You graduated from the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics at MSU, and then you went on to do a Master’s at ICEF. Presumably you’ve known for a while that you weren’t a humanities person?
Yes – I always liked Maths, and while at school I attended various Olympiads. Where to go after school was never in doubt – the choice was pretty clear.
So then why did you switch from Maths to Economics?
At a certain point I realised that I didn’t want to continue academically in Mathematics, because it wasn’t such a promising prospect. In Maths there’s so much to know, and every separate breakthrough only comes with a lot of hard work – and you don’t earn much. But I didn’t want to immediately go work in the financial sector – I had to get some sort of basic foundation in Economics first. That’s why I went to the HSE.
So why here? And why specifically ICEF?
Initially I had planned to go to the New Economic School, but about a month before the start of the programme I learn about the Master’s in Financial Economics here. The decision was fairly spontaneous. I came here, took the exams, and something swayed me.
What was it?
A more friendly environment. And what I liked from the first day when I came to hand in my documentation was how coordinated all the administration was. I thought I’d have to wait in a queue for a couple of hours – that’s what I was used to. I gave a bunch of documents to a young guy, he checked through them all, laminated something, gave me something back – the whole process must have taken seven minutes. I headed out pleasantly surprised.
The Need to Dream
Coming from Mekhmat (MSU Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics), what did you have to adapt to at ICEF?
Fundamentally, what was difficult was to do with the academic process – how here it’s just non-stop. Your grade is made up of a lot of coursework and mid-term exams, while over my five years at Mekhmat, you could study hard for two or three weeks a semester and get good results. That just wouldn’t have worked here, so you have to be disciplined with yourself from the start of your first year. Once you’ve done that, your studies become much more manageable. If you follow everything that’s going on in lectures and seminars during the year, then I don’t think you’ll have problems when the exams come around. The material from the lectures was enough for me.
But did you have enough time?
In the first year, when I really forced myself to work, sometimes there wasn’t much time at all. But that’s not surprising – the entire programme has to be fit into two years. I never sacrificed my dreams, though. I went to various student events at different universities and listened: students, discussing their life and studies, emphasized how they were always working and never sleeping. As if the less you sleep, the cooler you are than everyone else. As if a lack of dreams were something to be proud of. That seemed pretty odd to me.
Which courses did you enjoy – and which ones less so?
Probably the ones that were closest to Maths: Microeconomics, definitely Game Theory, Financial Economics with various models – especially the ones rooted in Maths. There wasn’t really anything superfluous – I don’t really think I have the right to call a course ‘superfluous’ anyway, especially since we don’t know when something we think is unimportant will be helpful in the future. While your brain is working, you have to learn as many things as possible.
What was your Master’s thesis on?
I was investigating theoretical models under the guidance of Alexei Parakhonyak. But that wasn’t the only dissertation I was working on – in the autumn I defended my Doctoral thesis on Higher Geometry at Mekhmat
So you were still a doctoral student there…and you claim to have had time for everything?
I tried to do the fundamental work on that thesis in the previous two years. The material was all there, I just had to structure it well – that wasn’t really a problem.
What career did you choose for yourself?
What I wanted was to become a quant in a big bank. I made a few attempts – some weren’t particularly successful, some were more so. As a result I was able to get an internship at Barclays.
How did you manage to get it?
I submitted an online application on their website, attended interview at the Moscow office, spoke to the head of the department where I wanted to work, and they called me back within two weeks. I had already filled out a long form online and taken a few tests.
It was that simple?
At the interview they asked me to solve a few problems. It was clear they could tell that I had some mathematical ability – but there were also a couple of questions about programming, which I only had a basic proficiency in. They didn’t ask anything about economics – in the department where I wanted an internship, the main focus is on the technical side of business.
How long was the internship?
Two months in the summer.
I was offered the opportunity to stay in London based on my work as an intern.
Were you ready to live and work in another language and cultural environment? For a lot of people that would have been a little stressful.
For me the most stressful step was moving out of my parents’ house to Moscow to live in the student dorms. I had been living by myself for eight years already, so I was pretty thick-skinned - a change in circumstances doesn’t really scare me.
How was your English?
I didn’t have any problems. At ICEF you study in English, and you have to practice it constantly, as the majority of our teachers didn’t speak Russian. I would keep my language skills up – and I watched TV series – so there was never an issue with English.
