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'You Have to Work Seven Days a Week. But I’ve Never Enjoyed Studying as Much as I Do This Year'

Yulia Zhestkova, graduate of the HSE-NES Joint Programme

Yulia Zhestkova, graduate of the HSE-NES Joint Programme

A year ago Yulia Zhestkova, a graduate of the HSE-NES Joint Programme got into the PhD programme in economics at the University of Chicago immediately after completing her bachelor’s. Below, Yulia tells the HSE News Service how the programme is structured, what the instructors – among whom are Nobel Prize Laureates – are like, and what you have to confess to yourself before going into a PhD programme.

Admissions

I got experience working at a bank while I was still a student at HSE. I think this was one of the best internships out there for a freshman. I was clearly at one of the best places, but I realised almost immediately that this really wasn’t for me. I could try to take a different route, consulting, but I was fairly certain of what things were like in the consulting world, so I knew this also wasn’t for me. It’s important for me to understand what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and what the ultimate goal is. Goals like ‘do it because it needs to be done’ or ‘that’s what the client asked for’ aren’t enough for me. I find it demotivating. I thought that I needed either to launch my own startup – though I don’t have an entrepreneurial bone in my body – or get my PhD. I’ve always enjoyed learning, so around my junior year I started thinking more seriously about applying. I did a lot of research and wanted to know how everything was set up in PhD programmes.

I applied to several programmes, but as soon as I started getting responses from places like Princeton and Stanford, I withdrew a lot of my applications so as not to affect other applicants. The selection process was short and painless – I went to Chicago and really liked everything there, and despite ideas about how it would be scary and uncertain, I decided to try anyway. I liked the programme at the University of Chicago much better than all the others I applied to. I did my undergrad in the HSE-NES joint programme right when it opened, and I felt like it was a good idea to go into programmes that were just starting to develop. In a certain sense, the programme at the University of Chicago is the same; it has been reborn, the overall approach has changed, and my area of focus was one of the first. I always take the road less travelled when I can get away with it.

Expectation Versus Reality

I think people go into PhD programmes with two polar ideas. The first is, ‘boy, what am I doing here – they’ll throw me out as soon as they realise how dumb I am.’ Impostor syndrome increased in scale. The second opposing idea is, ‘okay so I got in – now I’ve got the city in my pocket and will be a star.’ I don’t know which of these ideas is better, but I think it might be the first. I went to Chicago certain that I didn’t know anything and that something crazy would happen. And something crazy really did happen.

What was hardest about the first two months was probably getting used to the new rhythm. All HSE students who focus on achieving academic excellence think that they work hard. But it only seems this way. In reality, compared to what’s expected of you in a PhD programme, you weren’t doing anything during your undergrad. A completely different level of work ethic and productivity is required of you. 

All HSE students who focus on achieving academic excellence think that they work hard. But it only seems like this

Of course, a lot depends on your starting position. I’m the youngest and most inexperienced person in my programme, and I have the least amount of educational background in the field. There are 21 of us from 15 countries, including Mexico, China, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, European countries, and the U.S. These are mostly people with at least a master’s degree or some work experience in a scientific field. There’s also someone with a PhD in mathematics. Sometimes this person will ask you during class, ‘Whoa, what’s happening? I don’t understand anything.’ And you look at them and think, ‘Well imagine what it’s like for me then if even you aren’t getting it.’ It’s not easy from a moral standpoint because you are used to always being one of the best, but you understand that this isn’t the case here, to put it mildly. You shouldn’t think about it and just stay focused; in the end you’ll achieve the same level of results as everyone else.

When entering into a PhD programme, a lot of people think they know what their schedule will be like. I was the same: I’m going to a city that has cool jazz bars and everything under the sun, so I’m going to work during the week and enjoy my free time on the weekend. But no, this isn’t how it works so don’t even try… This isn’t to scare you. Your first year, you really do need to work seven days a week. But I have to say that I’ve never enjoyed studying as much as I do this year. I was really lucky with the joint HSE programme and the education I got here, and to this day I think that it’s the best thing that could have happened to me after high school. But still, the most wonderful academic year – in spite of my horror stories – happened after I started my PhD. 

How Everything Is Structured

You take a huge pause in your development as a researcher your first year because you don’t have time to do research or read about anything that’s not connected to what you’re covering at that specific point in time. As for economics classes in my programme, everything is fairly banal – microeconomics, macroeconomics, and econometrics. Essentially only three subjects, but it’s of course at a completely different level. You study them your entire first year in a completely in-depth and mathematically focused way. My university is very strong as far as macroeconomics is concerned, and you spend a lot of time on this. In my programme, aside from midterm exams throughout the year, there are also end-of-year exams the summer after your first year.

