Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Science and Spirituality: Is there a Conflict?

In my conversations with strangers, friends and colleagues, and with exposure to viewpoints that have been published in some form of literature or the other, I have noticed the presence of a conflict between the fields of science and spirituality. So this question arises: What is the root of this conflict? Is this conflict really present with its basis on firm grounds? Or is this conflict only "apparently" present and will drop when looked under the microscope of clear and rigorous thinking? In order to address these questions, we have to first understand what these often used terms really mean. What is Science? What is Spirituality? Let us look at them one by one.

If one asks a high school student what science means to them, the answer in most cases would simply be that it is one of the subjects that is a part of their curriculum. Some students will find it more interesting than the others, while there will be some who don't quite take to it. Either way, there are text books that they have been assigned, experiments that they are made to do, and the body of knowledge contained in these constitutes science as they see things. In fact the situation would not vastly change even if this question were to be posed to a student in college. Most of our definitions get established when we are very young.

Go one step further and ask the same question to a student pursuing a higher degree, say a Masters or a PhD degree. The answer will now widen enough to include research literature in conferences, journals, theses etc. which contain information that is more current than that in most text books. These advanced students will also be involved in their own research work. This experience definitely widens the scope of their definition of science considerably. They are now aware, at least to some extent, that it is a process of discovery. However, even most of these advanced students usually think of "discovery" within the limits that have been established by the scientific community at large. These limits get set in various ways, such as the establishment of "areas" of study. The simplest example is the division of science into physics, chemistry and biology. Then we have further divisions such as nuclear physics, astronomy, organic chemistry, genetics etc. In each of these fields, there are questions that are being asked by the scientific community at large, and usually people think of science as a pursuit to answer these questions.

However, the word "science" has a much more fundamental meaning as I understand it. Though it certainly includes all of the above activity, it by no means gets encapsulated by the same. As I see it, in its most basic and pristine sense, "science" simply means the following: "An inquiry into what "exists", and an effort to systematically and logically explain the essence of "existence"".

It is this inquiry into the motion of the sun and planets that has lead to the understanding of our solar system. It is this inquiry into what is observed in deep space with powerful telescopes that has lead to astronomy and cosmology. It is this inquiry into motion itself that has lead to relativity. In contrast to this study of the macrocosm, it is this inquiry into the fundamental particles making up matter that has lead to quantum physics.

So many fields of study. But the common thread has been "an inquiry into what "exists", and an effort to systematically and logically explain the essence of "existence"". This common thread is "Science".

Through our senses we observe the entire universe. And naturally we are curious about where we are, about how the universe works, both at the macro and the micro levels. And this fundamental curiosity leads to the spirit of "Science". However, from our own experience we know that, in addition to all these external aspects of "existence", there is also an internal dimension. We are aware of our thoughts, our feelings and emotions and, in fact, our very own existence as observers of this universe! The spirit of science is an inquiry into what "exists" - not just what exists externally, but also what exists internally. Science must be an effort to systematically and logically explain the essence of "existence" - not just in its external aspects, but internal as well as well as the relation between the two; how each might affect the other.

Spirituality, to me, is this spirit of science directed to the internal aspects of existence. Our mind, our thoughts, our feelings, our emotions, we ourselves!!! The scientific spirit in us ought to, in my opinion, ask: "Where are all these thoughts and feelings and emotions arising from?". Go a step further: "Who am I?"

When it comes to the external aspects of existence, we may or may not be affected much by our knowledge or ignorance. Depending on our circumstances, a limited knowledge might be enough to lead a normal happy life. However, this is not the case when it comes to the "internal" aspect of existence. Each one of us is always living with ourselves!!! In order to best understand ourselves, and thus live the best lives we can, each one of us must direct that spirit of scientific inquiry inwards. This inward direction of the spirit of inquiry brings forth the field of Spirituality.

Furthermore, does our interiority affect or determine what we observe in the external world perceived by our senses?

As I see it, there is no conflict between Science and Spirituality. The difference is only in the direction of the spirit of inquiry. In fact, a merger of Science and Spirituality might have the potential to bring forth an overall and complete understanding of existence.

Just as the spirit of science addressed to the external aspect of existence over so many centuries has lead to the fantastically interesting subjects of Physics, Chemistry, Biology etc. so has the spirit of science addressed to the internal aspect of existence led to the fantastically interesting subjects of Yoga, Pranayamas, Meditation, etc. Scientists working in this field of the "internal" aspect of used to be called Seers, Sages, etc. Patanjali, for example, was a scientist the way I understand and appreciate the term and Patanjali's Yoga Sutras were his body of work.

Finally, just as inquiry into the external aspect of existence is made easier and more efficient when we go through our education in a systematic manner, the inquiry into the internal aspect of our existence might very well require the same thoroughness of effort from our side. Just as in any field of science, much of this spiritual knowledge has been documented and made available for our benefit. And just as in any field of science, instead of just reading text books, it might beneficial to take instruction from some one who is an expert in spirituality, just as we do when we sit in a lecture hall and listen to an expert on Newtonian Mechanics for instance, even when innumerable text books on this subject are available readily.

