The Student Experiment in Organising Education on Democratic Lines

A workshop for PhD students has become a thriving intellectual space and a source of community for young scholars.

Like so many flashes of inspiration, this too struck at a bar.

After a long day of edification at the Indian Strings Meeting in 2016, a group of young scholars wandered out through the rear gate of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune, and went for a drink.

As they sat down, in the cold Pune air, amidst muffled music and cigarette smoke, the conversation drifted to all the usual topics – the weather, the news, the Modave school in Belgium. For those who don’t keep up with summer schools in theoretical physics, the Modave school is a yearly event where PhD students and postdoctoral researchers live together in a picturesque village and educate each other about relevant areas in their field.

Something about the idea struck a chord. Suddenly, everyone was throwing out suggestions about how they could do something similar, maybe something better! The conversation went back and forth, ping-ponging across the table like a game of six-person table tennis.

“As the evening progressed, we got more and more drunk and more and more excited,” says Madhusudhan Raman, currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai. “The next day we were very hungover and I wondered if we had gotten ahead of ourselves.”

They also discovered that they hadn’t written anything down. Most late night leaps of logic shrivel up under the sober gaze of the next morning but, surprisingly, everyone was keen as ever. They continued to throw themselves into the idea. They decided to call the school ‘Student Talks on Trending Topics in Theory’, mercifully shortened to ST4.

In 2019, ST4 celebrated its third edition. It has become a thriving intellectual space, a source of community for young scholars and an exciting experiment in organising education on staunchly democratic lines. (It’s also evidence that a terrible name doesn’t have to hold a good idea back.)

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A lecture hall in IISER Bhopal. Photo: IISER Bhopal

The theoretical physics community in India isn’t that large. The string theory community is a subset of that – around 200 people, including professors, PhD students and postdocs. In such a small population, it wasn’t hard to get the word out to those who might be interested.

It helped that the six founding scholars were from some of the premier research organisations in the country. Rohan Poojary, Ronak Soni and Pranjal Nayak were at TIFR. Madhusudhan Raman was then at the Institute for Mathematical Sciences (IMSc) in Chennai. Vinay Malvimat was at IIT Kanpur and Debangshu Mukherjee was at the Chennai Mathematical Institute (CMI).

Initially, they were solely focused on getting the first edition off the ground. There were all of the usual challenges: funding, venue, structure, content. Slowly but surely, they ticked all the boxes. According to Poojary, now a postdoc at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics in Kolkata, right from the first moment, “support from the community was fantastic”.

Two senior scientists, Alok Laddha and Shiraz Minwalla, contributed funds. CMI provided a venue. This eliminated the largest structural barriers for the event but the central question of the workshop remained: How would a school for PhD students be organised if the students themselves were in charge?

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Experimenting with education

The rolling gardens of the IISER Bhopal campus, under an overcast sky. Photo: Thomas Manuel

It’s late July 2019 and the IISER Bhopal campus looks abandoned except for the small battalion of gardeners tending the lush landscape of trees, hedges and lawns. Most students have gone home for the summer. So while there are multiple basketball courts, only one has any players, and they’re playing cricket. Share-autos hum as they zip through tree-lined avenues, ferrying students to the scattered buildings for five rupees. In the hostels, the students have left signs on their doors that say things like “gone for a few days, do not break lock!”

While their regular occupants are away, these rooms are assigned to the attendees of the third edition of ST4. The host institution also sponsored food at the mess. The entire event is expected to cost less than Rs 1 lakh.

This year, there are five speakers, each delivering their subject over three sessions. Attendees grab breakfast at the cafeteria, saunter over to the lecture hall, attend a three-hour session, grab lunch, enjoy some unstructured time where they talk, attend a second three-hour session, wolf down some dinner, and then sleep.

(Disclaimer: The author attended ST4 at the invitation of the organisers and was reimbursed the cost of travel.)

A few months earlier, around February or March, a Google form was distributed through listservs and other channels to PhD students and postdocs within the string theory community. This humble form is the crux of the democratic nature of the school. Potential attendees answer two main questions. The first is about what subjects they’re willing, and capable of, lecturing on at the school. The second is what subjects they’d like to hear lectures on.

Then, the organising committee cross-references these two lists, comparing the subjects with the most requests to the subjects with willing speakers. One spreadsheet and some emails later, voilà, the schedule is ready.

Based on the final schedule, potential attendees decide if they’re actually going to attend. The process of matching requested topics with willing speakers often means that your personal request wasn’t fulfilled. There isn’t a selection process; anyone who wants to attend and fits the criteria of being mid-to-late stage PhD students and early postdocs is invited. This also means the founders have built in their obsolescence: they will soon be ineligible to attend their own event.

