It’s a busy time for both students and professors as final exams and grades loom upon us. But this week, Her Campus McGill was lucky enough to get a hold of Desautels’s renowned consumer behaviour professor and DJ for an interview – Professor Ashesh Mukherjee! Dr. Mukherjee is a very accomplished professor at McGill, and has been nominated for the Principal & Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence, a university-wide teaching award at McGill University. At the same time, he is Desautels’s favourite DJ for any events that require music. Professor Ashesh Mukherjee is the ultimate celebrity as Professor by day, and DJ by night. Despite his busy schedule, he kindly managed to fit in an interview with Her Campus McGill’s Averie Hah to tell us all about his studies, experiences as a professor, and most importantly, life lessons he would like to share with us. Continue reading as one of our most beloved marketing professors drops some real knowledge!
Averie Hah for Her Campus McGill (HC McGill): Thank you so much for agreeing to interview with Her Campus! First, can you give us a short introduction about yourself?
Ashesh Mukherjee (AM): Sure, I’ll start with a bit about my educational background. I grew up in India and got my Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Then I did my MBA in marketing followed by a couple of years in the workforce as a sales manager. After, I pursed a doctoral degree in Marketing (Consumer Behaviour) at University of Texas in Austin. Once I finished that, I came to McGill as a professor and now I’ve been here for more than 10 years. I teach courses in marketing research, strategy, advertising, and in the future I might teach courses in branding.
HC McGill: What does your research focus around?
AM: So my research is mostly about consumer behaviour and consumer psychology. Many of my books and research focus on advertising, like how to make advertising more effective. Currently, I am focusing more on online consumer behaviour: how do consumers act when online, how can you interest consumers on these websites, how do online reviews affect consumers and how do they use this information? Additionally, I recently wrote a book on consumer behaviour. I’m also finally doing some research in charitable behaviour, which has to do with how to get people to donate in time, and what kind of actions would help these charities – for example, the effect of pictorial influence, and social influence in charitable advertising.
HC McGill: It’s very interesting to hear that you actually completed your Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering but made that shift to marketing, specifically consumer behaviour in later years. What made you take that path?
AM: If you go back to my initial decision process in choosing my major, it had a lot to do with how the education system worked in India back then. There was this national test that everyone took after high school education, and if you performed very well, you would go into engineering; second best tier would usually choose commerce; next, arts and other areas and so on.
When I finished high school, I wasn’t sure about what I wanted to do, but I was good in Physics and quite liked it. I also performed well on the national exam so it gave me the option of majoring in engineering, which, combined with my interest in Physics, I saw as an opportunity. Of course, there was social pressure involved in it, too. My friends who had similar scores as me chose a major in engineering, and it was what was expected of me.
I ended up liking the way engineering forces you to think of different ways to find solutions. Engineering is about finding real solutions, and I liked that; I liked putting structure to problems and solving it, but what was missing for me was human contact. It’s important to develop a good product but it’s equally important to understand who would use your product and what other products you are competing against. So I thought it’d be interesting to find out more about how consumers react to products, and this led me to my enrollment in the MBA program where I found my genuine interest in marketing.
When I first took a course in marketing, many things that were intuitive in the back of my mind were finding structure as I studied more about it, and I wanted to know more about it; how people behave and think. This further led me to wanting to read more things, gain knowledge, and eventually come up with new knowledge that no one has found out about yet.
Naturally, I decided I wanted to become an expert in this area and decided to do a PhD. I was also relatively young, around 23 or 24 years old, so I thought, ‘why not?’ I also saw it as an opportunity to travel and just take my time to see the world: if I were to join the workforce right then, I’d only have gotten about two weeks off a year and that wasn’t how I wanted to spend my twenties.
HC McGill: I have a few friends in engineering who are interested in management, as well. Would you say that your background in engineering helped you with your studies in marketing?