There might neither be a conflict between the fields of science and spirituality, nor the presence of easy short cuts to become an expert in either. In fact, as I remarked above, a merger of Science and Spirituality might well have the potential to bring forth an overall and complete understanding of existence. The boundary between the external and internal aspects of existence as we understand them may just be our senses.

The only goal we need to keep in front of ourselves is an authentic quest for truth. That, to me, is what science as well as spirituality are all about.

And for that, if necessary, may the twain meet.

Friday, 10 July 2015

On changing career paths and academic directions

In a recent post ( I have laid a heavy emphasis on choosing one's field of study and career path based on where one's interests lie rather than just where one is likely to earn the fattest pay checks (while acknowledging the harsh reality that economic considerations might outweigh other factors for some people, at least early in their careers, as they take on the responsibility of liberating their families from severe economic hardships) or which professions are most "socially respectable" (a notion that I have argued as being based more on ignorance than anything else).

In this post I address a related question: What if one chooses a career path to start with but realizes midway that his or her interests lie elsewhere? What does one do in such a situation? Is one condemned to living a life of professional frustration or is it possible to change directions towards what one may enjoy doing more? My focus in this post will be on switching directions within the overall field of science and technology or moving from science and technology to other fields such as literature, economics, history, sociology, philosophy, music, etc. I will address the converse possibility of moving from other fields to science and technology in a subsequent post.

Changing academic directions and career paths is already possible to some extent (I'll give some examples shortly) and we ought to be doing more in my opinion to allow people the freedom to maneuver their careers in new directions as long as they are able to demonstrate a capability of absorbing new fields of knowledge and picking up new skills. In my opinion there is nothing to be gained from "staying stuck" where one doesn't want to be - either for the individual concerned or the society at large. On the contrary, the sooner people migrate to fields they enjoy the more likely they are to contribute meaningfully as well since they are then likely to be more self motivated. The extent of contribution or the possibility of achieving excellence in one's profession or pursuit depends significantly in my opinion on whether one actually enjoys his or her chosen profession.

Does this mean I am advocating a scenario wherein we don't do anything that doesn't interest us directly? Well, no. If we live at home with our family, sure we would need to chip in with what I would term as "housekeeping responsibilities". So too with our offices and colonies we work and live in. Everyone does need to participate to some extent with responsibilities that are necessary whether or not we enjoy them greatly.

What I am referring to as I make my arguments in this post however are our core pursuits - activities that shape our professional careers and through which we express ourselves and make our unique contribution to the society and world at large. There is a difference between these and housekeeping level "on-the-side responsibilities" that we all may be required to participate in from time to time if we are to stay in a community.

To give a few examples to drive home my point: Imagine a scenario wherein we insist that Ustaad Zakir Hussain stay committed to playing the flute, Pandit Hariparasad Chaurasia be a guitar player, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma play the table and Ustaad Bismillah Khan be a pianist. Or Albert Einstein be an IT professional and William Shakespeare get a PhD in nanotechnology.

Sounds absurd, right?

Well, look around you. What do you think prevails in our society today? How many people do you think are in professions that are aligned with fields of knowledge and activities that interest them? And how many treat their jobs as mere drudgery that they have to somehow put up with? How many of us wake up every morning looking forward to our day at work? And how many curse that alarm clock when it goes off?

Now this problem wouldn't arise if (a) all of us made (or get to make) our choices perfectly the first time around (as I suppose the above named greats did, but not all of us are that clear or lucky (or perhaps capable - we can always build on that too) early in life) and (b) there is some guarantee that one's interests cannot change as one progresses through life.

But the fact of the matter is neither of these conditions hold. In fact, most students in my opinion opt for science and technology streams after their 12th grade simply because it is more “prestigious” to do so and not because they are truly passionate about them. You can check on the truth of this statement yourself by simply going to different institutes in our country and seeing for yourself if students are motivated, driven and immersed in learning (which is what the case ought to be if there is a genuine interest) or just somehow getting by in a disinterested fashion. Then it is engineering above science (poor Albert Einstein and Marie Curie - they must not have got high enough ranks in the JEE to get a computer science seat at an IIT and hence got stuck with physics and chemistry!). Even within engineering there is a “social hierarchy” of disciplines that has invaded our psychology and I doubt most students choose their branches based on what fascinates them. And once they make their choice, they feel stuck.

To repeat an example I gave in an earlier post: I once came across a student in computer science at IIT Delhi who regretted having done so well in the JEE. When I asked him why (with his rank he could have chosen any branch) he told me that his interest lay in automobiles but his family persuaded him to take computer science. The chap was just in the second year of his undergraduate program and already demotivated about the prospect of staying stuck with a professional career that would not allow him to do what he was interested in in the first place!

You should have seen the relief on his face when I told him that that was just not true. That it is in fact possible to change one’s field at the Masters level.

