'I Submitted My Documents to Three Universities: Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics. I was Accepted in All Three'
At HSE University-St Petersburg, except for the main learning trajectory, over two years, the students master an additional one—a minor. It can help to find new optics for research, choose a profession or simply broaden the horizons. A minor helped Tatyana Novotolskaya, a graduate of the Bachelor's programme 'Sociology and Social Informatics', not only find a new area for research but also get enrolled in the Master's programme at Oxford University. Find out more about all these things and some pieces of advice for prospective students in our interview.
Focus on Qualitative Research
I chose the programme in sociology knowing only that I would study people, groups, and the structure of society. I had a feeling that it would suit me, and my interest in this science appeared during the studies at the social faculty. I didn't have any expectations for the programme so I cannot say if any of them were met or not. But in the end, I am completely satisfied with my experience and I think that I wouldn't feel anywhere as good as at HSE University at the social faculty.
The name of the programme 'Sociology and Social Informatics' makes it clear that the students study data analysis and immerse themselves in quantitative sociology. However, there are a lot of people doing qualitative research, for instance, researchers from the laboratories of the Centre for Youth Studies. In the first year, I realised that quantitative sociology is not my thing. I even got scared at the beginning as there were going to be a lot of maths and analytics. But we have an opportunity to choose courses so I tried to focus on the courses in qualitative research. For instance, I had a research seminar on culture. There was a course 'Social Network Analysis': it focused on the quantitative aspect to the maximum, however, I liked looking not at the numbers but at how social networks operate and the information circulates there.
My favourite subject in the first year is, of course, social theory. It was a challenge—the lecturers of the principal subjects always give a large amount of information which you have to ingest. But I was walking there and thinking: 'So this is how it all works!'. I was struck by the fact that the world was so interesting and theorists could explain it like that. This course as well as the research seminar on culture was taught by Maria Safonova. I liked everything she taught so over four years, I always chose courses by Prof Safonova. Some lecturers enjoy their subjects themselves so much that you also take an interest—Prof Safonova is such a professor. In fact, the social faculty is always a home for me. I really liked the people who taught there.
From the Book by a British Anthropologist to First Field Research
When I was choosing a minor three years ago, I hardly understood what I wanted but I knew for sure that I wanted to stay in social sciences. I paid heed to the minor in social anthropology: watched a promotional video and read the curriculum. I realised that it would suit me as in social theory, I truly liked ethnographic texts telling something about other people and their lives. It is as if you read fiction overlapped with social theory—it is amazing. This whole minor was supposed to be about it. So I thought: this is it!
The minor consisted of four modules, each of which lasted for six months. The modules were devoted to the divisions of anthropology: blood relation and gender, religion and knowledge, economics and ethics, culture and power of writing. In the first module, we studied what anthropology was and how people engage in it: we started with the pioneers—read the texts by Malinovskii and Evans-Pritchard. Then, I found out that this course was based on the same model as the course in anthropology at the University of Cambridge because Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov worked there for fourteen years and brought this course to HSE University. It is something amazing and wonderful to understand that you can study the subject at HSE University on the same level as you could study it at one of the best universities in the world.
In the second semester, we studied the anthropology of religion and knowledge—and this is what I stuck to. I was impressed by the book by the British anthropologist Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard on the magic among the Azande people (Azande are the people of northern Central Africa—ed. note). This book was interesting for me to read as it combines very detailed ethnographic descriptions and the author’s reflection on what happened to him in the field. He reasoned about why people believed in it, in what way it was similar to us even though we did not think so and how he started believing in it with time. This approach is rather close to me—to explore not only the field but also the way this field can influence an anthropologist.
For my term paper in the third year, I found the field in a Pentecostal church in St Petersburg. I was conducting research there from the beginning of the third year to the end of this year: I went there two-three times a week, attended services and participated in the discussions. It was important for me to track what happened when a researcher who is far from the church comes to a religious group and how it influences the selection of methods, the building of relationships with informants and the work results in the end. I confessed straight away that I was conducting research which caused mistrust. The people worried a lot about what I would write that's why they did not tell me how their organisational structure worked, for instance. With time, they got used to me but did not allow me to join all the events. I concluded that for them, faith was the tool to build the boundaries of their group.
In my thesis, I focused on how Weber's conception of recognition worked in a Pentecostal church but in a different one—there, people were more open to me. It turned out that the pastor had already met anthropologists before so he helped to find informants and was ready to answer all my questions. Earlier, the concept of recognition was commonly studied in terms of quantity but it seemed to me that it was more important to conduct qualitative research to find out how informants perceived it. It turned out that for the Pentecostals, this idea was central to building their identity and group boundaries. It also influences the reproduction of inequalities in the group.
In fact, for me, anthropology in general was a huge discovery. I like this science because it cares about the position of the person who it studies. An anthropologist comes to a field hardly having any idea of what awaits them there—they don't have any hypotheses. It is important for them to see the world the way another person sees it and, starting from this, create their research. Such an approach is very close to me because I want to understand a person truly.
Master's degree at Oxford
I was planning to take a gap year after the fourth year of studies but changed my mind at the last moment. I did not have enough time to pass an English exam so there were not so many options left. Among them were Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics as they did not require the certificate. Oxford and Cambridge have two of the strongest departments of social anthropology in the world with brilliant academic staff. The London School of Economics attracted me as there was a programme in the anthropology of religion in particular.
I submitted my documents without hoping for anything. I thought: 'Now they'll say that I don't suit them, and I will be looking for something else with peace of mind.' They required a standard set: a CV, a motivation letter and essays written during the Bachelor's degree. In addition, I had to send three reference letters. It is important to note that I got them from my lecturers from the minor—Zhanna Kormina and Nikolai Ssorin-Chaikov—who are great researchers who are famous in Western academia. Thus, I sent the documents to three universities: Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics. I was accepted in all three.
Oxford has always been a fairy tale and a fantasy for me. But thanks to the minor, this dream came true. It was a real miracle for me that I happened to join this minor. Everything happened this way because I met these amazing people, they gave me knowledge and an opportunity to prove to myself that I can study in such a place.
Advice for Prospective Students and Plans for the Future
Always choose what you like. This thought seems obvious but when it comes to the point, many people forget it. When there is a lot of information about where is great and where is boring, your brain gets overloaded with others' ideas of what a great thing is. That is why it is especially important to listen to yourself while choosing a minor as it is an amazing opportunity to broaden your horizons and discover something new for yourself. Who knows maybe in the end, it will become a matter of your life?
I do not know yet if I want to stay in academia. I think that one should become a researcher or a lecturer only if they truly enjoy it. Now, I really like working in the field but writing the theoretical part is hard. I hope that in the master's programme, I will be able to decide if I should enrol in a PhD programme or try something else. But I already have some ideas in mind: I truly like visual anthropology and ethnographic cinema. I hope I will have a chance to study these at Oxford.