Goodness Gracious Me: Doctorates in Trouble

Let me illustrate with a couple of very stark and randomly recalled experiences.
Goodness Gracious Me: Doctorates in Trouble

Some years ago, whilst helming the University of Delhi, I had to interact—on numerous occasions—with large numbers of applicants for academic positions at the entry level. They were almost fresh off the block with doctoral degrees. Invariably I found myself more than a bit disappointed and often quite worried with the quality of doctoral work that was discussed at these interactions.

Let me illustrate with a couple of very stark and randomly recalled experiences. The first of these relates to a selection process where candidates were being interviewed for an assistant professor’s position in the social sciences. One of the applicants claimed that he had undertaken field work to investigate a major riot in Bihar.

He asserted that the critical analysis and findings formed the substance of his doctoral thesis. I asked him as to the size of the area affected by the riot. He responded that it was a large area but could not give me any coordinates for an approximate estimation. My next question was about the details of his field work.

He mentioned that he had conducted oral interviews with some residents of the affected area. My natural follow-up query was on the number of respondents and whether he had any recordings of the interviews. He clarified that he had made notes. He also admitted that he did not have a questionnaire. When I asked him on the number of affected persons that had been interviewed, he mentioned the number six.

This was more than a little surprising since I was quite aware of the large size of the area affected by the riot. When I asked him on the criteria used to select the respondents, the candidate asserted that he knew them personally. This led me to ask him about the concept of a random survey. The candidate was clueless. I gently asked if he had ever been exposed to any data-related training.

He stated that he was in the social sciences and felt no need for any training in quantitative matters. When I asked him if his thesis had been published in part or otherwise, I did not receive any clear answers until on much probing it transpired that he had published it at his expense as a book. What worried me the most was the fact that the doctorate had been awarded by a very established department of the University of Delhi.

One more instance of such poor academic standards will prove my point. I had come upon a thesis authored by a candidate on legal issues connected with the reproductive rights of women. I asked this candidate about her opinion on the landmark judgement of the US Supreme Court on the Roe versus Wade case which had had major international ramifications. I asked if the candidate had any opinion in her thesis about the matter. It turned out she had not heard of the case.

The above two are quite representative of the numerous instances of the low standards that were being employed in so many of the disciplines of my university. Of course, one should therefore not conclude that all doctoral dissertations were of a low quality. There have always been some very high-quality dissertations. At the same time in my personal experience, I have felt that over the years the average quality of doctoral dissertations across institutions in India have been deteriorating steadily. This has happened despite the numerous and consistent efforts of the University Grants Commission to rectify the situation. The overall impact on academic standards in our nation is quite detrimental and the situation calls for deep introspection. Only then will Indian institutions begin to add lustre to their academic profiles.

Dinesh Singh

Former Vice-Chancellor, Delhi University; Adjunct Professor of Mathematics, University of Houston, US

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