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PhD Study in India

by Mark Bennett

Why study for a PhD in India?

Historically, India has always been a major exporter of international students, but these days the country is also becoming an attractive destination for overseas study. As one of the five swiftly developing "BRICS" countries (along with Brazil, Russia and China) India has begun to emerge as an advanced centre for modern commerce, research and innovation. This economic growth has helped drive an incredible expansion in Indian higher education during the first decade of the 21st century: The number of universities in India has more than doubled since 2000 and its higher education system is now one of the largest in the world.

The range of PhD opportunities on offer in India reflects its combination of cutting edge innovation and vibrant traditional culture. Several of the country's top universities are becoming established as global hubs for scientific, technological and medical research, with the government keen to promote further progress in these areas. Meanwhile, PhD research in Arts and Humanities fields benefits from unique opportunities to study non-western philosophy, theology and culture in a country that has long been established as a hub of world cinema and literature. Whatever your specialism, you'll find plenty to take advantage of as a doctoral student in India.

The Indian higher education system

One effect of the phenomenal growth in Indian universities is the wide variety of institutions that are now operating in the country. This range may seem difficult to manage at first, but there are some useful resources available to help you. The Indian government is currently taking steps to monitor new universities and ensure standards of quality are met. The body set up to do this is the Indian University Grants Commission (UGC)and their website is worth checking if you're not sure about the exact status of your prospective university and the courses it offers.

Varieties of university in India

University level institutions in India fall into four general categories:
  • Central and State Universities: these are public institutions, established and supported by national or regional government. State universities often serve as local hubs for higher education, offering degrees through large numbers of affiliated colleges.
  • State Private Universities: as their name suggests these are privately established and funded institutions operating at state level. They are not typically allowed to operate through affiliated colleges.
  • Deemed Universities: these are high-performing institutions that were not established as universities, but have been officially recognised as having an equivalent status.
  • Institutes of National Importance (INI): these are India's premier research and training universities, established by acts of parliament. The majority focus upon science, technology and engineering fields and are further organised into the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and National Institutes of Technology (NITs). Admission to an INI is typically very competitive.

This system is complicated slightly by the fact that a large amount of higher education in India takes place through colleges affiliated to State universities. There are over 35,000 of these small providers and the level of training and qualification they offer varies. In general, colleges focus on taught programmes accredited by their affiliating institution. As a PhD student in India you should ensure that any "affiliated" institution you consider for research or training is properly recognised.

India PhDs

Image Credits (top-bottom): Andrew Reid Wildman; Arian Zwegers; McKay Savage; Prashant Ram.

International campuses

Until recently the activities of foreign universities in India were limited by laws requiring them to affiliate with domestic institutions. However, recent legislation has begun to clear the way for the establishment of branch campuses in India and several major international institutions have expressed an interest in setting up an overseas presence there. See our article on international campuses for more information on this mode of study.

Course structure

Indian PhDs operate within a familiar three tiered system, commencing with an undergraduate Bachelor's degree, followed by postgraduate Masters and PhD degrees. The academic year usually commences in July or August, but admission to a PhD programme may be more flexible.

As a PhD student in India you should expect to be registered for a minimum of three years (this may be reduced on some professional or vocational programmes, provided you can demonstrate relevant experience). You should also be aware that some universities may enforce an upper limit on registration periods for full-time PhD programmes (usually five years) in order to ensure productive supervisor-student ratios.

PhD content and examination

The structure of Indian PhD programmes varies with subject-area and between institutions, but most will commence with a selection of taught courses. These will be decided by your faculty with their extent and composition depending on your previous experience as well as the needs identified in your research proposal. Candidates without a Masters level degree will usually be required to complete a larger coursework component when enrolling for a PhD. The aim in all cases will be to prepare you as well as possible with specialist subject knowledge and research skills before you begin work on your thesis.

The coursework component of your PhD will usually be completed in your first year, after which you will prepare a synopsis of your project and be assigned an appropriate supervisor to guide your research. In addition to completing your thesis itself, you will probably be expected to have produced one peer-reviewed publication before your doctorate can be awarded. This may seem daunting to a new or prospective student, but you'll soon find that you're already producing work of a high standard as part of researching your doctoral thesis. Learning how to select and compose this material for publication is an important skill and graduating with an Indian PhD will demonstrate that you possess it. Your faculty will probably maintain a list of the journals it regards as being acceptable and your supervisor will be able to advise you on the preparation of your research for publication.

