Oct 9, 2017
ICEF Taught Me to Sort Out Priorities
Olga Balakina graduated from the ICEF master’s programme in 2011, and in May she successfully defended her PhD thesis in finance at Bocconi University, Italy. This autumn Olga continues her academic career at one of Northern Europe’s oldest universities, Lund University, Sweden. Olga spoke to the HSE news service about her memories, chocolate, and non-stop work.

— Olga, your PhD programme lasted six years. Was it difficult?

— Thanks to ICEF, I was familiar with most of the theories we studied at Bocconi, so I wasn’t scared or uncomfortable during my studies there. At Bocconi, we were given a lot of coursework, but there was even more at ICEF, so maybe I found it easier for me to cope with these large volumes of information than the other students.

Another important lesson I learned at ICEF was managing my time and sorting out my priorities.

— After the MA programme, you were invited to several universities. What attracted you to Bocconi?

— The process of applying for a PhD programme is very tense and difficult. I was rejected several times, and I still find it difficult getting rejected. But in academia you have to accept that you will get a lot of rejections. I chose the programme at Bocconi for several reasons. First, ICEF professors said it was one of the few European programmes in finance that can compete with those on offer in America. Second, I liked the feedback and everything I read about the university on the internet. And last, I spent some time learning Italian a long time ago, and thought that was a good sign.

From my peers, I learned about Behavioral Finance and Household Finance, something I can talk and think about for hours now. There are only a few people involved in this at Bocconi, so I can give some advice to those applying for a PhD. Choose a university thoroughly, look at who works there and how well they are developing those areas that are potentially related to your interests.

— Is communication an important element of an academic career?

— Yes, at some point it is vital to overcome your fears and insecurities, and start approaching people to introduce yourself and the topic of your research. This is common practice. At a certain point I started talking to young professionals I met at job fairs. Most commonly they are recent PhD graduates and know how the market works and what new topics are being developed.

Last year, at the University of Copenhagen, I introduced myself and gave chocolate bars to the locals. It is not very common there, but since I was a foreigner, they made allowances for me. People should be able to use some features of their national cultures.

— The topic of your PhD thesis is ‘Essays in Behavioral Finance and Banking’. Could you tell us more about the subject of your research?

— My thesis consists of three parts. One is related to banking, which I studied at the ICEF master’s programme. I published a paper on this, and later, with Professor Donato Masciandaro from Bocconi, we wrote a book called ‘Banking Secrecy and Global Finance’, in which we looked at how countries are blacklisted over helping to launder money and avoiding paying taxes.

The other two parts of my thesis are papers in behavioral finance, in which I looked at how social links influence the financial decision-making processes in individuals and households. Particularly, I studied how an individual’s environment (colleagues, family, friends) influence their decision to invest or not invest in the stock market. For example, 80% of the population in Sweden invests in stocks, with about 30% in Denmark and in the U.S. I investigate how people make decisions as regards to what they are ready or not ready to invest in. Currently I’m studying the population of Denmark, and later I’m going to look at Sweden. The reason for my choice of countries is that they have detailed databases on their populations.

— What position do you have at Lund University?

— I’m a postdoc. I’ll have to work for two years in this position, after which I’ll be able to apply for a professor’s position. I’ll continue working on the topic of my PhD research, and my contract also includes 20% of teaching. Postdocs get to teach courses depending on their specializations and experience, so I assume they would have to do with finance. At Bocconi, I conducted workshops for younger PhD students in macroeconomics and asset pricing, and also was a professor’s assistant, which included checking tests and coursework.

I believe that whatever people do, they should love it, since otherwise it’s a dead-end road.

Interview on HSE portal >>

Anastasia Chumak, specially for HSE ICEF