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Guest AuthorPavan Soni

On choosing your PhD advisory committee

By | Dr Pavan Soni | IIM-B Innovation Evangelist 

The journey of doing a fellowship (Ph.D.) programme here at IIM Bangalore has been one of the most transformative in my life. Not only that it came out of a lot of deliberation and soul searching, but also it continues to remain so. I am sure that I am not the exception. Now that I am almost nearing the end, it’s time to reflect and share some of the key insights. The idea is not to assist someone as much as to nudge them out of pitfalls that often trap curious minds.
One of the defining aspects of the programme is the dissertation committee. In my experience, this can make a difference between an acceptable thesis and a good one, while causing you sufficient time and agony, if not thought through carefully. I offer you some of the key lessons I have learnt through my rather eventful journey as a fellow, and I hope that these inputs help at least someone avoid a few mistakes I made.
Don’t look to cover all your weaknesses, rather play on your strengths
My initial thought was to ensure that between four of my advisors I should have no stone unturned. Each of my advisors should be an expert in one key area, and that way I have every aspect of the work covered. Now there are two key flaws with that logic, something I only realised after quite some time. Firstly, you can never cover every single aspect of your desired work in any level of completeness with just three or four guides, however sharply you have defined your work.
Secondly, with disparate experts on the table, their likelihood of agreeing to something or anything goes down. That’s going to hurt you enormously while closing on critical issues on the thesis front. So best is to focus on what you are good at and try ‘attracting’ advisors that would help sharpen your abilities.
Anyways, once you are in your 30s, there is little room for improving on your weaknesses, that’s my personal take.
 Form a committee with a clear power differential
Now this needs some explanation. What do you do when you get conflicting requirements from your committee members? This could be in terms of scope, extent of literature review, choice of methodology, or one of the several variables, or even someone’s idiosyncrasy. How do you resolve this? If you have all stalwarts on your committee, each with expertise in a particular area, you would struggle to find a common ground and yet meaningfully proceed on your work.
In an attempt to address everyone’s expectations and suggestion, your thesis might get deformed beyond recognition, and even then, some of your advisors may not be happy. So having a committee where one person has a greater say than everyone else, either by virtue of subject matter knowledge, or rank and file, you can circumvent such difficult situation. 
  
Avoid those who offer- ‘I have a dataset, let’s see what we can do with it’
With the dictum of ‘publish or perish’ getting a tight hold on the B-School education, there is no dearth of snake charmers. There are several teachers, especially the foreign educated ones, who don’t shy away from luring you to working on their data and seeking a publication. Unfortunately, I have seen more than a few who literally see fellow students as publication machines, or worst still, number churning minions.
However attractive the offer might be to work on a dataset, be judicious. There are two concerns with such offers. Firstly, you never ‘own’ the data of your thesis, which severely jeopardizes prospects of publication or taking it to other outlets. Secondly, and perhaps more severely, is the concern of what happens once you are exhausted milking the dataset. Since you didn’t own anything at the first place, you have a faint idea of how to acquire something similar, and that’s not pretty for an academic or research career.
 Remember, teachers are always forming an opinion of you, so avoid being on their bad books
Of all the positive attributes of the coursework, one of the major fallouts is that on the student’s temperament. While taking courses along with PGPs and FPMs from other disciplines, the coursework becomes very transitory and with a focus on short-term gratifications, such as marks or CGPs. Our students don’t realize when their PGP fellows have moved on and are busy paying EMIs.
One must remember that, while, during the coursework you are prospecting potential advisors, even the teachers are making an opinion of you.  Avoid getting into a situation where you register yourself into the bad books of a certain faculty member, because of an avoidable reason. You never know, in due course, you might have to reach to this very person for some advice or help. Since we are here for a slightly longer haul, it’s better to keep calm and keep it to yourself.
 Don’t confuse your ambition with the scope of your work
Finally, just remember, as much as life is a journey, so is the fellowship programme. Don’t park important things is your life for this programme, especially if you are nearing 30s, or have already crossed it, for you have no idea when the ordeal is going to end. So don’t make the mistake of reducing your life to a single dimension. Fellowship is a part of life, and not the heart of life.
One of the useful heuristics is to not confuse your life’s ambition with the scope of your work. You are here not to prove yourself to anyone. Because, frankly speaking, except maybe your thesis advisor, nobody really cares. As my friend, Vipul, once quipped -“defense is the biggest anti-climax” of the fellowship programme, don’t fall for the trap of parking everything towards the very end. You can do bigger and better things in life only once you emotionally and cerebrally survive the programme. Do take it one step at a time.
 Hope this was useful. All the very best.
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