International College of Economics and Finance

“ICEF Master’s programme trains you well for doing a PhD abroad”

Maria Kurakina studied on the ICEF Bachelor’s programme as well as on the Master’s programmes, and this year entered the PhD programme in Finance at the University of California, Berkeley. In her interview she talks about her studies at ICEF, her academic interests and what one should do to become a PhD student of the top American university.

How did you become a student of HSE and ICEF?

I wanted to study at HSE and ICEF since my school years. Firstly, because I thought that this is the leading university in our country where best Russian and foreign professors work, and where the most innovative methods of teaching and doing research are actively implemented. And secondly, I was attracted by the double-degree programme. I entered the HSE preparation courses in my 9-th grade class at high school, and I studied at the gymnasium №45 in Moscow my last two high school years. This gymnasium works in cooperation with HSE. I studied there on the international BSc programme: after finishing this programme I received a diploma equivalent to A-Level, which is recognized abroad. All this helped me to enter ICEF and succeed in my studies there.

Why did you continue your studies at ICEF after graduating?

I did not have any doubts about entering the ICEF Master’s programme, since that was the natural continuation of undergraduate studies. I was planning to make an academic career and a Master’s degree is an essential step.

How did you find your studies at ICEF? Which courses and professors do you remember?

Both undergraduate and graduate studies were very informative, hard and interesting. The European approach is used actively: only basic information is taught during lectures and seminars, but on the exams you have to show big volume of knowledge which you learn by yourself. This is always a challenge to students.

The subjects that interested me mostly during the undergraduate studies were Econometrics (Oleg Zamkov, Vladimir Tcherniak), Quantitative Finance (Sergey Gelman), and History of Western Philosophy (Krister Sairsingh). On the Master’s programme I remember most of all the course of modern Financial Economics taught by guest professors (Dimitrios Tsomocos and Branco Urosevic), and also the International Financial Management course (Marie-Ann Betschinger). Not only were all courses hard and informative, but they were also given in a brilliant way.

What are your academic interests? What about your thesis?

My interests span Economics of Household and Risk-Management. My undergraduate thesis was devoted to “Changing the structure of incomes and expenditures of Russian households in 2007-10”, my academic supervisor was Olga Kuzina, PhD in Sociology. The topic of my Master’s thesis was “Influence of mergers and acquisition on the default risk of the acquiring firm”; my academic supervisor was Marie-Ann Betschinger, PhD in International Economics. The last topic is very important for me now. In my work I analyze the influence of mergers and acquisition on the possibility of default of the acquiring firm. The data for my work are taken from Thomson One Analytics and Thomson Reuters Datastream.

What topic are you planning to work at during your PhD?

This is a good question. In general I understand that within the scope of the topic that I am doing now there is a huge potential for future research. For instance, that would be interesting to analyze which measures of risk are better to use to evaluate the possibility of default of a company being acquired by another firm. This field is not yet worked through by the economic theory, so I plan to do it.

How did you decide to go on a PhD? Who influenced your decision?

The wish to go on a PhD appeared since undergraduate studies, and became stronger during my Master’s studies. I understood that I like to do research, to find cause and interrelations between different events, to learn something new, that nobody did before. I think everybody has his own inclination for something. My examples were ICEF teachers, namely Maxim Nikitin, Anna Yurko, Sergey Gelman, Marie-Ann Betschinger, Carsten Sprenger. They manage to combine academic research with teaching while being communicative and joyful people. They provided me with recommendation letters while I was applying for a PhD and I am very thankful to them for assistance and help.

Why didn’t you apply for a PhD right after your bachelor studies?

It is a common knowledge that it is better to do a PhD when you already have Master’s degree, because after Bachelor’s studies you do not have enough knowledge. Though, there are some exceptions too. In my opinion, it is always better to do something when you are prepared for that. ICEF Master’s programme trains you well for PhD studies abroad, since it has a lot of courses of the required level. In short, I had no doubt that after Bachelor’s studies it is necessary to study on ICEF Master’s programme first and then do a PhD.

