD scholars, we identified three basic capabilities that we felt are desired: (1) Strong conceptual/theory foundations, (2) Strong programming skills, and (3) Strong motivation/drive. We decided to evaluate all three aspects – for the first two we conducted tests – a programming test and a theory test. For the third, we relied on the interview. Thankfully we got over 200 applications in the first year – larger than what many IITs get. Finally, after a full day of exams and interview, we selected some candidates, eight of which finally joined us (this number is also very good as compared to many IITs), which gave our PhD program a very good start!