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Integrated PhD: a road less travelled and understood

Aditi Bhattacharya

With the winter season coming in, it is that time of the year, when final year undergraduates are thinking Hey, college is almost over. So, what do we do next?” Science and engineering students are increasingly looking to opportunities in academia and research given the recent explosion of funding and institutes in India. A few may also be flirting with the idea of doing an Integrated MS-PhD. It’s for this group that this article blog is relevant.

Many institutes in India, both autonomous and state funded, offer the five year PhD programs, whereas the six-year Integrated MS-PhD programs are available only at a handful of places including IISc, NCBS, JNSCAR, NBRC and TIFR! Typically the competition for the seats available is high due to a perceived exclusivity of these programs. But let’s keep all that aside…. So, how do you evaluate which one is the right program for you?

Let’s talk of the Integrated PhD program first. The purpose of the BS-MS-PhD sequence is to gradually condition one’s thoughts towards research, while providing a view of the trials and tribulations in small doses. Int. PhD is meant to give you a jump start in that process and is tailored for those who have decided that their lives are dedicated to scientific research. One is required to have a well-developed sense of breaking down any complex scientific problems into small manageable bits, on-demand problem solving, self-motivation and focus. Once selected, people find the first 1 – 2 years as being the most challenging and grueling. Why? The enormous transition in the way one acquires knowledge, works and connects to the science around. Our present BS courses may provide a primer to reading papers, journal clubs, oral presentations and goal driven scientific projects, but it does not compare to the thorough grounding given in MS programs. So when one joins an Int. PhD program, just in 2 – 3 months, one is shuttled from a semester-and-exam based system to one where you are learning skills and tools all the time, with evaluations based on presentation, data talks and discussions. It’s expected that one knows as much as one’s MS batchmates.

The information gathering protocol shifts from books to journals and talks to rationally review opposing arguments and collate large amounts of data in a short period of time, owing to which it becomes distressing to people at times. Most of all, one has to handle adversities with great maturity — be it from failed experiments and projects or just tough courses. Moreover, Integrated PhD is also a commitment where if things head south, you’re left with a BS degree- there is hardly any Get MS and get going” option.. This aspect is being currently addressed with some programs starting to offer MS by research as an exit option.

So is there an upside? Yes! If you have a focused scientific problem that just invites your attention, and you are itching to get going on that way and can handle any curve ball thrown at you, then you’re suited for this. You’ll learn more in the first year of Int. PhD than you ever will in the first year of any other degree. The fact that all premier institutes offer this program ensures that from the outset you will be exposed to cutting-edge technology, world-renowned speakers and an internationally trained faculty. Your already active mind will get more stimuli that it can handle. The fellowships are better than any you’ll get for MS and perhaps entry level Biotech jobs. And most importantly you’ll be the youngest in any level you enter (post-doc, industrial jobs etc) with many more years to devote to the field than others. This advantage of more time becomes important if you want to take a break and try something new. You have the time for that sabbatical that others generally don’t. The advantages are not tangible immediately but form a fundamental part of your career as you mature.

If one imagines oneself as an investor with a sizable amount of money (intellect, time and effort) , one can either play is safe investing in fixed term deposits (aka PhD programs) or speculate in the share market with variable returns (aka Int. MS-PhD programs). If one has the capacity to manage risky propositions well, it can leave one quite rich but there is a possibility of being hit real hard in harsh economic times.

Introspection and thought is strongly advised to identify which format is good for you. Both styles have produced competent scientists, the Int-ies” being a growing breed. In the end, the decision is solely based on what are the risks versus the benefits are for you, much like any financial investment on the market.