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Regular version of the site

‘It is my firm belief that economics can really explain how the world works’

Ilya Ilyin was the winner of ‘Golden HSE’ award for the ‘Silver Nestling’ nomination in 2016. In 2017, he received his Bachelor’s with distinction from ICEF and First class honour’s degree from the University of London. He is now pursuing a PhD in Economics at Boston University. In the following interview, Ilya talks about why he chose ICEF, why purely academic pursuits can be a problem, and how to combine economics with philosophy.


Why did you choose ICEF?

I got interested in economics after watching the film Wall Street. I was impressed by the idea that, by understanding the mechanisms driving financial markets and the economy, it’s possible to make an enormous amount of money and wield limitless power and influence. I then realized what really runs our world and wanted to learn everything about it. Of course, later I understood that the economy includes much bigger things than just financial markets. But it’s still my favorite film and I can quote Gordon Gekko by heart.

While I was a senior in high school, economics became the focus of my life and I made a serious decision to continue my studies with the best economics programme in the country. I then faced the issue of the criteria I need to have when choosing a university. In my opinion (and since then I am convinced that this is, in fact, correct), there’s only one key factor for an economics faculty – this would be its conformity with the intellectual standards found in the West. Russia doesn’t have its own school of economic thought owing to the Soviet legacy. At the same time, the top schools in America and Britain are at the forefront of economics as a field of study. In Russia, there’s only one institute, which comes close to the high standards necessary to truly study economics – and this is ICEF. After reaching this conclusion, my choice was very much clear.

Discipline, inspiration and motivation

For me, the most difficult time was my first three months of study. I was only 17. I had just moved to Moscow from Novosibirsk and started living on my own. It took some time to adapt, get settled, and get used to my new life. Furthermore, studies at ICEF are based on one’s ability to think critically, and it wasn’t just cramming information like back in school. And it takes some time to get used to this.

The most memorable thing from my studies concerned two people. I think that each person, at every step of their life, should have a mentor. And I was lucky enough to meet two people whom I can definitely call my mentors. In my first year, I took the “History of Western Philosophy” course, which was held by Dr. Krister Sairsingh. I was especially taken in by the ideas of several thinkers and I discussed them with our teacher. We have continued this dialogue, which has played a major role in how my priorities and views on life have changed over time.

Furthermore, in my third year, I met Professor Udara Peiris, who has shown me what economics is as a discipline and why it’s important to carry out economic research. Under his tutelage, I wrote term papers and my thesis. He was also instrumental in helping me apply for graduate studies at BU (Boston University). This relationship was the final piece of the puzzle in shaping me as a professional, as well as helping me understand what I want to do in the future.

It wasn’t that hard to finish my studies with ‘Excellent’ grades. As I’ve mentioned, economics is the focus of my life and it takes priority over everything else. Anybody who’s ready to make their studies a priority can get top grades and receive their red diploma (with distinction), then continue at one of the best universities in the USA or Europe. Naturally, you must be ready to sacrifice something. For instance, instead of going to the bar with friends, you might have to work on an econometrics assignment. However, the word ‘sacrifice’ doesn’t really have a negative connotation in this regard. You simply need to focus on what’s most important for you. If you do all of the assignments, understand all of the concepts so that you can explain them to other people, and pass exams from previous years in order to get ready for the exam session, you’ll get your red diploma. The main thing is keeping one’s self-motivated.

Pursuing a PhD to expand one’s knowledge

My initial interest in economics came out of my desire to find out how financial markets and institutes function. I wanted to apply this knowledge and make a lot of money, much like George Soros and Jim Rogers. However, after finishing my first year, I came to the understanding that economics isn’t just about how much money one can make. If you want to get rich, buy low, sell high. However, economics is almost like a philosophy for life, which helps one understand how the world around us works. I don’t want to sound like a Marxist, but our world is driven by economic forces. The main argument in favor of this concept is that, before doing anything, people should meet their basic material needs, utilizing their resources in the best possible way. It is my firm belief that economics can really explain how the world works. So, making money became a secondary concern. I decided that my first duty in life is attaining a high level of economic knowledge, and only pursuing a PhD would give me this opportunity. This may sound like a line out of a motivational letter, but it’s the truth.

How it’s done at Boston University

My choice was quite simple. I submitted applications to 9 schools, according to my own rating in terms of their appeal and quality. The first and second schools in my rating were Harvard and Yale, but this didn’t turn out to be viable. The next on the list was BU, which sent me an invitation right away. After that, I didn’t even bother looking at the other schools on the list. If I remember correctly, there were also invitations from the University of Notre Dame, Ohio State University, Emory University and UC Davis. However, BU has a very good economics faculty and many professors to work with. Moreover, the university offered me a very generous range of discounts, which would allow me to live comfortably.

I am now doing a PhD programme in Economics, after which I will receive my doctorate. In the first year of studies, all students must take a standard selection of courses: macroeconomics, microeconomics, econometrics, statistics, and mathematics. The technical level of knowledge in economics is quite high and a whole year is necessary for in-depth study in order to attain an adequate level of economic knowledge. After doing this, you can then start going beyond these barriers. And this what takes up the 2-4 years of the doctoral programme, when you are involved with your own research and write your dissertation.

To be honest, there wasn’t anything unusual in the study plan. It was quite similar to what I did at ICEF, where there’s time during class to discuss the materials and express your opinion. However, perhaps, it was a bit of a surprise for me that people have different views of grades in the States. At ICEF, everything concerns your exam grades. However, in the States, and especially at the top schools there, grades don’t carry much weight if you do the minimum amount of coursework required. What’s more important is the knowledge and ideas that you acquire after attending a given course.

Bridging the academic and real worlds

The standard path of most people who receive a PhD in economics is usually a professorship at some university, where they might continue with their research activities. The thing that bothers me most about academia is that it is very insular and not very connected to the outside world. Academic economists write articles (which are first rate!), discuss them with their peers at conferences and seminars, and publish them in journals, which are only read by other experts. And so on. This is the research lifecycle. Well, perhaps, another economist might cite this work in a paper. However, this really doesn’t appeal to me.

I would like to use the results of my research to change things going on around us. In other words, I would like to build a bridge between academia and the real economy. A career in economic consulting or investment, or at an organization like the US Federal Reserve or the IMF could give me this opportunity. At this stage, I am looking into many different ways to develop my career. In particular, I am now working with a professor on research, which is quite interesting to the US Federal Reserve.

In fact, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta has started new research into American tax policy. The professor I am working with actually created the model for this. This model offers a completely new view of the effects created by changes to the tax code (and other fiscal measures) may have on society. And the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta wants to use this theory. I deal with all of the technical aspects of the project (e.g., development and modification of the computer code), as well as data analysis. I spent a week in Atlanta setting up the model and explaining its operations and functionality to the people at the Federal Reserve. Overall, I was invited there as an intern, to continue working on this and other projects. What I’m doing now is an ideal combination - my conviction that academia should work very closely with the real world.

Interview by Sofia Urmancheeva, special for ICEF HSE