So the first thing to realize is this: There are options to change your field of study at the Masters, Doctoral and Post Doctoral levels. So you are not stuck forever. This is one of the advantages of the core course component in most undergraduate programs that has to be taken by students in pretty much all disciplines. Above and beyond this take as many electives as you can in your area of interest so that you can make a stronger case for admission in a Masters program of your choice. If possible do your final year B.Tech. project (and summer internships) in your area of interest as well to further strengthen your case (many institutes allow the option of doing the B.Tech. project in a different department). Finally and most importantly, work really hard and get the best grades you can - you may not be enjoying all your courses right now but getting good grades will increase your chances of getting admission in a program you do enjoy at the Masters level. Likewise for changing your field at the Doctoral or Post Doctoral levels. Do what it takes during your ongoing program to strengthen your case for getting into a program of your choice at the next level.

If you are one of those undergraduate students who is feeling stuck, I recommend you do some research into which institutes in the country might be willing to absorb you in a  Masters program of your choice and under what conditions. You may find some institutes to be more liberal than others. Make a list of your options. If you feel there not enough options within the country (or if you wish to go out of the country for your post-graduate studies anyway) then research your options in universities in different parts of the world. When the time comes, work hard and do as well as you can in the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE) - the entrance exam for M.Tech. programs in the country or GRE (required for admission in US universities) and apply for programs of your choice. If you have ensured that your grades and GATE/GRE scores are good and have done well in your internships and projects (this is where you get your recommendation letters!) there is a good probability in my opinion that you will able to switch your fields.

[Note 1: I'll give some examples of people I know who switched their fields later in the post.]

[Note 2: You might continue to face some challenges later - specially in India where we are a little too stuck with associating one's capabilities with their first degree (as if learning or the capability to learn stop at the end of one's bachelors program!). But my advice is always to be ready to take a bit of risk and grapple with challenges that come instead of not going after what you like.]

But do you have to (or should you) wait till the end of your undergraduate program to change your field? Are there no other options?

Well, there is an option of branch change at the end of first year at most institutes. So if you know what you want and qualify for it, you can change right then. But this is usually very competitive and only a few get it.

What if you don't get a branch change? Are there other possibilities of changing directions at that stage or do you have to wait till the end of your undergraduate program?

I am going to make a suggestion here that many may find awkward but I think its worth thinking about. So here goes:

If you figure out early enough (say within two to three semesters) that you would like to study something else, then consider the possibility of changing colleges right then. You may end up at a college that is ranked lower than your present college (say move from an IIT to a NIT or BITS or even to some other college that may not be as famous but is good in terms of its teaching standards) - but that may be ok. In my opinion we often make this a bigger consideration that it is. One can always come back to one's present institute (or perhaps even go somewhere better) for a Masters degree. What is more important in my opinion is actually getting into a program that you enjoy.

I see very little point in being in a program that one just does not find interesting. Say, for example, that you would want to be an electrical engineer but end up in a metallurgy department (there is nothing wrong with either department by the way - I'm just talking from the viewpoint of what one is interested in and not from any sense of some branches being "higher" or "lower" than others as such). This can lead to a loss of motivation, which in turn can make one stop putting in the required effort. Then the grades drop and its just downhill from there. I think we are just way too hung up with brand names. I don't think brand names are nearly as important as pursuing one's interests. In fact a whole lot of this problem of being stuck in a branch one doesn't like wouldn't even arise if we corrected our mindset in this respect.

So my advice would be that you find out if you can change colleges midway and switch your field that way. There may be colleges that will accept some of the coursework you have already completed and you won't have to repeat all of them. But even if you have to repeat courses in the new college, I would recommend you give this option a serious thought. Some time lost towards getting something you like may be alright in the long run.

What I am suggesting here would hold not just for those students who wish to change from one engineering branch to another but also for those students who realize that they don't want to be engineers in the first place - they just chose engineering either because they weren't clear enough when they finished their 12th grades or mixed up their priorities or succumbed to parental and societal pressures. Maybe some would prefer to be physicists or mathematicians. Some perhaps would find themselves happier in the liberal arts or music. My advice: switch early if you can even if it means changing colleges and/or losing a bit of time.

One very important step that academic bodies in our country can take to enable such shifts is to bring in the idea of "credit transfer" (which formalises the process of carrying over coursework that one has completed at one college to another) and actually open up for admissions directly into 2nd, 3rd and 4th years.

[Note: I really wish students chose their fields of study far more consciously than I believe they do today. I have presented some thoughts here:]

Now for some examples of people I know who have switched their fields at the post-graduate level:

Dr. Prashant Shukla: B.Tech. and M.Tech. in Mechanical Engineering followed by a PhD in Material Science at IT-BHU. (This particular case also serves as an example of how, as I mentioned above, some places in India are a little too stuck with one's first degree. The erstwhile IT-BHU hired faculty members in different departments based on their first degree rather than their PhD (which I believe is extremely silly for an academic institute!). So Dr. Shukla is presently a Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. But things will hopefully become more liberal in the years to come and he will be able to shift to Material Science - a subject he actually prefers.)

