Is the journey ever PhinisheD?

Design: Hardhik Pinjala

Not all those who wander are lost

~ (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring)

It was the 80s. Two young researchers from the Zoology department of Annamalai University waited at the Customs office, Chennai. They had warily travelled from Chidambaram, unsure of why they were called. On seeing their anxious faces, the customs officer reassured them with a smile and a cup of tea that they were in no danger. A package had arrived for them from the British embassy, sent from 10, Downing Street, London.

The two young men stared at each other and went on to unbox the ‘package.’

A few months ago, this young Ph.D. scholar and his associate had sifted through numerous books in the library, looking for the name of a particular beetle. Bearing six yellow spots against black elytra, this beetle released certain chemicals when threatened, causing harm to the skin. The lab-mate, aspired to study these insects and explore their role in bio-warfare and take it up as his Ph.D. question. However, there was just one problem; they did not know the name of the insect.

They wrote to several people and organizations, but to no avail. Three months passed, and still no name! Those were the days of postal correspondences when it took days for letters to reach. “Registered posts were expensive and unaffordable for Ph.D. scholars,” notes the ‘then Ph.D. scholar’ and now Dr. S. Rajasekaran. “Days would go by waiting for replies. Often, it was also not clear if the recipient has received the letter or even if he/she is willing to respond.”

Imagine a world before emails, where communication was snail-paced; a world where double ticks and blue ticks were not in existence.

The ‘package’ had also arrived by airmail. In a world bereft of Google, Dr. Rajasekaran and his labmate attended conferences to meet experts face to face. In one such conference, they were introduced to an invited speaker from the UK. After a short discussion, the speaker jotted down something on a piece of paper and asked them to write to that address. The note read ‘10, Downing Street, London’. The duo was convinced that they were being mocked. However, to cover all bases, they printed an airmail cover and wrote a letter on the printed letterhead, with a carefully wrapped beetle (dead of course!) and dispatched it to the mentioned address.

After about two months, they received a call from the Customs Office Chennai. The ‘package’ had been sent from the Royal Entomological Society, addressed from Downing Street. It contained an entomology pin, a model container, and a letter explaining the procedure to mail insects. The two research scholars wrote back, and a few months later, they received another package from the Royal Entomological Society. It contained about ten published theses on works already done on the beetle. There was nothing left to study on the beetle. Thus, it was time for the aspiring Ph.D. candidate to change his Ph.D. topic after this futile quest cost him a year.

Had it been today, they would surely have been instantly directed to the Wikipedia page of the beetle, alongside an Instagram page dedicated to it.

This was a world before Google, when people frequented books and libraries and reached out to people in the quest for knowledge and answers. Patience and perseverance were values added along the way, in contrast to the instant gratification with the instant availability of information on the internet today.


Dr. Rajasekaran recently retired from the Arignar Anna Government Arts College (AAGA), Karaikal. He has inspired many, including his daughter, who is today walking in his footsteps. He recalls how, with help from his wife, he had painstakingly typewritten and submitted 13 copies of his thesis before being finalized by his supervisor. There were no fancy word processors or even computers at the outset. The diagrams were tediously hand-drawn and duplicated using carbon papers, unlike the CC we use in emails today. Camera lucida, tracing paper, Staedler pens and India ink were common tools amongst researchers. The expensive colour prints in his thesis were obtained by working long hours in the photography studio as compensation. This was the story of almost every Ph.D. scholar before the dawn of the computer-tended world.

Picture of a camera lucida in use. Source: Wikipedia

Walked there, Done that!

 Dr. P.A. Lakshminarayanan, a Ph.D. graduate from our Institute, also completed his bachelor’s (Class of 1971) and master’s from IIT Madras. He was a frequent visitor at the IITM library. He remembers the good times walking around the campus, making these trips to the library. Browsing through the library was difficult as there were volumes of references. It was also challenging to select books and journals based on keywords/sentences, which can be easily done today using search engines.

“Although we had devised our ways to search through the books, it was not as effective as internet searches,” says Dr. Lakshminarayanan. While searching, the Ph.D. scholars were exposed to diverse topics which kindled their interest in fields apart from their research area as well.

Today, the computer and the internet are so inseparable that it is difficult to conceive the concept of an internet deprived world. However, it is harder to imagine a world before computers, especially for today’s Ph.D. scholars. From tasks such as editing and filing documents to accessing the internet, computers have made the world smaller and more connective.

