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'Research is like a detective story, it is very engaging'

'Research is like a detective story, it is very engaging'

Martsella Davitaya is an ICEF 2017 BSc programme graduate who received first class degrees from both HSE and University of London. Right after her BSc she entered a PhD programme at Columbia University (USA), where she is currently studying, doing research and teaching. In the interview she spoke about her career choices, her impressions of studying at Columbia and her future plans.

How did you manage to receive two top degrees – HSE “red” degree and University of London first class honours degree, given the high load intensity at ICEF?

To me, same as for everyone, it wasn’t easy to study at ICEF because of the intensive academic workload. You learn to sort out your priorities whether you like it or not. This ability to cope with the load helps me a lot, and sometimes in unexpected ways. The most important experience that I got from ICEF is that you can’t do everything perfectly. Some people that encounter “super-tasks” while doing PhDs, become demotivated and disappointed in themselves, in the programme and in the world. And I am very glad that I got rid of perfectionism much earlier.

During my studies at ICEF I never missed a single lecture or seminar

I just couldn’t miss a class. ICEF has great faculty, that processed tons of information and it is incredibly valuable to receive this information in an ideally structured way. This is much easier than self-study and saves a lot of time. 

What made you start a career in research?

I was trying to understand what is more interesting to me – consulting or IB and starting from my 2nd year I began looking into different spheres where I could apply my knowledge – luckily, ICEF gives plenty opportunities for that. I took part in case championships, did an internship in a bank and never thought about an academic career. In my 2nd year I took Philosophy and Methodology of Science as an elective course and that greatly influenced my mindset. In my 3rd year I was in an ICEF team that participated in a student competition in econometrics. One of our tasks was to do a little research in a short period of time. We presented our findings in front of representatives of other universities and professors, we consulted our teachers, collected and verified data – it was an immersion in academic life and real research.

I understood that research is like a detective story, it is very engaging. You encounter a problem, try to sort it out, look for ways of “cracking” it and when you solve it, you get another problem. In science you can never find the ultimate solution, so the only thing you should aspire to is to “be less wrong”. It makes the task more complicated, but not less exciting.

Also in my 3rd year I started working as an Assistant and taught at ICEF Evening School. It so happened that I managed to try all spheres of academic career – research and teaching, so by my 4th year I had an idea. I talked to Oleg Zamkov and my research coordinator Kosmas Marinakis and decided to try to apply for a PhD.

What is the role of social factor in your decision?

There is no doubt that ICEF brings great knowledge, skills, the ability to structure and analyze information. It teaches you to do an incredible amount of work in a short time and all this greatly advances students. But what is most important at ICEF are the people. Out teachers are just outstanding, their eyes sparkle, they really love their subject and that often inspired me. You can always ask them for advice on any issue whether common or academic.

A good addition that socially supported my choice was the Advanced Research Program (ARP), a part of ICEF Academia track, which I took part in my 4th year. Besides my studies there was a lot of informal communication going on, for example there was an out-of-town conference where we presented our theses. There were special lectures and seminars, devoted to the research of our professors, where we could learn how our future academic life will look like. All this helped me not only make a choice in favour of research, but also receive a valuable social base that made this choice more conscious.

Why did you choose Columbia University?

To be honest, the Columbia University was my dream, I applied without really believing that I would be accepted. I was looking for professors with whom I wanted to work in the future. Nevertheless, one shouldn’t take it as advice on how to choose a university, as it is a common practice in academic world to change the universities and there is no guarantee that you will be conducting research with the same professor in the future.

Is it possible only in the USA to enter PhD with the BSc degree?

Many European universities expect a candidate to have a Master’s degree before entering PhD. But it is possible in the US, although the BSc education itself is different here. While considering your application, the university pays attention to your academic achievements - grades and research experience. I had a good showcase – my work on the competition in econometrics, year papers and thesis that I did in my 4th year with Alexey Belyanin.

Grades are surely important, but twice as much important are skills that help you receive these grades and make you a good researcher

That is why, before starting a PhD, one should get research experience which is one of the main selection criteria besides degrees. The commission also evaluates your personal achievements, participation in the university’s and community’s life, which can open doors to additional opportunities during your studies.

What are these opportunities?

Besides the fact that Columbia University pays for my tuition and grants a scholarship to live on, I also receive a Fuller Scholarship. This is awarded to the people that achieved success in teaching. At ICEF I taught classes in the Evening School and the Committee at the Columbia University decided that it is worth encouraging.

What is interesting about studying for a PhD at Columbia University? 

Studying for a PhD is formed in a special way. The first year includes the core subjects only. In their second years students choose two specializations, take corresponding courses, and teach. Starting from their 3rd year they do research.

The university gave me many teaching opportunities and I got carried away with it. There is a Center for Teaching and Learning here, where they hold advanced seminars for PhD students and I study new levels of soft skills there, such as public speaking skills, that are extremely useful not just for teaching. We had an elective course in public speaking and self-presentation skills at ICEF which also helped me a lot.

What interesting observations have you made and what peculiarities discovered while studying?

Teaching is very hard. Sometimes you read some material and it seems that you understand it, but in fact the best way to check how well you digested the information is to try to explain it to another person.

What are your future plans after graduation?

Currently, I am more inclined to the academic career. As for the work in alma mater – in contrast to Russian universities, it is common for graduates in the USA to work in different universities. I think this is right on all levels – after you finish BSc you pursue MSc in another university, and after MSc you go for PhD in the third university. The same applies when you start work after PhD. This helps expand one’s professional skills and network.

At every university you can teach and at the same time conduct research, that allows you to elaborate an effective policy to increase human wellbeing. The job of a university professor is prestigious but more from a social side, as the honorariums are higher in the industry. The level of success and self-realization is measured here not by one’s salary but rather by the contribution one makes to science and now I start to understand why one would pursue an academic career.