'We don't have a life': Plight of PhD students

'We don't have a life': Plight of PhD students

The worst part of this entire thing is that no one listens. The guides, the Director, or the Dean. No one listens. We do feel ignored.

What do you think of a PhD? The general consensus we have observed translates to: “How can PhD not be anything but chill, after all, you get paid for studying.” One cannot be further from the truth. Today team Monday Morning brings you a darker truth- unfiltered and voiced. You will come across a number of quotes in the article which have been collected from various PhD students over an extended time period and the identities of the students have been kept anonymous for reasons which will become apparent as you keep reading the article.  

Equipment

The major issue is regarding machinery. We do a lot of experiments and we don't have the machines of the required calibre here on the campus. Even when we approach the PIC of the instrument they reply that they haven't been operational since ages.

It is important to understand the gravity of this issue from a Ph.D. perspective. Simply put, no equipment translates to no Ph.D. And it's shocking to see that all the Ph.D. students we’ve asked (and we’ve asked a lot) have always complained about the experimental facilities. Be it long repair time, less no of equipment or simply absence of any, the problems regarding the equipment don’t seem to come to an end. The Ph.D. students in spite of these roadblocks, however, not only carry out their experiments but do so in a fashion that puts NITR among the top 15 of the country.

We have already mentioned the equipment for each department which was provided in a list and they just ignored it. To increase the quality of our research, we need better results and for that we need machinery. We also need to compete with researchers outside NITR and we suffer because our work is not of that quality.

The analytical work we do, can be done with a low end as well as a high-end instrument but the paper which was done by a high-end instrument gets published first and is considered better.

Compared to IITs we feel like we are working in the '90s. We are 10 years behind on the technological font when compared to other IITs.

The major issue regarding instruments is the availability of liquid nitrogen. There are many instruments that run on liquid nitrogen, and since the institute doesn't provide us with liquid N2, even if the machine itself works, we won't be able to do our work. Many students pay from their own pockets to get liquid N2, which takes around Rs 5000 per month. The reimbursement takes a long time, around 2 months, sometimes we don't even get reimbursement.

If the equipment is not functional, it takes 3-6 months to get it repaired. The equipment here are very basic and not advanced. But even these are not maintained properly.

My department has a single ESM, if it breaks down it takes 3-4 months to get it repaired, as a result, all your dependent work like writing paper etc. also gets delayed.

There is a huge scam in the distribution of PC systems given to the students. It often happens that someone has an excess of them, while some don't have access to a single one either. To give an example, let's consider a guide. He has 2 PhD students: one in the second year, one in the third year. So, the guide has two systems allotted to him. Let's say the student who joined in 2015 passes out in 2020. So his system is now vacant. If a new student comes in 2020, he will obviously use that system. Even though he is not allotted to that system officially. So on paper, he will be systemless. But there will be other guides, who will have students who joined in 2016 and they won't be having a system because there is an actual shortage of systems under that guide. Now, this guy is legitimately systemless. But, on paper, there is no difference between these two. However, in reality, one is using the system, the other isn't. When the new system is allocated, one guide will have an excess of systems. Again. So, if there is a guy who joins in 2017, he will again remain systemless while there will be excess of systems under the other guide.

There is no database. And we feel, it's pretty intentional. It also happens that sometimes the M.Tech. students of one guide get this excess of systems while the PhD students of other guides have to work with laptops.

 

Monday Morning: Most of the basic and most required instruments for the research purposes are damaged and not maintained. What are the main reasons behind such issues involving lab facilities?

Prof. K. K. Mohapatra: This is not a correct statement and I completely differ from this. Had not been there proper instruments and software, Ph.D. scholars could not have completed their Thesis work. Since the research work is going as per the rules, no such discrepancy exists. But, there are breakdowns of instruments which is normal; and issues because of this are addressed immediately. Lack of instruments can be attributed to the problems in getting slots to use a machine/instrument. Since the number of instruments is low, the scholars have to face a long queue before getting their slot.

