Vladimir Mau: Successful people don’t work in their field of study

17 June 2021
Vladimir Mau: Successful people don’t work in their field of study

The rector of one of Russia’s largest universities, the Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, offers some useful tips to school graduates in an interview with kp.ru.

This week, Russian universities are opening enrolment for next year’s programs. Which strategy would be best at this point? What should school leavers and their parents focus on when sending applications to the universities they have chosen? We discussed this this with RANEPA Rector Vladimir Mau on Radio Komsomolskaya Pravda.

Always choose a challenge

- Dr. Mau, the new Russian university rankings have been published recently. But I have a feeling that it’s not as simple as that with those rankings, and applicants should rather not automatically use them as a guideline. There are different kinds of rankings, for that matter – some highlight universities’ academic reputation, others are based on the results of scientific publications. What do you think a regular school leaver should be looking at if they want to learn a profession that is in demand?

- Rankings are important. There are many kinds of them. But I think people are more or less aware, even without any rankings, which universities are the best or which programs are more challenging. Different people have different reasons for enrolling in a university degree program. A student can go to a good research institution if they plan on being a researcher. Or they can choose an applied program, if they are not interested in research.

Now more and more young people prefer to go to vocational colleges, and after that, a significant part of them go to a university. Everyone chooses their own trajectory. I would say it is most important to focus on your interests and priorities.

Some young people have other reasons – they want to have fun on campus rather than invest much time and effort in their studies, and just get a diploma to please their parents.

- I think this motivation is among the top ones these days.

- I’m not sure. We live in a pragmatic society. Military conscription has long ceased to be a scarecrow. As a result, spending time at a university to avoid conscription or to satisfy their parents no longer works for many students. About half of Russian teenagers leave school after the 9th grade to go to vocational schools not because they are too stupid for high school, but because they have consciously chosen this trajectory. Let's not underestimate young Russians’ rationality, or Russians in general.

Of course, all other things being equal, not to waste time, I would suggest they go to a good university, where studying would be intense. I always tell my students, if it’s too easy, it means you’re missing something.

If you see a vocational (associate degree) program as an investment in your future (more and more students look at learning as an investment rather than as a purchase of a service), it must be challenging; this way you will get a return on that investment.

- I talk with students a lot. And I get the impression that many of them have a vague understanding of what they are choosing and why. Suppose they were told at school they were good at writing essays – well, perhaps I should be a journalist. Someone was unlucky to have a poor math teacher who failed to interest them – that must mean I'm good at humanities, I will take social studies instead. Maybe we should place more emphasis on career guidance?

- Your question contains part of the answer. Only I don’t agree that they’d go to any university that’ll have them – let's just focus on motivated people, those who view university as a prospect, as an investment, rather than those who just want to spend time there. Their reasons are boring to discuss, and largely unimportant for the subject of this conversation.

When people ask me how to succeed in life, I tell them, by being good at your job. A student's job is to study hard – not to hang out or to get married (although that can also be a good idea, I give them that).

The second most popular question they ask is which fields of study are most promising. Well, the most promising ones are those you are truly interested in. Anyone can achieve success in any field if they find their work interesting.

- Mr. Mau, I’ll have to interrupt you. When they leave school, many still don’t know what they are interested in.

- IN any case, even if you’re told that being a programmer or a game designer is very promising, but doing it makes you sick, then you shouldn’t do it. Our mission as an education provider is to help them make that choice. I have two or three important criteria.

The first criterion (try to take this seriously, for all the triviality): university education must primarily be fundamental. Fundamental knowledge is something that never gets old. It is something the person will be using to adapt to challenges they will certainly face later in life.

They will have to change their specialty more than once over their lifespan – successful people don’t just work within their field of study. When they ask me how many of our graduates have jobs in the same field they have been trained in, I always have this ironic answer. I say, the more of them are successful, the fewer.

No need to work in your field of study?

- Actually, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko recently said one of the indicators of a university's performance should be the number of graduates who actually do what that university has trained them to do.

- It depends on the time that passed between their graduation and getting their current job. Of course, a doctor should not work as a lawyer, or a lawyer, God forbid, as a doctor. But the most successful people work in a different field from the one they have been trained in, more often than not.

Yes, I am aware of this mantra – how many of your graduates work in their field. But we must understand that it depends on what they actually do. If a graduate of a teacher training university works as a shop assistant, this is wrong. But if they work, say, as a consultant in a law firm, that's not bad at all. Provided they are a good consultant, of course.

- That means they have been properly trained to communicate with people ...

- Yes. Another important factor is helping students individualize their learning track. Market demand for new specialties – hence for certain specifics of education in various fields and for graduates of certain programs – is changing as they study. You are absolutely right – specialties that are going to be more in demand than others by the time the student is ready to take a job in six years (bachelor's plus master's program) might not yet exist at the time that student is enrolling in their bachelor’s program. This is what we must understand.

The most fundamental characteristic of our time is uncertainty. We must all learn to accept living in an uncertain context. To adapt, universities must improve the capabilities of individualized tracks. We must ensure that a student can specialize in two or even three narrow fields as they go, and we must create opportunities for them to change their track at any point.

