Professor Interview for GoFYI

‘B-School must align with your life aspirations’

…says, Dr ASHITA AGGARWAL, Professor-Marketing, faculty at SPJIMR. In conversation with Kalyani Majumdar, Dr Aggarwal shares her journey as a teacher, her learning curve at Kellogg School of Management and Harvard Business School, and provides helpful tips to students aspiring to get into SPJIMR.

You have been a faculty member at SPJIMR for a decade now. Tell us about your journey so far.

Here at SPJIMR, I have grown as a teacher. I have learnt so much. I teach all the programmes across the institution. Initially, I was teaching the 2-year Post Graduate Diploma in Management (PGDM) and the Post Graduate Executive Management Programme (PGEMP). I taught the basic Marketing courses and I started teaching branding and communication as well. And then they launched the Post Graduate Management Programme for Women (PGMPW) and I started teaching that. So till last year I was the area head for marketing. I have been the Department Head of Marketing for 5 years. I do a lot of research. I do a lot of pro-bono work with organisations as I feel it keeps you current and you need to keep learning because that will help you to make the classroom interesting.  I do a lot of research and I have written a lot of cases. I always feel that I am first a Professor of Marketing and then everything else.

What made you pursue a course in Branding from Kellogg School of Management? How did you bring that experience and learning into your classroom?

I am extremely passionate about Branding, so when I got an opportunity to do a specialised course from Kellogg School of Management on Branding, I took it. This course gave me a perspective of what branding can be all about. The Professors there come with a lot of clarity on the subject; you get a wonderful opportunity to interact with people that have done work in that area. You get to understand the challenges related to branding.  I don’t think I have ever looked back after that. In India, I feel not too many practitioners and academics work together so well, to bring in their passion for the subject and it rubs on to you probably.  Today I have my own point of view about brands. One of the things I always attempt in my class is to replicate the same experience that I had at Kellogg. I don’t teach from books. I don’t have a prescribed textbook for my course. I have my own frameworks. I get a lot of industry frameworks and I get a lot of industry experts to come and talk in my class. At Kellogg, I understood what it takes to make a student really passionate about the subject that you are teaching and how to help them in their journey of self exploration and that’s what I try to bring back in my class every day.

You were chosen by SPJIMR to attend the workshop on teaching case studies titled ‘Global Colloquium for Participant-Centered Learning at Harvard Business School, USA. Tell us about that experience.

Harvard does this Global Colloquium for educators and it focuses on how one can be a good case teacher. Harvard follows the case method of teaching and they endeavour to have more and more faculty members using cases in their teaching more effectively. I understood that teaching is not simply imparting or communicating what you know. It is so much about performance. It is so much of enacting the case in the class. How can you dramatise, because honestly, if you are just sharing facts and information from a book it can be very monotonous. But, if you are bringing that situation and that tension alive in the class that allows you to engage the students very differently. They get the feeling that they are protagonists themselves and they get to contribute. Although this module of teaching was not new to me, as I was already writing cases and teaching cases, but exposure of how you can teach a case in different ways was a wonderful experience. It was definitely a jump from where I was, in terms of getting better at my teaching skills.

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Do you think MBA education in India is evolving and re-calibrating itself because of advent of digitisation?

Digitisation and other technological disruptions are definitely affecting the B-School curriculum in the country. Having said so, are all the schools changing or evolving accordingly? No. If you look at the Indian education system, we typically follow the textbook-kind-of a structure and the curriculum design stays in a way that we have to follow the textbook. If something new needs to be introduced then you have to go through the university system and add it as a new course and then you can offer it. Usually, it doesn’t get integrated very fast in the curriculum. However, in the top B Schools and I think that is what differentiates the top ranking Indian B Schools from the other B Schools is that we are keeping pace with the constant change that digitisation is bringing in. SPJIMR is ranked number 3 in India in Marketing and if you take the industry feedback, they will say that SPJIMR students, especially in Marketing bring in a lot of value advantage and I think the reason is that all of us in the marketing department come with a blend of both academics and industry experience. And all of us are not just pure PhD professors. We bring in a lot of industry knowledge and the autonomy and entrepreneurial nature of the school is such that we are almost forced to adapt our pedagogy and content very fast.

