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First PhD Thesis Presented as Articles on the Topic Defended at HSE

On September 11, Ivan Smirnov, graduate of the HSE Institute of Education doctoral programme, defended his Candidate of Sciences (Education) on ‘Differentiation of students by academic performance in a social network’. His thesis consists of four articles which had been published in academic journals, as well as a description of the study methods, design and main outcomes.

A year ago, HSE University received the right to award its own academic degrees, followed by a reform of the dissertation councils and defence procedures at the university. The innovations implemented at HSE include not only creating a special committee for every thesis defence, but also the opportunity to defend a thesis presented as a collection of papers on the topic, not only as a traditional monograph.

Ivan Smirnov, head of the HSE Institute of Education Laboratory of Data Science Methods in Educational Studies, received his first degree in mathematics (St. Petersburg State University) and his second in biology (Paris Diderot University). Today, his research interests focus on the application of data science in educational studies.

In his thesis (academic supervisor Katerina Polivanova), Ivan Smirnov suggested methods to derive reliable data from the VK social network, and ways to compare them with educational data. Specifically, Ivanstudied the structure of students’ social connections and demonstrated that the probability of online friend connections is strongly related to geographical closeness. He found out that students’ social ties are differentiated by academic performance, and that the degree of this performance increases as time goes by. Another conclusion is that school pupils’ interests in social media are also differentiated by academic performance, with the gap in performance between subscribers of different VK groups reaching as much as two years of formal learning.

‘Of course I knew that in some countries theses in certain subjects may consist of several articles with an added introduction and conclusion’, said Ivan, ‘I believed this format to be very reasonable, since doctoral programmes prepare independent researchers, and the defence should reflect the reality of research activities. If a researcher, as part of their everyday work, writes articles rather than long dissertation-like texts, why force them to do something they would never do in their academic life? That’s why as soon as HSE officially offered an opportunity to defend a thesis as a collection of papers, I took advantage of this option’.

The committee members voted to award Ivan Smirnov with a Candidate of Science (Education) degree unanimously, and then, by a further unanimous vote, approved awarding this degree with honours.

HSE Vice Rector Igor Chirikov, chairman of the committee, noted that the new format of defence is easier for the dissertation council than the traditional one: the papers are already published, they can’t be changed, and if these papers have been published in good journals (in this case, Voprosy Obrazovania, PLOS ONE, and American Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence conference proceedings), this is a sign of good quality. Igor Chirikov said that the defence process reminded him of a research seminar: the scholars in the audience were not only analyzing the candidate’s conclusions, but they also expressed their opinions on the research topic.

© Mikhail Dmitriev/ Higher School of Economics

‘This research suits the new format well, when the candidate defends his thesis as a collection of papers, not as a “doorstop book”’, believes Maria Yudkevich, HSE Vice Rector and member of the committee, ‘Every paper sets a research problem, provides a solution to it, and together, these papers form solid research and provide a good idea of the study carried out’.

According to Viktor Bolotov, deputy chairman of the HSE Dissertation Council in Education, the opportunity to defend the thesis as a collection of papers is a chance to get a degree for those who don’t want to spend a year of their life writing a dissertation. ‘Some of our peers have good papers but don’t have time’, he explained, ‘They prefer writing a book or more papers rather than performing the formal ritual. I believe that for those who assess the thesis, it’s more interesting to analyze articles. It’s no coincidence that at Ivan’s defence process, the committee members quoted his articles, finding certain ‘tips’ there, which might have been excluded from a thesis’.

‘Despite the fact that I defended articles, in fact, a solid research project has been evaluated’, said Ivan Smirnov, ‘The requirements include a theoretical framework. In terms of contents, defence by articles is no easier than the traditional procedure and requires performing the same steps. In return, you can skip retelling the contents of papers, but simply attach them, which is obviously convenient. The general part also becomes briefer: no one will say that, for example, the length of the introduction is not enough, which sometimes happens in the Russian academic tradition’.

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