The second year, you select the specialization you’re interested in and start taking more applied courses. You get closer to contemporary economics. Some also become a teaching assistant. Additionally, at the end of your second year you have to compile a portfolio of your work. This is the first step towards your diploma. You start testing out your quill and writing. You meet with professors and share your ideas.

Overall, the academic load ends after your second year. Sure, no one bans you from taking certain courses, but until that time you have to pass all of your exams. The third, fourth, fifth, and possibly sixth year are devoted to your research. You write articles, possibly work in a laboratory, all while teaching most likely. In general, it seems that if you know what you want to do, things get more interesting after your second year.

A Favourite Teacher

I think the biggest piece of culture shock this year came in the form of my teacher Lars Peter Hansen, a 2013 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics. The University of Chicago has a lot of Nobel laureates – I’ve had three as teachers – but Professor Hansen is even special among that pool of people. He taught my econometrics course my second trimester; that is, it wasn’t the first trimester and everyone already had a good foundation in the subject. But when he started speaking, we didn’t even understand what the subject was or what was happening overall. This lasted about a month. I probably spent the most amount of time on this subject because I was so incredibly scared of not understanding anything.

His is an entirely different level of thinking, and he truly didn’t understand why something was unclear to students. For him it was like ‘grass is green’ or something, which is why he couldn’t explain it more simply. But as soon as you grasp his rhythm and way of thinking and see how he presents material, what you need to do, and what you should pay attention to, then you see what sorts of unbelievably interesting things you are being taught, and you begin to appreciate how incredible everything he’s saying is. This is beautiful from a scientific standpoint, and this realisation is one of the most wonderful feelings I’ve ever had.

Things to Known When Applying for a PhD

No one takes this advice seriously, but if you’re applying for a PhD you should know why you’re doing it. If it’s because you want to go abroad, there are other ways of doing that. You need to know what you’re getting yourself into; otherwise it’s just a waste of time and resources. I often get messages from people who are preparing their applications, and they ask from whom they should get recommendations, what they need to do, and how to fill out the paperwork. In general, this isn’t a problem, but are you certain this is what you need?

Sometimes this person will ask you during class, “Whoa, what’s happening? I don’t understand anything.” And you look at them and think, “Well imagine what it’s like for me then if even you aren’t getting it

At HSE, they tell you a lot about how to apply for a PhD programme. They talk about winning strategies, but very little is said about what these strategies are and why they are necessary. I don’t think this is right. When I came to Chicago, I had a fairly realistic idea about what was happening and how things were structured, but it turns out that even my own idea wasn’t accurate. I know people who went without understanding a single thing. Of course, all programmes are built differently, but any top university has about the same workload. If during all of this craziness, you don’t quite understand why all of this is necessary, then it will be very difficult to finish out the year. 

I ask everyone to think about this. I think that if you can’t love what you do, you should at least have positive feelings about it. Don’t just study because you need to pass an exam, but try to get motivated and understand that you’re interested in this field. Remember that you want to understand and that in the future your knowledge will be another tool in your tool belt.

Five Years from Now

As for what comes after the five years of school that lie ahead of me, I think I’d like to go into academia. They say everyone has this plan at first, but that’s not true. Some of my classmates went into the PhD programme knowing that they wanted to join the private sector afterwards. Most of the time these are people who just like learning and who are generally very curious.

I’ve already decided to focus on macroeconomics. It’s often the case that students start a PhD programme focusing on one field, but then decide to go into another. People sometimes only understand this after their third year, but I fortunately got there earlier.

My joint undergraduate programme had very close connections to the New Economic School, which is strong in microeconomics. This is why we had so many courses on it. It was a slightly worse situation with macroeconomics, and when I was applying for PhD programmes, I felt like this was my Achilles Heel. I thought I’d catch up and forget about microeconomics, but in the end, when I had to thoroughly understand it, I was really captivated and decided that this is where I needed to be. I haven’t yet decided on a specific topic though. This is difficult to do if you aren’t very immersed in the contemporary literature, and this is exactly what I plan to spend August on.

Remembering my research on lobbyism, I can say that this doesn’t seem like a dead-end idea, and I hope to return to it someday. But now I don’t have enough hands for it, so to speak. I want to try something new while I have the strength, and I want to try exploring completely new horizons.

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