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‘My Research Interests Took Shape When I Was a Master’s Student’

Zaruhi Hakobyan

Zaruhi Hakobyan
Photo courtesy of Zaruhi Hakobyan

Zaruhi Hakobyan earned her Bachelor’s degree in Yerevan, her Master’s from HSE University, and her PhD from both HSE University and the University of Luxembourg. She spoke to the HSE News Service about the differences in academic approaches at various universities.

From Yerevan to Moscow

I was born in the city of Gyumri, Armenia. When I graduated from high school, my family moved to Yerevan. There, I was admitted to Armenian State University of Economics (ASUE), where I majored in Business Organization and received two special scholarships: one named after Vladimir Nerkarayan, the University’s founder, and another named after the famous Russian scientist Dmitry Mendeleev. The latter scholarship is funded by the Russian Federation, and it is awarded to only ten students in Armenia.

During my bachelor’s studies, I became interested in Japanese management and was looking for a master’s programme in this field in Japan. But in 2011, there was an earthquake in Japan, and my family objected to my going there. In the end, I decided to go to Russia, since my uncle lives in Moscow. A macroeconomics professor from ASUE recommended that I choose between HSE University and the New Economic School, and I started researching the two schools’ admissions processes. I saw an announcement about Russian government scholarships at HSE University and applied for a Master’s programme here.

Olga Demidova, Academic Director of the HSE Doctoral School of Economics

Zaruhi Hakobyan has always been special among our students thanks to her positive attitude, friendliness, unforgettable smile, and incredible drive. She is a warm person; she always participated in our doctoral seminars with particular interest and passion; she asked interesting questions and offered useful comments to the other participants; she organized summer schools and has always been ready to help. Zaruhi has quickly grown as an academic during her doctoral studies. The Doctoral School of Economics is proud of its outstanding graduate and wishes Zaruhi further academic success!

An admissions committee from Moscow came to Yerevan to conduct interviews with applicants. At the interview, Tatiana Chetvernina, then head of International Admissions Office, recommended that I apply for the Preparatory Year at HSE University, which I did. The reason was that curricula at Russian and Armenian universities are different, and I needed additional training to successfully continue my studies at the Master’s level.

From Oxford to Luxembourg

I have always loved being a student, and as an undergraduate, I also got interested in research. Of course, then, I did not completely understand what academic research was, all the more so that in Armenia, when you talk about social disciplines, academia is associated with teaching at university. But when I was a Master’s and then a doctoral student at HSE University, I came to understand that academic research is about creating something new, something that can explain what is going on and improve the world around us. In the PhD programme, I was exempted from most exams since I already passed them as a Master’s student. This helped me allocate more time to research and summer schools.

Photo courtesy of Zaruhi Hakobyan

Once, when I was coming back from a summer school at the University of Oxford, I got an email from Olga Demidova, Academic Director of the HSE Doctoral School of Economics, addressed to all doctoral students. It was about an opportunity for a short-term three-month visit to the University of Luxembourg. My flight was delayed by five or six hours, and I spent this time preparing and sending the application. It was up to the University to choose which students to invite, and they chose me. During the study visit, I met Christos Koulovatianos. He was among the few people who new my topic well, and he suggested we work together. This is how I was admitted to a PhD programme at the University of Luxembourg while being a doctoral student at HSE University.

‘Cotutelle Doctoral Student’

Since then, I was considered a ‘cotutelle doctoral student’ – 75% Moscow-based and 25% Luxembourg-based, which means I had to be in Luxembourg for three months a year. The difference in study processes in these two doctoral programmes is mainly in course value assessment. At HSE University, doctoral courses start from three credits; in addition, there are various types of academic activities that can be included in the curriculum. At the University of Luxembourg, each course is only one credit, and you have to get your 20 credits with different courses only.

I was lucky to have my academic supervisors. They have different approaches to research and work. Cemal Eren Arbatli at HSE University does everything according to a plan, and you clearly know when and what you are going to discuss with him. Christos, on the other hand, could schedule a meeting at 10 am, but it would actually take place at 5 pm. I can relate to Eren’s approach more, since I love when everything is planned and organized, but Christos’s approach reminds me of my home country. Armenians are always late, too.

Thesis

My research interests took shape when I was a Master’s student. In my Master’s thesis, I developed a model that promotes better understanding of strategic interaction between agents in coordination games in dynamics with asymmetric information, and I continued to work on this topic as a doctoral student. Strategic interaction between agents is not a new subject in microeconomics and game theory, but research on this topic continues to develop.

