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'When Engaging in a Debate, I Always Seek Out Credible Sources to Support My Arguments'

Valeria Kondratenko

Valeria holds a bachelor's and a master's in sociology from HSE University. She is currently a research assistant and doctoral student at the HSE Laboratory for Studies in Economic Sociology. She also teaches at the Department of Economic Sociology of the School of Sociology, HSE Faculty of Social Sciences.

Sociologist Valeria Kondratenko is skilled at handling big data and enjoys working with it. In her interview with the HSE Young Scientists project, she discusses academic research, her admiration for Pierre Bourdieu, and her passion for weightlifting.

Why I Decided to Pursue Science

I was inspired by my teachers to choose this path. Before I met my academic supervisor Yana Roshchina, the idea of pursuing a career in science had not crossed my mind. But then I attended her course in data analysis. Our interaction was productive, leading me to choose her as the supervisor for my degree thesis. During our discussion of my thesis, we generated numerous ideas for potential future studies—implementing all of them may require another decade. I decided to pursue a master's and then a doctorate. It has now been more than four years since we started this research, and it appears that there's even more work ahead of us. There are relatively few scientists at our laboratory who engage in quantitative studies, and she is one of them. Like her, I work with the RLMS-HSE datasets (Russian Longitudinal Monitoring Survey - Higher School of Economics).

After meeting Yana Roschina, I developed an interest in academic research and soon joined the Laboratory for Studies in Economic Sociology. The deeper I immersed myself in the laboratory's activities and observed my colleagues' work, the stronger my desire to achieve success in the academic environment became. I am grateful to LSES for actively engaging with early-career researchers.

The Subject of My Research

During my bachelor's studies, I preferred my home assignments to have a broader purpose. Therefore, when tasked with writing an essay, I consciously selected topics that I could further explore as part of my degree thesis. I was aware that my course instructor, Yana Roshchina (whom I mentioned earlier), was conducting research on alcohol consumption. After reading her papers and those of other scholars on the topic, I became interested. That essay marked a turning point, initiating my journey as a researcher using the RLMS-HSE database to analyse alcohol consumption. That was nearly five years ago, and now I'm in the process of writing my PhD dissertation on the topic.

Photo: Mikhail Dmitriev / HSE University

My Bachelor's Degree Thesis

During the fourth year of my bachelor's, I found Pierre Bourdieu's ideas resonating with me, particularly his notion that the practices we engage in, like visiting museums or the sports we pursue, are influenced by our social class. Bourdieu suggests that the types of alcohol consumed also act as markers of one's social class. This concept served as the starting point for my bachelor's degree thesis. I embarked on a study to investigate whether alcohol truly functions as a marker of social class in Russia and whether this association has evolved over time. I analysed the RLMS-HSE data for the years from 1994 to 2018.

I discovered the following pattern. While previously, the choice of alcoholic beverage could signify one's social status, today’s drinking practices have become so diverse and eclectic that members of the upper classes may opt for vodka and beer, while those in lower social strata may prefer cognac. The distinction lies more in the quality of alcohol consumed rather than its type.

How the Combined Master's-PhD Track Works

In the early days of my master's, HSE University announced the launch of a Combined Master's-PhD track. One could join it by submitting an application outlining the intended engagement during both the master's and doctoral programmes and ensuring continuity between the two topics. The idea behind this programme is to initiate publications during your master's studies, which will subsequently contribute to your defence of the PhD dissertation. Only 50 applicants from across HSE University were selected to participate in the programme.

When contemplating my topics, I came up with the plan that during my master's, I would investigate how parental alcohol consumption practices tend to influence those of their children, and during the doctoral programme, I would explore the relationship between the alcohol consumption practices of spouses.

My findings for the master's thesis were quite intriguing. Typical models employed in research on this topic only include the father's alcohol consumption as a variable, assuming that the father has the most significant impact on the drinking habits of his children. In contrast, my analysis of the Russian data reveals that whether and how much the mother drinks could be even more important. I continue to explore these findings and have presented them at various conferences.

Another interesting conclusion from my research concerns the non-linear impact of excessive alcohol consumption. On one hand, a parent's excessive drinking increases the chances for young family members to consume alcohol. On the other hand, the higher the number of heavy drinkers in the family, the lower the likelihood that young people will drink. Since alcohol frequently exacerbates and worsens family dynamics, younger family members may become averse to drinking.

My Dream

Earning my PhD. And doing whatever I feel like afterwards.

This is genuinely how I feel. My academic focus today primarily revolves around getting all my papers published in time before the defence of my PhD dissertation.

I even sense that my scientific career, as I envision it, will truly commence after the defence of my PhD. At present, I cannot afford to be side-tracked by other topics, although I am interested in various aspects of alcohol consumption that fall outside the scope of my current research. In addition, I would like to develop my own courses, focusing either on data analysis or the topic of globalisation.

But my current priority is my PhD and the topic of alcohol consumption. Afterward, I will assess what other areas I wish to explore and what additional academic activities I might pursue.

Science is, in part, integral to my identity. When introducing myself, I don't specify my job title or position; I simply state, 'I work at HSE University,' and people understand. My activities here are incredibly diverse: I work at the laboratory, teach, study in a doctoral programme, and also take courses as a student.

