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.

At HSE, Georgiy Sunyaev has gone from undergrad to graduate and researcher. He is now completing his PhD and has co-authored a global study on trust in vaccines. In this interview with Success Builder, he explains why a bachelor’s in economics is the best foundation for studying the social sciences, how to study a political regime dispassionately and how to speed up the vaccination process in Russia.

How did you end up at HSE University?

As a school student, I was really into many aspects of math, which wasn’t unusual because our school specialised in mathematics. I performed well in regional academic competitions and because my father was a graduate of the Moscow State University Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics, it was logical that I follow in his footsteps. But both my father and mother actively discouraged me from pursuing a career in mathematics because it seemed to them at the time that it ‘wasn’t very promising in terms of money’. So the decision was made to look for an alternative.

You can also use math in more applied fields and economics turned out to be just the place where the goals didn’t limit specialists in deep and serious work. It was possible to combine career opportunities in business with research and computing. In short, the choice was obvious: HSE and the Faculty of Economics. But, whereas many applicants to that faculty saw themselves in consulting or IB, I found those fields unattractive. Instead, I wanted to build mathematical models or do empirical research.

In the first years of economics, we were given a good foundation in mathematics and I quickly became interested in the research aspect of it, including the branch of mathematics called ‘public choice theory’. I studied under Fuad Alaskerov and he got me interested in scientific work. By the third year, I was already writing terms papers that were very far removed from the applied field.

Thanks to my HSE professors, I realised that science is not a completely hopeless path

Around the same time, I took a course in reform economics taught by Leonid Polishchuk at the CInSt and he finally convinced me that an academic career is for me. I was extremely interested in institutional economics, how institutions are formed and how they affect everyday life. At the end of my bachelor’s studies, I decided to get a master’s in theoretical economics and continue my research under the guidance and co-authorship of Leonid Polishchuk. We were already working on serious projects and had written a paper. My further education was already decided: all that remained was to determine where to continue it.

As someone who has devoted his life to numbers, how important in terms of career and academic pursuits did a socio-economic education turn out to be?

Before I got into HSE, I considered attending the Faculty of Mechanics and Mathematics [at Moscow State University] and then switch to theoretical science, particularly social science. Later, I met people who had gone that route, who, after earning a bachelor’s degree in a technical field had entered the New Economic School and HSE University. In my opinion, they had very little understanding of the workings of economic processes, which are based on social phenomena. I received an excellent foundation at HSE; I mastered the necessary methods, did my own research and, most importantly, met outstanding scientists who inspired me to pursue a career in science. It would have been very difficult to accumulate such a wealth of experience in two years of master’s degree studies alone.

Google, Amazon and other tech giants already have departments in many U.S. universities. How do you feel about the industry’s expansion into the academic world?

Yes, Facebook, Google and Amazon are very popular with PhD students right now, especially in the U.S. I have mixed feelings about this. I deal with comparative political science, a field with few applications for major companies, whereas economics, even at the PhD level in the U.S., generally has many applications and many graduates in this field go into business. This fact has always bugged me because research affiliated with major companies places a commercial focus on academic activities and tailors them to specific products. But I must admit that they invest very generously.

Academia has always impressed me with its freedom — even if it is relative. You can work in whichever area interests you. No industry would allow me to do what I’m doing now simply because no business has any commercial interest in it. Market demand often determines which topics provide funding for academics working at the junction of business and research. However, science is more about what might be useful in a global sense, in the future, but not about an effective and quick result or profit for a company now.

How did your research interests develop? What got you interested in certain phenomena, particularly those related to the social aspect of the economy?

My work at CInSt with Leonid Polishchuk played an important role. The institutional approach appeared relatively recently, began picking up steam in the 1990s and has now become an important part of economic research. Institutions established by absolutely ordinary citizens or governments determine societal relations, and this has a major influence on how a country develops and how its people live. I was especially interested in what government officials have in mind when implementing policy. As a result, for my master’s and doctoral dissertations, I studied how the personal interests of the political elites affect the degree to which a country protects property rights. This topic is extremely relevant because it can explain the cross-country differences in legal systems, how much support businesses receive and, ultimately, economic growth.