Alexey Zakharov, Associate Professor of the HSE Faculty of Economic Sciences, reviewer

One of the phenomena studied by Zaruhi Hakobyan in her thesis is the appearance of ‘mirror rooms’ – network structures that unite people with similar interests and attitudes, where information from the outside hardly spreads. Zaruhi demonstrated that such structures evolve when people include only like-minded people in their reference groups. Then, the she looked at how the appearance of ‘mirror rooms’ can be prevented. This is a very relevant topic: why people in society believe different sources of information, and how a public consensus is maintained (or destroyed).

The issues I study in my doctoral thesis offer a new perspective of strategic interactions and explain different phenomena that we observe in our real-life situations. For example, during the Notre-Dame de Paris fire, Donald Trump’s statement got more attention than the statement made by an expert from the French Social Security Service. There is clear evidence of correlation between political views and trust in science, medical discoveries, vaccines, and more.

My thesis consists of one paper in ‘pure’ theory and two papers in applied theory. The first paper looks at strategic interactions between agents in Markovian differential games – I developed a precise formula that helps study the potential for sustainable endogenous growth in community strategy games (such as in industries that use a specific mutual infrastructure or corrupt officials). The two other papers are focused on forecasting and managing the evolution of a network in accordance with higher-order beliefs (beliefs about people or machines believing other people’s convictions related to specific actions).

Defense Process

Thesis defense processes in Russia and Luxembourg are organized differently. In Russia, at least six months before the defense, all the applicants pass an obligatory process of preliminary defense; then, they submit their portfolios, the committee makes their comments and announces the final decision on admittance to the defense. From this moment on, the text of the thesis can’t be changed. In Luxembourg, the student comes directly to defense, and there, the committee may decide that it is necessary to make amendments to the text. If needed, the applicant gets three to six months to make all the amendments and submit the final text.

Despite these differences, my defense process was simultaneous: the University of Luxembourg agreed to follow HSE’s procedure, and in fact, the process accorded with its requirements. As it turned out, only an online format was possible during the pandemic.

I had an ‘all-star’ thesis committee that included Sergey Guriev, Alexey Kushnir, Vladimir Asriyan, Alexey Zakharov and Roberto Steri. I personally knew only Alexey Zakharov and Roberto Steri. They saw a few of my presentations on the topic of the thesis, and, speaking in economic terms, I had certain expectations in terms of their comments. The globally renowned Sergey Guriev, Alexey Kushnir, and Vladimir Asriyan were external experts. I hadn’t met them in person and was very anxious to hear their comments. I did my best to be prepared for them.

As any researcher in my field would, for example, I watched Sergey Guriev’s lectures, read a paper of his that I didn’t cite in my thesis, and talked to my friend Vladimir Avetyan, who has Sergey Guriev as academic supervisor.

Photo courtesy of Zaruhi Hakobyan

In the end, the defense went well, I received a degree of Candidate of Sciences (Econ.) from HSE University and a PhD in Economics from the University of Luxembourg.

Another PhD?

After the defense, I applied to over 70 places for postdoc and assistant professor positions. As of today, I’ve received an invitation for an interview only from Budapest. I am also considering getting a PhD in computer science.

Oxana Budjko, Head of International Office, Faculty of Economic Sciences

Zaruhi Hakobyan has become the first doctoral student at our faculty who studied and defended a thesis at HSE and at a partner university abroad at the same time. To make such a project a success, what we need first if all is the concurrence of research interests of the student and the two academic supervisors, which importantly, should happen at an early stage of doctoral studies. It is hard to talk about repeating this experience, although we would like to very much. So, we’ll look at Zaruhi’s double degree as an inspiration for new doctoral students.

Arranging a curriculum for a double doctoral programme required certain administrative effort. Cemal Eren Arbatli from HSE and Christos Koulovatianos from the University of Luxembourg agreed to jointly serve as advisors in January 2018. But the agreement with the University of Luxembourg was signed only in October 2019 – its coordination took more than six months. And this was given that everyone was willing to help, wanted this project to be a success, and was happy when the defence happened.

For me personally, Zaruhi Hakobyan during her doctoral studies was the best partner in crime: we both love adventurous projects. Together, we organized two summer schools in Yerevan: in 2018 and 2019. It was her idea, and she talked the other doctoral students into teaching economics to Armenian students. I believe we’ll be hearing of more achievements in research and education from Zaruhi Hakobyan soon.

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