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Regular version of the site

A Breath of Fresh Year

A Breath of Fresh Year

© iStock / Anastasia Usenko

HSE University postdocs share their thoughts on transitioning from PhD studies, as well as individual and collaborative projects they are currently engaged in. The participants include Adam Gemar and Daria Khlevnyuk (PhDs in Sociology), Nikita Lychakov (PhD in Finance), and Amanda Zadorian (PhD in Politics). The HSE Look also talked to Ekaterina Paustyan, a postdoc at the University of Bremen and an excellent example of the connecting power of HSE University’s research centres.

On reasons to apply for a postdoc

Amanda Zadorian (International Centre for the Study of Institutions and Development): Russia is the country that I research the most. I have done summer fieldwork here for years, but I had never spent more than three months in Russia. I felt that to be a scholar of Russia, when returning to the West, it would be helpful to have extensive experience in the field.

Adam Gemar (Centre for Cultural Sociology): If your thesis is impressive, and you think you can get five articles out of it, but they are just not there yet, you need the postdoc to give yourself the opportunity to generate those outputs. I published a number of articles in the past year plus at HSE, and most of those were backlogged from my PhD data. Ultimately, it is best to finish all the work from one’s PhD before the ideas and data become stale.

Daria Khlevnyuk (Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities - IGITI): The beauty of the postdoc is that it feels like a breath of fresh air before jumping into a busier and more regulated professor’s life.

iStock / Anastasia Usenko

On earlier engagements with HSE University

Daria: When I was an HSE student, IGITI professors taught me the foundations of academic life and writing. Dr Natalia Samutina, who, sadly, passed away recently, encouraged me to write and publish my first academic article while I was still a BA student. I had no doubts about whether to return. If a person decides to stay in another country, they must integrate into it, and being a remote postdoc is like standing on two chairs between which you can fall.

Amanda: When I started the postdoc, I had already participated in my lab’s conferences for several years. In addition, when I did my fieldwork in Russia, HSE University sponsored my humanitarian visa.

Ekaterina Paustyan (University of Bremen): I did my MA and PhD in Political Science at CEU in Budapest. I never studied at HSE, but I participated in the Russian Summer School on Institutional Analysis and was at HSE St. Petersburg as a teaching fellow. In 2018, the HSE International Centre for the Study of Institutions and Development (ICSID) organized its annual workshop on the political economy of development, where I met Michael Rochlitz. A year later, I returned to ICSID as a visiting researcher. After defending my PhD in 2020, I applied for a postdoc position funded by the Central Research Development Fund at the University of Bremen. I passed a very competitive selection process and was offered a position under supervision of Michael Rochlitz who supported my project. I am sure that the success of my application was in many ways determined by the connections I established at ICSID, a hub that attracts researchers from Russia and abroad. Currently, I am a visiting lecturer at HSE University Saint Petersburg.

Daria Khlevnyuk (on the left)

On differences between doing a PhD and a postdoctoral position

Adam: There is more freedom in a postdoc and fewer strict deadlines, even though the overall responsibility of where and how much you publish is a bit higher. However, I feel less of a difference as I got a British PhD, which is quite independent.

Nikita Lychakov (Centre for Modern Russian History): The main difference is that as a postdoc you have already gained some experience conducting independent research, and you have already made several mistakes during your PhD studies and have learned from them. Consider my personal experience of submitting an article to a journal, which I specifically chose because of its fast speed of reviewing and accepting articles for publication. Indeed, my article was quickly reviewed and published online, but then, as I realized to my surprise, it would take another year until it is published in one of the journal’s volumes. My publication strategy was flawed, because I did not consider the time it takes from the online to the actual publication. As a postdoc, you tend to make less missteps, but I think you still need guidance from the more experienced researchers.

Daria: In the USA, PhD assumes three to four years of coursework and a dissertation. In contrast, a postdoc presupposes more independent research. Moreover, as a postdoc with international academic experience, I can share this knowledge. For example, recently, with colleagues from the institute, we delivered a workshop on preparing publications for foreign journals.

Ekaterina Paustyan

On the hierarchy between postdocs and their hosts

Adam: When I started working on my PhD at Durham, I was just out of my Master’s programme, and my supervisor was very senior to me. As time went by, the ‘PhD advisor-student’ relationship ultimately grew into a collaborative ‘peer-to-peer’ friendship. It all depends on when you gain a bit more equal footing. When you come in as a postdoc the peer-to-peer nature is more immediate.

Amanda: There is a distinction between intellectual hierarchy, of which there is very little, and organizational hierarchy, of which there is quite a lot. For example, I am working on a survey, and there is somebody at every level: senior visiting and Russian scholars, along with students. The organizational hierarchy is much less impactful when you are here for a brief period, whereas if you are an assistant professor, the hierarchy starts to matter quite a bit, as you are on this track to go up that hierarchy.

On key projects during a postdoc

Amanda: My dissertation was mostly about oil governance institutions, and in the current book, I develop a new theoretical concept of financial rentier states. I study the period from 2004 to 2014, and do qualitative (document-based) research. The oil industry produces an enormous amount of textual material, and almost all of it is available online: the press releases, annual reports, and CEO speeches. They are a rich way of understanding a historical period. One of the most memorable experience for me was the conference of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies in San Francisco in 2019, which used to be a place where I would meet my colleagues from Russia. However, this time, I was coming as a colleague from Russia. The event was in my home country, but it was a different experience, as I was presenting among my fellows from the lab.