Can I assume in this regard that Russia is a special phenomenon and the subject of special, in-depth studies of authoritarian power?

Unfortunately, no. The abuse of power and discrepancies between legal and economic aspects occur almost everywhere in the world.

Upon learning that I am studying authoritarian regimes, some might think I have adopted an anti-Russian stance

It is important to understand that there is no connotation in academic research. I am in no way saying that an authoritarian regime is always bad. Authoritarian regimes have their own characteristics: power is concentrated in the hands of a small group of people and does not change regularly. Scientists are trying to understand how this influences which institutions are established in the state and how this affects the well-being of the population.

Is it useful for a student to change academic environments at some stage? For example, you stubbornly remained at HSE until you started your PhD. Why?

It wasn’t inertia that kept me at HSE. I firmly believed that if I wanted to deal with issues of institutional or political economy, then I would do it at HSE because it is the best university in Russia for work in such areas. Compared to other universities, HSE focuses more on international cooperation, careers in academia and scientific openness, so it was a simple choice for the master’s and postgraduate programmes. But further, after graduate school, I had to make a decision.

Not all foreign universities and programmes are equally good and you have to prepare for those that offer a high-level education. Therefore, after getting my master’s, I took academic postgraduate studies at HSE intending to afterwards get my PhD abroad. In any case, it was useful to earn my doctorate at HSE because it gave me two opportunities — to work both abroad and in Russia.

As it turned out, I entered Columbia University and defended my thesis at HSE where I was in my second year of the PhD programme. The first year in academic postgraduate study at HSE helped me tremendously because it provided a scholarship that frees you from having to think about financial issues, and the education is very similar to the Western PhD system. In addition, I had the opportunity to take an internship abroad, which played a key role for me. It is very important when the academic community knows you and can write a recommendation for admission because it increases your chance of success. As a result, I was accepted by five universities, but I chose Columbia primarily because I was very familiar with it and generally liked living in New York.

Apart from recommendations, what adds to the prestige of a young PhD applicant?

To be accepted into a political science programme in the U.S., you need to have a fairly standard portfolio. First, you need a motivational letter and a draft paper. Naturally, no one expects you to have a paper that is ready for publication in top journals, but you need to show your ability to work to academic standards, think like a scientist and put forward and test hypotheses. You need to do all this in English, so a TOEFL IELTS certificate is required. But I know from experience that recommendations from professors regarding the applicant’s scientific potential are of decisive importance for admission.

Professors in other countries usually don’t disclose what they write about students in their recommendations

This is a big difference between the U.S. and Russian university systems, where professors often tell students to send their recommendation letters to whomever they want. The Western system enables professors to be as honest as possible in evaluating the applicant since their own reputation depends on it. As a result, recommendations play an extremely important role.

How do they teach in PhD programmes in the U.S.?

For example, in the European and Russian academic systems, the entire educational process is closely tied to the supervisor, who literally leads you. In the U.S., particularly in political science, there is much more freedom. Yes, you have an academic supervisor with whom you can discuss your dissertation and current projects, but the initiative should come from you, and this is quite difficult.

During your third year, while we are working on what is called a research proposal — a kind of dissertation project — you make your final choice as to your area of focus. This is a turning point in your studies, after which you spend the remaining years developing your project. But still, preparing a dissertation is a very uncertain process. You must constantly seek advice from authoritative people, look for new opportunities and funding for projects, conduct experiments, analyse data and describe the results. On the one hand, this teaches you to do research autonomously, and on the other hand, it causes a certain amount of stress and serves as a school of life of sorts. Not surprisingly, many political science students never finish their PhDs — they go into the industry or even a different field. This is partly because they realise that ‘free floating’ — which stems, in part, from insufficient support — is not for them.

