Talented young science students in developing countries are sometimes limited in achieving their full potential by the absence of advanced training at a postgraduate level, and up to standard international criteria. It was in 1991 that the late Professor Abdus Salam, Nobel Laureate and Director of ICTP until January 1994, instituted an intense 12-month programme in the main research fields of the centre, with the aim of filling this gap.
Among the projects on capacity building that ICTP has undertaken over time is the so-called Postgraduate Diploma Programme. The Programme consists of a rigorous, one-year long, pre-doctoral course work, with a small part devoted to independent projects. The Programme initially had three streams: High Energy Physics, Condensed Matter Physics and Mathematics. We have recently added a new stream on Earth System Physics and started in the Fall of 2007 an additional Programme in Physics without specialization. Our goal in these programmes is to take good students from the least developed countries generally – and for the Physics Programme students from only sub-Saharan Africa – and educate them so they can compete favorably for graduate studies in any centre of learning in the world. We should note that ICTP is not permitted to offer degrees formally, and the students that we prepare cannot continue for Ph.D. at ICTP. In this sense, like much else that ICTP does, there is a strong element of altruism built into the Programme.
We have learnt by experience that this task is both rewarding and challenging. It is challenging because the students generally come to the Postgraduate Diploma Programme with several handicaps. Almost none of them has been taught by an active researcher at any time previously; the standards of course work in many of the places from which they come are not up to the mark; the students have often not absorbed or understood deeply what they have studied; some of them have language difficulties and have never faced an audience. It is thus clear that their experience and accomplishment at this stage would not earn them admission into a serious Ph.D. Programme. Yet the students are bright and capable of hard work in the right environment. To transform students who are essentially “green” to competitive researchers, primarily through their own efforts under the watchful eyes and gentle guiding hands, is the part that is highly rewarding.