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.

Having graduated from the bachelor’s and master’s programmes and enrolled in the HSE University PhD programme, Mikhail Zhemkov successfully combines practical tasks with research. As a department head in the Central Bank’s Monetary Department, he actively conducts research while making decisions that diretly affect the country’s economy. In this interview with Success Builder, Mr. Zhemkov explains how conversing with his fellow HSE University students helped his studies, what exactly macroeconomists study, and why the Central Bank has time for everything.*

What led you to enroll at the HSE Faculty of Economic Sciences?

As a school student, I took advanced physics and math, although we didn’t have classes in economics. But I wanted to study it and could take additional courses, including from HSE University. I started taking these courses in the 10th grade. Naturally, I didn’t immediately do well, but I gradually began to participate in Academic Olympics at the city and regional levels. So, by the 11th grade, I had gained experience, won at the regional level and and went to compete in the National Academic Olympics in Economics. At the same time, I took part in the Academic Olympics hosted by HSE University and Moscow State University (MSU). In this way, I was accepted to top universities without having to take the standardised state exams. I applied to HSE University, MSU and the Financial University, but I was leaning towards HSE. I had already grown attached to HSE; it had organised most of the academic Olympics, and besides, I had grown accustomed to the HSE system of education during my preparatory courses. So I chose HSE University, and of course, the FES.

Why did HSE seem like the most reputable university to you?

Many of my friends studied at HSE University, including at the Faculty of Economic Sciences. I also had some acquaintances at MSU, but they described the education there as more academic. HSE University felt like it was more geared towards practice, so I chose it. I liked the programmes that HSE offered, the teachers and how modern this university is in a variety of ways—from the educational system to the electives available in completely different subjects.

What did you like about the studies? Which disciplines did you find especially appealing and interesting?

Looking back, I can’t remember anything that I didn’t like. I remember the official meeting of the university administration with the incoming class, where I think Kuzminov said, ‘Remember, folks: studying at HSE University will be one of the happiest periods of your life’. We didn’t think so at the time: we we tired from the admission process, Academic Olympics, and exams. But year later, I realised that this is exactly what happened: for me, my time at HSE University turned out to be very happy.

Photo: Daniil Prokofyev/ HSE University

I liked studying; most of the subjects and the opportunity to take electives were inspiring. Because I had taken advanced physics and mathematics in school and also studied economics, I really liked such subjects as mathematical analysis, micro- and macroeconomics, and probability theory, and did well in them. This was greatly facilitated by teachers who were interested in the subject and passed that interest on to us.

There was a lot of new communication, I got to know a lot of wonderful people. For six years I lived in the dormitory that became a community unto itself. Students helped each other, thus creating a very friendly atmosphere. Mutual understanding and assistance were always the top priority—that’s just how it was at HSE. As a result, our studies and individual subjects were easier. The atmosphere is an important part of a good university.

What determined your research interests?

I initially leaned towards macroeconomics even though my grades in microeconomics were much better. I was probably fascinated by the global nature of macroeconomics and its practical aspect. It looks at what is happening in the economy within a country, between countries, and in the world as a whole. This is what makes macroeconomics all-inclusive and important. The practical side is everything that immediately surrounds us in reality—fiscal policy, monetary policy and their interaction. For example, the interaction of fiscal and monetary policy is one of the main areas of theoretical economics. But at the same time, it is a very interesting and urgent topic that is now all the buzz: decisions are being made on the key rate and on budget policy, and this directly affects our lives. Macroeconomics allows us to immediately assess what is happening in the real world, and this is why I have always liked it.

How did you look for a scientific advisor in this field?

Trial and error. My advisors and mentors have changed. Macroeconomics is very broad and I have worked with various scholars in my bachelor’s, master’s and PhD studies. But I don’t view this as a shortcoming. Just the opposite: I have been exposed to a variety of approaches, opinions, and methods. This was also because I became interested in different areas at different times and couldn’t settle on just one, so I searched for a new advisor who was close to my area of specialisation.

