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“No other faculty are as responsive as ICEF”

After Maria Titova completed her master’s studies at ICEF in 2015, she enrolled in a PhD programme at the University of California, San Diego. The current year of her studies has been marked by finalizing her major research paper that will help integrate Maria into the academia as a highly promising expert. In this interview, Maria talks about the dissimilarities between PhD training systems in the USA and Europe, why lecturing American students appears easy, and what Job Market Paper is worth on the job market.

- What do you think makes ICEF a good fit for those who want to start an academic career?

I received by bachelor’s degree in Applied Mathematics and Informatics from HSE Faculty of Computer Science. It was in my fourth year of studies that I made up my mind to enroll in an overseas PhD programme in Economics and Finance. And there were only two avenues to continue with my plan – ICEF and NES. To enroll at ICEF, I didn’t have to take admission tests. Much to my surprise, and apart from the advantages that we all are well aware of, ICEF gave me a great deal of empowerment to pursue science. While the majority of students opt for jobs in private sector, those who are determined to apply for PhD programs abroad receive special guidance from their professors.

With an excellent research seminar, held by ICEF on a weekly basis to feature the researchers from all around the world, it’s easy to stay up-to-date with the latest trends in science and research. No other faculty are as responsive as ICEF. They are open for cooperation. Every time I needed a meeting to discuss my research topic they agreed readily. Many of the students they supervise scientifically appear as co-authors in their publications, thereby adding to their own number of published papers. My master’s thesis, too, was published in an international peer reviewed journal.

- You joined an exchange programme at Tilburg University. What are your impressions?

I received a place in Tilburg through the Research Master programme. I spent the entire semester doing a number of PhD-level courses. This is an invaluable experience that introduces one to how post-graduate training system works overseas. My impression of Tilburg University is that it stands out by its solid training in Behavioral Finance. It was interesting for me to learn about the remarkable studies that are being conducted in this field. Tilburg was my first experience of living abroad and using English as the only language of communication.

- Can you say American PhD training system differs cardinally from the one in Europe?

It’s a matter of choice to decide which system fits you best, the American or the European, and what you have for a final goal. In Europe, you need to earn a Research Master degree first, which will take you two years. Then, you have two more years only to do a РhD, while in the United States a PhD takes 5 to 6 years. In the first two of these 5 or 6 you receive instruction and spend the rest of the time doing research. What is more, you don’t need to worry about re-enrolment in the U.S., nor about scholarship. Unlike the universities in Europe, American schools normally keep your tuition fees paid throughout the entire duration of your course. I chose to enroll at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) even though I knew that an identical degree in Europe was two years shorter. My ambition was to go through and experience the American school of economic thought which is known for its high academic reputation.  

Besides, the job market for new PhDs is concentrated mainly in the USA. And because the American universities support their students in many different ways, and because the American society puts American diplomas above all other diplomas, it would be challenging for someone with a degree from a European university to move up in the United States. Also, the quality of research seminars in America tends to be somewhat higher than in Europe because of the great number of schools with rankings in Top 30. UCSD, for instance, hosts a series of seminars in Economic Theory which is considered to be one of the best in the world – mainly due to Joel Sobel, who is an editor-in-chief of the top economics journal Econometrica.

- How is PhD training structured at UCSD?

Year One includes courses like Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, and Econometrics and concludes with qualifying exams. In Year Two you select optional courses. Ideally, you should select those which will allow to you to end up with two fields in the end of the year. Mine were Microeconomic Theory and Behavioral Economics. Year Three is when you do research. You are completely free. You are your own boss and free to not show up at the university at all. I try to attend the minimum of 2 or 3 research seminars a week and meet regularly with at least one of my research supervisors or discussants.

I lecture 5 to 10 hours per week and spend the rest of my time doing research. At least twice a year I present my progress at student research seminars, which is probably one of the most difficult parts of the training. Presenting before a team of professors who you know are more knowledgeable than yourself and can therefore be critical, can be very thrilling. It’s all about practice, though.

- Was it difficult to go about lecturing?

My lecturing experience started in Russia and is extensive. I was in charge of Game Theory course and Development Economics. Also, I was delivering a course of lectures to Political Science majors. My advice would be to prepare well in advance. Lecturing takes up a hefty amount of professors’ time. It takes some psychological effort to get adjusted to it and it needs a lot of practice. Conducting seminars in America is quite easy. With professors giving students tasks and solutions and teaching assistants writing them on board, all you basically need to take care of is self-presentation. And this is not too big a job. American students tend to be quite uninvolved. They ask questions or display interest in their studies rather rarely. So, I can’t say lecturing at UCSD was stressing me out.

- What does the academic job market look at in the first place?

There are different views. My research supervisors insist that it’s the Job Market Paper. The rest of your assets – published articles, projects, lecturing experience – don’t really matter that much.

- Are there career fairs for new PhDs?

Every year in early in January, there is Annual Meeting, a conference organized by AEA (American Economic Association) which, in effect, functions as a centralized job market for new Economics PhDs. It is attended by university officials and PhD students in their final year of studies. At Annual Meeting, there take place pre-interviews for the position of assistant professor. Successful candidates receive flyout invitations. They go on a one-day campus visit to be interviewed by professors and to present their JMPs at the Job Market Seminar. The appointment decisions are based on candidate’s performance during flyout. Interestingly, you complete your PhD thesis with job already landed.  

By the way, ICEF holds Job Market Seminars every February.

- What do your current research interests focus on?

The paper which I think my JMP is going to build on is called Targeted Advertising in Elections. It explores whether targeted advertising can be a tool to upturn election results. The games theory-based model that I am working on to explain how presidential candidates communicate information to their voters, allows me to conclude that targeted advertising works only when the candidate is aware of their voters’ stance on all relevant social and economic matters and when voters themselves stick to different stances. It appears that the more polarized a population is, the more room there is for manipulating election results via targeting. My interest in this topic was largely fueled by the resounding 2016 U.S. presidential elections and the 2016 referendum on Brexit. Both events produced results that were similar in the sense that winners chose to spend an outrageous amount of money on targeting as a tool to reach out to their voters via social networks, and that the level of polarization was at an all-time high. One of the conclusions my model enables is that the outcome of those votings was to a large extent influenced by a highly technically sophisticated advertising campaign.

- Where do you see yourself professionally in a few years’ time?

Geographically speaking, it is not my aspiration to settle in the U.S. I am going to compete for tenure next year or the year after on the centralized job market.

* University of California, San Diego is a public research university in the United States founded in 1960 and ranked the 14th in the world by 2009 academic ranking. UCSD faculty have won eight Nobel Prizes, three National Medals of Science, and one Pulitzer Prize.

The main campus occupies 490 ha near the forested part of the coast of the Pacific Ocean. It boasts a zoo with 5,000 animals, features a public museum and computer center, and owns a sea port and vessels for marine research.

UCSD operates several research centers and among them the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego Supercomputer Center, California Institute of Telecommunications and Computer Technology, and the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies.

Sonya Spielberg, specially for HSE

Interview with Maria 2015 >>