The current two-stage model (bachelor's and master's degrees) has been criticized from day one. But even so, this model is a huge achievement and a leap forward, because it allows participants to change their track after four years. They are no longer required to continue learning the same things from the same teachers for six years, but can evolve taking into account new challenges.

President Vladimir Putin said a very important thing in his 2020 Address – he said university students must be offered an opportunity to choose a new path or curriculum halfway through their bachelor's program.

- This story is now referred to as two-plus-two-plus-two.

- Yes. And this is a very important story. It also enables universities to more accurately adjust students’ preparation for future challenges.

The third factor is universities must ensure the continuity of education. We live in a world of continuous education, which implies education for adults. In fact, we must create the right conditions for our graduates and graduates of other universities to come back to us at various stages of their careers because they need to prepare for new challenges.

I often tell my colleagues and students that our job is like Scheherazade’s, who avoided execution for many years only because every night, she stopped the story she was telling the Sultan at an exciting moment, and he wanted to hear the end of the story. This is what we need to achieve – to make sure that more and more people want to hear the end of our story. This is actually the Presidential Academy’s mandate, because the overwhelming majority of our students aren’t here to get their first university degree – they have come for retraining. We do have a lot of regular students, 45,000, but another 150,000 are enrolled in various retraining and advanced training programs with us.

- This sounds right to me – you spend two years in a bachelor's degree program acquiring fundamental knowledge; the next two years, you specialize in a narrower field. After that, those who want to engage in research or teaching, join a Master’s program.

- Master's degrees can be different. They can be academic (for those planning to do research), teaching (for those who want to be school teachers), administrative (primarily management) or “extended,” meaning advanced applied training in fields that require a six-year track.

Is Bachelor a “half-trained professional”?

- However, we often hear from employers that a university graduate with a Bachelor's degree is an “undertrained” specialist, not yet a professional. And now we tell our students they can study something for two years, then change track and learn something else for another two years. Where would this lead them?

- This sounds like a superficial approach, or hypocrisy. Almost all our undergraduate students have jobs in their junior and senior years. This isn’t theoretical physics; we teach mainly applied skills, where students can be allowed to work in their field of training as they study. On the one hand, they might be seen as half-trained specialists, but on the other, they start working in their third or fourth year. All the Master’s students work, and they work in their specialty. I'm not talking about part-time jobs in a restaurant; those are for first and second years.

Moreover, this was not the case in the Soviet Union either. I would like to remind you that a number of universities (for example, Plekhanov University, where I earned my first degree) had four-year programs.

- Economists and teachers studied in four-year programs.

- A number of my very respected colleagues in the government have university degrees from four-year programs. And no one ever said they were half-trained. For example, I got a job a year earlier than I could have (or even two years earlier if I was in a six-year program). But that gave me more opportunities for research right from the start; I did it in my fourth year.

You mentioned postgraduate studies. At present, candidates are required to have a Master’s-level degree to join a postgraduate program. But why? If a person is good at doing research, why can’t they start right after earning their Bachelor's degree? We took graduate courses after four-year degree programs at the university, and believe me, our work was no worse than what new generations can do.

Education is largely an individual track, and will be further individualized in the future.

Anyway, there have been good students and bad ones at all times. Being good or bad at studying does not necessarily mean they make good and bad specialists, respectively. Their tracks after school can change in very different ways. I, personally, insist that a student should achieve good results, at school or university, just because it’s their job. It shouldn’t be about earning your mother’s praise. Honestly, one should be embarrassed to be anything less than a straight A student once they have taken on the responsibility by enrolling.

Do you think everyone should be entitled to state scholarships?

- Does it follow from what you just said that it’s important to determine the general trajectory at this point? And specialty can be narrowed down in a couple of years, when the student becomes more mature and can make a conscious choice.

- In fact, a good university is not the one with good professors; it is the one with good students. Good students won't let their professors be bad.

- What do you think about ​​giving universities the authority to add maybe 20 points to a potential student’s overall EGE score for other achievements, not 10 as is the case now? This way they would have more influence on who they admit.

- I am extremely skeptical about this idea. I believe we should intervene as little as we can in this National Final School Exam business. I am a categorical opponent of any additional entrance exams at universities. I believe there is a high risk of, well, associate professor-level corruption in this case.

- This year, the government offered an additional 35,000 scholarships. Mostly regional programs. But does the way they are distributed across various fields make much sense? An economist, a lawyer, and a public relations specialist remain the most popular professions. But the number of state scholarships for respective programs is minimal. Fewer people choose engineering and technology; the government is adding more scholarships for that. As a result, state scholarships are awarded to students with EGE scores as low as 45-50 – actually, C grade students. I looked up the minimum EGE scores required to enroll in chemistry and biology programs in a good enough university in Siberia – they started from 46. Maybe we shouldn’t offer more scholarships for programs that are unlikely to attract capable students? Do we want a C grade engineer to design airplanes or rocket engines? They won’t even be hired by a modern high-tech company. After they’ve used up a state scholarship...

- This is a more complex question than it might appear on the surface.