What study methodology does SPJIMR follows?

We don’t follow the text book kind of teaching method. We are a business school that is traditionally very industry oriented and uses the case method. We provide experiential learning that comes with the case method. One of our mission statements is to influence the practice. Therefore, we are always urged to ask this question to ourselves that whatever we bring in to the class can it influence the corporate practices or not? If it cannot, then probably it is not the right thing to bring to the class. If it is something that is contemporary and relevant and is important to influence your work in the industry then that has to be brought to the class.

Unlike other B Schools wherein you can select your specialisation in the second year, in SPJIMR you need to select it during the application filling stage. Why is that? And, what happens if a candidate is confused about which specialisation to pursue?

I know it can be a little challenging sometimes. So, the logic is that by the time one is applying for B Schools they have mostly lived 21 or 22 years of life, if not more. We have a certain direction in which we start working. Initially, this process was also introduced because we preferred students with work experience. So, when you have been working you already have a certain set of skills that you have built on. And it was easier for students to choose what streams they would like to be in. We always believe in the logic that you should always work on your strengths—leverage on your strength—then you can jump higher. We have 4 specialisations so for, Information Management and Operations we prefer students with work experience. Because then they would be really able to appreciate the field if they have a certain work experience in the area for more than 2 to 3 years. They have better confidence level that they want to pursue this. As far as Marketing and Finance is concerned, it is meant for people, who have worked in that area. We expect them to have certain clarity in life. However, we tell the students to mention two preferences for their area of specialisations.  We scan the profiles and many a times we do go back to the applicant if we feel that the candidate would be more suitable for their second preference and we ask them if they are okay to be interviewed for that specialisation. For freshers, we look for certain interest levels, such as, if a candidate is saying they would like to pursue Marketing, do they like to understand people, are they keen observers of the trends? They may not know the marketing jargons, but we try to see where the trigger is coming from.

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What are the factors that one needs to keep in mind in order to get selected in S P Jain?

At SP Jain we don’t just look at the CAT score. What we look for is consistency in academics. We are also looking at softer attributes such as, humility, versatility, and having good extracurricular abilities. We also believe that students who have gone through certain hardships come with more perseverance and life skills. We have two rounds of interviews and one round is only the value-fit round, wherein we are looking at your value systems and level of ethics. Are you a contributor or a collaborator?  SPJIMR students are perceived to be more as collaborators. So, they are okay to start from the scratch, to roll up their sleeves even if the work has to be done at the field level. They are more accommodating. They don’t put people down, they are assertive but don’t come across as aggressive. So these are the things which we want because it goes with the ideology of the school. We prefer people that are grounded. What works here is authenticity and being true to what you believe in. If you try to make up your answers then you are caught. So, be what you are, then probably your chances of getting through SPJIMR would be higher.

Please share your experience of teaching the PGMPW programme.

PGMPW is a very different experience as the women in this programme have come out of their comfort zone and have left their kids and family behind.  They stay in the hostel for almost a year. When they come to the class they have a very high learning ability in them. They really want to make a difference. They are struggling to find their own place in the corporate world. So, it is a humbling experience for me to teach this programme.

Do you have any suggestions for MBA aspirants?

I would say that MBA education is becoming so diversified with so many schools coming in, that students must look at the quality of schools they are getting into. The B-School you are getting into should align with your life aspirations. In today’s world it is not just about having an MBA, but it is the kind of education and the kind of exposure that you have in life that counts. If you are really looking for it as an employability parameter you really need to find the schools that match that. Overall have a direction for yourself. Don’t just get an MBA degree for the sake of doing it because then you won’t be happy. That’s not the only thing in the world, honestly. However, if MBA is what you really want to pursue then look at these two years as a platform to gain lifetime employability skills and not just the first job. You should think of how to maximise your career goals from this.