He points out how challenging the preparation of manuscripts and theses was. The text needed to be carefully typed out on a mechanical typewriter using the template sheets sent by the journals. Office typewriters, used by the Professors’ secretaries, were used for this, and the students were charged about half a rupee per page. The photocopying methods were also cumbersome. He quickly added how things were much easier for them than the previous generations who wrote and maintained notes and references by hand.

For diagrams, he would visit the photography lab at the Physics department, where the photographer would go out of his way to help students.

Interestingly, he lived through the progress of computers. Before the mainframe computers, IBM 1620 was in use and was scarcely available in India. During his Masters’, IBM 360 was introduced at IISc in 1971 to cater to the needs of all South Indian Institutions. A specified amount of Rs 20,000 was allotted for use by students, roughly equivalent to 2 hours of computation. Every second was accountable. During his Ph.D., IBM 370 was introduced at IIT Madras. The students had to carefully carry the punched cards to the computer centre during specified hours.

“Although punching in codes was a very cumbersome process, one of the papers we published using these got the best paper award. The fruits were always sweet despite the difficult process”.

He adds that these computers were very different to the mobile phones we use today. In those days, most universities abroad had centralized computer systems that could be accessed by terminals in individual labs. Originally a mechanical engineer, he taught himself to program using C and C++.

Dr. Lakshminarayanan, who did his Ph.D. during the pre-SI unit era, was stuck in a slump in his research while still working on his thesis. He eventually realized that the error in his results was due to unit conversion and fixed it accordingly. His supervisor had retired and had taken up a fellowship in the USA. Prior instructions, however, were given by his supervisor in a letter to his assistant to help him with his thesis submission upon rectifying the error. However, when the time came for him to proceed with the submission, the assistant denied any knowledge of such a letter. His fate was hanging on a very thin thread, and there was not enough time to write a letter to the Professor and wait for his response.

“Phone communication was unreliable and postal correspondences to the US cost about 80 rupees, which was about one-fifth of my scholarship amount,” he recollects.

Fortunately, the HOD, who knew the Professor, signed the thesis, and over time, he defended his research and received his doctorate in 1979.

These last 18 months of his Ph.D. were suspense-filled.

Over the last 40 years, he has seen a sea of change in the way research is done. “I do not think of this life as an advantage or a disadvantage. It was just the way it was for us in those days.” he quips. However, when asked if he would have preferred to do a Ph.D. today instead of his times, he was quick to point out that he would love to do it all over again if age was not a constraint. He is currently writing his fourth book on engines; he has worked with Kirloskar Oil Engines Ltd, Ashok Leyland and Simpson and Co. Ltd.  The strong foundation laid as a student and as a Ph.D. scholar helped him during his long stint at the industry, where he has made a mark as a distinguished engine designer.

Keep moving forward

Dr. A.G. Ramakrishnan (Ph.D., Class of 1988) was another IITM alumnus from the Applied Mechanics department. His Ph.D. research was based on a personal computer (PC)-based evoke potential system, and he was fortunate to have access to an IBM PC in his laboratory. Since the PC was in demand, access time was limited to ensure that all scholars got equal access.

“Resources were not available, and everything had to be built from scratch,” Dr. Ramakrishnan recollects the time he went to his mother and collected old silverware from her. He then took the silverware to the goldsmith for melting and went on to fabricate his own silver electrodes for research.

When the time came for his thesis submission, his supervisor was on a sabbatical in the US. The entire thesis had to be sent chapter by chapter by airmail at the expense of time and money. The process took about seven months, and he received his doctorate in 1988. Dr. Ramakrishnan currently heads the Medical intelligence and language engineering lab at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc).

“Ph.D. is all about dealing with uncertainty.”

Sailing through

Commodore (Dr.) R.K. Rana (Ph.D., Class of 1996) was an Indian Naval officer who completed his post-graduation from Royal Naval Engineering College, UK. He joined IIT Madras to pursue a Ph.D. in 1989 while still enrolled in the navy.

Having been exposed to a more equipped and facilitative environment in the UK, he realized the challenges before him. The lack of technology was palpable in Indian Institutions. During his master’s, it was easier to access and send requests for technical papers or reports at the library. Although the IITM library was well stocked, the technology available was unevolved, and the scanning technology was not as advanced. “If I needed a technical paper sourced, it would take nothing less than 3 to 6 months”, he notes, “Due to this, we took more time to gather the data rather than concentrating on the actual problem.” This limited access to information indeed acted as a deterrent.

