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.
Alexey Parakhonyak graduated from HSE in 2004 and now works as an associate professor at Lincoln College, Oxford. In this interview with Success Builder, Mr Parakhonyak explained why HSE attracted the best professors right from the start, how Erasmus University teaches its PhD students, how to win students’ hearts and what, besides the university, makes the city of Oxford interesting.
You could easily have studied mathematics instead of economics? Why didn’t you?
Yes, that’s right. If I hadn’t gone to HSE, I would have studied at MSU’s Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics because that’s what my parents were pushing for. After doing well in the Academic Olympics, I had a choice of universities guaranteeing me automatic admittance. I chose the closest: HSE was just a 7-minute walk from home. I entered in 1988 along with a classmate who had sat only a couple of desks away from me for years in high school. There were other considerations, too. After various events in those years, the question arose as to whether mathematics offered long-term prospects as a profession, and so economics seemed like a more interesting option.
At what point did you realise what you were getting into?
I still haven’t figured it out. The academic profession is such that it takes a lifetime to grasp fully.
Did you like studying economics at university?
I’ve always liked math subjects. Former mathematicians and physicists did a great job of teaching at HSE. Classical microeconomics and macroeconomics were very advanced. I found it interesting to do modelling and derive analytical results. I enjoyed studying auditing, accounting, finance and credit. My first truly academic work was on the Solow model with natural factors. A lot of credit for this goes to Andrey Maksimov with whom I did some work on models of deterministic chaos.
My academic advisor was Andrey Silaev, who helped me with financial models that I then continued to study as a master’s student at HSE in Moscow. Studying was easy and fun because the teachers were interested in science. HSE and the opportunities it offered were new for them; the educational process was no less interesting for them than for the students.
Did you go straight to Moscow after studying at the Nizhny Novgorod campus?
Yes, I didn’t hesitate or waste time. I have always followed the path of least resistance: I joined the Mathematical Methods programme of the Economics Faculty at HSE Moscow without having to take entrance exams. I just went there and began studying.
Were you already considering an academic career at that point?
No, I just went with the flow. Several things about Moscow were attractive. For example, I could pursue various career options or get a feel for pursuing science because the Mathematical Methods programme focused on preparing students for a PhD.
I took a one-semester internship in the Netherlands during the first half of the second year of my master’s degree. I was completely broke when I returned home and began an urgent search for a job. I saw a posting from Deloitte at HSE and applied on the last day possible, February 28, and had already started work on March 9. I had to do financial modelling, which was fairly creative work, and I did it for about two years. However, in business, it’s difficult to grow professionally. You can only move vertically, mastering sales and communicating with customers. A person either has to become a manager or leave — so I left.
Did you try switching from consulting to investment banking?
I almost did, but then changed my mind. It’s really the same thing, but with higher pay.
In your corporate career, did the need for constant communication bother you?
I don’t like communicating in situations where everyone knows very well that nobody needs most of the projects being sold. That makes it very difficult to convince a client of its necessity. What argument can you offer when there aren’t any?
Especially since techies are introverts.
Is that how you decided on a PhD?
Yes, and this also happened quite by accident. The internship in the Netherlands ended with an exam for a degree programme at Erasmus University. My classmate Andrey Dubovik and I both did well on the microeconomics exam, which was held much later than the HSE final exams. The result was that Professor Maarten Janssen invited us to earn our PhDs at Erasmus without having to take entrance exams, and I decided to go there after wrapping up my work at Deloitte.
Why do you think Professor Janssen considered you both worthy candidates for the PhD program?
I think Janssen appreciated our mathematical training. There was a mutual interest in working on a certain range of topics. HSE provides the right background, which is very valuable. On the one hand, it upholds the classical European traditions of education, and on the other hand, it preserves all of the best aspects of the Soviet school of mathematics. In terms of fundamental education, HSE is very much on par with Oxford or Erasmus. The only difference is in the range and depth of advanced courses that students take in their second year as preparation for research and ‘honing’ their specialisation. There are more opportunities in the West in terms of preparing for a PhD or developing an interest in a narrower field.
Tell us about your research interests: what influenced their formation and in which areas did you work?
Maarten Janssen and I worked mainly on industrial organization. Before entering the PhD programme, I mainly worked on the topic of markets with search costs, and in particular, Maarten and I wrote an article about price matching, along the lines of “if you can find it cheaper — we’ll pay the difference.” Then I started doing other things, like social learning models, where people watch what others are doing and do the same. For example, a queue can be a sign of how popular a nightclub is, and so on.
Maarten had a kind of scientific pitching system in place. He had six students at the time and we met once a week. Each of us said what we were interested in, what we were doing and what we wanted to discuss with our colleagues. There were no chalkboards, slides, or anything. Two of the articles that I’m writing with Andrey came out of those discussions. I continue working with him, although he is now in the Netherlands doing more applied things. I also continue working on a social learning project with another classmate, Nick Vikander. Maarten deserves special thanks for bringing our various interests together and teaching us how to work at the intersection of those interests.
How did you manage to teach if don’t like interpersonal communication?
It was difficult at first, but then I starting getting the hang of it. I had to teach a course on game theory, solving problems before an audience of 200 in an auditorium where Benoit Crutzen — who had been voted Best Teacher every year — had lectured. He always delivered his lectures wearing a shirt with cufflinks, suit, tie and fresh, fragrant and crisp shirt collars. It was clear I could never outshine him. So we teamed up to conduct an experiment. I donned everything I had that would make me look like a dandy and made it a rule to always show up looking neat and trim. Benoit, on the other hand, started dressing down. My rating shot upward in inverse proportion to the fall in his.