Dr. Anurag Gupta: B.Tech. (Civil Engineering, IIT Roorkee) followed by a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from UC Berkeley. He is presently a faculty member in Mechanical Engineering at IIT Kanpur (an example of a more liberal, and in my opinion, sensible department that hires faculty members based on their PhD work and not just their first degree. I'll give examples later to show that its possible to be even more liberal if the candidate is academically and intellectually strong enough.)

Dr. P. M. Dixit: B.Tech. (Aeronautical Engineering, IIT Kharagpur) followed by a PhD in Mechanics from University of Minnesota. Presently a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at IIT Kanpur.

Dr. Viral Acharya: B.Tech. (Computer Science, IIT Bombay) followed by a PhD in Finance from New York University. Presently a Professor of Economics at NYU. Recently became the Deputy Governor of Reserve Bank of India.

Dr. Rajan Sundaravaradhan: B.Tech. (Electrical Engineering, IIT Madras); Got interested in pure mathematics and obtained his PhD in the same (specialization: Algebra) from Purdue University; did so well that University of Michigan at Ann Arbor offered him a post-doc position without him having to apply. Its another matter that by this time he was strongly interested in spirituality and chose to join Mata Amritanandamayi Math instead - he is presently a faculty member in the Department of Mathematics at the Amritapuri Campus of Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham and continues to work in the field of number theory.

Ameya Limaye: B.Tech. (Civil Engineering, IIT Bombay); Went on to pursue a MS in Computer Science from Purdue University and is presently a Software Development Engineer at Apple Inc.

Myself: B.Tech. (Civil Engineering, IIT Bombay); Got interested in aircraft and decided to switch to Aerospace Engineering; obtained my MS in the same from University of Cincinnati and then a PhD from the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue University; then got interested in biofluid mechanics (an area of research in biomedical engineering) and went for a post-doctoral research fellowship in the same at University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Came back to India and have taught at a few institutes including IIT Delhi (Applied Mechanics), IIT Kanpur (Aerospace Engineering), IIT (BHU) (Mathematical Sciences) and now IIIT Delhi (Applied Mathematics).

Dr. Gregory Blaisdell: BS and MS in Applied Mathematics from Caltech followed by a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford. Presently a Professor in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue.

Dr. Kirti Sahoo: B.Tech. in Mechanical Engineering followed by a PhD in Engineering Mechanics from JNCASR; then a post-doc in Chemical Engineering from Imperial College. Presently heads the Department of Chemical Engineering at IIT Hyderabad. (Recently won the DST Young Scientist award).

Dr. C. Venkatesan: B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Physics followed by M.Sc. and PhD in Engineering (I believe Computer Science but I'll double check) from IISc Bangalore. Taught for a few years in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UCLA. Presently a Professor of Aerospace Engineering at IIT Kanpur.

Most of the examples I have given above are from academia as that is what I am more familiar with. If you aspire to work in industry, I would suggest you put in the effort to find out ways to get where you want from where you are now. It is quite likely there are paths that exist but you need to look for them. It may involve studying more and you may get there a bit later than others (with perhaps a little more struggle too). But if I were you I would not stop till I got there. It's your life after all!

Good luck.

PS: If any reader has examples to share about people who managed to maneuver their academic directions or career paths, please do submit them as a comment. They will hopefully serve to motivate some folks out there. Thanks!

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Sixth pay commission debacles and looking forward... (Part 2)

In my last post I presented my views on what I believe went wrong during the 6th pay commission at the level of “policy changes” in our country’s higher education system, i.e. in colleges, universities and institutes. In this post I address issues related to salaries all the way from primary schools to universities and institutes and try and make a case for making the teaching/academic profession in our country a more economically attractive option than it is today. If I have your patience I believe I will be able to make a case for a model which can link economic growth with growth in knowledge for members of our society.

Two points before I start:

1. I’m going to present my views within the framework of state and central government educational institutions (with the additional hope that they also translate to private institutions). So I’m going to assume that housing and medical benefits are already extended to teachers and academics at all levels from primary schools up. If not, it is my request that this happen. As far as medical benefits go, it is my submission that every teacher and academic be given comprehensive medical coverage for self and any dependents that he or she may have. As far as housing goes, I suppose the extent will vary in the sense of size of quarters provided. But at a bare minimum a decent one bedroom apartment should be provided to every primary school teacher in my opinion and we move up from there.

2. Wherever I talk about salaries, I will simply talk about gross salaries. To be frank, I’ve never really understood the whole Basic, D.A., etc breakup. So I won’t get into that level of detail and simply mention the net or gross amount that I believe teachers at different levels ought to be making.

First a bit about what motivates this post:

I firmly believe that teachers, academics and those committed to seeking knowledge in all disciplines and fields (scientists, historians, archaeologists, etc) are the bedrock of society as knowledge sustains everything else. If we want our society to be intellectually and culturally healthy and vibrant once again (I do not believe it is either today), we need to make the profession of knowledge itself something to aspire to instead of thinking of knowledge merely as a means to some material end.

