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Jayant Haritsa (IISc Prof) on MS vs Phd

27 April 2008 15 Comments

My last post on MS vs Phd got a lot of responses and varying view points.. So, I thought I would get view points from different people. Today, I have Jayant Haritsa – Professor, SERC and CSA department of Indian Institute of Science, to share his views on MS vs Phd. Thank you very much sir for sparing your time and answering me over email.

Jayant Haritsa’s views on MS Vs Phd.

A couple of random points (caveat: as you will see below, i am heavily biased towards a traditional notion of academics):

1) Firstly, we should not make value judgements between Masters vs PhD in the sense of one being superior or inferior — it is more an issue of what *you* would like to do in the remainder of your technical life.

If you are the type who prefers to work in teams and is keen on developing immediately useable systems, then pursuing a Masters would make good sense. On the other hand, if you are the type who likes to work alone and secretly wishes to pursue an irresponsible life and be paid for it, then doing a PhD may be an attractive proposition.

2) I personally am not in favor of PhD thesis coming out of large systems projects, based on the following reasoning – a PhD should gear you up for carrying out *independent* research and is in a sense, a process of *self*-realization. However, often in a large group project, you get either lifted or pulled down or channeled by the group objectives and members. So you really don’t get to figure out your *own* abilities due to the external modulation. Ideally, a Phd should prepare you for the loneliness of academic life 🙂

Further, in large systems projects, sooner or later, getting the software out usually becomes more important than the concepts themselves – but to me the quality of a PhD is defined by the fresh *conceptual* breakthroughs.

3) The reason often given for an industry stint before or during PhD is that you get to grips with “real problems”. My view is again that of the pure mathematician – who cares? The “real” just means that it may have *short-term* applicability, but in practice, most PhD thesis find their way into the real-world in the long-term. To give you a recent example – Mike Stonebraker is now using some of the scheduling ideas from a thesis of fifteen years ago in the Streambase prototype.

Do a Phd when you are at the peak of your mental powers, which is *right now* – don’t bother so much about whether it is “industry-relevant”, as much as “did I have fun thinking about the problem and did I come up with elegant solutions that I am proud to show my mother”.

4) Finally, in my view, ideal Phd is one where *you* come up with the problem, work alone (modulo advisor) and single-handedly write a definitive thesis on the issue.

Thank you sir! Readers, Hope these inputs were helpful!If you are in NIT Trichy, there is a resource on apping tips, MS vs Phd etc in TnP noticeboard! Dont miss out on that if you are planning to app! The doc was compiled by Vicky and GREram – students of 2006 batch, now pursuing phds. I am also getting the views of MS vs Phd from a couple of other sources. A Phd student in Stanford, an MS student, HR department on how they view MS vs Phd in terms of jobs etc.

Hope you enjoyed this episode of Coffee With Experts! Previous episodes of Coffee with Experts is here.

First Posted on Coffee With Sundar – http://coffeewithsundar.com




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  • balaji said:

    very good post.
    i like prof Jayant’s to-the-point attitude, which was very visible in that Product Prodigy meet.

  • Sundar Rajan G S (author) said:

    Thanks balaji..

    by listening to people like Jayant, we get to learn a lot..

  • Muthu said:

    PhD is quite a lonely venture. REAL LONELY.

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  • monica reddy said:

    thanks yaar

  • Fred said:

    Nice post. I find that searching for the right problem and asking the right questions is the most important and often the hardest part of getting a PhD.

  • sandeep.k said:

    very good morning sir,
    i have carefully seen this article and believe a Phd is really a need of hour for every talented young indian mind..
    very good job sir.
    sir,i have to ask you one thing, can you please have a talk on “MS v/s M.TECH at national institutes through gate ” .

  • An ordinary Indian said:

    I came across this blog and stumbled upon Prof Haritsa’s views. With due respect, I believe Prof Haritsa’s views lacks a sound logical basis. For example, collaboration and networking are thought as one very important aspects of being a successful researcher. There are plenty of example why it can be necessary such as research in bioinformatics etc. Hence, “loner” researcher does not stand. Secondly, a systems project can be very complex and there are no dearth of examples where it started with a systems project and then algorithms and mathematics are developed as per need. Examples are research on Unix, research on microprocessors, search engines, communication theory etc. In fact, often Engineering problems can be better understood in the context of a new application. I am saying all these without denying the value of a pure theoretical research such as complexity classes or P=NP problem or VC bound etc.
    Third wrong point is asking student to choose a problem which may not have an impact. I think it is an idea only a fool will accept. It is always better to get motivated if you are working on a problem which is significant. It is also directly proportional to the kind of success you may get to land up with a research job.
    Fourthly, I am sorry to say that Mr. Prof has completely forgotten about the morale of tutoring. One has to often start with solving a simple small problem then he or she can go for a more difficult problem. It is often better for the student if the advisor can define the problem in the beginning. If one can do everything alone, they can as well do it without the help of the advisor which is exactly what Mr. Einstein did. Again he was not even a researcher at that time. But, Prof should understand that there was one or two such men in a century. I would suggest any student to read Dr. Patterson’s slides on “how to do good research”. He is a tremendously successful researcher and has a reasonable practical and humble view on research. Let this Prof Harista solve problems from recreational math journal or may be a long term open problem in math …

  • N Sathya said:

    I got a doubt.
    1. In IISc could we join the institute as an Research assitant and then convert into PHd student with MS as qualification?
    2. Does IISc recruit people for MSc qualification?


  • Devansh said:

    I have completed my xii. Shud i go for dual B.S-M.S at IISER or for a btech. Although m interested in research in theory of relativity and quantum mechanics.

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