I was yet an MPhil student at Quaid-i-Azam University when I got selected for PhD studies in Germany on a scholarship. I had completed the coursework and was about to start my research. The admission committee at the German university had offered me admission to their PhD programme based on the courses I had taken in MPhil. I had two options then: to quit MPhil and join the PhD programme, or first complete my degree.
I contacted two of my seniors at the German university, and they advised me to complete my research, get some hands-on research experience, and join after. Both had struggled in the first year of their PhD as they didn’t have an MPhil degree. When I joined my research group at the University of Bayreuth in 2009 after completing my MPhil, I realised that my peers were right. My MPhil degree helped a great deal. I was able to use basic research tools, and it helped boost my confidence during challenging times in the first year of PhD. I still recall that when I handed over the first draft of a research article, my adviser complimented me, saying: “It is already in good shape. Have you written any research article before, Muhammad?” Thanks to my MPhil adviser, who had pushed me to write the thesis and later publish my MPhil research.
The Higher Education Commission (HEC) recently announced a new PhD policy. Now students do not need to complete 18 years of education to get admission into a PhD programme. The commission also gives freedom to the universities to establish their own admission frameworks. However, if a few universities adopt this policy and others don’t, what would be the fate of a master’s degree? If I can get admitted into PhD after a 16-year undergraduate degree, why would I go for a master’s? MPhil/MS programmes will phase out eventually.
Having a master’s in natural or physical sciences will be of little advantage after the new policy. The only apparent benefits are the extra points while competing for college lectureship. One might get hired as a university lecturer too, but with the ever-increasing number of fresh PhD graduates, that soon will wane. Although limited, the research and development (R&D) sector recruit staff based on a BS degree. Engineering and computer science graduates will perhaps still stand out as many firms prefer a master’s degree. For other disciplines, a BS degree is more than enough to get a job if you have acquired a particular skill set.
Although research and thesis writing is an integral part of a four-year undergraduate degree in Pakistan. Students take three credit hours of thesis in the last semester. Four to six months is enough to get a flavour of research with little chance to get hands-on experience with research tools. An undergraduate degree thesis is more like a research report and doesn’t involve conventional thesis writing rigour. The undergraduate degree focuses on cross-disciplinary and comprehensive knowledge of a field of study that students acquire by 130 credit hours of coursework.
The quality of BS education in university-affiliated colleges has also been questioned. Because of the lack of infrastructure, such colleges offer a special paper instead of a thesis.
A master’s degree is used to fill these gaps and prepare students for a PhD programme’s rigour by providing relevant knowledge, tools, and skills. With the new HEC policy, an ill-trained pool of students will be available for PhD admissions, compromising the quality of research and publications, resultantly.
An MPhil degree is the backbone of a graduate programme and plays a central role in such a programme’s success. National PhD programmes are already struggling due to limited research funds and infrastructure; the new HEC policy will affect them significantly.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 14th, 2021.