Guest AuthorPavan Soni

The confession of a struggling PhD (candidate)

By | Dr Pavan Soni | IIM-B Innovation Evangelist

The decision of joining a PhD program could perhaps be the most crucial decision in anyone’s life, and mine was no different. There are occasions when I question myself for being around, and then there are instances when I can’t thank myself enough; but in between are the days when I am at a loss of bearings and continue with the only hope that the counterfactual world would have been no different either. The journey, alas it’s not over anytime sooner, has been a real revelation for me. The first two years of the course-work, where we mostly drank from the hose, kept us running on the proverbial treadmill with scheduled classes, coursework, exams, assignments, and then another such cycle till we hit our comprehensive exam. Once again, we were supposed to justify our candidature at the IIM campus even before we start working on our research topic, well into the program for 30 months! Something that the IIM system has perfect over the years. 
All of a sudden we are almost three years into the program, with just two to go, and are at loss of what’s a good enough scope that can get us out in a reasonable time with a respectable outcome. Did you see- our focus has shifted from scoring in the exams and clearing our comprehensive exams straight to getting out of the campus. Who is planning for a serious research in that case? Did we see that coming at the time of joining the program? Did we get programmed? Perhaps.
How about publications? Most of us never heard of journals and (social) science outlets before coming over to the campus. Outlets that most faculty member here swear-by, stating that if you don’t publish at one of those journals, you aren’t just there yet. It’s akin to the plight of students who prepare for Indian Civil Services in a hope of serving the nation, or at least getting powerful, just to realize that either is a mirage!
The focus shifts from doing something meaningful that interests you to something which is publishable and can consume you!
Here’s a look at my cohort two years back (look how happy they all looked, and were). 
I even happen to write a note on how wonderful were (rather are) my friends in the program. But those good old days are well and truly over. Today I seldom see my colleagues, and even if we do bump into each other, we can’t stop complaining about what’s going around. Is this what the program has done to us? We didn’t sign up for this.
Talking about myself, the last one year I was working on something that wasn’t exactly on my strength, I had to call it off. Only in the last one month that I am back into the grove of doing something that I wanted to and alas I love to. I am sure that each one of my lovely cohort fellows has a story to share. A story of disillusionment, that of soul searching, and moreover self-motivation. 
I was and still remain an ardent advocate of higher studies, particularly a PhD program, that too from IIM Bangalore, but would certainly urge one to be very clear as to what is the real motivation. Only a high amount of self-motivation can keep you going, and help you produce something that you would be really proud of later in your life. Afterall, this is a serious investment of time, amounting to almost 10 percent of your remaining life (as a conservative estimate).
Here’s what I have learnt and feel a sense of urgency to share with you.
Play on your comparative advantage 
One of the seminal insights in economics, trade or even strategic management is for a nation or a firm to play on its comparative advantage, something at which one is better than others. Coming down to a PhD program, knowing, acknowledging and leveraging your comparative advantage is the starting point. It took me three years to know where did my comparative advantage lie (and gosh am I still clear?), and I have just one more year to go to produce something useful out of it. 
I wanted to be good on so many things, say quantitative methods, before I exit the campus, and while trying to do so got trapped into a abyss that would only make me mediocre. I can’t beat or even be at par with someone whose strength is my weakness how hard I try. Why not then work on what (you think) you are good at. So don’t run behind what others have to offer as a research topic or dataset, but look at what is that one thing which you can excel at, and then start looking for people or data to work with.
Plan for a career and not an exit
As my fellows are offering their proposal defence, and even one of the mate is out teaching at a college, most of us once again fallen into the trap of an early exit. The tradeoff is clearly between an early exit from the program (say in 4 years) or a good exit (which means a good thesis). I am clear that no one remembers your years spent in the program if your is remarkable, or even otherwise. Hence the idea is to prepare yourself for a career and not just a reasonable exit based upon plucking the low-hanging fruits. One of the projects I recently abandoned working on was a case of plucking the low hanging fruit where the data was huge and juicy, and all I had to do was run regressions after regressions and draw inferences. I wasn’t clear as to how will the project help me in my career. Alas I am out of it now. 
Now what I am working on is not only helping me learn new and interesting stuff on innovation and creativity, but is also helping my thesis work progress. Remember- when you run you not only reach your destination, but also develop stamina. I think the program is about developing stamina, and reaching the destination is only a consequence.  
Have a belief that you can create a different path
The biggest irony of the program is that what we came here thinking research would be isn’t what exactly research is. Unlike in a job where you can quit a bad boss or a bad organization, in a PhD program we are in a situation of monopsony (one buyer). We are fed with the dictum that a good thesis is one which gets published in a peer-reviewed US journal, or at least with a few papers presented in a US-styled conference. Anything that can’t be published isn’t worth working at! This US styled doctrine is based on the belief that ‘what is unobservable doesn’t exist or is trivial at most’, a thought that my hero Taleb loves putting to shreds. My experience at the Academy of Management Conference wasn’t exactly what I had in mind at joining the program or even while sending my paper to the conference. What else can be done outside the system?
Why not write a thesis in as much detail as you can and not worry about its publishability? Why not write a book instead. Afterall some of the seminal ideas in the discipline of strategic management have all come through books, and anyways journals are mostly read by other academics primarily for further citations! How about taking some real unsolved problems and highlights those as a part of your thesis, and not exactly claim to know an answer? These are the different paths that I am talking about.
My submission to you is that I am having a great time. I am struggling but not un-happy. I am confused but not demotivated. I am walking but not one bit tired. An I am sincere without being serious. 
Hope these confessions help you craft a career for yourself.
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