Of scholars and scholarship
by Vinita Krishnamurthy on 25 Mar 2015 1 Comment

Last month, some research scholars from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) and NIMHANS in Bengaluru struck ‘work’, holding placards and forming human chains to express their ‘displeasure’ at the delay in receiving the hike in fellowship.


This is not the first time that research scholars of these top research institutes have gone on strike. Earlier protests, however, highlighted pathetic hostel conditions, food or safety concerns. It is also not the first time that fellowship has been hiked. With every raise recommended by the Central Pay Commission, research scientists including junior and senior research fellows have always been treated at par with government servants. And even if there was no major increase in the funding allotted to research, everyone in research institutes and Universities got their personal salary raise along with arrears.


The scholarship given to researchers has always been commensurate with existing inflation, calculated to enable sustenance and not luxury. Even so, some research scholars have families or send money home. In fact, before the internet/cellphone revolution, a lot of money was spent on communication with family and peers within and outside the country. Transport was a problem, going home meant taking time off to book tickets at the railway station, spending two days travelling by bus and train. A lot of time was spent on copying down relevant information from books and journals in the library since photocopying used up money. In comparison, communication and commuting is a breeze today.


Without going into inflation and GDP and what-have-you, a cursory glance at the monthly budget of people in the same age-group even in a city like Bengaluru will show that a small family can live modestly with an income of 12,000 -14000 INR. A JRF, on the other hand, is currently eligible for INR 16000 and an SRF INR 18000. This is in the same bracket as a lecturer/ senior lecturer/ lecturer (selection grade) according to the recommendations of the 6th Pay Commission and the comparison is justified considering the educational qualification of a lecturer is the same as that of a research scholar. Now with the hike recommended by the Dept. of Science and Technology w.e.f October 2014, JRFs and SRFs will receive INR 25000 and INR 28000 respectively.


So what was all the fuss about? It is known that PhD students in some Universities and private research institutes (not the above-mentioned ones) do suffer delays in receiving the stipend. Again, some places demand a hefty (and completely illegal) ‘tuition fee’ which is an unnecessary burden on finances, without giving any additional learning benefits to the students. Aren’t these local problems that may need to be addressed by the Ministry of Human Resources Development, but are not of its creation? Again, these issues have nothing to do with scholarship hike.


So could this sense of injustice stem from comparisons made with corporate employees of the same age? Research students cannot avail of a bonus, LTC and retirement benefits; but then, their stay in the institution is temporary, an extension of learning. Also doesn’t one join the research fraternity to avoid corporate culture? To work on problems that one identifies, thinking methodically through the confounding labyrinth of natural and synthetic processes to derive satisfaction in finding an explanation, if not a clear answer?

Everybody joins the course with visions of saving the world sans cape and red underwear, but surely the first year itself reveals that a PhD is at the very least an exercise in training oneself to ask the right questions and seek answers. At the very best, a PhD is worth an MBA three times over – a practical training program in human relations, finance and marketing.


One needs to maintain cordial relations with colleagues and mentor. One learns to scrimp, scrounge around and innovate to design experiments that are monetarily and practically feasible. And of course, after executing those experiments to generate and correctly interpret relevant data, the satisfactory conclusions compiled in the magnum opus of a thesis is a masterpiece in marketing. The ultimate good that a PhD can do is seen in a small fraction of research scholars who exercise the ‘neti, neti’ attitude not only towards their data, but also to the person they want to be and truly evolve as individuals.


In short, a PhD is a journey of four to seven (or more) years that merely paves the way for the future. The project one works on is decided by the mentor, so the occasional grand discovery results from the collaborative effort of many researchers. Whatever others may say or expect of research institutes, their primary function is to train the young mind to push the limits of logic and overcome the vagaries of experimentation.


Both faculty members and research students are expected to learn, think and do … something that does not directly affect the lives of the people of this country. This kind of fundamental research needs a patron which, in this case, happens to be the Government of India. The simple truth is that the jawan standing guard at the country’s borders, the bank clerk working overtime for the Prime Minister’s Jan Dhan Yojana and the primary school teacher who shapes young lives has the first claim on the national treasury; the thinker and the dreamer are among the last.


One can understand that a hike in fellowship was badly needed to attract more students to research; that it has been approved by the government is something to be grateful about. Instead, these self-absorbed students protested for ‘dues’ in front of the nation’s Prime Minister – a man who understands poverty better than his predecessors – when he paid them a visit en route the Aero India 2015 show.


Demanding immediate implementation like a spoilt child throwing a tantrum reflects poorly on the patience and perseverance of a discerning researcher. Without making a virtue out of poverty, it must be said that scholarship of the mind is more important than the fellowship in the bank account. It is time these ‘fellows’ doctored their philosophy instead of nursing a grouse.



-        http://blogs.nature.com/indigenus/2015/02/indian-research-scholars-renew-pay-hike-protests.html

-        http://www.ncert.nic.in/organisation/disclo_rti/pdf_files/website_6th_pay_commission.pdf

-        http://www.dst.gov.in/whats_new/whats_new14/fellowship_revision.pdf


The author is a research scientist by training and consultant by profession

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