MM: Although in the past, the research scholars had drafted an application along with the document stating the urgent need of equipment and, no follow-up actions have been taken for the betterment. Why?

KKM: I have not received such an application stating the demands. I had received demands for using some particular instruments which the concerned faculty restricted them to use. We had solved the matter in HoD meeting and after implementation of CIF (Central Instrument Facilities), things are changing for good.

But discrepancies occur when some professors claim that certain equipment is non-functional but in reality, the situation might be different. So, we have implemented a system where both the HoDs and Dean have to confirm about the functional status of an instrument.

MM: In most of the cases, why are we relying on old versions of software and are unable to renew the licenses of various applications and software?

KKM: It is very easy to say so, but you need to consider the fact that we are at an upper pedestal as compared to contemporary institutions. The above allegation is false, on an average level, we are performing satisfactorily. We are going through budget constraints as well and if the funding is not done, we are helpless as well. Moreover, if we get some funds, our priorities remain in the purchase of basic instruments for undergraduate students instead of purchasing high-end costly ones.

MM: The Liquid Nitrogen facilities have been non-functional for a year. It forms the basic pre-requisite for various projects, in this case, how do you expect the scholars to perform the experiments?

KKM: Purchase Order was finalised for setting up of new Liquid Nitrogen plant but there were some clerical errors because of which the order was scrapped off. We are working on it and I personally am not supervising this issue.

Booking equipment and instrument handling

Our students face problems when they go outside NIT, if someone goes outside for post-doc research, the first question asked is whether you are able to manually handle the instruments or not? But here, all the instruments are handled by the operators. Operators are necessary but the students should also know how to handle the types of equipment.

There's a system in all the IITs that after the PhD is finished, there is a period 0f 6-8 months where the student is made familiar with the equipment and he has to give an exam as well. And once they are certified, the student after 5 o’clock can handle their own equipment. Whereas here we can't use any equipment after 5.

Other departments often do not let us use their equipment. So, unless the machine comes under the CIF facility we more often than not cannot use it.

The booking of the slots for the equipment takes place through the professor's account, so after a long wait when your slot finally arrives, the professor sometimes forgets to inform the student, since the mail only comes to the professor, and we lose the slot. This problem also arrives while booking. If you want to book a piece of equipment, you can only do so if the professor is free. If he is busy or out of the station then you have to wait again. So, the students should at least have the power to book equipment by themselves.

MM: Why are not the scholars allowed to operate the machines under the supervision of operators?

KKM: Most of the instruments are sophisticated and it depends on the professor whether he wants to allow the scholars to operate it or not.

MM: Most of the departmental instruments and devices become inaccessible after 5:15 but the experiments do not stop; can the research scholars be accessed to all the required instruments for 24x7?

KKM: This is not really true, this might be some corner cases. No such reports have received by me and this might be a minor issue and they are making a huge issue out of it. Frankly speaking, these scholars do not face any major issues but they make it a giant pile out of nothing.

MM: Most of the scholars are facing in booking and getting the slots for CIF Instruments and machines. Could there be a system where the scholars reserve them instead of their guides?

KKM: We need a concrete proposal for it and we can discuss it with the higher authorities. But there is a risk of misuse of the slots and eventually, the scholars themselves will be on the losing side.

Fees, reimbursements and Everything financial

They don't understand that this stipend is also our source of income. This is how we put food on our families' tables. If they keep doing subtractions on this, how would we support our families with our research? We didn't go for typical jobs. We wanted to research. But the support is terrible. 

A baffling fact that needs to be acknowledged is that the semester fees of the Ph.D. scholars in NIT Rourkela are the highest among all the NITs without any considerable improvements in facilities and opportunities.

Fee Hike

It is some kind of fraud with the PhD scholars. They say they don't have funds to pay money to the students so they will cut off the stipend after a year of the project period. But still, they keep undertaking new students. And in our Institute, you can't even leave after completing your project of PhD. You have to stay for 5 years. Otherwise, they would keep your certificates. If only we return the money given to us during that one and a half year, we can get our certificates. There are no such rules in other colleges by the way.

