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About Success Builder

How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features HSE University graduates who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences and lessons learnt and talk about how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.

What happens when a love for research knows no limit? It leads to a career in academia. How to start off on the right foot in science? What makes a young scientist successful in the eyes of the academic community and what do they do in postdoc programmes? Vladislav Khvostov, a graduate of the HSE University School of Psychology who is currently doing research in a postdoc programme at the University of Iceland, explained this and more to Success Builder.

How did you come to be a student of the HSE University psychology programme?

Many of my acquaintances were psychologists, real authorities, and this got me thinking about following the same path. Like many at that age, I wanted to get a better understanding of myself and not altruistically help others, as students who choose psychology often say. But after the first couple of years and playing with all of those questionnaires and delving into their own psyches, most of those who were going to help people wind up going into high-paying fields, especially HR.

At that time, classes were held in the Tekstilshchiki District and it was very convenient for me to get there from Podolsk. This was the last weighty argument in favour of HSE University. First, I chose the major—psychology—and then the university. I also considered other universities, but when I attended their open houses, I was disappointed. The open house at the HSE University School of Psychology was much better. I came away feeling that HSE was really super. I remember that at the time I paid attention to extracurricular life and to the applied aspect of education, and HSE really stood out from other universities in this regard.

For about a year I was doing what freshmen consider important—participating actively in student life and trying to get all I could from the university experience. Then I suddenly did an about-face and plunged into science.

Is that how you got into psychology, or had you been thinking about it during your earlier studies?

At the end of 10th grade, I went to a career counselor who told me that I was too extroverted and talkative for a therapist. In her opinion, science was also not for me, because ‘it requires perseverance and attention to detail’. So I should prepare for the HR field. As a result, during the first years of my undergraduate studies, I effectively ignored everything connected with the HSE laboratories and research-related work: I had been told very clearly that ‘this is not for you’.

For my first two years, I performed a lot with the campus comedy team. That was very inportant for me. But in my second year, I had several realisations related to psychology. One day during a seminar, I got into a heated argument with a teacher. It was my future research advisor, Igor Utochkin who, as a result, invited me to volunteer at the HSE Laboratory for Cognitive Research, gather data, and try my hand at science. I came and liked what I was doing there more and more each day. At the end of my second year, I officially joined the lab as a permanent employee and continue working there now. After that, I never had any doubt about what I was doing: I was clearly on the right track.

Is that when you decided you wanted a career in academia?

It was the moment I shifted my thinking towards getting a master’s. I definitely liked what I was doing because I was good at it. I didn’t think about money then: I had enough scholarships. I didn’t have those questions that torment people who vacillate between science and an applied career. People often think that going into science is like doing monastic penance, that choosing this path means living on bread and water, whereas if you go into industry, you’ll be swimming in money. I didn’t have such thoughts at all; I just liked studying and working at HSE.

You have chosen vision as the subject of your research. How is this related to psychology?

Actually, it was our laboratory’s focus. My research advisor studied vision, so I became interested in the field. We are not studying vision in a physiological sense; we are more interested in visual cognitive processes such as perception, attention, and memory. Like all cognitive sciences, of course we are closely intertwined with the neurosciences. We most often work with behavioural data such as reaction time and retention percentage, but sometimes we also use neuroscience, such as EEG.

Our vision team is the largest of the scientific groups in the laboratory. For example, one of the other groups studies the processing of emotional information. Another conducts fMRI studies of cognitive processes. One of the main topics that I deal with is related to the perception of summary statistics of ensembles. We study what information is available to the human vision system when interacting with numerous objects.

The main paradox is that, despite the fact that our memory and attention are terribly limited, we can say quite a lot about groups (ensembles) of objects as a whole

For example, one glance at an apple tree is enough to estimate the average size or colour of the apples on it, although we couldn’t possibly have looked at each apple individually.

I was extremely interested in people’s ability to visually seize on the statistical characteristics of a multitude of objects instantaneously. We study this phenomenon in its various manifestations. Is the calculation of visual statistics an automatic process or does it require our attention? Can a person calculate several statistics at the same time: for example, the average colour and average size of apples on a tree?