Now I do not believe that the strategy to achieve this mindset shift ought to be purely economic in nature. One has to be drawn as much, if not more, towards knowledge as material possessions to start with. Knowledge is a wealth too. This realization needs to set in firmly if we as a society are to start valuing the pursuit of knowledge as much as more “material” pursuits. Plus a large part of the solution lies in my opinion in restoring the social respectability of the teaching/academic profession - particularly at the primary and secondary school levels. The situation in this regard is particularly dismal in our country from what I can see. We need to realize one thing very very clearly: disrespect the teaching profession, discourage good people from taking it up, and we descend into ignorance. It’s as simple as that. Our children will no longer grow up with a sound foundation in knowledge and values and it will be a pretty sad day when such a state of affairs comes to pass. So respecting teachers and realizing that their contribution towards sustaining a knowledge centric and humane society is something very immense is critical.

But this said, we need to be aware that there is an economic aspect to this profession like any other that needs to be fairly addressed too. Teachers, academics, scientists and others in the profession of knowledge have the need to be economically secure too. They too would like for their children to be assured of the best possible education and healthcare just like anyone else. They will have ageing parents at some stage as well and would like them to have a comfortable old age with access to high quality health care whenever needed just as anyone else would. Plus they themselves would be well within their rights in my opinion to want a reasonably comfortable and well off life both during their professional careers and in their years of retirement and old age (for which they too would need to save and invest just like anyone else!). “Austerity” needs to be a personal choice in my opinion. We need not go about imposing it on some professions as some sort of a moral requirement while being alright with outright debauchery in others. A more balanced approach rather than harbouring extreme viewpoints would be what I recommend. This is a mistake we have been making for quite a while in our country in my opinion and we need to correct it.

To repeat an example I gave in a recent post that I believe underlines my concern that the teaching profession is not as economically sound as it ought to be:

Some 5-6 years ago I took a cab from Delhi airport. I happened to strike up a conversation with the cabbie during which I asked him how much he makes per month. I still remember his answer: things used to be better some years ago but now he was making only about Rs. 30,000/- to Rs. 35,000/- per month. Now I have absolutely nothing against cabbies making a decent living, but how many primary schools in our country do you think were paying their teachers at least Rs. 30,000/- to Rs. 35,000/- per month around 2009-2010 (i.e. 5-6 years ago)? And remember, as per the cabbie these were not as good days for him as before when he made more.

If we have allowed things to come to such a pass that being a cabbie in Delhi or Mumbai (or perhaps even a paan-bidi shop owner or a pizza delivery personnel in some establishments) have become more lucrative options than being a primary school teacher in one’s own town then, with due respect to all these professions, it only reflects our immense lack of maturity and foresight. Likewise with other essential professions (as I like to call them): nurses, hawaldars, soldiers... We need very good people (and lots of them) to man these professions and cannot afford to compromise on quality one bit. And we can’t hope to make this happen if we don’t sort out the economics of it. Idealism in its own place, family bread and butter in its own.

Sure let us set high standards in recruiting teachers. Sure let us expect teachers to continuously develop themselves in terms of knowledge as well as teaching pedagogies. To teach children and nurture them into becoming mature adults and responsible members of the society is no small thing. And we certainly need to recruit the best people we can to do this. But at the same time let us also then pay them salaries that are respectable enough for the teaching profession to become economically sound and not be a constraint that comes in the way of capable people choosing it as a career option – at least early in their lives before they have earned higher degrees that can enable them to pursue options of either teaching at colleges and universities or perhaps taking up other career paths if that be their eventual choice (I'll expand on the 2nd part of this statement later in this post).

So here’s my first proposition: Let the starting gross salaries for school teachers be set as follows (I’ll talk about the need to cap these salaries as well later):

Primary school (Grades 1 to 5): Rs. 30,000/- per month.                  
[Minimum qualification: B.A./B.Sc./B.Com.]

Secondary school (Grades 6 to 10): Rs. 40,000/- per month.
[Minimum qualification: B.A./B.Sc./B.Com. + B.Ed.  OR  B.Tech./B.E. (longer program)]

Higher secondary school (Grades 11-12): Rs. 50,000/- per month.
[Minimum qualification: B.A./B.Sc./B.Com. + B.Ed.  OR  B.Tech./B.E. (longer program)]

Yes! I do believe that we need to value our bachelors degrees as well as the teaching profession this much.

Similarly, starting salaries for instructors for Diploma programmes in Technical Education at institutes such as ITIs can be set at Rs. 60,000/- per month with minimum qualification requirement being a B.Tech./B.E.

I want to make a point here that I will keep coming back to again and again: Let us aim at establishing a culture wherein people in the teaching profession continue to study more themselves and pursue higher degrees alongside their teaching responsibilities at different levels.