Quite a big number of ICEF graduates are studying on PhD programmes or on Master’s programmes abroad currently. Have you asked any of them for a piece of advice before you made a decision?

Yes, I asked several people for some advice. I met with Svetlana Bryzgalova, ICEF Master’s programme graduate and a PhD student at London School of Economics specially for that purpose. She shared her experience with me, told me about difficulties which a PhD student faces during first years of studies, told me about her academic work and studying in the UK. Another student I talked to was Alexey Makarin, my fellow student during Master’s studies. He went to study on PhD at Northwestern University, Chicago. I learned a lot about living in the USA and features of studying at American universities from him.

What is the most difficult in applying for a programme in your opinion?

The most difficult is the applying procedure. Not only you have to collect all required documents including all needed motivation letters, CVs and recommendations approved by professors on time, but you also have to upload them correctly in the online application system. As for the interview (face-to-face or online), it is usually conducted in a very friendly atmosphere.

Do any universities conduct face-to-face interviews?

Yes, for instance Swiss Finance Institute invited me there for the interview. It is not just a visiting day, where you can make your final choice, but a part of admission procedure, after which they make a decision.

Does that mean that this is a standard practice for them?

Yes, but it depends on university. Some of them conduct online interviews; some admit students without interviews at all: they just consider your portfolio. In my case they asked me to come.

Are transportation costs paid by a candidate himself?

No, university pays for that. To be more precise, you pay but university compensates that money to you, within the limit of the fixed sum. It took about a month before money was returned to me.

Which universities of Europe and USA did you apply for, and where were you admitted to?

I applied approximately to 20 universities according to the ranking of PhD programmes in Finance. I received offers of admission from UC BerkeleySwiss Finance Institute (it includes several independent research centers, I was admitted to two of them – Zurich and Geneva), and Graduate School of Economics, Finance, and Management in Frankfurt.

Which PhD programme ratings should you focus on?

There are a lot of different ratings. Unfortunately, the ranking that I had used became paid now. But they are easy to find in the internet. Every rating has different criteria, but I think that top-15 programmes are approximately similar in every rating.

What is the name of your programme in Berkeley?

Programme in Finance at Haas School of Business – one of the oldest business-schools in the USA.

Why did you choose this one? Have you visited the campus?

My professors recommended me to choose Berkeley, because it has the strongest PhD programme among others. Yes, the university made me an invitation and I went there for a visiting day, where I met professors and students. They turned out to be intelligent and kind; there were several top leading economic professors among them (such as Dr. Martin Lettau, Dr. Hayne E. Leland, Dr. Dmitry Livdan and others). Conditions for studying and living are also very good.

Did it take you a long time to make a decision? What was the decisive factor?

I would not say that. Your choice is quite limited by the number of universities you are admitted to. Of course, before I made the final decision I had asked qualified people for some advice. There is a difference between European and American education; there were also others factors, such as “USA is far, and Europe is closer”. But at the end I decided that the quality of education is more important than the distance.

Did you get a scholarship?

Yes, American and European universities offer scholarships for its PhD students covering studying and living expenses on different conditions. In my case scholarship means working as a teaching/research assistant starting from the second year of study.

Are you going to live in dormitory on campus or rent a flat?

I have decided to live in dormitory for the first year of studies, and we’ll see how it goes afterwards.

You are going to leave Russia for 5 years (as minimum) soon, how do you feel about that now?

To say honestly, I am a little bit upset about leaving for a long time. I leave behind my parents, my friends and HSE as well. I hope I would have a chance to visit home often and the parting would not be so difficult.

What can you recommend to ICEF graduates, who will apply for a PhD next year?

I would recommend them to decide on which university to choose in advance, learn about the application process and not to miss the deadline!

This interview was conducted by Nikita Krylnikov and translated by Maria Ovcharova