Photo: Daniil Prokofyev/ HSE University

At some point, I got into communication policy as it concerns fiscal and monetary policy and I found an excellent expert at HSE University—Olga Kuznetsova. I wrote a term paper and a research article under her supervision. I think it’s good to have the freedom of choice that HSE University offers; you can find your way and work with outstanding people from science.

How did you feel about the possibility of building a career in science?

I never drew a distinction between scientific and non-scientific careers. You can work at the Central Bank and just as easily do science; the bank has many divisions and areas that are devoted purely to research.

I believe that no matter where a macroeconomist works and at what level, it is useful for him to do research in addition to his practical work

When you communicate with colleagues, reviewers, editors, and co-authors, it expands your horizons as a specialist. As a researcher, you begin to understand the qualitative side of your work more deeply. What’s more, academic activities have a positive effect on your social circle. It’s always good to keep in touch with fellow researchers, follow the current trends in science and keep abreast of what is being published.

You can build models as was done 50 years ago and delve into traditional phenomena, but if Western academic researchers have gone far beyond that, then you need to try to apply their developments here. New ideas appear, methods and approaches are updated; we must not fall behind.

What was the point of you getting a master’s? To advance your academic publications?

I would describe a master’s degree as a very specialised education. As with a PhD, there is no cookie-cutter approach. You need to decide what you want to achieve and why in, for example, the next five years. I came to understand what I was interested in doing, that my approach to both research and working with a scientific advisor had changed. It has become more focused on quality. In this regard, the master’s programme provides deeper, more specialised knowledge. You can choose which courses you are or are not interested in yourself. A master’s degree also gives you freedom of choice, freedom of action and thinking. You mature as a researcher and as a person.

But you didn’t stop there. You went on to study for a PhD.

As a master’s student, I finally settled on my area of interest—macroeconomics—and gained professional confidence. After that, I took a break. I graduated in 2017 and only started on my PhD in 2019. I needed to figure out whether I needed it, whether it would be useful in my work. I think the decision wasn’t wrong: by 2019, I already had a pool of published works, including some written at the Central Bank. I realised that I was interested in doing research, in making a personal contribution to the development of domestic science that was significant in some way, and that a PhD would help me in this.

Being part of an academic community helps a macroeconomist look at his work from a different angle

It was very important for me to know that major researchers would value my work: you need to receive criticism in order to grow professionally. Studying for my PhD turned out to be easier than getting my master’s: I had already been through the research mill that shapes your thinking and gives you tools for scientific work. From the standpoint of the industry, you don’t need to have a PhD, but it’s definitely beneficial. In the end, I took this step for my own development.

How did you manage to combine work, teaching, and research?

I combined teaching and my job at the Central Bank for no more than a year and a half. The only connection I have with HSE University now is my PhD studies. My research is not limited to HSE. At the Central Bank, in addition to practical work, we also conduct research that partially dovetails with my PhD studies. Also, courses and events at HSE University usually take place in the evening, making it very convenient to combine my studies with professional activities.

What did you get from teaching? Which skills does it require?

As absurd as it might sound, teaching allowed me to delve more deeply into the subject and understand it. As a student, you try to understand the essence and logic of the subject, but it is a completely different matter when you start looking for how one thing is connected to another, breaking it down into segments, and explaining everything to 30-50 people and getting the same number of questions in response. This prompts a discussion that inevitably helps both the teacher and the student develop. Both start looking at this or that phenomenon differently. They see new things, pose new questions and draw unexpected and important conclusions.

Photo: Daniil Prokofyev/ HSE University

In this regard, the faculty is doing the right thing by attracting young teachers who are just starting out in order to enhance their development. For what I taught, I didn’t need to be, for example, a PhD student in economic sciences. Back when I was a bachelor’s student, I could have worked as a teaching assistant and conducted consultations, and as a master’s student, taught undergrads. Of course, all teachers have different methods and approaches to communication and different systems for conveying knowledge. Some teachers have an open style of lecturing and put communication with students at the fore, and others are more methodical. But in general, a teacher’s main skill is to fearlessly field questions from the class. It is an extraordinary situation when you think you know everything about a subject, but the students sort of knock you out of your usual frame of reference and, like Socrates, you realise that you know nothing. You have to be ready for that if you’re going to stand behind the podium.