Say someone takes up a teaching position at the primary school level right after their B.A., B.Sc. or B.Com. Let them not stagnate there. Instead, let them pursue a B.Ed. alongside and try and move up to being a secondary school teacher, and after some experience perhaps a higher secondary school teacher. Again, during this period let them pursue masters degrees in their subjects so that they can try and obtain a lectureship at the college level where they teach B.A./B.Sc./B.Com./B.Tech. students. Or they could pursue the M.Ed. degree and involve themselves in teaching B.Ed. students.

Sure pursuing higher degrees alongside one’s teaching responsibilities would likely take more time than pursuing them full time. But one earns a salary alongside and that can be exactly what is needed for many a individual or family.

To encourage this continuous pursuit of higher education oneself and migrating to teaching at higher levels, I believe we also need to put caps on salaries at each level. So the salaries at the primary school level can perhaps be capped off at say Rs. 35,000/- per month. One then has to put in the required effort, obtain a B.Ed. degree and try and move up to secondary school teaching if one wants to earn more (thereby also opening up primary school spots for others). Likewise, salaries at the secondary and higher secondary school levels and diploma institutes can perhaps be capped off at Rs. 45,000/- per month, Rs. 55,000/- per month and Rs. 65,000/- per month respectively as well. If someone wants to earn more than Rs. 65,000/- per month, he or she then has to obtain a masters degree and try and obtain a lectureship at a college.

In a similar spirit, I propose that gross salaries of lecturers in colleges range from Rs. 70,000/- per month to Rs. 80,000/- per month until they obtain a PhD (which can be pursued alongside one's teaching responsibilities). After obtaining a PhD one can either choose to continue teaching at the college level and be eligible for promotions with higher salaries within the college system or follow up the PhD degree with some post-doctoral research experience if needed and try and obtain a faculty position in a university or institute where one would also be involved with post-graduate education or a scientific position at a research laboratory.

Coming to institutes and universities:

In my last post I had argued for a reversal to PhD being the minimum requirement for an Assistant Professorship at universities and institutes (instead of PhD plus three years of post-PhD experience) while pointing out that selection committees have the discretion anyway to recommend if necessary that a particular candidate first gain some more research experience through a post-doctoral research fellowship or perhaps spend some time as a senior lecturer before being appointed as an Assistant Professor. So, I’ll first suggest salaries at the post-doctoral research fellow and senior lecturer levels (both of which should ideally be at the most 2-3 year positions in my opinion):

I would recommend setting the monthly salary for post-doctoral research fellows at Rs. 80,000/- (fixed) i.e. the salary cap for lecturers at the college level (see above).

If I’m not mistaken, this would be a significant increase in salary at this level and I believe it would be a step in the right direction. Post-doctoral research fellows can play an important role in increasing the research impetus in our universities and institutes. Such a salary might not only increase the probability of some of our brighter PhD graduates choosing to gain their post-doctoral research experience in institutes and universities within the country rather than going abroad for the same but may also help us attract candidates from outside the country.

The salary for senior lecturers at institutes and universities can be set at Rs. 1,00,000/- per month (fixed) with an expectation that they contribute in teaching as well as research.

The starting salary for Assistant Professors at institutes and universities can be set at Rs. 1,20,000/- per month. From here on it would be a matter of being promoted to an Associate Professorship and then a Professorship based on performance and I suppose an evaluation of one’s academic maturity. Again, I believe there should be salary caps at the Assistant and Associate Professor levels so that one stays motivated to keep progressing to higher levels. But I am going to desist from opining on what these should be or what the starting salaries for Associate and full Professorships ought to be.

A full Professorship, in my opinion, ought to indicate a judgement by the academic community that one has attained to a level of academic maturity beyond which one need not be judged or evaluated anymore. So there really needn’t be any more posts as I see it.

Posts of administrative and academic leadership in institutes and universities (Heads of Departments, Deans, Directors), as I see things, ought to indicate responsibilities being given to members of the academic community from time to time and not be looked at as “promotions”. I do not believe any of these responsibilities need have separate salaries associated with them. Instead, I am of the opinion that one simply continue to earn salary as per one’s station in his or her academic journey while executing such responsibilities. Just that how well one executes such responsibilities (yes, that needs to be evaluated too!) be accounted for when forming a judgement on one’s overall credentials.

I end this post with a submission that while we have certainly come a long way since our independence in 1947, we have a longer way to go still before we can claim to be relevant in the global academic community. I believe that in order to achieve such a standing we need to address the economic aspects of knowledge centric professions in our country as much as correcting our mindset vis a vis how we view knowledge and its relevance and importance in our lives. I have presented my views on what would be a balanced approach as we move forward. It is my hope that the relevant bodies in our country’s academia as well as state and central governments will take the necessary steps during the 7th pay commission to remove any lacunae that might exist and give a positive thrust to the teaching, academic, scientific and all other knowledge centric professions in our country.

True that the above will possibly require significant budgetary revisions as far as allocations to the education sector go. Would it be worth it? I hope I have been able to convince you that it would. Additionally, one mindset shift in the society at large that would go a long way in bringing about this economic impetus to the education sector is the willingness of those who can afford to pay for education to do so while subsidies and scholarships be reserved exclusively for those who actually need them. Most of us who are well off don’t really hold back from spending money on material comforts and luxuries. While I don’t really have a problem with that as such, I do believe that we shouldn’t hesitate on spending on education either. Knowledge is no less important.