AM: Yes, definitely. I think engineering is very useful in that it teaches you to take real-world problems and solve them. It’s about taking a problem, breaking it up into pieces, and drawing a model of this problem to truly understand it. Then, you are required to come up with a solution. That’s a very broad concept and skill that you can apply to marketing, finance, or anything, really. That’s what I found to be the most useful from engineering. Even now, I’m always thinking about what’s the problem, what’s the structure, and what’s the solution?
HC McGill: What is the biggest source of pride and sense of accomplishment from your studies?
AM: I’m very proud that the higher you go up the academic ladder, the work you do becomes all the more creative. If you think about it, in high school or even in university, you learn facts. But higher education provides you with an opportunity to come up with new ideas that no one has come up with before, and find new facts. In my case, for my PhD research, I asked myself a question about technophobia, like what is the cause of it? And I was eventually able to come up with some good explanation for such a topic, which I was very proud of. I also recently wrote a book for a larger audience. I think a very important part about higher education is that you are able to pursue your own questions and interests, and become a producer of knowledge. Your theory doesn’t always work, of course, but when it does, it’s a great feeling – it’s like discovering a new continent.
HC McGill: What about as a professor?
AM: I find it very rewarding to have contact with students. They give me ideas and keep me young. They know what’s happening out there, the newest trends, the changes in technology, and they have their own new challenges, new things they like or dislike, and I find that stimulating. No other profession offers you that opportunity, and I’m lucky that I am able to meet new people, get a lot out of them, and also give something back to them. It’s a very unique and rewarding aspect of this profession that you are able to influence lives, keep you young, and also learn from them. I see students going on their lives to do great different things, and I am constantly reminded that there is no one formula for happiness. I see them slowly find their own paths, and whenever I hear from these past students [it makes me happy] because that means that I’ve had some impact on their lives.
HC McGill: What are some hardships that you had to overcome during your years of teaching?
AM: Research is a very rewarding thing, but it’s also very difficult to come up with a new idea and then to test your theory. The data won’t always support your theory, which is true in all areas of science. Whether it is basic sciences or social sciences like marketing or psychology, collecting data is essential to support your thesis and it’s frustrating when it just does not work out.
You definitely have to be resilient, and it can be hard to do that all the time. You will run into problems, and people react to hardships differently. Some people are resilient, and some are not. You have to be very actively thinking to get ideas, and also hard-working in your studies. It’s hard when something you worked on for six months does not work because your data does not support your theory. But if you are interested in your topic, have resilience, and are hard-working, then you will definitely find success. In fact, if you do not face setbacks, I’d say that you are not necessarily taking risks. Risks can be threatening but you can also see it as an opportunity, whereas low-risk is safe in life, but boring. There is frustration and risk in coming up with new ideas, but if you work through it, you will find yourself on the other side with something very valuable, and that’s something that is applicable not only in research but in life.
HC McGill: What about some hardships in teaching as a professor?
AM: I’d say grading. McGill students are very good and it’s sometimes difficult to have to set my standards high. I also believe that learning should be about myself – have I learned, have I become [my] best possible self? But the whole idea of grading comes from the idea that students have to be categorized in certain criteria based on scores, and the biggest frustration in it is that it puts emphasis on competition, not the whole learning experience.
HC McGill: Do you have any interesting stories to share from your experience as a professor at McGill?
AM: When I first started out as a professor here, I found myself starting a new life in a new city. It was a challenge to form my group of friends outside of workplace, and I’ve had some interesting things happen to me by being proactive in expanding [my] social circles. For example, I joined salsa classes, and also took up on my interest in music mixing. I learned about good places to check out DJs, good parties, which also led me to meet more new, interesting people.
HC McGill: So what are some of your hobbies outside of school? Like you said, dancing and music mixing?
