Last July, Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IITM) director Bhaskar Ramamurthy and external relations dean R Nagarajan set off on a rather unusual mission: to ask American universities whether they were interested in offering joint PhD programmes with IIT Madras.
The IITs have got the best undergraduate students in India – probably in the world – but their PhD programmes were not going too well. Most IIT undergraduates left for high-paying jobs or management education after their degree and the remaining went for PhD in overseas universities.
All the IITs were working to change this, and IIT Madras had found its own unique method. Ramamurthy and Nagarajan went to 20 American universities. These universities were not picked at random. They had IIT Madras alumni as senior faculty who could be used to broker relationships.
IIT Madras, like many top institutions, had a number of collaborations between the faculty in many universities. But Ramamurthy wanted to take the collaboration to a deeper level culminating in a joint PhD programme in the near future.
IIT Madras had one such programme with National University of Singapore, but it had not gone too well — only one student had used it in six years. Ramamurthy wanted to sow the ground first with US universities before offering joint PhD programmes. Their tour went exceptionally well. US universities were too keen to collaborate with IIT Madras.
Michigan State University was eager to get to a joint PhD programme quickly, as soon as later this year. Two others, Purdue University and the University of Maryland, also wanted to move on to deeper relationships culminating in a joint PhD programme.
IIT Madras expects more US universities to join this list soon which should expand to include universities from other countries. Taiwanese universities are at the top of the list outside the US since they found many IIT PhDs end up in the Taiwanese semiconductor firms.
The IITs are now in the middle of a paradigm shift as they try to morph from world-class teaching institutions to world-class research centres. Their PhD students are an important part of this shift.
But they have not been able to persuade their undergraduate students to do PhDs in their own institutions. Integrated programmes for undergrads have had very few takers while their masters and PhD students come from other engineering colleges, and often with inadequate preparation for the rigour of a PhD programme.
Most of them do not get exposed to global trends during their PhDs and the IITs do not get foreign students to any significant degree. Meanwhile, IIT faculty has got strong hints about the possibilities of sending students abroad.
“We’ve seen students who go abroad come back transformed,” says Ramamurthy. IIT faculty has found that students who spend some time abroad on collaborative projects are better prepared for continuing their research work here. They also meet students from many countries and get a better sense of their own place in the global education ecosystem.
Unlike the great universities, IITs are not ethnically-diverse campuses. Foreign research students come to India in small numbers but IITs and other institutions are keen to increase their presence. “A joint PhD is a good way to bring visitors to our own campuses,” says Ramamurthy.