The scholars claim to have been victims of many abrupt and absurd fee hikes over various academic years. As specified in the letter submitted by the research scholars, the fee hikes have been unethical without proper justifications. Under the section, Hall activities and Improved facilities, 2500 INR per semester were added on to the list; they even faced a 100% hike in Establishment and hostel rent fees; along with these hikes, medical fees were increased in two phases (25% + 60%). Further, there have been no promising and significant changes in these areas where the fees have been increased in manifolds. When the administration was asked to address these issues, they have always presented an unjustified expenditure list that does nothing but victimizes the scholars. Multiple fee hikes with negligible improvements coupled with lack of transparency are highly objectionable and a highly non-empathizing administration is regrettable.

Every semester they will put a hike in fees. Our NIT is the Institute which takes the highest fees from its PhD scholars. NIT Trichy has only a fee of 15-20k per semester. Other IITs just take 20-25k as fees, inclusive if everything. For the new PhD students at NITR, it is 49k after the last semester. For M.Tech. people it is 80k. We would have considered paying the money if the research work was pretty good. But neither the equipment, nor the facilities, maintenance, nothing is at par with the price.

On 9th August 2018, when the Chairman, Board of Governors visited the institute and lent a hearing to the problems of the student community, The scholars had also put forth 03 suggestions for the above fiasco:

  1. Group Insurance of students for Medical Claims.
  2. Set up of In-house Pathological lab
  3. Qualitative medicines at an affordable price to reduce medical expenditures.

None of these claims has been addressed till date and it’s apparent that the administration is in no mood even to lend a helping hand to solve these issues. The team with the Chairman, BOG had even recommended a complete medical fee restructuring, where only the medical insurance fees will be collected and other charges would be exempted. The expenditure regarding medicine consumption will be borne by the concerned patient as per convenience and needs. While the deadline for such step was 45 days following 09 August 2018, the Ph.D. scholars expected the administration to be dedicated enough to stick to it, but clearly, their expectations have remained unfulfilled.

Financial Clarity

The professors have their own prof. funds which are supposed to be used for the equipment the scholars need for their research, but instead, they are used for printing paper, books etc.

While the research scholars face issues involving funds and fees, they deserve to get insights into the institute budgets and expenditures. The prominent reason that the administration reiterates is, the fee hikes get used to compensating the financial deficits. The absurd reason itself shouts for the immense financial burden Ph.D. scholars have been bearing to mend some deficits which they have nothing to associate with. The annexures of BOG meeting and Senate meetings have been found missing as well from the Information Portal, as a result of which the scholars have always remained in dark but have been compelled to be victims of such opaque management.

The hostel expenditures must be made open to the major stakeholders including the research scholars. The scholars have suggested consulting previous hostel management bodies to control and improvise the budget and expenditures; along with it, the residents must be aware of the detailed expenditures of halls of residence. But unfortunately, nothing has been changed!

Even day scholars have to pay for room rent, inspite of no rooms getting allotted. We even pay SAC fees. Even though we don't have any representation in SAC. We don't even have time for SAC activities.

Also, there is this provision that the stipend should increase from 25k to 28k after two years. It doesn't happen here. In other colleges, it gets added up in arrears. But there are no arrears given here either. But they halt the hike till we show our progress in the registration seminar. But the registration seminar gets postponed itself. The guide will be like, you have written one paper, and the second one is almost done, so complete both and we will review them together. And it keeps getting delayed for many other reasons and excuses. In the process, that 3k hike is also delayed. The money comes from the MHRD anyway. So where does that 3k of so many students goes to?

 TA/DA Conundrum:

When we go for a conference or anything of that sort, they give Rs 200 for food and for accommodation. I don't know how we are supposed to manage in that amount. Only food or only accommodation MAY come under 200. We are not beggars.

We institute scholars get Rs 200 for everything whereas the project scholars get Rs 1500 (depending on the project) for only lodging. They are entitled to second AC travel whereas we are entitled to third AC travel that too only if the HOD agrees.

