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Bridging Central Banks and Academia

HSE University bulletin HSE Look’s interview with ICEF Associate Professor Udara Peiris


Dr. Udara Peiris is an Associate Professor at the International College of Economics and Finance. He holds a PhD from the University of Oxford. He was awarded tenure in 2015.

Dr. Udara Peiris

Six years ago, in an interview for The HSE Look, you named two strands of your research interests: monetary policy and financial stability. Has this changed and, if so, why?

In terms of the core subject material, it’s more or less the same: the interaction of macroeconomics and finance. However, when I first came, I was mostly doing theoretical work, and now I am doing much more quantitative work, working on the models which central banks and policymakers would find useful in guiding their policy-decisions. Moreover, when it comes to students, I like them to work on a broader range of topics because that helps me to keep my mind fresh: from students’ presentations, I learn a lot, which I don’t have time to learn myself.

You have worked and interned at a hedge fund, commercial bank, and a national central bank, but chose to be a researcher. Why?

For me, this type of structured environment, the idea of waking up and coming home at a certain time of a day, was not something I could really do. Furthermore, I prefer to feel ownership over my projects and work on longer projects than smaller tasks. Therefore, I looked for a career where I could be managing something on my own, something that I would enjoy, but for most things I was exposed to, that was not the case. Ultimately, since I was very young, I was genuinely curious about how the world works, and that has driven me. Therefore, it was not a difficult decision to make, because I felt whatever career I took I would have had this opportunity to understand the world and make it better.

When a student comes to you and asks advice on joining the academia what do you usually say?

It’s useful to be direct and honest. First, I try to understand whether they know what they are talking about. There’s a bad idea among some students that a PhD programme should be an easy way to get a free Master’s degree: ‘if you enrol and if you fail the exams, you still get a Master’s and can apply for a job’. Moreover, I have to explain that this is extremely bad for the reputation of ICEF and the people that wrote reference letters for them. I also have to explain that the point of most, if not all, top PhD programmes is to produce professors.

If they want to do a PhD, they should have in mind that they want to be a professor

Of course, they may not at the end, but the true motivation should be as such. Second, I try to tell them all the bad things about being an academic as it is not a very structured and transparent path.

In many jobs, if you do certain tasks well, you can be rewarded and promoted; but in research, you can do something great, but it may not produce results. Therefore, there has to be internal toughness to be able to deal with disappointments and setbacks.

Finally, there should be curiosity and intrinsic motivation for doing in-depth research.

Your students are indeed actively choosing academia, but there was a remarkable year – 2017 – when all four ended up in pursuing a PhD: at Wisconsin-Madison, Boston, Rochester, and Cornell. What made that year, or that cohort, so special?

It was more than just a coincidence, as we have talented students every year. However, it is rare to find many who are interested in macrofinance, and the fact that I had them was a luck. Nevertheless, that group of students from 2017 (Katya Kazakova, Elias Ilin, Natalia Gimpelson, and Katya Potemkina) were, and are, exceptionally gifted.

When I decide to write a reference letter for a student applying to a PhD programme, I think about two things. One is whether they will pass the first year of PhD exams and, secondly, once they go through it, how successful they will be in producing research, which will be used for academic job market.

Those are difficult things to evaluate in somebody who is 20-21 and has never done research. I had known the students you mentioned for at least two years as they came to me in Year 3 and worked intensively.

I realised they were good enough and challenged them with even more difficult topics to work on

They also observed each other, and a little sense of healthy competition helped them to understand the level they can reach. I am very proud about how they progressed through PhD exams and now they are doing very well. They are still in touch.

I am very proud and happy when they contact or meet me when they come back to Moscow and tell me about their progress and success, but most of all, when they tell me of their happiness in their chosen path and life.

You have co-authored several articles with your PhD supervisor Dr. Dimitrios Tsomocos, with the most recent one being published last year. Was it difficult to find such a match, or was it a lucky coincidence?

So far, our collaboration has been an evolution of our paper in the Journal of Mathematical Economics, which is the core material from my PhD dissertation and develops the models about financial stability he has been famous for. His advising style is very different from the British style, where the student is more or less left on their own. He has completed his own studies in the US, more of an American style of advising, which is more structured.

I think the most important thing is that he is very well trained, especially, in formal, rigorous modelling. I felt that, for an academic career that could last for 50-60 years, I needed strong foundational training and I believed I could receive that from him. Plus, the topics he was working on—banks and financial stability policy—were the ones I wanted to understand and learn. He is also a caring person and invested in helping and developing of his students.

I am forever grateful for the time and effort he spent in developing me as a researcher and as a person. Much of my approach to advising my own students comes from my experiences with him.

If we can compare this sustainable relationship with those one has with new co-authors, why and how do these new names appear?

Co-authoring is like a marriage. It could be people from different places in the same field that you see at conferences. It can be a friend of a friend. You can have a conversation that may last for several years, and then at some point, you converge on something to do.

I am generally very open-minded and I like different projects and ideas. I have started a lot of different projects with different people. Many of them have not been worked out yet, but it is not something that can’t happen in the future, it’s an ongoing process.

On the other side of the research realm, you collaborate with nine journals as a referee and evaluate the work of others. Can you tell us more about this experience?

The refereeing process is an important part of this profession. It ensures standards and often referees are the only ones who read papers carefully. When you write a paper, you may present it in many places and send it to a lot of people.

However, one rarely reads it line by line except the referees. As a referee, you have to work out whether a paper is making a meaningful contribution and if yes, you must make sure that it is formulated very well. This can be quite a long process.

What has changed for you since attaining tenure?

For me personally, not a lot has changed. The tenure track system makes you focus more on quantity of publications, as you need a certain number for a certain date. Nevertheless, after tenure, you can focus more on quality and impact within and outside of academia. It is also the original intention: tenure is not a reward for publishing effectively.

A tenure designation is a decision on whether this person is able to produce something bigger and greater after they are awarded tenure. Unfortunately, it has become something of a prize.

However, most people I know view tenure as an opportunity to work on something with a bigger impact

So, since getting tenure, I was able to start a new project, which took two years to develop. Research can be more fun if you do not have to worry about deadlines. It has never been something I worried about too much, but I always had it in mind and tried to be systematic in getting the publications out.

The main thing is now I can focus on riskier projects and longer-term projects with a focus on developing my own skills and knowledge – that’s the main benefit that tenure gives

As for admin duties, they have never overloaded me, though I do a little more now. For example, I have chaired a search committee for recruitment of new faculty members. There are periods where I have put my time in for administration, but it’s not really a big burden for me.

ICEF and HSE have tried to minimise the administrative duties of senior faculty so that we can focus on research. I know the system in the UK, how many meetings and reviews they have, and what administration really means. So, it’s great here.

What advice can you offer to current tenure-track faculty?

I would tell them to be practical because, unless they are very sure their one or two papers are going to appear in a top journal, it is better sometimes to go a little bit lower and get more papers in if you know chances are much higher.

There is always a risk that you keep hoping for a big fish, but it never comes out that way. At the end of a day, at least at ICEF, when the tenure package and all the papers are read, it matters not only where it’s published, but also how good the paper is.

If the paper is good, the tenure panel will take this in account. So, be practical, be aware of the time constraints, and plan your publications in a strategic way, so that within five/six years, or whatever your tenure clock is, you can have the number of publications that you need. You should speak to senior people early and get a sense of the timeline and a likely journal in which your research can be published.

July 24, 2020