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Many names for a PhD

Chidanand Rajghatta in the Times of India


Pathetic homeless dork. Patiently hoping for degree. Professor had doubts. These are some expansions for the much-vaunted acronym PhD, formally a Doctor of Philosophy no matter what one's subject of research and expertise. Regarded as the acme of scholarship, it stands at a rarefied academic height that takes immense effort and time to reach. Probably heavily in Debt, please hire -- desperate, and patently headed downhill are some of the other self-deprecating expansions doctoral candidates throw out to explain their striving.

Which one of these gloomy explanations applied to IIT-Stanford alumnus Mainak Sarkar as he lost it one fine morning last week is hard to say. Perhaps all. He loaded up two guns he had purchased, broke into the home in Minnesota of his estranged wife Ashley and shot her dead. He then drove 2500km to snuff out the life of his PhD adviser and professor William Klug at the University of California (UCLA) in Los Angeles.

Mainak Sarkar met every gratuitous grad student putdown -- to a high degree.

The life of an Indian PhD scholars in the US centers around ''adviser and Budweiser,''goes an old joke in desi circles. They are generally regarded as a quiet, reticent, insular, and industrious lot, who tread the straight path between lab, library, home, and an occasional beer. American universities covet them because of their undemanding and non-confrontational nature, and the fealty and value they bring to the program. Often socially awkward and taciturn, many work doubly hard and wrap up their degree in quick time.

From all accounts, Sarkar conformed to the mould. Hailing from a modest Bengali family from Durgapur, where his father was a clerk in a cement factory, he was said to be a bright student in school. Accounts from his college years suggest he was introverted. After a bachelor's degree from IIT Kharagpur in 2000, he worked briefly at Infosys in Bangalore before heading out to Stanford for his master's, a route taken by many Indians, notably Google's Sundar Pichai.

But while IITian titans such as Vinod Khosla and Pichai chose to do an MBA after their masters, setting the template for what many of today's US-bound Indian engineers do, Sarkar opted for the road less travelled these days because of the toil and hardship involved: A PhD program -- at UCLA's Henri Samueli School of Engineering.

PhD programs can be brutal. In fact, such is the struggle involved in earning a doctorate that a dedicated satirical strip called PhD comics by former grad student Jorge Cham, which follows the lives of several doctoral students, is a must-read for the PhD crowd. PhD in this instance stands for Piled Higher and Deeper, a degree that follows BS (Bull Shit) and MS (More of the Same). From the difficulties of research to the complex student-adviser equation, Cham explores the exhausting grind of the indigent PhD scholar, from slumming it out in deadbeat digs to the perpetual search for free food.

Central to the strip is the tortured time-span of a PhD program that appears to be interminable. One brilliant strip shows a fresh PhD candidate in his first year announce to the world ''Here I come!'' with visions of winning the Nobel Prize, and in the second year, revolutionizing the field. By the third year, he is reduced to hoping he'll get a job in the university, and by the fourth year, just get any job, anywhere. By the fifth year, he's just hoping to attend some conference in Podunk, Minnesota, and wishing they will lay out pepperoni pizza.

Mainak Sarkar's struggle to earn his doctorate extended to at least eight years, in part because he was locked in a grad student's ultimate nightmare: an adversarial relationship with the guide/mentor/supervisor. ''You can't even begin to describe the sense of gloom and doom,'' one grad student who has been through the mill explained. ''And it gets worse as people who joined the program after you graduate before you, and you are still there, hanging on in quiet desperation.''

The situation has gotten worse in recent years with US universities awarding doctoral degrees at an accelerating pace (nearly 60,000 annually), despite the economic downturn proving a dampener for the career prospects of those who graduate. According to one recent study, less than 17% of new PhDs in science, engineering and health-related fields find tenure-track positions within three years after graduation. Stress levels are high and fear and frustration are endemic at the prospect of seeing a lifetime of study not pay off.

Already 38, Sarkar struggled to make a living after a tortured academic career culminating in a PhD that was grudgingly granted to him in 2013 (earlier versions of this story said he was a grad student into his tenth year, but Klug colleagues have said they graduated him in 2013 despite his subpar thesis mainly to get rid of him). He then took up a job in Ohio, working remotely as an engineering analyst. For reasons unknown, it did not last long. Nor did his marriage.

It is not clear what role his personal turmoil played in the deterioration on the academic front or whether it was the other way around. But early this year Sarkar started ranting online about his adviser Klug, accusing him of stealing his code and passing it to other students.

Such intellectual property spats are not uncommon in the doctoral research world, though the UCLA Engineering School, named after its professor Henri Samueli, is a standout example of an ideal mentor-mentee relationship. Samueli and his PhD student Henry Nicholas founded Broadcom, a chip company that topped $150 billion in market cap at the height of the dotcom bubble and sold for $37 billion a couple of years ago. It is arguably the most successful teacher-student collaboration in history in financial terms.

The Sarkar-Klug ties didn't follow the script. It ended in death - a murder-suicide that took them both to a different PhD: A premature and horrible Death.

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