How did you end up at the Central Bank and what did you do there as a chief economist?

I wound up at the Central Bank as a result of an internship in the master’s programme, when the bank was recruiting people for a particular analytical project. I essentially passed through every stage—from trainee and analyst to senior analyst and department head. When the Central Bank offers an internship, in addition to academic knowledge, we carefully evaluate the candidate’s emotional intelligence and how he gets along with people. Working an internship has helped me and many other specialists a lot in fitting in with a team and, often has done just the opposite—made the candidate understand that he should try something else.

The Central Bank is a large structure with many areas of focus and departments. Every department has its own pool of work. Our Monetary Policy Department is in charge of supporting the decision-making process concerning the key rate, so all of our employees, to one degree or another, prepare analytical materials and do research. One person makes forecasts of the main macroeconomic indicators, another evaluates the current economic situation in various sectors, still another creates or updates economic models, and someone else writes comments and reports for management and government.

Where does the Central Bank send its analyses—the Ministry of Economic Development?

Eight times a year, we have a meeting of the Board of Directors for the key rate, and all of the bank’s analytical and research materials are prepared for these meetings. In particular, as part of the event, we interact closely with the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Economics and Development; they study our materials and state their position. There are also interdepartmental interactions when we exchange data with the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Economics and Development, do analytics and discuss the results at a high level, with ministers and department directors. What I like about our work is that we almost never make materials that are shelved. The results of our work always go to the top management, which, on that basis, makes global decisions, and this is reflected in what we all see happening.

Some say that the Central Bank is a boring, conservative organisation that offers few opportunities for development, and that it would not be a very interesting place to work for someone just starting out.

This is not true at all. As a matter of fact, we have a very young team in our department and there are many different divisions and functions. The management is also relatively young. Most of the employees in our department, for example, are recent graduates of HSE University, Moscow State University, and the New Economic School. Whether a person develops at the Central Bank depends mostly on the employee himself. If he knows what he wants and knows how to apply his skills well, then there will be no restrictions for him in terms of career. There is a lot of support here for research work, so you can write articles, participate in conferences, and develop as a scientist, making a significant contribution to the country’s economy.

How do you combine your managerial, hands-on work with the expert contribution you make as a researcher?

I currently manage an economic analysis department of nine people that deals with a wide range of issues and tasks. We assess the current economic situation—what’s happening with consumer and investment activity and with economic growth. We analyse and forecast inflationary processes, analyse budgetary (fiscal) policy, and influence official economic forecasts. In addition, our department analyses the relationship between individual sectors—budgetary, external, real, and monetary.

Photo: Daniil Prokofyev/ HSE University

Most of our work is research, on which our analytics is based. If, based on the results, we understand that our work can make a significant contribution to domestic or international academic literature, then we publish articles in peer-reviewed journals. This is also one of our responsibilities—not only to produce analytical materials, but also to publish research papers. In this sense, it is quite easy to work at the Central Bank and remain in the research community, combining it with practical activities.

In our department, there is a certain division by specialisation among the staff. My duties include managing all the department’s processes, the timely division of duties, and the collection, analysis and summarising of outgoing materials. If I see that my expert opinion could be useful, that it would help add depth to the material, then I join the study as a kind of scientific advisor. Over the past two years, I have also had enough time to do my own research work.

Do you plan to continue writing scientific articles even after getting your PhD?

I think that over time, the frequency of their publication will change because, unfortunately, a manager has practical tasks and duties that take precedence over scientific ones. At the same time, research skills are for a lifetime. At some point, you can stop for a time, but then, at some conference you will speak with an interesting researcher or learn a new idea from an article, and you’ll get an idea for your own research project. After all, research work is unregulated. It’s like inspiration: you might not have any for several years, and then suddenly you have loads of it. I hope that my research will continue at the same pace because this is an integral part of our work.

*Mikhail Zhemkov’s opinion may differ from the official position of the Central Bank.