How do you combine teaching and research? Which turns out to be more important in an academic career?

I work at HSE’s International Center for the Study of Institutions and Development (ICSID) headed by Andrey Yakovlev. This Center attracts international experts and does research connected with institutions, but with a strong emphasis on political processes. The ICSID cooperates closely with Columbia University and Timothy Frye, my current academic supervisor, is a co-founder of the ICSID.

As for teaching — yes, it is a mandatory part of many PhD programs at foreign universities. Teaching skills and the ability to speak in front of an audience are important for an academic career. At Columbia University, we start teaching seminars in our second year. Because I received outside grants and helped professors as a scientific assistant, I didn’t teach much. In the future, however, teaching skills and student feedback about you can affect your career, especially if the university or college focuses on teaching and not on research, as is the case, for example, in the liberal arts college system in the U.S.

Tell us about your recent research. Is this the first publication of your career?

I had published with Leonid Polishchuk several times during my studies at HSE University, but this is, indeed, my first publication as part of the PhD programme.

The fact is that I am now also a Research Fellow at the Institutions and Political Inequality Research Group at the Berlin Center for Social Sciences (WZB), which, along with other centres from different countries, coordinated a global study on the impact of the coronavirus epidemic in developing countries. Since we were preparing a study on Russia on a similar topic at the ICSIR at the same time, we used our data as part of this global research project.

One of the important aspects of this study was the comparison of developing countries where full-scale vaccination has not yet begun and countries such as Russia and the U.S. where vaccinations are in full swing. This study is more typical for the field of public health, but for political science and economics, studies of this scope and with so many co-authors are very atypical.

In this large-scale project, I took part in the collection and analysis of data, as well as in the writing of the paper. It was an interesting experience because we had to rush to get the paper out while the results were still relevant to the current epidemic. Many journals such as Lancet or Nature Medicine have an expedited review process and place a priority on research connected with the coronavirus. If the paper had been published six months later, it might not have received as much attention as it did.

Based on the data used in the paper, my co-authors and I conclude that we need to think about redistributing vaccines to countries that are ready to accept them but simply don’t have them yet. In other words, if we want to prevent the further spread of coronavirus variants, we need to focus on global immunity, and not local or national immunity.

Even though Russia was not the focus of the study, we once again showed that the attitude towards vaccination here is very bad. According to the data, 70% of Russian citizens have doubts about or are not ready to take the vaccine at all.

People both in Russia and abroad trust ordinary doctors the most when deciding whether to get vaccinated

Doctors are the ones who have direct contact with the population, not show business stars or even government representatives. Therefore, we believe that a vaccination awareness campaign should go first through these trusted channels. Perhaps in the future, there will be special educational programmes for doctors to study the phenomena of the pandemic because Russia does not have much experience in fighting global epidemics and doctors often lack the qualifications needed to give the population recommendations about vaccination.

What was your dissertation about? What are your plans after you finish the programme?

The dissertation is devoted to the perception and credibility of the media and looks at how they influence public opinion. In recent years, I have mostly been doing empirical work conducting a series of survey experiments on this topic in different regions of Russia. In the study, I primarily look at how the media shape the population’s perception of the sharing of responsibility for the country’s policy. I became interested in this topic because I wanted to understand how control of the media and the way that various topics are covered can be used to manipulate public opinion in the interests of business or the political elite.

It’s hard to say anything regarding career because the pandemic has had a major impact on the academic labour market: there was almost no hiring last year. The market has revived this year, but there will be a lot more applicants, so, again, it will be difficult to find a permanent job. Now, the position of research assistant at WZB is a temporary safety cushion until the number of vacancies returns to normal. The academic market is highly competitive, in part because many universities have tenure systems. This means that there are very few positions, and so many students take temporary jobs like mine and then spend several years looking for work. I think this is what I will do after I defend my dissertation, but in general, I am still focused on finding a job only in academia.