Science is also a source of inspiration for me, and I have been inspired to pursue science by wonderful people. I truly enjoy the seminars hosted by our laboratory because each time, I gain new insights into various subjects, whether it's labour, gender, or market dynamics. I am grateful to my colleagues for sharing all this diverse knowledge, which I can now incorporate into my conversations.

When engaging in a debate with someone, even with friends or family, I always seek out credible sources to support my arguments. This is a consequence of working in the field of science. You cannot casually mention a fact in a conversation without asking yourself, 'I wonder if this has been confirmed?' Almost by instinct, my hand reaches out to search for supporting evidence in papers.


If I Hadn't Become a Scientist

I would have likely become an analyst regardless. Working with data has captivated me since my second and third years of study. I envisioned myself working for an analytical company as an analyst, or perhaps even as a programmer. Before enrolling in the HSE Lyceum and choosing sociology, I had studied physics and mathematics, preparing to enrol in Baumanka [Bauman Moscow State Technical University] to be trained as a programmer. On second thought, perhaps I wouldn't have enjoyed spending my days analysing data that I'm given, rather than data I am interested in analysing. Here, in academia, I prioritise selecting research topics that genuinely interest me.

Scientists I Would Like to Meet

George Ritzer, an American sociologist who has mainly studied globalisation and patterns of consumption. His concept of the McDonaldisation of society has truly impressed me.

How I Deal with Burnout

I say 'no' more frequently—to anyone and anything. I feel that at HSE University, there is an emphasis on maximising productivity, reinforced by the system of ratings, with some deadlines culminating at 11:59 pm. Everyone is constantly dealing with urgent matters and striving for accomplishments. I find it enjoyable because I thrive in a competitive environment. But sooner or later, this can result in burnout. I once attended a seminar at HSE where they mentioned that at my age, sleeping for 4 to 6 hours is considered normal—you just need to endure it for now, but in five or ten years, you will be fine.

When you're pursuing a bachelor's or a master's degree, you strive for a high rating. This system conditions you to excel in everything, in every subject. But one simply cannot excel in everything. Indeed, when someone appears to excel in everything, I become concerned about their mental health, and my question for them is, are they still alive?

When you strike out on your own and learn to navigate freely—if that's how one can describe a doctoral programme—you still tend to adhere to the same rules, striving to excel in everything and saying ‘yes’ to all projects, even though it's not always necessary.

Photo: Mikhail Dmitriev / HSE University

Last year, when I was 23, I took up a full-time teaching position—that's 750 hours. And it was also my first year in the doctoral programme. I ended up considering dropping out, quitting, and never coming back to HSE University, because I was so exhausted. Just joking, of course, but it truly felt that way. Taking on such a heavy workload was a mistake; my colleagues had tried to talk me out of it, but I had a burning desire to move faster, reach higher, and prove myself stronger.

It was then that I hit the peak of burnout. To cope with it, I had to opt out of more than half of my responsibilities. I switched from full-time teaching to a quarter-time commitment. I retained only two out of the six to ten students for whom I was an academic supervisor. Today, I put myself and my mental and physical well-being first. I try not to respond to emails after the end of my workday and avoid working on weekends by completing all my tasks during the week. When you don't have clearly defined office hours and juggle the roles of teacher, researcher, and student, it can be challenging to maintain boundaries between work, study, and leisure, but I am doing my best.

My Interests besides Science

In the past, answering this question would have been difficult, because HSE University was my life, with 99% of my time spent there. I am currently focusing on restoring my mental health and have taken up hobbies that support this process.

I practice weightlifting three to five times a week, or at least make an effort to do so. It provides a distraction from work, allows me to avoid responding to emails after 6 pm, and makes me stronger, mentally as well as physically

I also love cinema. I prefer watching unconventional, melancholic films, winners of European festivals, in their original language; they often leave me in tears for two days and in contemplation for another ten. My most recent favourites are Aftersun by Charlotte Wells and C'mon C'mon by Mike Mills. I also enjoy partying, whether it's at a techno club or a festival. Last summer, for example, I attended Signal Festival. Partying is a fantastic way to set aside your phone and steer clear of work on the weekends.

My Favourite Place in Moscow

Gorka Park near Kitay Gorod. It is not far from HSE University, and I used to go there often during my lunch breaks to read a book or simply to sit and think. People are always relaxed there, creating an oasis of tranquillity next to the hyper-busy Myasnitskaya Street.

Advice for Aspiring Scientists

Choose a team and join it; don't assume that adult colleagues won't be interested in engaging with you. I follow and observe what my colleagues are doing. I engage in conversations with those who are a few years older than me and already hold a PhD to learn how they have achieved their results. Before joining the laboratory, when I was just starting my academic career, my interactions were limited to my academic supervisor and a few people at the department. I only had a vague understanding of what was happening in the academic world, such as where to submit papers for publication and how to apply to attend conferences. But once you're integrated into the broader academic community, everything becomes so much easier. I learned about many of the opportunities available to me from my colleagues, for which I am very grateful.

My Favourite Alcoholic Drink

Pure whiskey on the rocks. I don't believe this indicates belonging to a social class but rather to a stratum of strong, independent women.