How important is the research advisor for a young person going into research?

For my academic career, no one was more important than my research advisor. I got very lucky with him; I know many people who switched advisors or even left science because of an unsuccessful choice. A lot of different mismatches can arise between a mentor and a young researcher, which can lead to a false conclusion: science is not for me. The secret of my success is that I got along very well with my advisor, we had many important things in common, and he helped me a lot. Choosing a mentor in science is key.

Did you enroll in the HSE master’s programme so you could continue working with your research advisor?

Yes, exactly! Also at that time, I participated in several projects, so that in addition to working with Igor Utochkin, I was mentored by Timothy Brady from the laboratory of the University of California, San Diego, which deepened my interest in science. The bachelor’s programme generally focused on psychology but the master’s programme was called Cognitive Sciences and Technologies and focused a bit more on neuroscience. I was very pleased with it and didn’t search for anything else. I went to postgraduate school for the same reason. I thought about going abroad and would undoubtedly have done well, but there were some circumstances that kept me in Russia. So I worked for three more years in graduate school with my research advisor. This turned out to be incredibly useful and great; we were able to carry out a number of studies and publish a lot.

I am 100% certain that the results of the work we did in the lab made a good contribution to international science

We have never focused only on the Russian market or written our papers in Russian, but have worked fully at the international level. After postgraduate school, I had a good scientific portfolio, so there was no problem finding a position to advance in my academic career. But truly, the ability to work in a different place with scientists from other universities in an interdisciplinary setting is important for the prestige of a young scientist. That’s why, after bachelor’s, master’s, or postgraduate studies, it is useful for young scientists to travel. From this point of view, I missed out on a lot by working for seven years in the same laboratory with one research advisor. Now, for the first time, I have changed my university, country, and environment; I should have integrated into international activities earlier.

How did you earn your reputation as a young, successful researcher?

The main thing that makes you attractive to the academic community is the number of publications you have in good, peer-reviewed journals. I have published four articles since postgraduate school, and this is a good indicator. It is also important for your CV as a scientist to attend international conferences and our laboratory has always participated actively in them. We regularly traveled to the U.S. for the Vision Sciences Society, the largest and most important conference on vision. This was useful because it enabled me to establish in-person contacts with the international scientific community. This is where you usually make contacts for future joint research and for getting feedback on your current scientific work.

In addition, you become more interesting as a unique researcher by having unusual skills, such as mastery of complex data analysis, computer modeling, or the ability to work with certain equipment: MRI, EEG, eye-trackers, etc. This allows us to look beyond the veil of our cognitive processes in the light of specific data and gain more accurate information about the brain and vision. This fact draws attention to you as a person who has experience with special equipment and can be extremely useful using such equipment in this or that laboratory.

What career options are there for people with postgraduate degrees?

Someone with a PhD usually studies in a postdoctoral programme, but might also go to work in industry. In the case of cognitivie science, a large and popular field of business is UX/UI research, such as creating user-friendly interfaces, websites, and applications.

With a good scientific background, you can work with data, propose and test hypotheses, and much more. These are very valuable skills in the industry that you can get good money for now

Any industry job will always pay more than in academia, plus you don’t have to worry about getting published and so on. But the downside, in my opinion, is the fact that you aren’t doing science, you don’t set out to learn anything new and almost always just follow the company’s instructions. These are not very lofty goals.

In science, you can only do what interests you and what you are best at. For example, I want to know how visual perception or memory works in order to understand what they really are, to discover the truth. This is not at all the same as making money for a company by working in the industry because there the motivation is not so idealistic and wonderful. It’s just work for the sake of work. It is difficult to work on enthusiasm alone; sooner or later you’ll burn out. I have very limited experience working with companies, but from my conversations with colleagues who have chosen the commercial path, I concluded that working in science suits me better.

