Last week the Narendra Modi government announced the new National Education Policy (NEP), a vision document for the next few decades. Several changes have been proposed but the one that hit closest to home was on doing away with the MPhil course. This made me reflect on my own journey in academics and how MPhil was so important for me and many others pursuing research in different fields.
While I was pursuing my Masters in Psychology, there was much that I learnt and unlearnt and much more that didn’t appear to come together for me. I got some answers, but ones that led to newer and more questions, questions that needed more time and patience to find articulation. I waited for a year and took time off formal academics to teach and work in a clinical setting, and yet at the end of the year, while questions did become more narrowed down, I realised that coming together of psychological and educational concerns required more training in theory and methods before I could go out expecting my future subjects to open up their experiences and reflections with me. Also, I had no past experience of a field study, of what it meant to understand lives and experiences from the perspective of the participants, of what kind of preparation one needed to ask questions that were meaningful, sensitive and respectful for the participant, of figuring out what among all that one observed and lived in the field, constituted research data and how one worked with it.
I knew research was my calling, but a calling that needed more rigorous preparation than what I currently had at that time. For many who join research programmes like PhD after years of being in their respective fields of interest, there is definitely a better understanding of the field and one’s own questions. Also, it allows a more organic way of arriving at the questions one wants to research, in contrast to questions that are developed solely for the purpose of being able to carry out a research. In many research universities in Europe and North America, it is near impossible to gain admission into PhD directly after completing one’s master's. Often students take time after their master's degree, to either work in the domain of their interest or earn more course credits by opting for courses and programmes that would prepare them better for research. In India, that essential gap between master's and PhD for those like me who did not spend much time on field after completion of master's was filled by a pre-doctoral programme like MPhil. A programme that allowed me to train myself better in theory and method through rigorous coursework and relatively shorter-duration research than what is required for PhD.
My university had an integrated MPhil-PhD at the time when I joined it (the integration was undone a few years back). For students who had come to research straight after their post-graduation, it allowed a much-needed opportunity for scaffolding to take place. There is a lot that a PhD requires of a research scholar— from ability to comprehend complex theoretical formulations and arguments, to synthesising them, comparing them, the ability to write one’s own understanding and ideas coherently, a fine command over written language, training in methods of data collection and analysis, an ability to stay with uncertainty, questions for a considerable amount of time ranging from three to five years, most of which can also be lonely.
The two years of MPhil allowed one to both prepare and assess oneself. For many like me, it worked as an opportunity to prepare ourselves for the next five years of field-based study. For some it turned out to be a useful exit option if after an MPhil they did not feel the need or preparedness to continue. It may be interesting to note that though my university had a provision that students obtaining a certain grade in their MPhil coursework could choose to skip the MPhil research and gain direct entry to PhD research. Most chose to forego this option and rarely did anyone regret it. My own MPhil work became a useful pilot for my PhD research. I gained useful insights about positionality of a researcher, impact of researcher’s gaze on the field, ethics of research, how to apply a theory as a framework for research and importantly what did one mean by theoretical and methodological frameworks and much more during the two years of MPhil.
My experience of hearing narratives of regret largely came from those who had chosen the option of a direct shift to PhD and then suddenly realised that the shift from having to write 2,500-3,000-word term papers to 250 or more pages of a thesis with separate focused chapters was not an easy shift.
The scaffolding period an MPhil provides is particularly useful for students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds whose schooling and college education did not prepare them sufficiently to undertake an independent research that could last from four to many more years. It allowed time for the supervisor and researcher to figure out their understanding and comfort levels vis-a-vis each other and the option to shift the supervisor if the MPhil experience did not work well. MPhil was never a mandatory requirement for PhD, but a useful option nonetheless for several, and it would have helped immensely to let it continue to be an option for those who needed it.
Also, in the field that I work in, education, MPhil was just the degree that some needed if they did not wish to enter universities as faculty, but work as education consultants and field practitioners. The two-year research degree allowed them to further their conceptual understanding and also get an opportunity to undertake research. This became useful when they joined organisations that required them to do large-scale baseline assessments, or develop tools to understand field-based needs before carrying out their interventions. It trained them to read and make sense of research already done. For practitioners in domains like community health, education, social service, etc, while PhD is too long an engagement, a postgraduate degree may not sufficiently prepare them to engage with field-based practice and research. Not all who join research wish to become university faculty, and an MPhil degree may still be the more useful option for them.
It is strange that on the one hand multiple exit points are being created at levels which are more foundational and core and where instead of facilitating exits, we should instead be focusing on retention and continuation. On the other hand, useful exit points (exit points for some, and preparation opportunities for most) are being ended at higher levels of research where more flexibility and creative imaginations are indeed needed.(The author is an assistant professor at the School of Education Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)