Usually sitcoms, like Friends. When you start to understand humour, wordplay and specific jokes in a foreign language, you know that you’re getting towards a real proficiency. So maybe – in that way – watching sitcoms is the best thing you can do.
Not just a dance teacher
What are your interests other than your studies?
I’ve been doing sport-hustle dancing for years now. It’s similar to the dance that people do on the seafront – it’s basically the same, but in a more sporty form, with competitions and nice outfits.
How did you get into it?
I just wanted to dance normally. I think I probably wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, and that I had no problems with music. But then I really got into it – I loved it.
How often do you have to train?
That depends on your goal. In dance there are skill levels – I’m in the second now, but I want to get to the top. You have to train a lot, and the training varies depending on the level. At lower levels it’s more about how much time you put in; then at higher ones, it’s more a question of training smartly and often, to keep up your mobility.
Is dance just a hobby?
Maybe one day I’ll be a teacher. I have already taught – just not dance. I led a seminar on abstract mathematics for third-year Bachelor’s students. I only taught it that year to one group of students – they wanted to study ‘real’ maths for themselves.
How did you cross over to the other side?
I suggested teaching mathematics, and – sort of like at Barclays – I had an interview.
When you walked into the lecture hall as a teacher for the first time, how did you feel? And how did the students relate to you?
Ah, I think it was OK. It’s true that my throat hurt though. There was a point when I thought back to my own teachers and their flaws, and tried to work out whether I was making the same mistakes. I realised that the main thing is not to waste students’ time. Incidentally, it helps to gesture a lot, and you have to speak a little louder and make sure you’re illustrating things well on the board…I think overall you have to have a little artistry. I’d say that everyone in life has had a teacher whose lessons you would come to enthusiastic and full of vigour…and by the end you find yourself asleep. I didn’t want to be that sort of teacher.
Have you discovered your secrets of teaching already?
You have to prepare for the job – to know what you’re going to draw on the board, what to say and when, which problems to solve yourself and which you leave to the student. You really have to understand that clearly, because the probability of you making everyone into an expert is very low. You can’t go into the job thinking “OK, it’s no big deal”. No one gains from that. Obviously I would consult with other lecturers, but I would prepare the material for each seminar myself, and I could discuss what interested me with the students.
What sort of goals do you set yourself?
Well, I’ve done that for a while. I already said that at school I would attend Olympiads, and when I went to university I stayed in contact with the people that are involved in the Olympiad organisations. At Mekhmat I went to the national Olympiads a few times – to be part of the jury. Having done that, it wasn’t really a big deal to check assignments. If a student was writing rubbish, I’d say so – but I’d also explain why it was rubbish. Students should always get feedback. I didn’t just want them to pass the exam – if they do something wrong, they should realise it.
Did you ever consider teaching as an alternative career path?
I did think about it, but it’s unlikely. I find it interesting to work with people that know what they want, and that you have a dialog with as equals. I had students like that, but it can’t always be like that. Teaching is exhausting – if you feel that there’s no payoff, you feel like squeezed like a lemon after work. But when the classroom is engaged and responsive, it gives you strength – you leave work recharged.
Life goes on
Whatever your expectations were of university study – at both Mekhmat and ICEF – were they met?
It’s hard to answer that. At Mekhmat I basically arrived as a kid – that was where my personality was formed alongside my studies, and I had nothing to compare the experience to. As for ICEF – I pretty much got what I expected. I don’t think there was some sort of miraculous discovery about the world. I just feel much more sure of myself in the area of economics, and I had no qualms about going to banking interviews – I was able to understand what happens there, and what people talk about.
What do you see yourself doing in ten years’ time – and where?
I spent so much of my life working in maths, and I don’t want to move too far away from that area. Whatever it is that I’m doing, it will be connected to mathematics. But I don’t have a clear plan for the next five or ten years. I’m used to setting more short-term goals – for the next year or two. It’s not always effective to plan for ten years’ time – you can expend a lot of energy like that and end up not getting where you want to go.
I don’t really feel overall that I’ve done that much yet. I sometimes even felt jealous of friends that are constantly buzzing around doing things. But I’ve spoken to them, and I realised that I have enough things happening. Life goes on.
Oleg Seregin, exclusively for ICEF HSE
Translated by Joseph Gamse
 In financial jargon, a ‘quant’ is someone who specializes in using mathematical and statistical models to manage financial affairs and evaluate risk