HSE Student Gets into a PhD Programme at Stanford
Each year, scores of HSE students from varying disciplines set off for PhD programmes at some of the best universities in the world. Nadezhda Kotova, who is currently in her final year of the HSE-NES joint programme in economics, tells us how she got into the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
From Physics to Economics
I went to school in Tambov at the Physics and Mathematics Lyceum No. 14, many of whose students have gone on to study at HSE, the Physics and Mathematics Institute, and other famous universities. We have several different areas of specialisation there. I graduated in 2012 and studied physics and mathematics. We didn’t have an economics specialisation at the time, but one of my teachers came from another school that did, and she organised a small economics group at the lyceum. I decided to go and see how it was. I was fine with math, but I wasn’t thinking of making a career out of it, which is why I became interested in economics. I liked it and wanted to delve deeper. I had never won any economics Olympiads, which really motivated me to learn more about the subject. I ultimately ended up taking home a prize in an Olympiad when I was in the 11th grade, and thanks to this, I got into HSE.
Taking Risks and Succeeding
I decided on which university I wanted to go to in the 10th grade. Before the National Olympiad in Economics, I participated in another HSE Olympiad. I liked it so much that I decided HSE was the only place I wanted to go to school. It was difficult deciding on a faculty though. I initially wanted to study in the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, then ICEF, then just the Faculty of Economic Sciences, but by the time I reached the 11th grade, HSE and the New Economic School had opened up their joint bachelor’s programme. I also had my doubts here though – a new bachelor’s programme, not a single alumnus yet, and it wasn’t very clear what this could lead to. That is, this was the riskier option, but if everything goes according to plan, the riskier options usually reap the highest rewards. This was what happened in my case.
The Allure of Science
Everything started when I became interested in different subjects. We have a very broad range of courses you can take – not only required economics and math classes, but many others as well, from the humanities all the way to biology and astrophysics. This pushes you to think about things more broadly. I just liked learning and going to lectures, mostly because the professors were great at talking about their fields in an interesting way. Then I started working as a teaching assistant for a game theory class taught by Dmitry Dagaev. This was a completely new experience for me, and I got to look at the academic process from another perspective.
If your grades aren’t great, you have to make up for this by having outstanding recommendations. And you’ll still have to work hard for this as well
When you put a lot of effort into something, everything unfolds like a chain reaction. First you’re interested in taking classes, then you’ll want to teach them, then you’ll find something interesting outside of the course and you’ll start going to different academic seminars. You’ll see people there who tell you about their own research, and you’ll want to do something similar. Then you’ll realise that your professors are also doing research and that you can help them, so you turn from a teaching assistant into a research assistant.
When you become a research assistant, you get to delve deeper into the research process, and something crucial happens – either you like it and you want to keep doing it, or you realise that it’s not really for you. As for me, I liked it and decided that I needed to build my own career in research and get my PhD.
From Harvard to NES
We have exchange programmes with various universities abroad, and because of this I studied at Harvard for a semester. My first experience working on a research project was when I worked as a research assistant for Philippe Aghion, a renowned expert on contract theory. It was really interesting work, and I decided to continue working on it when I returned, which is why I became a research assistant for Douglas Campbell at the New Economic School. We worked on international trade projects, and I had a lot of different responsibilities, including searching for data, as well as data processing and analysis. Through another project, I had the opportunity of working with Simeon Djankov. The project was rather small, but it made it to an RBC publication on the top 500 companies in Russia. RBC collected a large amount of data on Russian business, and we helped them analyse it.
I also had the opportunity to work on another interesting project being carried out by Harvard Business School Professor Eugene Soltes, who was working on a research project with Sarah Hess. Sarah came to Moscow to meet with people as part of the research, and because she doesn’t speak Russian and wasn’t very comfortable navigating Moscow, she needed an assistant. It was a fun experience.
Researching Success and Fair Earnings
Everything started with my semester at Harvard when I took a course for PhD students on decision theory. I was interested in the issues the course touched upon, and after returning to Moscow, I decided to write my thesis on the topic. My thesis advisor was NES Professor Andrei Savochkin, but after discussing some of the specificities with him, I decided to change my main focus. So now I’m writing about microeconomic theory.
My main question was this: assuming that employees want to be paid a fair salary, how do we determine what the word ‘fair actually means? In the model I proposed, fair wages were defined as wages that corresponded with the amount of effort an employee puts forth. But this isn’t always what ends up happening because oftentimes there are external factors that the employee has no control over. We can call this success. If something doesn’t work out for a hard-working employee, he or she might get upset, lose motivation, and put forth less effort. After all, the employee’s hard work doesn’t seem to yield the desired amount of pay.
Coming up with a list of universities you are going to apply to is a very important step. If you overestimate your abilities, it’s very likely you won’t get in anywhere
I’m looking at a situation in which workers are given tasks with varying ‘levels’ of success. In one task, there’s a lot of ‘external noise;’ that is, the result might be significantly above or significantly below the amount of effort put forth. In other tasks, one’s success at completing a task might not be as meaningful. Employees can also have different preferences, as some are more tolerant than others when it comes to ‘fairness.’ My work focuses on how best to distribute such tasks among these kinds of workers.
I haven’t yet decided on what kind of research I’d like to do going forward. I think my interests might change radically after I start my PhD programme, thanks to either the classes I take or the professors I work with. But overall, Stanford’s programme is famous for having a very strong theoretical group. This is exactly why I decided to go there – I’m studying theory already.
On the Way Towards Becoming a Professor
When you enter into a PhD programme, you are agreeing to a specific lifestyle for the next five or six years of your life, as well as to a career path as a whole. When you get your PhD, you typically expect to teach at the university level, first as an assistant professor, and then ideally as a tenured professor. But you have to conduct research to do this, which is why the main purpose of a PhD programme is to learn how to conduct high-quality research, how to ask the right research questions, and how to master the tools that allow you to answer these questions.
Overall, people at Western universities expect that Russians will likely be more involved in theoretical research than empirical. But our competitive advantage is that we are good at math, which is why we are partly responsible for this stereotype.