Adam: I am working with the rest of the centre on how education and occupation can shape social mobility. I work on more quantitative approaches, which is a challenge in the existing sociology of culture as it features more qualitative and theoretical work. One of the big research issues I try to address is how proximity, both physical and psychological, to opportunity effects an individual’s trajectory. In the survey data, I have been trying to find out what dispositions and attitudes might lend to an understanding of opportunity. I use the data from a longitudinal survey our lab has been conducting since 2011. It is a good dataset, but it is also massive, and in the first year, I looked for matches between the data and the questions I want to pose.

Nikita Lychakov

Nikita: My research relates to the economic and financial history of the Russian Empire. From my experience, economic history is highly recurring: businessmen and bankers behave much in the same way today as they did 100 years ago. The beauty of working in the field of economic history is that I can do a historically-inclined paper, based mostly on narrative evidence, or I can do a more quantitative paper, based on numerical data. Best papers often combine both historical and numerical evidence. My most recent work relates to measuring labour productivity in Russian and British factories around the year 1908, just after the First Russian Revolution. My co-authors and I find that Russian factories were just 20 percent less labour productive than their British counterparts. Russia was one of the largest and most efficient manufacturers in the world at that time.

Daria: My project concerns how the Stalinist repressions are presented in Russian regional museums. This topic is aligned with the IGITI’s focus, since Irina Savelieva, its academic supervisor, and Andrey Poletayev, its founder, wrote one of the famous Russian books about public history and collective memory, Why Americans Don’t Know History. My article was just published in the journal Memory Studies. There, I suggest the new term ‘victim heroes’. The idea is that in regional museum exhibitions about repression, we often observe that the victims of repression are described not just as victims but also as heroes.

Ekaterina: My project is about the connections between regional elites in Russia. I will test several fundamental assumptions in the literature on the political economy of authoritarian regimes, namely, that in multilevel autocracies, regional elites perform certain functions, in particular, they mobilize voters to take part in elections to ensure the legitimacy of the regime. To do so, governors rely on political machines, which are based on their informal personal connections. While this assumption is plausible, no one has tested it in practice, which is my overall goal. I will do a cross-regional study, and then look at several cases, for example, Belgorod Oblast, where the governor was in power for 27 years; it will be interesting to study the networks, which he built.

Amanda Zadorian

On working as a postdoc remotely

Amanda: It has been going fine for several reasons. First, for a year and a half on campus in Russia, I have built social connections, and it is only a matter of maintaining those. When we get together on a Zoom call, we already know each other in person. Secondly, and luckily, I am between field projects. However, I do wish I had been able to meet my students in person.

Nikita: I think the pandemic has a different impact on everyone’s work, depending on where you are in your research process. If you need to have access to the historical archives and they are closed, then, certainly, you are at a disadvantage. However, if you are working on an article for which you have already collected data, then the pandemic has little effect on your progress.

On the importance of collaboration and ways of finding co-authors

Nikita: In many cases, it is better to join efforts with other researchers. Collaboration does not only accelerate the research process, but it also improves the quality of work. In my view, postdoctoral fellows should strive to co-author with an expert in their field. Finding such people is not always easy, and that is why, a postdoc should devote part of his or her time to finding strong co-authors. In the long run, a co-author might become a mentor, who could guide an early researcher not only through a particular publication, but also throughout his or her academic career. Most successful researchers are those who are lucky to find a supportive mentor.

Adam: As an early career researcher, I like working with other early career researchers since I find the earnestness and the hunger a bit more there. A senior academic is usually busy, and a collaborative paper can be low on their list. This is just the nature of their positions, versus the freedom and nature of the insecurity of where I am. I sometimes cold email international colleagues, and say ‘this is the paper I have, I am stuck on XYZ, do you want to jump onboard?’ Could I have done this while I did my PhD studies? I do not think so, as you have to have a few publications under your belt, so that they can Google your name and see something legitimate in some solid journals.

iStock / Anastasia Usenko

On examples of collaboration

Adam: I have a couple of research projects with Dmitry Kurakin, director of HSE Centre for Cultural Sociology, that are in various stages, as well as with other individual and collective collaborations with others in the centre. As for collaborations with Dmitry, he is very theoretical, while I am more of an empiricist. In one of the projects, we look at how people’s values affect their choices within the Russian educational system. What one values highly in a future job and career – whether it is money or respect or interesting work, and how that shapes one’s trajectory. If you want money, do you go onto a vocational track to get more money now or do you pass through all of the degrees to get more money later? What values in your future life do you want and how do they shape specific decision-making processes along your educational and occupational path?

Daria: In 2019, Boris Stepanov, Alisa Maximova and I wrote a chapter on local history for an edited volume, which will be published by Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie. The aim of this work, conceived by Vera Dubina and Andrei Zavadsky from Shaninka, is to develop an anthology of public history covering its various forms - museums, theatres, comics, computer games, and local history. Our task was to describe how public memory and local history are related. It could help, for example, a Master’s student to select a dissertation topic and understand where the gaps are. We considered the issue in theoretical terms, but we also took many examples from student sociological expeditions that Alisa has been doing in Russia over the last decade. Alisa and I have also been leading a research group and a series of workshops for the HSE Department of Communications, Media, and Design students on the topic of memory and the Internet. Some of them are already presenting their work at international conferences.

Amanda: In my first year, we did a workshop on state capitalism at the HSE April Conference. I had organized several workshops at the New School, but as a graduate student I dealt primarily with logistics. In terms of writing the programme and doing other intellectual work, this was my first experience with such a high-level conference. The audience was both Russian and international scholars from Brazil, Hungary, Germany, and the USA. As a result, we put together a journal issue, and I have an article there on the health, safety and environment practices at Rosneft and Petrobras, the two oil companies that I study.

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