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Should we de-test the testing times?

Ram Mishra

It has been dawning on me, that maybe the first year of an investigator’s independent career is the time for one to go through many experiences that we were only part of vicariously earlier. The best examples is being a part of the selection committee for the Ph.D. program and setting papers for entrance. For the first time, I became aware of the extent of commitment involved in the process of candidates selection, interviews and then preparation of the final list. I must admit that I relished every bit of process. It is quite an experience and quite daunting as well to be on the other side of the table. Little did I realize earlier, the precautions that are taken to ensure that the entire process of selecting candidate is fair.

This experience, concurrently with the debate about multiple examinations and tests really got me thinking about various aspects of selecting students for each program. In IISER, Bhopal alone, we received applications in far greater numbers than the students we can actually take. So we had to find a way to shortlist the candidates – after much debate we decided not to hold another entrance test as most of these candidates have already cleared a national level examination. So the task ahead of us was to set conditions so that we invite enough applicants for interviews.

At present almost every national level institute/​educational body in our country conducts its own tests. Why these redundant tests for candidates if they have cleared the national level exams like CSIR/UGC NET, GATE, ICMR etc. To anyone who has sat in interviews, it is clear that very often the ability of a student does not correlate with their ranking in the above exams. So are these exams dysfunctional? Or is it that we have to change the questioning to cater to specific courses/​career paths. For example – quantitative abilities correlated with speed might matter for Business schools, while analytical ability is much more important for Ph.D. programs. One question that stands tall in front of us is how meaningful are these national level exams or have they just become modality to cope up with population phenomenon?

While being part of the two back-to-back events that probe a candidate’s ability I asked myself if we really need multiple exams or can one common test serve the same purpose.

If I go by the precedence the GRE exam sets for selection of Ph.D. candidates in United States of America then we don’t need different institutes conducting their own exams. Granted, the GRE does have its issues wherein some of the brightest students aren’t able to do as well. Still, a national level examination across the country with the institutes and universities defining their priorities for interviews has many advantages. For one, it eases the pressure on the students, who would only have to prepare and work towards one test rather than multiple. For the institutions, it saves on funds, manpower and most importantly time.

However, I do think, that it is important to tailor the examinations towards the course/​program that the candidate is applying for. In biology/Ph.D programs, majority of these tests fail to gauge, the logical reasoning, aptitude and ability to analyze, all of which are qualities that are expected out of a Ph.D. student. So it is important to customize written exams that will serve the purpose of shortlisting the number of students we can comfortably interview. It is pretty obvious that there would be significant overlap in the number of candidates that each institute prepares. Maybe, another aspect to the applications could be a statement by the students illustrating their interest in the program, as well as recommendations. These aspects are already incorporated in the selection of candidates at various institutions. 

So the question that has been hovering over my head is, are we doing any justice to the society by having multiple exams at particular level? Engineering and Medical systems in the country have already set such precedence by having single test for multiple institutes across the country. Should we also adopt a common research test that probes the aptitude and logical reasoning or no such test and rely absolutely on national level exams like CSIR/UGC NET, ICMR or GATE with little modification included.

With the number of higher education institutions in India increasing rapidly, maybe it is time for us also to think on the line for a common test for Ph.D. student selection?

Also see a related article in Current Science