International College of Economics and Finance

"Our Programme Keeps Developing!"

Maxim Nikitin, HSE Professor and Academic Supervisor of the ICEF Masters Programme in Financial Economics, tells us about the programme’s achievements and innovations, about its intake procedure in 2015, and about the 2014 and 2015 graduates.

— How is the programme developing? What’s new? What can you boast about?

— We’re growing, accepting more students and hiring new instructors, and our students are reaching new heights.

— Would you mind elaborating? The ICEF Masters Programme is renowned for its unique combination of generalist and applied education. Which aspect are you currently focusing on developing?

— Actually, both. Let’s start with the academic side. Starting in September 2015, we’ll have two new staff economist lecturers: Dmitry Makarov, former professor at the New Economic School, and Luca Gelsomini, graduate of the University of Warwick’s PhD in Economics and former lecturer at Lille University in France. Accordingly, we will have new courses. Dmitry Makarov will be running a new course on financial derivatives. Incidentally, he’ll be our second professor — after Alexei Boulatov — with publications in the top economics and financial journals.

— How did you manage to attract Dr Makarov to work at ICEF?

— Dmitry has been working with us for a long time. He’s worked at the ICEF International Laboratory of Financial Economics since its very foundation, and participated in a number of our scientific conferences.

— The instructors provide the input. What about the programme’s academic output? Do many of your students enter the PhD programmes of leading Western universities?

— Three of our 2014-2015 graduates were accepted to PhD programmes in the USA, and top-level programmes at that: Maria Kurakina is studying finance at the Haas Business School at the University of California, Berkeley, Vadim Kanofyev has joined the University of Pennsylvania economics programme, and Maria Titova is studying for a PhD in Economics at the University of California, San Diego. There could have been more PhD students, but the overwhelming majority of our graduates prefer more practical careers — they go into banking, investment funds, consulting etc.

— And what’s new in applied education?

— Since 2014, we have been offering a new practical course: “Direct Investment and Venture Capital”, led by Sergey Stepanov, our staff instructor, and two guest practitioners in the field, Gleb Fomichev and Alexey Milevskiy. Alexey works as Investment Manager at UFG Private Equity, while Gleb is an analyst for the management department of the Sistema investment portfolio. We are also currently discussing possibilities for teaching at ICEF with two new practitioners. I’m unable to name them at this stage, but both were educated at premier British business schools and are now very highly placed in one of the world’s biggest banks, one in Moscow and the other in London.

— Please tell us about the employment status of the 2014-2015 graduates. It’s no secret that the sanctions and the economic crisis have led many banks and companies, especially Western ones, to reconsider their plans regarding the Russian market, and visibly hurt many young specialists’ chances of employment.

— To be honest, neither we nor our students can complain! Four of them received job offers from London even before graduating from the Masters programme. Of the 2014 graduates, Yulia Buchko is working at Morgan Stanley, and Islam Utyagulov at Barclays Capital. Of the 2015 graduates, Vladimir Shmarov is following Islam into Barclays and Diana Durdieva will be working at Credit Suisse. Others have found work in Moscow, but even here the list is quite impressive: Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, J.P. Morgan, Sberbank-CIB, VTB Capital and McKinsey. In recent years, our graduates have regularly gained places in consulting agencies and strategy departments. But our traditional profile is still in place  when all’s said and done, the majority of our graduates prefer to work within the financial system.

— How do you manage to achieve such success? Please share your secrets.

— There’s no single recipe, or any particular secrets. It’s just that we at ICEF have spent many years making sure that our academic programmes — both Bachelor and Masters — give our graduates the knowledge and skills to compete with the graduates of leading world universities. As a result, ICEF has become a brand known to employers not just in Moscow but in London. As a reminder, our graduates receive a unique LSE certificate, signed by the director of the LSE, confirming that our programme matches their standards.

One important factor in our graduates’ professional success is their mobility. They’re free to choose their career path: to work in the financial system, or study for a PhD, or work in consulting, and then pursue an MBA, etc. And oddly enough, the way you get mobility is serious generalist training, including theoretical courses. We deliberately avoided the temptation to make a simplified, narrowly-specialized applied programme. All our students study micro- and macroeconomics, asset pricing and corporate finance. These courses not only provide a knowledge base, but develop our students intellectually and open their minds, so they can reach a deeper understanding of the processes taking place in economics, including in financial markets. And employers are aware that studying at the ICEF is far from easy. C-students and the lazy don’t stick around for long.

