How to facilitate the route to a PhD?


What are the options after graduating from a university? Enrolling in further study is one of the choices. Tatul Ayrapetyan and Alexandra Snegireva, graduates of NES’s “Masters of Arts in Economics” Program, opted for it. They will continue their studies at the PhD programs of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the University of Michigan, respectively. They talked to Anastasia Nebolsina, a graduate of the NES and HSE Joint Bachelor of Arts in Economics Program, about their experience of entering postgraduate studies – from choosing a certain track to career choices after completing the PhD.  


When is the best time to enroll: immediately after getting a bachelor's degree or later? 

T. A.: I tried my luck right after my bachelor's degree, but I didn't manage to get into the universities that I wanted. It was in 2021 when the education market was still recovering from COVID. Then, I decided to go to NES to improve my portfolio and enroll in more prestigious universities after that. 

A. S.: I decided to take a gap year after getting my master's degree, but it didn't go quite as I planned. The exchange program between universities, which had determined my choice of taking a break, was canceled. Therefore, I set myself two goals for that year: to enroll in a PhD program and to take a rest. During the first six months, I took exams and submitted documents, and in the second half of the year, I was preparing for the relocation, getting a driver's license, and doing more mundane things. 


The bumpy road of preparation for enrollment

T. A.: My main advice is to properly evaluate your capabilities. When I started studying at NES, I learned how different people made their way to PhD programs, and I realized what needs to be done to repeat their success. You need to talk to alumni and the people around you to understand the rules of the game. You can know everything about the importance of grades and exam results, but it is much more important to use the advantages that you have and that have led others to success. 

A. S.: My path was quite standard for our program: studying hard to get high grades, taking international exams, and working as a research assistant. The most important thing, as it seems to me now, is that I worked a lot on academic year/course projects and on my thesis, which  is about the representation of women in politics and the crime rate. It is important not only for the portfolio but also to better understand your interests. 


Finding the perfect place

T. A.: After my bachelor's degree, I wanted to move to California, but it was more of a childhood dream than an informed choice. After the master's degree, university location was no longer that important to me: I only wanted to get into the most prestigious university, where you can always find a great professor doing what you are interested in. Therefore, I applied to the top 10 American universities and, as a plan B, to several other universities with a lower ranking.  

As for the program, I am a theorist by nature. Already in my bachelor's degree, I was thinking about finance, but I realized that it was not close to me, so I applied only for economic programs. 

A. S.: Most of all I wanted to get to the University of Michigan, where there is a great program in economics. Still, I applied to a huge number of universities both in Europe and in the US. I went for mainly economic programs because I wanted to have the freedom to choose topics for my future research. There were also more specific programs on my list: public sector economics or applied econometrics. At the application stage, it seemed to me as an excellent strategy, because even if you get into a relatively small department, you can still have access to professors and courses of the Department of Economics. And it is easier to get into more specialized programs at good universities. 

When writing my motivational letter, I tried to show that I can do both theory and practice. However, I have the impression that universities sometimes enroll students in a specific topic, i.e. econometrics or microeconomic theory. I think I looked like an applied economist. Still, it is important to balance the breadth of interests and the ability to establish a full-fledged specialist profile in the eyes of the admissions committee.


Why didn't you apply to European universities?

T. A.: I applied to the London School of Economics because for me it is as close as possible to the level of American universities. In general, I did not want to go to EU universities, because they often have smaller scholarships, and I understood that I would not have any other funding besides the scholarship. In addition, it is difficult to become a professor at a good US university after a European postgraduate program – American universities consider themselves a private club. 

A. S.: I submitted documents to EU universities in order to have an alternative. Many NES students have very high chances of entering universities in Europe. Moreover, the deadline for submitting documents there is longer. But there are some drawbacks; for example,  after graduating from a university in Europe, the chances of getting a good job are lower than after an American graduate school. It seems to me that my university's ranking will play a role in six years when I will be looking for a job.


How the pandemic made academic connections more important 

T. A.: Recommendation letters from professors showing that you are interested in an academic career and know how to do research are the most important things in your application. Therefore, it may be easier to enroll if your reference writer has friends at the university, whom he or she can call and ask to give attention to your portfolio. This is informally called “the old boy network”, and, fortunately or not, it works quite well during the enrollment to PhD programs.

When COVID-19 began, the number of students who wanted to continue their studies increased dramatically. It was partly due to the labor market uncertainty. It seems to me that it became more difficult for universities to pick students, which had to give a clearer signal than before that they wanted to do research and build an academic career. Pre-doctoral programs that had already gained popularity by that time received even greater attention from applicants. In the past three years, top universities were picking graduate students from the pre-docs who worked as research assistants for two years, who were able to prove themselves and get good recommendations. This made enrollment for others somewhat harder.