Indian Computer Science (CS) & Information Technology (IT) Academic Reform Activism Consolidated Blog Document

CS & IT Academia: The PhD Glass Ceiling

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CS & IT Academia: The PhD Glass Ceiling

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When I moved to Academia, after 18 odd years of international software design & development experience to offer Free Service (Seva) in the area of teaching Lab. courses in academia, I was in for a lot of 'learning' about CS/IT academic system.

One of the first things I learned is that Academia is essentially a PhD club. I mean, if you do not have a PhD, you are automatically considered to be a less intelligent form of life and there is a glass ceiling, or rather glass partition much lower than the ceiling, which you cannot cross if you do not have a PhD.

As I had come with the intention of Serving Society as a form of God, I felt I should be humble and take such attitudes in my stride. As I was an M.Sc. (Physics) drop-out, i.e. only a B.Sc., it was as if I should be thankful to have been offered a chance to teach. My 18 odd years of international software experience did not matter all that much except that it permitted me to be a teacher of 'Lab' courses only and also to help M.Tech. project students with their programming problems. I later learned that this attitude stems from AICTE/UGC norms for appointing CS/IT university teachers. So I understood this to be an academic administrative issue and did not hold anything against CS/IT academia. I was happy to share my knowledge, for free, with students and that was an excellent arrangement both for me, and I guess or hope, the students :).

I think the PhD glass ceiling is a systemic issue - I mean, the AICTE/UGC governed system expects you to prove your intellectual calibre by doing a PhD. Once you have crossed that bar - then you are into the academic club for life. If you hang around in academia without doing a PhD the AICTE/UGC governed system presumes that you are not good enough to do higher things in academia - you can hang around as a junior teacher (Asst. Prof. provided you clear NET/SET/SLET or just T.A. otherwise) but really don't deserve to go up the ladder. How good a teacher you are does not really matter!!! For the system, what matters is whether you have a PhD. That's it.

And this then naturally shapes the mind-set of academicians. Students who go through the system - Bachelor's degree, Master's degree(s), PhD - grow in theory & research knowledge but without really having any real practical experience of CS/IT! And, once they get the PhD they become Dr-name-members of the academic club! That gives immense recognition in the academic system.

To acquire a CS/IT PhD you have no need to be exposed to CS/IT industry world. So most of the academic CS/IT PhD club guys have no idea about academic qualifications of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg and how it is their on-the-job study and work that allowed them to create great software products that have had such a significant impact on the world. Many would not even have heard of Mark Zuckerberg (though they would surely know about Facebook).

And most of the CS PhD guys generally are not that great in programming & design! Surprised and Shocked, are you? Well, that's the reality. For research you need to break your head studying research papers and coming up with innovative approaches to your research problem. Of course you need an algorithm/programs to test your innovative approach to your research problem and get publishable results. But what matters is the result. How you get the results is not so important. You could use MATLAB scripts. You could write badly designed and unreadable C code but which somehow works and gets some results. That is perfectly fine. The paper that the PhD scholar sends to a journal does not include source code. Nobody who matters, cares about your source code - that is just menial-code - they care about the results that your code produced. That's it.

So the system has ABSOLUTELY NO INCENTIVE for a CS PhD guy to do design & programming part of his PhD work well. And then this is the guy who after getting his PhD, according to AICTE/UGC norms, is fit to be a teacher of design & programming as well as any other CS/IT subject under the sun to CS & IT students!

Okay, that's fine - that is the AICTE/UGC system. What can you do? They are the bosses who lay down the rules and academia has to follow them. Period.

But in the narrow world of CS/IT academia, some of these PhD qualified guys truly believe they know more than any of the CS/IT industry guys. They look down at industry as doing 'menial labour/coding' jobs. They use Google for their research, gmail for their mail, Microsoft Word for their documents and iPod/iPhone products as well but still look down at industry!!! And the poor industry experienced guy who does not have a PhD who tries to argue with them on teaching CS/IT stuff is treated with either disdain or with "he does not know academic issues" attitude. The knowledge level does not matter, what matters is whether you have a PhD - AICTE/UGC norms rule!

I would like to repeat that this PhD club mind-set problem among CS/IT academicians is not universal. But some, if not most, CS/IT academicians certainly have it in good measure.

I would like to clarify that what I have written above does not mean that I do not respect researchers! I certainly respect their endeavour to push the boundaries of knowledge in their chosen fields. Their life their choice. However CS/IT research does not appeal to me. What appeals to me is applying established technology to provide working software solutions that help society - a technologist's view perhaps as against a researcher's view. My life my choice. Both technologists and researchers are needed in society.

I respect researchers and I think it would be fair if researchers & academicians respect me and technologists like me, and don't look down at us because we don't have or are not bothered about acquiring a PhD! But if they don't respect me and other technologists - that's fine - it is a free world - they have the freedom to be arrogant - and I have the freedom to ignore them and steer clear from them. If, on the other hand, they respect technologists, I and other technologists, I am quite sure, would be happy to work with them so that we have some Research & Development (R&D) happening instead of only Research publications being produced from their work.

Unfortunately AICTE/UGC CS/IT policy makers are extremely pro-research & pro-PhD but do not provide enough encouragement for the technologist's view. That perhaps is the reason why we don't have any significant software to tackle country's problems being produced from CS/IT academia in the country. I mean CS/IT academia produces research publications - that really is it - and maybe there is some talk about some software but nothing really materializes and reaches the public.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

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