AM: I haven’t really kept up with my interest in dancing, but I’ve been keeping mixing as a hobby. Back in India, I first took interest in music mixing through this new trend of Bollywood music. It led me to teach myself how to mix in a record store, actually, because it was expensive to actually get equipment for myself. It’s much easier now with software, so eventually when I came here I was able to pursue my interests more easily. Then as I met new people, shared my interests, and interacted with different types of people through social events, I started getting opportunities to perform as a DJ.
HC McGill: I heard you also DJ at school events. How did you get involved in that?
AM: Now that more people know about my hobby, I play in my professional circles (i.e. McGill annual events, conferences and closing parties), and I would play pop remixes with some occasional Bollywood influences. Outside of my McGill/professional group, I enjoy playing house, tribal, techno-house — something you would hear at, say, Salon Daome. I try to be consistent in creating new content by just playing around with new songs on the weekends. Being creative is important in research and also in music, and it’s a process of learning about yourself. A big incentive of being a DJ is obviously the interaction you get with the audience. The more you play, the more you understand your crowd. When you play something that vibes with the audience, then the interaction you get with them is something that you cannot get elsewhere.
HC McGill: If you weren’t a professor, what do you think you would be?
AM: Definitely a DJ. If I could live my “fantasy life”, I’d for sure be a DJ – it’d be fun, travelling, meeting new people, and all getting loved back. I understand it’s become very commercialized, but that’s not the reason why I love it so much. For me, it’s because of the feeling of getting loved back from so many people. That’s why artists go through all that heartache, because that pleasure you get from performing well and interacting with your audience is not something you can get elsewhere. It’s sad that being an artist is tough. There is so much competition and it’s very hard to stand out. Most people will struggle to pay the bills, and thankfully I am able to keep it as a hobby.
HC McGill: Where do you see yourself in ten years?
AM: So there are three big parts in being a professor: research, teaching, and service. On the research front, I plan on continuously examining what’s new in the business world that we can study. More specifically, I’d like to study more about online consumer behaviour, and peer-to-peer markets, like Uber, Airbnb, and so on. As a teacher, I want to experiment with new things in classes. I’d like to explore new technologies to improve the quality of education, like remote classroom teaching (Mooc and Edex are examples), whether on campus or off campus. In service aspect, it’s about how you interact outside of work and the classroom. I’m thinking about consulting, or offering seminars related to my studies.
HC McGill: Where do you see yourself in the future not as a professor, but just as a person?
AM: I recently built myself a family. Having a long-term relationship [and] welcoming a child into this world with a significant other, I realize, have made me become a more complete person. So I’d like to develop and grow this new aspect of life that opened up for me; I want to grow as a person.
HC McGill: If you were to go back to when you were a university student like us, what would you do differently?
AM: I had a good outlook on my ideal balance between academics and non-academics – I wanted to be good in academics but not necessarily the best because it allowed me to grow in the non-academic aspects of [my] life. But this was challenging and sometime, I just couldn’t get the balance right. So if I were to go back, I would take more time to think about what I really wanted to do. I believe that if you pick a certain topic that you are genuinely interested in, you won’t struggle as much, and you will be much more efficient. In my case, in engineering, the academics were very rigorous and at certain times, I had a difficult time balancing my studies with non-academic aspects of life. It’s true that not many people know exactly what they want to do at such a young age, but I did follow the crowd to a certain extent. So if I were to go back in time, I’d want to take a harder look at where my interests and passions lie.
HC McGill: Any general tips or advice for current students?
AM: Talk to professors more, informally. You will learn more this way because what you learn in a classroom is very structured. The structure is there for a reason, and that’s good, but sometimes it leads you to see the class as a way to earn a grade. Aside from the basic knowledge you earn, the bigger lesson in class is supposed be about helping you ask more questions, and find out what about the class turns you on or off. If you take the extra step and visit your professor during office hours a few times to talk about some topics that you found interesting, you will get a bigger value out of that specific class and time. Face time with a professor will benefit you in ways that you would not have thought of. You would be surprised by how useful and fun that conversation may turn out to be and what it could bring you.
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