In most years, they get around 40 attendees. This is apart from students of the host institution, who don’t have to register and more or less just wander in and out at their leisure. Usually, the only people who are rejected are those in the early stages of an integrated masters-PhD course who might not be able to follow the lectures.

“This is not some remedial,” Poojary says. According to him, the intention was that PhD students would use the school to branch out, asking for topics that were adjacent to their current focus. To the founding team, the workshop was about enabling breadth rather than depth, counteracting some of the tunnel-vision that can emerge over the course of a PhD.

But the very structure of the program means that the intention of the organisers is somewhat irrelevant. The attendees have the power to shape it as they see fit. This is completely antithetical to the standard logic of similar events, where the organising committee’s primary task is to program the schedule of speakers and topics.

As Ronak Soni, currently a postdoc at Stanford University, lays it out, the logic is: “You create a community and whatever the community wants will happen.”

This is more complicated than it sounds. No community only wants one thing. Each community, and each individual, is often a warring set of motivations and fears. At ST4, discussions constantly circled back to these tensions. As Subham Dutta Chowdhury, a postdoc at TIFR, put it, “There’s a delicate balance between something you should know and something you should know now.” Or as Subhroneel Chakrabarti, a postdoc at IMSc, pointed out, the idea of trending is fickle and people are less likely to vote for fundamental topics despite their importance.

The democratic process may not always result in the optimal choices but it almost always leads to the best arguments. The fact that these arguments were being hashed out was fantastic in itself. As Nirmalya Kajuri, a postdoc at CMI, reminded the group during one conversation, pedagogical problems are solvable.

“It is a testament to the success of ST4 that we are putting so much pressure on its shoulders.”

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An intellectual space

The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. Photo: IMSc

Pratik Roy says, in a typical school or workshop, “somebody talks and you listen, maybe once in a while ask a question.” Even when students do ask questions, it’s often not an ideal exchange.

According to Kajuri, when you ask a high-profile lecturer a question, the answer is “the answer”. Rather than the opening of a door, receiving an answer can often feel like the closing of one. This might not be the fault of the lecturer at all; sometimes it’s just the by-product of the power imbalance between scholars of high reputation and those who are starting their careers. And this seems to be a sentiment that most senior faculty members sympathise with, and their support for a student space and initiatives is praiseworthy.

At ST4, the atmosphere is completely different. The community actively tries to create a more relaxed and informal environment. Poojary says that the more senior students “asked silly questions to ease the tension” early on. According to Subhroneel Chakrabarti, it should “be okay to ask stupid questions because honestly, in string theory, there are none.”

But this can be scant comfort for a student. Even the slightest risk of looking stupid in front of those who will decide whether you get a job or not is a terrifying proposition. When senior faculty are in the room, students can get eerily quiet. If you stare closely at their faces, you can see questions being born silently in their minds and then equally silently getting rocks tied to their ankles and drowned in a river.

The need for a space like ST4 probably varies from one discipline to another, but many could probably use an event like it. Most PhD students in string theory never actually take a course called ‘string theory’. Most of them rely on the same series of video lectures available on the TIFR website, uploaded by Shiraz Minwalla.

Apparently, there are also lectures by Ashoke Sen discreetly captured on a cellphone camera that can be found on YouTube. But other than these videos – already a poor substitute for in-person interactions – students are mostly on their own. They have textbooks… and that’s about it.

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A source of community

K. Raviteja, a PhD scholar at BITS Hyderabad, is the only one at his institute currently working on string theory. Akhila Mohan, who works on supersymmetry for her PhD at BITS Goa, has the same problem. While there are other students working on higher energy physics, there’s no one in her field. Compounding this, her first two guides left her institution before she could complete her PhD and her current guide works in a completely different area.

Madhu Mishra, a PhD scholar from IISER Thiruvananthapuram, echoed these concerns. While there is another PhD student who works on string theory alongside her, they are set to graduate soon.

Without an easily-available peer group to discuss their work, these students experience a very different kind of PhD tenure. Events like the national conferences, the SERC school and ST4 become vital ways to integrate themselves into the wider community.

This is probably doubly true for female PhD students, of whom there are probably fewer than ten working in string theory in India. None of the female attendees ended up coming to the conventional post-event dinner, which is a failure in inclusivity that has to be reckoned with – not just at ST4 but across the country.

Community is more than about enabling professional achievement. The isolation of a PhD can affect students in existential ways. The results of a survey by Nature published last month reiterate the need to pay attention to the mental health of PhD students. Out of the 6,300 respondents from across the world, 36% had sought help for anxiety or depression at some point during the course of their PhD. This percentage is probably a conservative estimate because of the phrasing of the question and the variation in access to mental healthcare between countries. A UK-focused study said that 86% of 50,000 respondents claimed to suffer from anxiety.

