Enjoy Studying at the University
Starting from this academic year recent PhD graduate of the Central European University Andras Gal joined the HSE team and started to teach on the programme "Business and Politics in Modern Asia". Within this interview Andras Gal spoke about his postgraduate studies, the differences between the Russian and European education systems, as well as the differences between the HSE and other universities.
Could you please tell us about your research interests in more detail?
I have been researching constitutional courts in associations that are democracies divided along ethnic and religious lines, and my main question of interest is how courts are balancing between a very specific understanding of the local needs of these societies, and the universal demands for the protecting and promoting human rights. My doctoral dissertation was written on the same topic.
You have been working at the Higher School of Economics for short period of time, but it still seems enough to see the differences. How does the HSE differ from other universities?
Compared to the Corvinus University in Budapest, the most important similarity is that most teachers and students really take their work seriously. Colleagues conduct important and relevant research in their field, they try to build a dialogue with the international scientific community. This is the main similarity. As for the students, I see that they are ambitious, competitive and very hardworking.
The Higher School of Economics is very international. Many people are really interested in visiting this specific, very interesting country called Russia, so whenever I ask students where they are from, usually the geography of our group extends for more than 10 thousand kilometers.
But obviously there are differences too. For instance, the Department’s general academic focus on the post-Soviet space makes it a very different intellectual environment compared to the generally Eurocentric political science departments in Central Europe, with a dominantly comparative focus. The latter might stem from the smallness of my home country (barely larger than Leningrad oblast), so we try escaping our claustrophobia with constantly looking beyond our borders.
Of the striking differences, I would also like to note that even local colleagues find HSE students too serious, competitive, they often compete for grades, and such things, perhaps, sometimes even hinder them. For example, in such a race, the joy of discovery and the feeling of curiosity are lost.
As for the education systems, how do you see the differences between the Russian educational system and the Hungarian one? Do you notice any significant differences between these two systems of two different countries?
The differences are not so stark. I first studied at the Corvinus University of Budapest, and then studied at the Central European University (CEU), also in Budapest. Comparing them with the HSE I can say that the HSE is more like the Corvinus University of Budapest in terms of the course structure, teaching, workload, class size, etc. A crucial difference between my student years and my current surroundings is that back then around 70% of students were state funded, which contributed a somewhat more relaxed environment. On the other hand, in terms of course content and the teaching curriculum, the resemblance is greater with Central European University (CEU). The biggest difference between the HSE and the CEU is regarding an average week of a student: at the CEU, students spend less time in the classroom, but much more in the library. Furthermore, the forms of assessment are also fairly different: while there are very few exams (if any), at some weeks we had three written assignments.
What can you say about the teaching methods in Russia, are they somehow different from the European ones?
It's a difficult question as I did not teach at my home university. It is still a journey of discovery where I’m myself trying to understand what my teaching style is. Furthermore, the introduction of online learning fundamentally changed a lot of what you would ever think about teaching in higher education.
Please tell us more about the courses you teach at HSE.
In addition to the research seminar, I teach a course titled “Politics and Society in European Countries” on the programme “Political Science and World Politics”. As I am teaching this course for the second time, I already feel the benefits of learning from past mistakes, and enjoy the process of making the learning process as student-friendly as I can. An interesting initiative that I’m very glad being part of is an undergraduate comparative politics course, taught in inter-campus format, in collaboration with our colleagues from the Moscow campus. In the next semester, I will teach a course “Constitutionalism and Democracy” and very much looking forward to it, as the course content is closely related to my interests; furthermore, as I have already taught this course three times, it already feels like a polished product.
At one of the last research seminars - you asked the question, who plans to continue their studies and get the PhD degree. Nobody in the group raised their hands at that time. What do you think is the reason for such a choice of students?
In my experience, it depends on the year, in my last year there were six students who said they were planning to apply for PhD, and some of them gained admission to highly prestigious institutions, such as Stanford University, for instance; the perspective of such opportunities open to current cohorts too must be motivating factor for interested students. So, in short, the program structure offering an internationally competitive methodological skill-set is given, but given the small size of classes in the MA level, the interests of students might be different for a number of different reasons.
What guided you when you decided to pursue a scientific career and obtain a doctorate? Why did you decide to get your PhD?
In my family, I'm a third-generation academic, so had enough opportunities to see the benefits of academic work: flexible hours, meeting a lot of interesting people, and the diversity in your schedule provided by research and teaching. By growing up among such people, it seemed to be a natural choice for me too.
What advice would you give to students of our program, in particular maybe master students?
At the university, I know that there are many ambitious students, already thinking about and working on their life after university. Nevertheless, for many this may be the last season of their lives with such a flexible schedule and socially diverse environment. My advice is to take friendships at university seriously, and be dedicated to spending time with colleagues. The university environment provides an unusually broad range of options for intellectual exchange and interaction, especially in such a diverse student body that the HSE has. Therefore, before you either continue your studies or start your professional career, make sure that you will enjoy this amazing journey.