Actually perhaps many of us already do spend a fair bit on education when we feed the humongous coaching industry that has taken root in our country. From what I have heard salaries in coaching institutes are possibly significantly higher than in schools. I wouldn’t be surprised if better people teach at coaching centres today than at schools. Or if school teachers double up as coaching class teachers.

I recommend that we direct our resources directly at schools. Let’s upgrade them, hire the very best to teach our children, demand the very best from them and be willing to pay them salaries they deserve.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Sixth pay commission debacles and looking forward... (Part 1)

[Note 1: This article focuses only on policies, not salaries.]

[Note 2: That said, salaries are an important consideration too. I’ll discuss that aspect in my next post.]

A few things went very wrong in my opinion as far as sixth pay commission recommendations and their implementation went for the academic community in our country. I’m going to talk about these a bit here (within the context of college/institute/university level academia as that’s the part I am aware of) before presenting my views in the next post on what the seventh pay commission can do to provide a thrust to academics as a whole in our country all the way from primary schools to institutes and universities.

The first bungle that happened was the removal of lectureship as a post across the country. This has resulted in people with Masters level education becoming Assistant Professors. While a Masters degree is certainly indicative of a certain level of command in a field, I do not believe it is a high enough benchmark to allow the academic title of Assistant Professor. Sure salaries for Assistant Professors with a Masters degree have probably been kept lower than PhD holders at the same post. But just setting salaries lower or higher is not enough as far as the overall picture goes. Attaining to appropriate posts at the right stage in one’s career after having obtained the necessary educational qualifications and demonstrated a certain level of competence and ability is equally important if we wish to maintain high standards. Else titles lose their significance and people who are not intellectually and professionally ready get them before time. That’s not healthy for the profession as a whole in my opinion.

Being an Assistant Professor is no small thing. This title cannot be given to people before they are ready if we wish to avoid a dilution of standards overall. Benchmarks need to be set high and people need to be encouraged to put in the effort required to reach them.

So this is one thing that needs to be reversed in my opinion: A few junior lectureships for people with only a Bachelors degree but with demonstrated potential for excellence in teaching, lectureships for Masters degree holders and post-doctoral-research-fellowships/senior-lectureships, Assistant Professorships and above for PhD holders. Additionally what needs to be encouraged in my opinion is people continually moving up in their professional careers by pursuing higher degrees alongside their teaching responsibilities. For example, a junior lecturer can pursue a Masters degree alongside his or her teaching responsibilities and upon completion apply for a lectureship. Similarly lecturers can pursue PhD degrees alongside their teaching responsibilities and upon completion apply for either post-doctoral research fellowships or Senior lectureships (or Assistant Professorships if they are judged to be exceptional). Higher posts (Associate and Full Professorships) of course are a matter of promotion based on performance since PhD is the highest academic degree one can obtain.

For my next few observations I’m going to focus on where I believe things went wrong as far as IITs are concerned but I hope I’ll be able to draw a few points in the process that I believe should apply to institute/university level academia in our country as a whole and not just one set of institutes. I was not only teaching at an IIT when the 6th pay commission came around (still am) but was also an active participant of the IIT faculty federation that engaged in a dialogue with the then Minister of Human Resource and Development, Mr. Kapil Sibal.

The first thing that I believe went wrong (and I’ll elaborate on why I think so in a moment) was in introducing the requirement that one necessarily have three years of experience beyond his or her PhD to apply for a "regular" Assistant Professorship at an IIT. A new post called Assistant Professor on Contract was introduced that is given today till these three years of experience are accumulated.

This was a departure from the past when the minimum requirement to apply for a regular post was having a PhD degree. Sure some post-doctoral experience was looked at positively and it was possible to recognize the experience gained at this level through additional increments in one’s starting salary. But fresh PhD graduates with a sound academic background overall and demonstrated competence and readiness who wanted to enter the teaching profession right away were equally welcome to apply – they didn’t necessarily have to wait for an additional three years for a regular appointment if they were good enough to be absorbed sooner. The selection committee was empowered to gauge the merit of each applicant and decide who to offer a position and who not.

That was a better system in my opinion. Not only did it give more flexibility but it also increased the chances of addressing faculty shortage in IITs in a shorter time frame. A candidate is more likely to apply for a regular post instead of a contractual one. And as I remarked above, selection committees have the discretion to not offer someone a regular post anyway if they judge that he or she is not ready yet. They can always recommend after evaluating the candidate that he or she spend some time as a post-doctoral research fellow first to gain more research experience, or maybe gain some teaching experience as a senior lecturer (this provision existed at IITs and can be enabled again), if they feel that the candidate is not ready yet. On the other hand, if someone is academically ready sooner than others then why not absorb them sooner? It is only to our advantage to do so in my opinion. Why "hard code" this three year requirement at the level of policy and tie ourselves down?