I took two courses at Erasmus University, one on game theory and another on international economics.
For students, the first year is too hard and the second is too easy, but in the third, they find the perfect balance
The essence of the Oxford system is that the colleges are interested in students’ exam results — it is the sole criterion for evaluation. But there is no conflict of interest because one set of people teaches (conducts tutorials in college) while a different group organizes exams. Student evaluations of teachers are not very important in comparison to an objective assessment of class results.
What is different about British university education?
I can only tell you about Oxford, which expends enormous resources on bachelor’s degree training. The work is carried out individually — literally — with classes not of 20-30 people, but 2-3. In addition to weekly scheduled lectures, students do homework that consists of a certain number of tasks and essays, or only essays if the subject is philosophy. Once a week, students meet with the tutor, often individually, and analyze their tasks and mistakes. The tutor in this case acts as a mentor, advising on a wide range of questions and issues. Such a system doubles or triples the academic workload in comparison with other universities, but it also provides a clear picture of how the teaching work influences specific students. The master’s programmes do not differ significantly from programmes elsewhere in Europe or the U.S.
Why did you decide to return and work at HSE before going to Oxford?
I had several fly-outs after finishing my PhD, including at HSE. [A fly-out is an invitation for a teacher to conduct a trial lecture at a university. – Ed.] It was a good offer, and because I was already a family man at that point, I was happy to pursue this option. Andrey Dubovnik wanted to stay in the Netherlands and joined the Central Planning Bureau after his PhD, but I wanted to work in academics, which for me has many advantages.
You don’t have to be in the office from dawn ‘till dusk, and if I’m doing research but short on ideas at the moment, I can just go for a walk
In academic work, there is essentially no boss. No one can tell me how I should teach my course, much less what I should write in my articles. My colleagues and I once worked on an article for a very long time. Then at one point, I went for a walk and the solution we were looking for came to me while standing on the seashore, so I wrote it in the sand using seashells and photographed it.
How did you end up at Oxford?
I received tenure at HSE [an indefinite contract for college and university teachers – Ed.]. This happened at the same time Crimea ‘became ours,’ after which various economic factors changed — the value of the ruble, salaries, research budgets, etc. all fell. This negative factor prompted me to think about looking for work abroad. The main factor, however, was that HSE closed its International Laboratory for the Analysis of Strategic Behaviour and Institutional Design. I received several offers from foreign universities, included Oxford, and decided to go.
What’s so special about working at Oxford?
Because of the teaching and administrative load at Oxford, there are probably more difficulties than advantages for a researcher. Oxford is a university made up of individual colleges. Each college is an organization self-managed by fellows [in the university system, a member of a privileged group of teachers – Ed.]. In the case of Lincoln College where I work, there are 35. We have to meet regularly to make administrative decisions on everything from how to invest the endowment and how many students to admit this year to whether or not to replace a 15th-century stone step that has become somewhat worn. All of this takes a lot of time — time that academics in other universities probably use for doing more research.
As for advantages, Oxford attracts excellent researchers: just look at the list of Nobel laureates who have worked here. Up to three dozen outstanding academics give lectures and seminars here every week, more than at any other university in the world. If you wanted, you could spend your time just going from one seminar to the next. Oxford offers unimaginable opportunities for widening your scientific perspective — all you need is time. For a student interested in academic development, this is simply paradise.
What does your life outside the university look like — if the city even offers anything apart from the university?
I have a family and children, and they occupy all my free time. I also do sports and lift weights. Oxford is a very interesting city. It’s small, very green with many places for hiking. There are rivers, small forests and several local attractions, such as Winston Churchill’s birthplace. We try to spend time in nature, which is a big advantage over Moscow.
Historically, there has been a certain tug-of-war between the city of Oxford and the university. The city has always wanted to remain a city in its own right. It is actually very ancient: Oxford has its own history apart from the university, of which it is proud. There are many interesting things here besides the campus. Oxford even has its own industrial presence: the main production facility for the Mini Cooper automobile is here.
How has a huge, traditional educational institution like Oxford responded to the digital challenge?
We resisted it for a long time, trying not to give in as long as possible. We taught in-person classes for the first trimester, except for students who self-isolated, but after the New Year, we were sent home. Most students don’t like this format and they suffer from it. Some students were unable to return to their home countries and remained in Oxford. Staff are already going to their offices, but lectures are still online.
One of the things I particularly love about Oxford is the amazing food. The kitchen at Lincoln College was built in the 1430s and they say it is the oldest in Europe. The fellows at all Oxford colleges are fed free of charge. I look forward to our canteen reopening.
What are your plans at Oxford?
I could try to move up through the university administration, but that doesn’t really appeal to me. There’s a certain desire to receive research grants and thereby reduce the teaching load, but these are just day-to-day concerns. Looking at the big picture, the life of an academic has several major stages: first, you get your PhD, then tenure — which I first received at HSE, and later at Oxford — then the title of ‘full professor,’ which in Russia is called an ‘ordinary professor.’ Currently, I am what Russians would call an associate professor. My official title is Associate Professor at the Department of Economics and Amelia Ogunlesi Fellow at Lincoln College. I am moving towards the highest level, although historically, Oxford has had many individual positions that do not fit into the usual classification. Currently, I am working on several scientific questions that are proving rather challenging and I am thinking about topics that I plan to write up in articles.