First, if a person strives to get a university degree, this is a priori good. A mediocre education is better than no education at all.

I don’t think one should either get the best education or none at all. Different people with different abilities and capabilities determine the demand for various kinds of education.

What I would agree with is that we really can’t know which jobs will be in demand in a few years. Popular professions are not a mirror-like reflection of the economy’s needs, or specific companies’ demand for physicists, economists, lawyers or biologists. Trends here are also shaped by students’ interest in becoming engineers, or economists, or lawyers, or biologists. It’s wrong to say we have too many lawyers or economists. We all know that highly qualified lawyers and economists are few and difficult to find.

On the other hand, I believe it is important to move towards distributing state scholarships according to the current demand for them. We cannot say how many economists employers will need. We need to see how many applicants we have this year who have high EGE scores and who want to be economists, or lawyers, or physicists, or engineers, and provide as many state scholarships, rather than speculate about the need for more abstract engineers...

- But this is exactly what happens ...

- We are in the process of a major shift right now. Eventually, all other things being equal, young Russians should be able to choose exactly the field and specialty they are interested in, even if they have to pay. In the Soviet Union, universities never offered much choice. You were either admitted or not. Such changes cannot happen overnight, but there has been some movement in this direction.

Expanding the number of state scholarships is a very important process. There is a real demand for universal higher education is Russia, and it will be satisfied anyway. It would be better if the state controls this process, by offering scholarships.

I am often being criticized for this idea – that state scholarships should be available to everyone who wants to study. If you talk to heads of the leading universities, you’ll find they’re reluctant to admit more students with state scholarships. Fee-paying students bring them far more than state scholarships.

- That’s how the university makes money.

- And a good university makes good money. While providing a quality education. Yes, on the one hand, it would be a good idea to have more students with state scholarships, but on the other, we understand that students with high EGE scores without state scholarships...

- Will bring the university...

- The university will make more money. But in reality, it’s not just so straightforward. While increasing enrollment, we absolutely have to make sure the quality of education remains high. And this isn't easy either.

- I once spoke with a Deputy Minister of Education of France. I asked him, why do you admit everyone who wants to go to Sorbonne? Most of them drop out after a year because working for a Sorbonne degree is too intense, and then lapse into depression because they have been unable to keep up... And he said, we give everyone a chance to go to university, it’s an important gain of our great French Revolution. And I do hope that anyone who has spent at least a year at the Sorbonne will never be a litterbug...

- It is indeed important to have a chance to go to a university with the national government paying for it. This is what I was talking about. We need to create a similar system, maybe years from now... We are actually in a position to do this, economically.

Russia is a developed economy, by its main macroeconomic and social indicators. We shouldn’t be too humble and think of Russia as “developing.” A developed country can and should afford to pay for one professional degree (possibly from a good college) for everyone. True, your abilities should correspond to the level of the university or college you choose, that is, the school should be willing to accept you. But everyone should have this chance, maybe in some provincial university, where the requirements are lower, where you can go and get a basic degree.

Your exams are just beginning

- Dr. Mau, what advice would you offer to this year's applicants?

- I would tell them not to worry too much. Unlike in the industrialization age, you aren’t making a decision for life. You will have to retrain somewhere down the road anyway. Choose something you are really interested in learning. In a broader sense, literary criticism, philosophy and foreign languages ​​are the same thing. There are subtleties and specifics, of course; later, you will have to figure out if you want to do academic research, teach or be an applied specialist in translation, or something else...

- But you won’t know until you try.

- Yes. What you need to understand now is that your university major won’t predetermine your entire life. You can succeed anywhere, even if you don't go to college at all.

Choosing a good university is more important than choosing a specialty. Never choose anything you don’t feel like doing just because someone else is saying you should.

- Look, if a school graduate does not yet know what they want to do, it might be a good thing that their father brings them to a university and persuades them to apply...

- If a person is not capable of comprehending mathematics, making them do it will amount to torture. You wouldn’t make a person sing if they are short of voice, would you? With math, however, people tend to believe anyone can figure it out if they tried harder.

So, my first advice is, don’t overreact. The second one is, try to listen to yourself. And the third is, remember that it isn’t forever anyway. There is this play by Italian playwright Eduardo De Filippo, Exams Never End. Now, this isn’t just a phrase, it’s the truth. Having passed their National Final School Exam, school leavers should remember that it was the easiest exam in life. More challenging ones will follow...


State scholarships are now available to those planning to earn a degree in art even if they already have a university degree.

- The newly adopted amendments to the legislation introduce state scholarships for culture and art programs for those who already have a university degree. This is a very important story. Until now, you were only entitled to one state scholarship only. Now graduates from technology, teaching, or medical universities who have already used one state scholarship to earn their degree can apply for another one to study music, fine arts, or culture.

- So, we can end our program on an optimistic note. Indeed, life does not end with leaving school and entering a university. You can still change your track, and in two years (when universities adopt the 2 + 2 curriculum) you will be able to decide what you want to specialize in. And after four years, you can enroll in a Master’s program and do something else that you like. So, good luck to you guys. And parents, stop worrying, they’re good kids, they’ll all get into college.



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