NES Alumni Tips: How to Apply for PhD Program


New Economic School alumni Margarita Khvan, who studies health economics at the University of Southern California, and Anna Shchetkina, who is a student of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, share their experience of enrolling in PhD programs. Margarita and Anna talk about the admission process, how they blended into university work and life, and discuss their research. How to write motivation letters, how to pass an interview, how to choose a program and a university – they give very useful life hacks for those who want to dedicate themselves to science or are simply interested in studying abroad. We are sharing the most interesting insights that they discussed in the “Economics Out Loud” podcast.


What Are the Benefits of Studying on a PhD Program?

Anna: You need to apply for a PhD in order to get into the international community of scholars – I think that there is simply no alternative to this. Therefore, I decided to go for a PhD right after my bachelor's degree. Why wait?

There are not as many good PhD programs in marketing as there are in economics. You can choose, I think, between 15. The competition is still low. Therefore, with the education provided by NES, you can get into really high-level programs. I applied to 12 top universities, received invitations from 10 of them, and eventually chose Wharton School of Business.

I wanted to start doing independent research as early as possible. And fortunately, my expectations came true. Even before I arrived here, the professors began to write to me inviting me to start doing research. Here, the share of theoretical courses is really low, and this of course has negative effects. But we get more time for our research. I already feel that I can fully engage in this work, I can do something myself, not always perfect, but I hope to get better at it over time.

Margarita: I seriously thought about entering a PhD program when I got to a university in Mexico on an exchange program. At NES, I worked as a research assistant on a project in health economics. I have always been sure that my work will be related to healthcare. Therefore, I applied to universities where there are more professors in this area. This is largely why I chose the University of Southern California. And besides, I really like California, I am very happy with life in Los Angeles.


Admission to PhD

Anna: Everything was difficult: doing interviews, getting recommendation letters, writing essays and tests. This is very time-consuming. Therefore, if you decide to apply for a PhD, then you need to prepare thoroughly, and NES helps a lot with this. Students help, professors write letters, there is the Writing and Communication Center that helps with essays.

What came as a surprise to me was the number and depth of interviews, which are very important for business schools. Once I had an interview with Yale at 5 am Moscow time! I get to Zoom and people start asking me which of the recent articles that I read inspired me most. I quickly recall some articles. And then they say to me: “You mentioned that you like work that combines theoretical and empirical parts of research. What empirical strategy would you suggest for testing the theoretical predictions of the model you just described?" I get stupefied and try to come up with something urgently. I begin to explain something, and suddenly one of the professors says to me: "Well, you understand that this variable is endogenous!" Of course, I understand, but... In the end I did not get to Yale, they put me on the waiting list, and I accepted the invitation from Wharton. I had an interview with them at 8 pm Moscow time, I think that was the main reason why everything went well. (Laughs)

After you have gone through all the interviews, it seems that now everything should come to an end, but it does not. If you have a lot of invitations from different universities, then their professors will want to talk to you. And the students will want to talk to you. And they will call their friends to talk to you and convince you to choose their program. Once, I had four calls with very different people: with Stanford students, with a professor, I think, from the New York University, with a professor from a university in Paris who recently moved there from Harvard. I woke up at 7 in the morning, had the first call, then went to bed for two hours, at noon I had the next call, I went to bed again for two hours, woke up at 3 pm, and the last call I had was at 11 pm. And these calls went on for two months. You are completely out of life, out of studying, out of research – you just talk to a bunch of different people.

Margarita: I think that students who are not at the top of the ranking can try to distinguish themselves with the help of a motivation letter. People really pay attention to them because it is very important for American universities that a person, first, stays on the program, and does not leave after one or two years. And secondly, they care that their student then gets a job that is related with academia or with research.

It is also important to investigate what professors at the university you are applying to do, what research they write. It is important to write and say at an interview: "I want to get to your university, because you have these and those professors, or because you have a special approach to learning."


About Vaccination in Russia

Margarita: There are two global problems in Russia that are in no way connected with each other. It seems to me that in regions where there were no problems with vaccines, the reluctance of people to get vaccinated is largely due to conspiracy theories about the dangers of vaccines. Still, in many regions, vaccines are often not available. For example, I am from Novosibirsk, which is the third largest city in Russia in terms of population. Making an appointment for a vaccination is a huge problem. Vaccines run out about once every two months, and then people wait for them for several more months. It turns out that people who want to be vaccinated either cannot do this, or they need to wait in long queues. And if a person doubts whether he or she wants to be vaccinated, then they simply will not want to wait at the clinic with sick and infectious people.

Anna: Word of mouth could help stimulate vaccination. It is often more effective than the media or centralized advertising. If doctors are spreading misinformation, then you need to take the most influential doctors and, with their help, "vaccinate" the social networks through which these conspiracy theories are spreading.


Plans for the Future

Margarita: I want to continue growing in academia. I do not think I will go working in business, but I would be very happy to be in places like research institutes or think tanks where you do not need to teach, but you can do research and be closer to practical issues. It seems to me that the quality of research there is no worse than in academic institutions. They just work with businesses, and it is also very interesting and well paid.

Anna: I do not know what will happen in the future, but for now I would really like to stay in academia. Business schools have good salaries, we work closely with corporations, and it is unlikely that the research we write will end up just in academic journals. The methods and instruments we develop are being implemented in business.

Margarita: I continue to do research, which I started as my graduate thesis for my bachelor's degree. We also worked on it with [NES professor] Evgeny Yakovlev. We analyzed the effects of protectionist policies and substitution of international drugs with generics on health and mortality, as well as the effect of price caps on the pharmaceutical market. Unfortunately, all this had very negative consequences on mortality, because there is a shortage of drugs, and there are questions about the quality of generics.

Moreover, I started doing research using the US data. The US National Institutes of Health is trying to estimate the financial losses from late diagnosis of dementia. Another project is related to the fraud of doctors in Medicare, the state health insurance program for the elderly in the United States.

I am very interested in analyzing the impact of different healthcare policies on people's health. Most of the articles are devoted to economic effects, for example, the impact on prices or patents, but the main question is really the impact on health, and whether certain programs did actually help or huge funds went down the drain.

Anna: Like Margarita, I continue to work on the same topic that I started in my thesis – it is about the return of purchased goods to online stores. The more people order, the more they return. But it was not clear why this is happening and how returns and decisions about purchasing can be linked in a model.

I am also thinking about research ideas on influencers, why we follow them, and how this information can help companies target their products. In general, I want to understand why people do what they do. And it seems to me that marketing provides very good opportunities for this. We have statistics, we have software programmers, economists, psychologists. We work with big data, with models, with machine learning. We no longer approach these questions as psychologists once did when they conducted surveys and experiments. Using rigorous research methods, we are trying to see how people behave in real life, and on the basis of this to draw general conclusions about the causes of their behavior.