The examination of a PhD thesis in India follows a similar process to other countries. Your work will be checked internally before being approved for examination before one or more external experts in your field. It is worth noting that the process of internal submission and evaluation of a PhD thesis can be a more significant stage in India than elsewhere. Multiple faculty members will often be involved and these may request corrections and resubmissions before allowing a student to proceed to their external examination. In India this final stage is referred to as the "Open Defence." The title is appropriate as these examinations usually take place in a ceremonial setting and in front of an audience including the candidate's peers, faculty, family and friends. Don't be put off by the prospect of being examined 'live' in this way: The Open Defence is a well-deserved opportunity to take pride in your work and the expertise it has produced.

Application and admissions

Applications for PhD study in India should be made well in advance of the start-date for your proposed programme of study. This is because the process of gaining admission to an Indian university can involve various stages and you will need to have confirmed your place on a PhD programme before you can apply for a student visa.

Admissions requirements

Indian universities are free to set their own standards for admission to PhD programmes, but most will require a similar set of application materials. These should include a research proposal, detailing the proposed outline of your PhD project, and explaining the methodology you plan to employ.

Most Indian PhD programmes will expect you to have completed a postgraduate Masters, but you may be able to apply with a good undergraduate degree if you can demonstrate sufficient experience and expertise in your proposed field. Most common international qualifications will be recognised by Indian universities. If in doubt, you can contact the Association of Indian Universities or ask for advice from your specific institution.

Examinations and interviews

India is relatively unique in requiring all prospective PhD students to sit an entrance examination before being admitted to undertake doctoral research. This is referred to as the National Eligibility Test (NET) and is administered by the University Grants Commission (UGC) for most subjects, with the exception of Science and Engineering which are covered by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). As you may have noticed, Indian Higher Education is quite fond of acronyms!

In some cases you may also be required to attend an interview at your university (this is more likely if you are applying to an Institute of National Importance). Interview procedure varies between institutions, but may involve giving a presentation on your proposed research topic. Universities may not be able to assist with travel and accommodation costs for international students attending interview and you are advised to check in advance if this is part of the admissions process at your proposed institution.

Indian universities will usually charge an application fee, but this is nominal - often no more than ₹100 ($1.5).

Applying through EdCIL

The Indian government has appointed a third party organisation, Educational Consultants India Limited (EdCIL) as a "nodal agency" with the ability to oversee and undertake the admissions process for international students. EdCIL can offer assistance at various stages of the applications process including help choosing appropriate institutions, help with visa applications and advice on travel and accommodation. This support will usually be available for the duration of your time as a PhD student in India. Currently only EdCIL's self-financing scheme is available to postgraduate students, but you can find more information at their website.

Language requirements

Academic programmes in India are usually taught in English and most universities will not require you to demonstrate performance in language tests (such as TOEFL, IELTS, etc) provided you already hold qualifications taught in English.

Visas and immigration

In order to study for a PhD in India, you will require a student visa. These are usually valid for five years, but may also be issued for the specific duration of your programme of study. You will need to provide official documentation from your university confirming your admission and the duration of your course. You will also need to submit financial information, including a receipt for any initial fee payment to your university and evidence that you possess financial support sufficient to bear the cost of further fees and living in India for the duration of your course.

Other requirements are more general, including passport sized photographs (one or more, depending on where you apply) and a passport remaining valid for at least 180 days.

An application and guideline service is available at the website of the Indian Government, or you may use the information and services at international visa portals such as VSF Global. If applying through EdCIL you may be able to take advantage of additional advice and assistance with your immigration process.

PhD fees and funding in India

Fees

Fees at Indian universities are very variable, but often surprisingly cheap. As a general rule, private institutions will be more expensive than public universities and courses in medicine or related subjects will cost more than those in other fields. However, you can still expect to pay much less than you would in many other countries. Combined with a relatively low cost of living, these affordable fees make India an even more appealing option for postgraduate study!

Funding

Indian universities do not tend to offer scholarships or other funding support to international students. Exceptions may be made for students from developing nations: Bodies like the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) offer a range of scholarship schemes to support students from specified countries. Students from elsewhere may be able to benefit from opportunities administered by academic exchange programmes between India and their home country. Examples include the UK-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI) in the UK or the Fulbright programme in the US.

Careers and employment

A PhD from an Indian university will equip you well for academic work in fields related to your specialism. In most cases completion of the NET examinations required for admission on to a PhD programme will also satisfy part of the requirements for a teaching post in India's growing higher education system. Alternatively, your experience living and studying in India will be valuable if you wish to seek employment with one of the many domestic and international companies doing business in its rapidly growing economy.

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