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Regular version of the site

“Lecturing teaches you how to present complex ideas clearly”

Meet Anastasia Parakhonyak, an ICEF MSc graduate (class of 2012) who earned, in 2018, her PhD degree from Toulouse School of Economics and is currently a lecturer at Durham University in the UK. In her interview, Anastasia shares her thoughts about the nature of the UK education system, how professors’ personal experience can help students progress career-wise, what advantages future economics can expect from doing a degree in Europe, and why an average ICEF student is considered bright in Europe.

- Why did you choose to enroll in ICEF Master’s Programme and how did it shape your professional self-image?

I heard about ICEF MSc Programme from my friends shortly after completing my bachelor’s studies in Mathematical Methods for Economics at HSE campus in Nizhny Novgorod and enrolling in the Faculty of Economics master’s programme. I found it interesting that ICEF uses English as the language of instruction, which is extremely useful for a specialist, especially a Finance and Economics one. I looked up how many international and Russian-speaking lecturers there were at ICEF with PhD degrees from foreign universities, and I realized that ICEF offered a unique experience. Its professors have a multi-faceted vision of how economies work beyond the Russian context and they are prepared to share their knowledge and experience with students. The global vision of the system is, indeed, an asset for a future specialist. What also fueled my decision was the good feedback from friends and acquaintances, some of whom had by then enrolled in or completed their studies at ICEF.

- What prompted your decision to start an academic career?

Becoming an academic was just one of the options. It wasn’t until I enrolled that the idea of doing a PhD degree and pursing a research career appeared. In fact, the example of my brother had led me to this decision. He was about to complete his PhD studies when I was a first-year student, and he then joined ICEF as a lecturer. In my student years, I realized I was more into the aspects of Microeconomics – industrial organization, game theory, etc. – rather than Finance. Thanks to Maarten Janssen, who set up the laboratory of strategic behavior and institutional design and welcomed student involvement, I received the experience of research work and the opportunity to attend workshops hosted by world renowned researchers. And so this basically led me to believe that pursuing a science career could be interesting.

- What guided your choice of a PhD programme provider when your mind was set?

I applied a total of 16 different PhD programmes in the USA and Europe, and received the offers, fully-funded, from 7 of them. I was finally choosing between U.S. and Toulouse and I opted for Toulouse. It was a concentration in Industrial Оrganization, which is an applied microeconomic theory that I wanted to pursue most, that made me opt for Toulouse as the best provider of training in this field of economic knowledge. Besides, I heard a lot of positive feedback about the PhD programme at Toulouse School of Economics from Igor Muraviev, our lecturer in Microeconomics and Industrial Оrganization at ICEF. He told me also about how life was in that beautiful city, and I never regretted that choice. The experience I gained at TSE, a place where professors are not only academics but are active partners to, say, the European Commission, had cardinally changed my vision of how applied economic theories work in reality.

- Studying for a PhD necessarily involves lecturing. How did you get started in lecturing at Durham University? Did it take effort to adjust psychologically?

Many of those who pursue research view lecturing as a part of their academic load, as something that eats into the time allotted for their research. Juggling lecturing and researching is often a matter of compromise. This is my first year as a university lecturer. Although I have the experience of conducting seminars from before, this is the first time ever that I deliver the entire course. And this has proved to be an interesting experience. It changes your professional self completely, making you realize that the way you present knowledge to learners is as important as the knowledge itself. Your soft skills come to the foreground. Seemingly secondary, they play a crucial role in fostering professionalism, as I’ve noticed.

- Can you say your experience has so far been entirely positive?

That I am a lecturer in England and English is not my native language only adds to the responsibility. When you are lecturing a group of students who are native speakers, you have to be really good at explaining things. In this sense, lecturing is something different than research. Yet, on the other hand, lecturing teaches you how to present complex ideas clearly. The importance of interpersonal and presentation skills – something that had been persistently neglected by the Soviet academia and is still being undervalued by the Russian one – cannot be overestimated. So, you need to structure your course so that it looks interesting to your audience right here and right now, especially given that the majority of my students are not oriented towards profound theoretical knowledge. They are Economics students at a business school, so it’s important for me to be able to substantiate convincingly how theory will prove useful in their future jobs.

- But doesn’t specialization instead of keeping studies broad put constraints on growth opportunities and choices for students?

It depends on the goal students pursue. If master’s programs are designed to make students qualified for a particular job, then this is how it has to be. I’ve never worked for a company, unfortunately, and therefore cannot say exactly how academic knowledge correlates with real-life jobs. But, my understanding is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution in economy, in the sense that the right scenarios are rarely there for the taking. Much of the decision-making relies on current conditions and goals in focus, whereas theoretical knowledge is meant to explain how, when and, more importantly, why certain economic mechanisms work. I would define the purpose of theoretical knowledge as helping one to integrate themselves into the current setting, be able to look beyond, and be a better decision-maker.

To see better how abstract theories become hands-on knowledge, me and my students debrief various real-life cases. They demonstrate how easily wrong conclusions can be made if one lacks in in-depth understanding of how economic mechanisms work. I think that the fundamental knowledge and the theories we are giving students stand as a set of tools to be applied by them in particular situations. Economists need to be flexible. Mere memorization of facts will get you nowhere.

- Do many students want to stay in academia, or are most of them after money?