So that’s the next thing that needs to be reversed in my opinion: The minimum requirement for an Assistant Professorship at IITs (or any Institute and University in the country for that matter) needs to be reset at having a PhD degree. Individual institutes have the prerogative to require further experience anyway. But I don’t think there’s any case for making such requirements mandatory for all institutes. In fact I feel that is only counterproductive. It reduces the level of flexibility available to selection committees and can potentially result in bright candidates taking up positions elsewhere because all the IITs are able to offer them presently are contractual positions for three years after their PhD.

Along the same lines, the following policies were brought in during the 6th pay commission for appointments at the associate and full professor levels:

Associate Professor: To become an Associate Professor at an IIT, one now requires at least six years of post-PhD experience of which at least three should be at the Assistant Professor level at IITs or equivalent institutes.

There are two problems with this as I see things:

1) The requirement of first having been an Assistant Professor at IITs or equivalent institutes to apply for an Associate Professorship at an IIT can potentially lock out people (or unnecessarily delay their career progression) who have been at other institutes despite the possibility of them having performed well there. This is unnecessary in my opinion. In fact appointments at all levels (Assistant, Associate and Full Professorships) in IITs are through open advertisements and selection committees ought to evaluate candidates based on their performance at the previous level regardless of whether they are internal or external candidates. So we need only focus on how one has performed and not be concerned about where one has worked previously. Why rule out the possibility of people improving themselves with time? In fact, I am of the opinion that people should be encouraged to "move up in life" by continually improving themselves.

Say someone did not manage to obtain an academic position at an IIT or an equivalent institute right after his or her PhD and joined some other institute instead. And then worked really hard to improve themselves further and in some years started performing at the level of an IIT faculty member. Say such a person demonstrates sustained performance at an academically high level and can make a case for an Associate Professorship at an IIT at some point. I really don’t see why he or she should not be encouraged to apply for the same. Sure let these candidates be evaluated with as much rigor as anyone else. But in principle they should be as eligible to become Associate Professors at an IIT as anyone else as long as they are able to demonstrate that they are competent enough for the post when they apply.

Such a policy can also discourage people working in industries or research labs from migrating to academics. Someone may choose to join an industry or take up a scientific position in a research lab right after his or her PhD and wish to enter the teaching position after some years. As long as he or she has demonstrated a high enough level of competence and performance I do not see a problem with them coming into IITs as Associate Professors in a manner commensurate with their seniority and experience elsewhere instead of having to necessarily take a dip in their careers, spend three years as Assistant Professors, and then apply for an Associate Professorship. In fact, I would see it as a positive for our academic community if it can draw good people from industries and research labs towards itself. It is only counterproductive to discourage such migrations in my opinion.

2) Six years after PhD is too soon in my opinion (in general; there can always be exceptional people and exceptions can and should certainly be made for them) to attain to the academic title of Associate Professor.

Prior to the 6th pay commission, the requirement to apply for an Associate Professorship was simply 8 years of post-PhD experience with no other conditions. I feel we need to revert to this. It is simple, uncomplicated and offers complete flexibility for people who might wish to migrate upwards from a lower ranked institute to an IIT (and there’s no reason why they should be prevented from doing so as long as they prove themselves worthy – in fact, as I have remarked above, the idea of working hard and "moving up in life" needs to be encouraged in my opinion!) as well as laterally from industries and research labs to academia.

Professor: To become a Professor at an IIT one now requires at least 10 years of post-PhD experience of which at least four years should have been at the level of Associate Professor at an IIT or an equivalent institute.

This is double jeopardy!

Say someone who is an Associate Professor elsewhere wishes to apply for a Professorship at an IIT. What is it that we expect of him now? That he first be an Assistant Professor ( i.e. actually take a demotion!) for three years, then be an Associate Professor for four years at IIT and then be eligible to apply for a Professorship. I see absolutely no point in insisting on this.

Likewise for people who might want to move from industries or research labs to IITs later in their careers. If they are good enough, then they ought to be able to come in as Professors in my opinion and that so in a manner that is commensurate with their seniority and experience. I see absolutely no point in necessarily making people take a dip in their careers if they want to move to an IIT.

If someone can prove that he is academically ready to be a Professor at an IIT, he should be made a Professor at an IIT. As simple as that.

[All this makes even lesser sense in our present predicament when all IITs are said to be facing a faculty shortage!]

The policy prior to 6th pay commission for appointments at the level of Professor was simply that one have at least 10 years of post-PhD experience to become eligible to apply for the same – no other conditions. It was simple, uncomplicated and offered far more flexibility than the policy brought in during the 6th pay commission.

It is my submission that the above policy changes that were brought in during the 6th pay commission have not been beneficial. The previous policies were more sound and I believe we need to revert to them for a healthier and more rational functioning of our country’s academic system.

[As indicated at the start of my post I will present my thoughts on matters related to salaries in the teaching/academic profession all the way from primary schools to institutes and universities in my next post.]