“We multitask and do things in parallel, but if we do not have a reference of what is happening abroad or in your field across different research organizations, the whole process is delayed”, Dr. Rana explains.

In the 1990s, when Dr. Rana started using desktop computers for his research, challenges in the computing environment were due to the disk operating system (DOS). Floppy disks were in use, but the storage capacity was limited. Another issue he faced was the advent of computer viruses. Stringent disciplined steps were needed for ensuring data backup and security. A disciplinarian by nature, who translated his values to his research and work, Commodore (Dr.) R.K. Rana served the nation in various capacities for 33 years. He is currently an Honorary Senior Advisor at the Foundation of Innovation and Technology Transfer of IIT Delhi.

From the nest to the sky

Dr. Kala Venkataraman joined the Mathematics department of IIT Madras in October 1979. On the day of her joining, her supervisor handed her a bunch of unpublished papers based on which her Ph.D. could emerge. Working hard paid off. In less than four months, the young Ph.D. student was already heading to Bangalore to present her work at a conference. Since her research involved pure mathematics, she did not require computer facilities, except for a course at the Computer science department.

Students using computers for their research had to work all through the night, she recalls. IBM 370 was in use at IIT Madras during those days, and students spent time meticulously feeding and retrieving data using punched cards. She exclaimed how, with ease, we carry our computers with us now. “With this, we also carry our research with us.”

Dr. Kala Venkatraman has now retired as an associate director from the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) – DRDO. Even though she deems her Ph.D. to be relatively smoother, her journey before retirement has certainly not been a cakewalk. At ADE, she was responsible for the entire flight control system of the light compact aircraft, right from the conceptualization to the life cycle support of the entire product journey.

When asked if she has any advice for today’s researchers, she says, “Research should be pursued for the pleasure and not for the sake of doing it. Enjoy what you are doing, and this will help you reach your goal faster.”

The Present

Flash forward a few decades. How much has the Ph.D. process changed? Have technological advancements created a paradigm shift? As she puts it, “Today, the ecosystem for Ph.D. research has become convenient; but it has become complex at the same time. There are newer challenges. The only way to survive would be by doing it right.”

Dealing with uncertainties and walking through obstacles is an inevitable part of every Ph.D. scholar’s life. Satish Swaminathan couldn’t agree less.

Satish is a Ph.D scholar from the Chemical Engineering department. He changed his PhD topic after almost 3 years of working in a particular area of research. This has been a major turning point in his PhD journey. It started with him applying for an innovation competition with an idea that was diametrically opposite to what he was working on then.

“Considering the time I had invested in my former area of research, it was a gamble to even ask my supervisor to allow me to change my area. However, to my surprise, he immediately came on board. So far, we’ve made significant progress in the area and it looks like the right decision.” Satish shares.

Every Ph.D. journey has a story to tell, and every generation has its share of challenges. But, learning never ends, and the quest for serving society through research will always remain. Nevertheless, as the baton gets passed, the lessons learnt from each Ph.D. journey must be passed on to keep the flame alive.

We would like to thank Dr. Rajasekaran, Dr. Lakshminarayanan, Dr. Ramakrishnan, Dr. Rana and Dr. Kala for graciously sharing their experiences with us! We would also like to convey our thanks to Mr. Satish from Chemical Engg department for sharing his views.

This article is a part of Research Series. Comments and suggestions are always welcome, you can send them to us at [email protected] 

Series by: S Vishal (CH18)

  1. Madhusudhanan Gopal

    The article was really informative to know how much dedication and determination was given at those times by the PhD scholars. And the way you brought their experiences was awesome and good narrative.


    Although Phd in 70″s was a tough proposition, I would say it is much easier now with the available latest technologies and information. I registered for Phd in 1971 in Biomedical engg but could complete only in 1981 as a part time scholar being a faculty in the Dept of applied Mechanics . Three years into research my guide left the Institute for good. I had no guide until I finished my work, but only the help of a good colleague. The thesis was signed my by faculty colleague in the Dept.I think in such circumstances the Dept has to play a major role in alleviating the problem of the Scholar.
    Prof( Retd) Dr S RADHAKRISHNAN

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