As for the academic path, after getting your PhD the next step is the postdoc. There aren’t many professorial positions available, so it has become popular in recent years to take postdoc status at a university that does a lot of research and has its own laboratories. As a rule, this involves a contract for 2–3 years for paid work in some laboratory in order to deal with various issues, gain more experience, and see how science is done in other conditions. The same research question can be considered in completely different ways by different research teams: different methods, a different approach to working with data, etc. You also learn how to manage a laboratory, how many people are necessary, and whether it is necessary or effective to apply for dozens of grants at once.

As soon as you land a professorial position, you can go straight from postdoc to full-time work at the university. Some find such a job after the first two years of postdoc, while for others it can take 10 years and working in four different laboratories. It all depends on the person, on their contracts; one might be unsure and want to gain more experience first and another might be dependend on outside factors.

What makes the postdoc programme interesting?

A postdoc is just a contract by which a university lab hires you as a researcher on a project. Right now I have a two-year contract to work on a certain project. Most often, the laboratory has a grant, which specifies the duration of the project, the number of articles and participants. The laboratory announces a competition, receives applications, conducts interviews, and the grant directors select those who are the best fit. Once you are hired, work begins. You can also extend your postdoc or switch to another, and then get a postdoc again depending on your goals and how lucky you are in finding a permanent position as a professor.

Why did you choose the University of Iceland?

There are different strategies for how to search for a postdoc. Some prefer following the work of several different labs and writing to them directly. I took a different path: I looked for vacancies and applied for them. I was open to new projects and places, submitted about 15 applications, and was pleasantly surprised that the process of applying for a postdoc is much easier than finding a PhD programme, which requires a lot of paperwork. A postdoc is good because it’s just a job: the project manager is looking for employees with a specific profile, so you don’t need to submit a ton of documents (as you would for a master’s or a PhD programme). For most of these vacancies, you only have to send a CV and what is called a ‘research interests statement’, where you briefly talk about yourself and the type of research you’d like to do.

It so happened that one of my first interviews was with at the University of Iceland, and they quickly sent me an offer. I had several more offers and upcoming interviews, but at some point I sat down and realized that I liked the project and the laboratory in Iceland the most, so I decided to accept their offer.

Iceland is a very beautiful country, but before my arrival, the remote location and weather frightened me a bit. I expected constant rain, cold and darkness

After a month here, it turned out that my tactic of having low expectations worked perfectly: the weather isn’t so bad, not to mention the incredible beauty of the glaciers, geysers, volcanoes, waterfalls and northern lights. Yes, it’s a long way from continental Europe and you have to fly everywhere, but that’s okay.

What does the laboratory do and what project are you currently working on there?

The lab is called the Icelandic Vision Lab and it generally looks at a wide range of phenomena related to visual perception and attention. My project is also about the perception of multiple objects, but a little more biased towards attention. I study attention patterns. They play a major role in the task of visual search: for example, when we look for blueberries in the forest, we are guided by the memory of its shape, colour, etc. We compare the colours of objects and try to recognize the one we are looking for. Question: Is the visual search pattern really one specific colour and shape value (the ‘perfect blueberry)? We are trying to prove that, contrary to the generally accepted theory, the attention pattern is not a single feature value, but a whole distribution of possible values. This corresponds to real life: when we pick blueberries, different berries can be of different colours and shapes depending on the sun, falling shadows, shading by leaves, and so on. In particular, for the project we use VR (virtual reality), which is a new technique for me.

What will you do after the postdoc, teach?

At HSE University, I taught first-year master’s students and seminars on cognitive psychology for undergraduates for five years. It was an interesting experience, so I could choose this path, but I think I like research activities more. I really enjoy teaching at HSE University because they have motivated, strong students. Teaching provided the necessary balance between hours spent in the lab and meeting new people. The students asked a lot of interesting questions, which gave me a surge of energy and inspiration. It sort of rekindled my desire to make progress in my research.

After my contract in Iceland expires, I plan to go for a second postdoc. I can’t say exactly where it will be, but I would like to have a shot at working at a lab in the U.S. In the future, I’ll look for a professorship at a university somewhere in order to create my own scientific group.