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While these surveys didn’t report reasons in detail, the focus on published papers was a recurring theme. Blanket demands, such as 4-5 papers before graduation, can’t be made without flattening the idea of science. Standardising requirements across disciplines and subdisciplines seems to imply that all methods and problems take the same amount of time. It also seems to assume each discipline has the same definition for what constitutes a valid paper.

Another source of pain is that the goals of PhD students and their guides don’t have to intersect. “There is no incentive for professors to ensure that the student graduates on time,” says Ronak Soni. He explains that since guides mediate so much of the activity of their PhD students, their lack of urgency can quickly become detrimental.

This is especially true of a late-stage PhD or a student who has exceeded their time period as they need to get their papers published as fast as possible. According to Soni, stress levels go up and quality of life rapidly decreases for students in these situations.

Of course, the problem with discussing incentives in academia is that, historically, any incentive is almost immediately perverted by competition pressures. Technically, faculty have no incentive to guide PhD students in the first place, and introducing one might be a terrible idea.

On the third day of ST4, the news filtered through that a student from IISc had taken their own life. Pavan Kumar was a member of the string theory community and was expected by many to have been in IISER Bhopal for the school.

Kumar’s reasons can only be speculated about. Regardless, those who knew him have essentially had to carry on in the face of deafening silence. They deserve greater care and support than what their universities and research organisations have currently deigned to offer them.

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Reimagining the PhD

Photo: Honey Yanibel Minaya Cruz/Unsplash

Just as the curriculum of a master’s course is often stuck in time around WWII, the structure of the PhD seems to have similarly calcified. While there have been calls to reinvent the PhD, the debate can be extremely narrow. If you read only Nature and Science, the primary issue with the PhD system is that there aren’t enough jobs at the end of it.

And when the only problem is one of jobs, the only solution imaginable is some superficial lip-service to helping students join a vaguely-defined concept referred to as ‘industry’.

Rather than a system designed to achieve a certain outcome, the PhD system is almost consciously un-designed. (Which might be a good thing: academia doesn’t have the best record when it comes to building systems to promote outcomes.) But as a result, there’s a huge variation in structure across PhD programs in India. This includes everything from the length of coursework to advisory committees. Such a lack of structure also allows every advisor and student to build a unique dynamic that allows them both to flourish.

But in spite of intent, is this working?

Subhroneel Chakrabarti says most PhD students “don’t learn how to swim, they just learn how to not sink.” Speaking from personal experience, Chakrabarti is critical of the time pressure placed on young scientists. “Science in popular culture is obsessed with success, the eureka moment. Nobody knows the 110 wrong ideas that we tried before that.”

He recommends the physicist Steven Weinberg’s four golden lessons, especially the need to forgive oneself for wasting time. “How do you decide when a problem is too hard?” asks Anurag Kaushal, a PhD scholar at TIFR. “With time and experience.”

Also read: ‘Good Scientists Solve Problems, but Great Scientists Know What’s Worth Solving’

Chakrabarti talks about the study of the history of science as something that helped him personally. He hopes it’s introduced into the curriculum, but maybe not labeled ‘history’ – just in case students miss the real lessons and focus on the dates and places. The value of history is the perspective it offers us, revealing the story of science as a network of people making human mistakes and occasionally achieving some startling insight into the dense machinery of reality.

Maybe PhD education (and science in general) needn’t be a collider, where we fling people at high velocity towards problems and wait to see what truths emerge. If the social sciences provide anything to the sciences, it’s the value in seeing science not as the product of abstract ideas commingling but as the result of people actively making decisions and building policies and coding systems.

Multiple organisers of ST4, including Rohan Poojary and Madhusudhan Raman, talked about how enabling the development of independent researchers was one of the explicit aims of starting the school in the first place.

Somewhere in the ethos of the PhD is the purpose of helping students transition to being scientists. According to these scholars, that isn’t happening. Paradoxically, it seems that some parts of the current system renders them more dependent on their advisors instead of enabling them to pursue independent scholarship. This isn’t easily fixable: the nature of power in academia is a complicated tangle of thread, and unraveling one soon requires you to take a scissor to the whole thing.

Like light, PhD students are a duality: exhibiting the properties of both student and researcher. This makes them a challenging subject. But unlike light, we can always just ask PhD students what they think about all this. Under the right circumstances, they might just tell us.

Thomas Manuel is the winner of The Hindu Playwright Award 2016.