A research scholar is expected and always encouraged to participate and address at various conferences, which happens to be one of the milestones of the scholar’s research period. As per current status, the scholars are provided with DA (Daily Allowance) of only Rs.200 per day. This meager amount covers their boarding, food and certain other logistics. Consider any part of the country, a miserable amount of 200 INR is never even close to enough for bare minimum sustenance. For a conference held in Odisha, the research scholar receives a daily allowance of the only Rs.100 which seems to be less as an allowance but more like charity. For international conferences, the institute only reimburses half of the entire expenditure or grants 1 Lakh INR or whichever is lower, which is unsatisfactory. Again, the scholars have to opt for Air India only for such purposes while cheaper options are available.

Although such issues have been brought in front of administration, the institution barely cared to make amendments. There have been significant requests to increase the TA/DA allowances, but all in vain.

MM: The scholars are provided with a meagre amount of Rs200 as TA/DA per day which is not at all sufficient to meet the basic needs. What’s the response of the administration to the repeated request to increase the TA/DA amount?

KKM: They must come with the demand through their HODs and then in HOD Meetings, the agenda can be discussed. Eventually, if we conclude that there is a need for enhancement in TA/DA, the concerned authorities will take the necessary steps. As you say, they have demanded it in BOG Meeting but that’s not the right protocol and things are not solved that way. We would look into the TA rules of the Government and then, implement any changes.

MM: Although a scholar has to travel for multiple days, why is he entitled to the TA/DA for a single day of traveling only?

KKM: I guess they are incorrect, TA/DA reimbursements are not discriminated between faculties and research scholars and they receive it for their entire journey. This is not the right forum to address the issue, we expect proper representation stating the issue and then we could address the issue.

Reimbursement process:

 

Last year I did 5-7 experiments outside and the total expenditure went to around 50000 rupees which I paid from my own pocket. I'm still yet to get the reimbursement for that. This is the reality of our institute.

Let's assume we are getting Rs 20000 as a contingency for 1 year. That makes it 1 lakh for 5 years.  But when you travel around for different conferences, your maximum expenditure goes around to 40000-50000 rupees and we don't get the remaining amount.

MM: What are the entities/materials for which the scholars can get reimbursement?

KKM: Everything related to their academics and research work must be provided by the concerned supervisor. It’s the responsibility of the supervisors to look into the needs of their research scholars.

MM: The entire process of reimbursement is tiring and too complicated. Can the mechanism be modified so that the scholars receive the reimbursements early?

KKM: This might happen once in a while so you cannot produce a generalised story out of it. Reimbursement process is quite smooth and I ensure that none of the bills remains pending for more than one day in my desk. If they feel that their bills remain uncleared at some stage, they should find it and report us; and we would look into the matter. The reimbursement procedure might be taking longer duration because the scholars may not be submitting the bills on time.

MM: Reportedly, many of the scholars do not receive the reimbursed money which gets trapped along with the concerned guide. Can any reform mechanism be followed where the students get directly notified about the reimbursed money?

KKM: I feel all the materials required by a scholar should be present in the lab and must be provided by the supervisors throughout the year. In case, the scholars purchase something which is subjected to reimbursement, the money should be reimbursed to the scholar’s account instead of the supervisor’s account. Considering the fact that scholars have complaints regarding this issue, I expect written applications regarding it and eventually, I could settle the matter.

Conversion of Project scholars into Institute Scholar

Certain scholars get admission into the system as a Project scholar under a specific Professor which has its own deadlines. Normally, a scholar conducts his research along with the project work, but it’s very practical to understand that a project might get completed within 3 years but the research work of the concerned scholar gets extended to 4-5 or even more years. As per the current rules, after the completion of the project, the scholar gets financial support for an additional one year only, after which he is not entitled to any stipends and allowances.

This rule has been enforced since 2014 before which the scholar was provided with the stipend until the completion of research work until 05 years. But unfortunately, there are numerous scholars who got admission prior to the enforcement of such law before 2014 and back then had the entitlement to stipends till 05 years. But the newly enforced law for them is simply betrayal and no necessary student-friendly steps have been taken regarding the issue.