Those willing to pursue academic careers are, indeed, very few. The majority of students here see themselves working for banks or corporations. That’s fine. A PhD course is a kind of an investment and, true, it leaves you with lost profit in the beginning and a hefty amount of uncertainly at the end. Before one goes for an academic career, one has to know they are really willing to do so.

- Were there any differences between the Russian and the European system that you faced as overtly manifest when you were a student?

I have a feeling that European universities tend to lay a lesser focus on mathematical training. In England, in particular, the training process employs a lot of discussion, to put it in very general terms. Of course, the guys who were doing a PhD degree like me in France were very well prepared academically, and many of them had a strong math background. PhD studies in a way help achieve “the unity of form and content”: the way you come across as a presenter, your ability to endow things with discernible sense are as important as your ability to provide rationales.

My PhD studies in Toulouse were preceded by a year of preparation. Notably, the preparation year offers students a wide array of research seminars and sessions where they can meet company experts, government officials, and professors, which I see as a wonderful opportunity to enjoy better access to job market. In Europe, students enjoy a greater freedom of self-training, while the Russian system uses lectures and seminars as basic sources of knowledge. As for ICEF, it practices a combined approach where a large scope of knowledge is delivered through lectures and where home assignments constitute a big portion of student academic load.

- What would be the most useful advantages that you enjoyed at ICEF?

With a bachelor’s degree in Mathematical Methods, I was pleased to find ICEF focusing a lot on mathematical training. I can say for sure that an ICEF student with mediocre math skills would be considered in Europe as math-advanced.

ICEF can be referred to as a springboard to graduate programmes abroad. That it delivers most of its courses in English was a strong impetus for me to consider an academic career. Together with lecturers’ track record in teaching abroad, knowledge of the overseas job market and close insight into the Western education system, ICEF offers a pool of assets for joining the world of academia. The very way professors structure their courses is similar to that practiced by the universities abroad. I think one big advantage that students discover at ICEF that puts them at an advantage compared with many other Russian universities is the access to an excellent source of knowledge.

- Are there tips for how to break into researcher job market in style? Or maybe avenues for one to receive a job at their dream university?

I started my job in September 2018. Finding a place on the academic job market can be a very stressful thing for anyone. Mainly because of the huge uncertainty it involves. Universities normally post vacancies in fall. You apply and wait in suspense for interview invitations. Interviews passed, you wait for the flyout invitations. You fly to universities to host your seminar and talk to faculty for them to see where you are professionally and how you are as a person. Then, you wait for the job offers. The period between early February and mid-March is when the majority of advertised positions would get filled by young scholars. It should be noted that all reasonably good universities have arrangements in place to help their new recruits adapt to their professional settings. At Toulouse School of Economics, we took a two-day training in social skills, self-presentation and communication skills. They are all part of the Western culture. Universities normally operate career guidance units. Their counsellors monitor the employment market and advise students of the promising positions available.

One other thing I’ve noticed about entering the workforce is that your chances may depend a lot on your chosen field of research as market conditions change with time. One year universities may need more people in promotion and development or to conduct empirical research, so theorists may stand a lesser chance of employment.

- Which fields are considered to be promising career-wise?

As we’ve seen over the last year, these are mostly empirical fields. Theorists have less opportunity for employment. Currently trending are Development, Health, Labour Economics, and Political Economy, in the broad sense. Though, I don’t think it all comes down to trending and remaining relevant. Your success as an academic depends on how much heart you put into what you do.

- How is your workload split between researching and lecturing?

My university is interested in its faculty conducting research, in the first place. At the same time, some 50% of my workload is taken up by lecturing.

- What is it like living and working in the UK?

I am still adjusting. I’d never been to England before I moved, so I knew very little about how life was in this country. Adjusting relates mainly to the British system of education. Since higher education programs are fee-based and the fees are high, students have a little bit different attitude to their professors. I should say that the teaching and learning process is organized just perfectly. What I am still adjusting to is the abundance of formality-driven processes. In the first year of your course you can’t just deliver it in a manner you find most appropriate, because there is a common standard for absolutely everything and it must be strictly adhered to.

Here, the process of lecturing is monitored. You can’t test students’ knowledge in the form to your liking. There will be two boards to see to it that the form your conduct examinations in complies with the standard. Even though there are many who criticize this academic formalism, there exist transparent, unbiased criteria to measure employee and student performance. There are training programs with post-graduate certificates available at Durham University for newly recruited lecturers, which are designed to explain the in-house teaching methodology, as well as the procedures and scenarios for resolving situations. It may sound unusual to some, but such programs are, indeed, useful to recruits with little or no prior experience.

- You mentioned that British students have a little bit different attitude to their professors. In what sense?

It’s this mindset that fee-based tuition confers certain rights on students. And this partly explains why the training process is so much formality-driven. The limits of responsibility are set from the very start: the high tuition fees are a motivation to study hard, the university practices high standards to its students, and hence they feel involved and result-oriented.

On the other hand, it can be challenging to make lectures and seminars more interactive as students tend to discuss things mostly outside of class. My students, for instance, would rather e-mail me their questions than ask them during the lecture.

- Can you see yourself working for a company one day? Or maybe there’s no turning back once you’ve become an academic?

I am guided by my own interest, which at the moment is research. Though, I could consider a job at competition authorities. But as is often the case in Europe, they require candidates to have European passports. Unlike them, universities offer employment unconstrained by passport and visa limitations. In any event, I am planning to stay in Europe for family reasons.

Sonya Spielberg, specially for ICEF HSE