We also do a lot to develop our students’ soft skills, and prepare them for looking for work. ICEF has its own careers office, with staff who help each student develop their own career strategy, teach how to write resumes and accompanying letters, conduct meetings with employers (naturally, including successful ICEF graduates) etc.

— Does the ICEF Masters Programme have any unique courses? Ones that can’t be found anywhere (or almost anywhere) else?

— Of course. Alexei Boulatov’s course on the microstructure of financial markets is unique. Alexei is one of the world’s leading specialists in this field, and he’s developed a course which combines theory and practical applications. I’d also like to highlight the mini-course on practical use of derivatives, presented annually by Brian Eales from London Metropolitan University. He created it to teach economists in the City of London, and now he’s running it here.

— Tell us about the ICEF Masters students’ victory in the CFA competition.

— The CFA Institute Research Challenge 2014-2015 is another of our students’ conquests. For the first time ever, the HSE team won the Russian stage of this competition. It is also the first time that the HSE team was composed exclusively of ICEF Masters students, even though the team was put together not by ICEF but by the HSE Banking Institute, and was formed through an open competition at HSE. There was a lot of competition to participate, about five people per place, but our guys were objectively stronger (the programme helps even here!), and that’s why our colleagues from the Banking Institute chose them.

— Could you tell us about the CFA Institute Research Challenge 2014-2015 in more detail? What kind of competition is it? Which other universities had teams competing?

— In essence, it’s a business case championship with the emphasis on financial analysis. The participants had to evaluate a real retail bank, namely TCS. Four teams reached the all-Russian finals, HSE, MSU, NES and the Financial University. Our team won and then participated in the international stage in Amsterdam.

— Let’s get back to academic subjects. Is anything changing in the programme’s intake procedure?

— No, the procedure isn’t changing. As before, the primary requirements for application are a portfolio competition, an English exam (TOEFL, IELTS and other certificates accepted by the London School of Economics) or an ICEF internal exam, and an interview. Additionally, applicants from the regions have the option of a remote interview, and can send in all necessary documents.

Like last year, we intend to have a portion of the applicants accepted to the programme come from the HSE Higher Education Students and Graduates Olympiad. In addition, in 2015 we’d like to attract more applicants with mathematics, physics and technical backgrounds, so if a candidate has, say, a high GRE score, they will be able to succeed in the portfolio competition. As evidence of mathematical ability, we accept the results of the GRE general test together with the specialized GRE mathematics test.

Furthermore, this year we will have more state-funded places – 35 rather than 30. We will also still have commercially-funded places with partial or full scholarships for the cost of the programme. The latter may be particularly important for applicants who, for whatever reason, are unable to apply for state-funded places – for example, those who already have a Master’s degree or are simultaneously studying for a state-funded degree elsewhere.

— You mentioned that 2014 was the first year that one could enter the ICEF Masters Programme through the HSE Olympiad. What have you learned from this experience?

— We gained several rather strong students from the Olympiad. So this application channel is definitely very important for us.

— How many people can enter the programme this way in total?

— In 2015, we had one Olympiad winner and ten qualifiers. All of them have the right to a state-funded place. Not all of them will exercise that right. We know that some candidates have decided to pursue study abroad. But we expect that, out of the winners and qualifiers, six to eight will be studying with us.

— Does the programme still feature the practice of early document evaluation?

— Of course. It hasn’t finished yet. Anyone who wants to can send in their portfolio and certificates to have their initial application chances evaluated.

— In 2015, the NES will be running its new programme, MSc Finance. Are they your competition?

— To an extent, yes. The new programme is a full-time equivalent of the existing MiF. But one has to bear in mind that the NES’s new programme is a one-year applied course, the graduates of which will not receive a full Master’s or specialist diploma.

— What advice would you give to future applicants?

— I would advise them to pay more attention to demonstrating their level of mathematical preparation. Even if a potential applicant isn’t doing so well in that subject (say, they studied at a humanities-focused university), they can, for example, join the HSE’s preparatory courses for Masters applicants in economics-related fields. The experience of taking these courses can be a good indicator of whether someone will live up to our programme’s requirements and go on to successfully study for the ICEF Masters.

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