Experiences,  IIITH,  Students

The Tale of my coincidental thesis featuring Ponguru as the Guru

The circumstances under which I met Prof PK cannot be exactly called fortuitous, but they do make for an interesting story, nonetheless (if I may say so myself). And am I glad that it happened! Let me start by telling you about this. After the sad demise of my previous thesis advisor (may his soul rest in peace), my previous research work had come to a grinding halt. After running like a headless chicken for a few months, the faculty thought it made more sense for me to dedicate my research hours to a new research topic. To the uninitiated, having to change research topics is not only daunting but outright intimidating. The pain and horror are best expressed in memes. Going by my previous internships, and some research work that I had done, I was directed to meet PK. This came to me as a surprise (a rather pleasant one), because at the time I did not know that he had moved to IIIT-H as a Visiting Professor for a year. As a student and intern in the research area, I was already familiar with his work and was pretty stoked to have him as a professor in social computing at IIIT-H. So, after a few initial emails we decided to set up a research meeting. But as luck would have it, the day I was supposed to meet him I broke my leg. Yes, I did. I wrote to him explaining why I had to take a raincheck to the meeting, and was genuinely surprised to read, “Which hostel do you stay in, I’ll come”. The ease with which he posed the solution to the situation made for quite the shift from the image I had of a professor which was close to the austere–professor stereotype. So, with a broken leg (but not hopes this time) we met to outline details of the new topic and how it would happen. The meeting concluded with, “Also don’t call me ‘Sir’, call me PK” (can you hear another stereotype shattering?). I still add Prof in most of my addresses to him but that’s equal parts reverence and unrelenting behavior on my part to call him (just) PK. And that, kids, is how I met my professor.

If I can sum his way of working, or ProfGiri if you will, is that it is very hands off (even by his own admission) but extremely invested at the same time. Let me just say that, I enjoyed researching and writing my thesis with Prof PK! It was stressful to say the least but then if you look at the extended dictionary meaning of ‘thesis’, you will find stress mentioned there. The key difference here was that troubleshooting to problems was done in a jiffy and things were fixed, well before I could worry about them (and over a glass of juice from the college canteen). As an example, I expressed difficulties coming to college campus to him once, because I was staying off campus to which he said, yes let’s have research meetings on Skype. “Need a template to help organize your paper, here is a paper that you might find helpful”. Or a simple, “Let’s get this done” to keep spirits up. In my many conversations with him, he always gave me the liberty and encouraged me to talk about ideas that interested me, the kind of data I wanted to work with, the research problems I wanted to solve and finally, what topic would ultimately shape up to be my thesis. He helped me crystallize everything into a formal plan, get organized and encouraged me to have regular research meetings, discussions and check-ins around work – one that I admittedly faltered with the most.

Within eight months of actively working on my thesis (and a new topic, mind you) we pushed out two papers, both of which were published. I was well underway to scripting my actual thesis manuscript. As I reminiscence, everything moved so quickly it feels pretty amazing and a little unbelievable, too. Unfortunately, PK had to move back to Delhi after his tenure at IIIT-H. We had our last conversation over juice, about many a thing outside research. “The best way to deal with things, Arpita, is to deal with them” (#PKGyan), he said and it’s something that stuck with me. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t even a little anxious about his physical absence from Hyderabad and what impact it would have on how things progressed here, well spoiler alert, it did not affect how my thesis advanced. Nope it didn’t! Nah uh. To this effect, the credit belongs entirely to him and it is something I will ever be grateful for. Be it replying to emails (some at 6 am, :O), providing reviews, holding meetings, the communication was extremely smooth, transparent and open.

The journey to my thesis submission to defense was as smooth as it ever could be, even when he was advising me remotely. If you’re unfamiliar with the process, it is one wherein multiple checkboxes need to be ticked off– signatures to be in place, documents arranged, recommendations written, thesis soft bound with more signatures in there (and then you cartwheel into the acad office :D). As I write this, I smile at how this process for me happened with an alacrity and agility that most of us only ever hope our submission processes would look like. Again, for all of this the credit entirely lies with him for making the process so seamless. He made sure to give me a heads up and time to prepare for my defense, and more importantly, that I had help preparing for public presentation and defense. He introduced me to his (rather large :D) research group who were tasked with grilling me for potential questions at the defense or the public presentation and help me get some practice presenting research. The point that I am trying to make here is that though he was not physically present during the latter part of my thesis journey, I never felt unaided! He was an email away, yes, but he also made sure that I always had the help and resources to bring things to completion and for that I would be eternally grateful. To close, I am going to say that my experience working with Prof PK had good measures of fun, life lessons #PKGyan, collaboration, and mentorship – all making up for one helluva experience. It probably would be a lot harder (a lot! If not impossible) for me to do any of this, especially working on an entirely new problem, without him being on board and I really wouldn’t have had it any other way! Ponguru, thanks for being a wonderful guru!

My Masters thesis.

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