There are two types of PhD scholars at NITR and are treated with bias by the Institute. The Research scholars have a total tenure of 5 years and the Project scholars are admitted according to their project period. However, if the tenure is for 3 years in a Project Research work, after the completion of those 3 years, a Project scholar is converted to Research scholars. And then the fellowship is provided only for one year. So, for the last year, the student's stipend will be stopped and he will have to continue from his own funds. This is the problem Project Scholars are facing. Most of the Institutes give the stipend for two years after the completion of Project tenure for the Project Scholars. But from March 2017, the rule has been changed due to the financial crisis. However, it should have been implemented to the students of new admissions. We didn't even know it at the time of joining. It puts us in trouble to change rules in the middle of our PhD period.

 

Administrative and Miscellaneous Issues

The biometric system: Students are supposed to do the entry at 9 am. But these project works go for long hours. Even though we are supposed to work till 10 pm, we stay in till late hours because we can't leave a process in between. It's arbitrary in nature, there will be late nights. If we return to the hostel at 2 am, how are we supposed to report at 9 am for an entire day of brainstorming. Our efficiency decreases drastically. The guide needs to give permission and he needs to understand us. We are not getting the support we need.

 

Our papers often get rejected saying the paper lacks novelty. If we work mechanically without inspiration to do something new and if we work with outdated systems, how are we supposed to produce quality works? Times have changed. There were times when our professors used to work with tedious methods of computation. But that does not mean we have to go through the same. The competition is so much higher today. There is so much demand for innovative methods. If we don't get to work in our time frame, if we don't get proper equipment, we obviously will be behind the race.

There are so many issues, we have so much pressure on us. The students who can manage, turn out well, but the students who can't manage are in danger. By the time they complete their PhD, they are in a borderline depression. It goes to a length that there has been a case where a student got a heart attack during synopsis.

Also, it happens, if a student has some feuds with his guide, the guide holds grudges against the students. Even if the student gives biometric attendance, the money is given at the month end. For these reasons, we can't even report about our guides. Because we will be the one at the receiving end either way. Our administration wouldn't understand this. They would straight out deny most of these. But what have we got to lie on record?

The PhD work gets delayed in its own way. We are supposed to start work on day one. But with permissions and equipment from vendors and reviews, the work gets delayed to 1.5 years. We work for 6 months actively and prepare for the registration seminar. But for the guide, it won't be enough and he would cancel the registration seminar. So, will the enhancement money. There has been an instance, my friend has completed almost 5 years of his PhD and 3 papers pending. His progressive seminar hasn't been conducted yet. Take a moment to think how much money he must have lost.

It's our common opinion that we feel the administration is not student friendly. Especially the guides. Our statements might not hold much authenticity because we didn't call out the name of any guide. But we can't take their names either for fear of axing our own means. The administration keeps trying to impose their ideals on us saying what they are doing is correct and we are just not mature enough to handle them. Even though the guide is wrong at any point, the administration would still take the side of the guide. Because it is their college image and curriculum and structure.

PhD students don't have a life. We wake up, we go to the lab, we come back and sleep. Next morning, we are again at the lab. We have been wired to just sit in the lab. It feels weird if we don't sit in the lab.

Conclusion

NITR is the 15th best-ranked institute in the nation. And believe it or not, it is not because of the UG populace of the institution, but mostly because of its PhD students and the work they do. Conversing with the scholars is enough to understand the hardships they go through. A lot of the PhD students are married and have families that depend on them for support (both financial and emotional), but this seems to be a hard task to accomplish seeing as how they themselves have been emotionally crippled by the unrest they face in this institute, while the financial problems they face have been addressed enough in the article above. If there ever is a story of two sides, this is it. The scholars outright make claims of problems you wouldn’t have imagined in your wildest dreams, while on the other hand, the authorities deny the existence of the same without so much as a blink. The aim of this article is not so that Team Monday Morning can play the jury, our motive is to give a voice and platform to both sides leaving the judgement to you--our beloved reader.     

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