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The goal of Project 5-100 is to maximize the competitive position of a group of leading Russian universities in the global research and education market.

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Postdocs in Russia: Vast New Areas to Explore

May 21, 2019

Russia’ first-ever National Project for Science has been launched this year. One of its objectives is to enhance the country’s appeal as a place to do research for leading scientists and young, promising scholars both fr om home and abroad.

The Russian government seeks to make sure that up to 30,800 domestic and foreign researchers with publications in the first and second quartiles of internationally indexed journals have joined Russia’s scientific workforce by the time the five-year national project has run its course in 2024.

Universities in European and, increasingly, Asian Russia, which stretches fr om the Urals across Siberia to the Far East, offer young scholars vast opportunities to get involved in tackling global scientific and educational issues and engage in cutting-edge research to design advanced technologies and products, with the world’s leading experts acting as their supervisors and principal investigators.

“Junior and senior PhDs under the age of 35 with experience working at international scientific or higher education institutions are highly desirable recruits for host universities, as they are young, vigorous, agile and fluent in foreign languages, have global expertise and overseas contacts, possess an original cast of mind, etc.,” explained Victor Tupik, Vice-Rector (Vice President) for Strategic Development at St Petersburg Electrotechnical University LETI (ETU LETI)

Young and ambitious researchers, in turn, seek to learn from the best of the best. Mikhail Gladyshev, Vice-Rector (Vice President) for Science at Siberian Federal University (SFU), says that postdoctoral students will flock to the world’s premier scientific institutions wh ere they know they will be instructed by the best in their field. Once they become independent researchers in their own right, they expect to be considered for a tenure-track position as a professor or assistant professor.

Offering postdoctoral jobs and fellowships is one way in which Russian universities are seeking to attract internationally experienced researchers and raise the quality of their faculty. Importantly, postdoc programs are in place at several universities that participate in Project 5-100, a government-run initiative designed to make Russian higher education providers more competitive globally.

Sergey Zverev, head of the Department of Scientific and Technical Activity of Youth at St Petersburg Polytechnic University (SPbPU), praises Project 5-100 for having enabled universities to increase the number of young scholars involved in research under leading scientists and launch big laboratories led by young international investigators who have been given a chance to build their own teams and pursue innovative research.

Postdoctoral programs available at Project 5-100 universities welcome Russian and international postdocs to contribute to the development of research and education and share unique experience and new techniques.

Moscow-based Sechenov University has for the past three years been soliciting applications from international researchers, both ‘big names’ and young postdocs, for staff positions at its Biomedical Science and Technology Park laboratory. Since 2018 it has hired a number of foreign nationals from Australia, Chile, China, Germany, India, Italy and Portugal.

Another Project 5-100 participant also located in Moscow, National University of Science and Technology MISIS (NUST MISIS) regularly holds a grant competition designed to support young scientists (postdocs) with international background, invited to postdoctoral positions. Young scientists with an international PhD degree and with work experience in leading international research and development centers, are eligible to apply for the grant competition. This project has existed since 2012 and there were 6 recruitment tours from that time.

“Besides that, in 2018, NUST MISIS launched a new project to enroll students in postgraduate degree programs led by the University`s leading scientists. These programs offer the unique opportunity to work as part of international research groups in world-class laboratories, as well as to do internships in leading American and European universities. These are the full-time programs,” said Vasif Faradzhov, Head of International affairs office at NUST MISIS.

Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) runs a senior research fellowship contest. It is open to Russian and foreign researchers who hold a PhD or a higher doctoral degree and prior work experience at international research centers. In 2018 MIPT hired researchers from the world's leading universities, such as Oxford University, MIT, Caltech, University of Southern Denmark and others. This year the university launched a new postdoc contest for young researchers. “Our development program is focused on attracting human capital at all levels, from young researchers to professors and leading scientists. We pay particular attention to the integration of world-class research and education. Such projects produce no immediate results, yet they have a lasting impact, ” says Vitaly Bagan, MIPT vice rector for science and development programs.

A Saint Petersburg university, ITMO University runs the Fellowship & Professorship Program, which is an excellent medium to introduce PhDs to the university’s international research labs and other units. “As there are both short and long-term tracks available, postdocs can first come on a short-term contract to get to know the university and then, if satisfied, progress to long-term cooperation,” said Elizaveta Menis, a leading analyst at the ITMO University Internationalization Department. At this university young scientists enjoy creative freedom and have ample room for professional growth. One PhD who has made good use of both is Ekaterina Skorb. Joining ITMO’s Fellowship & Professorship Program after a stint at Harvard, she now leads a group of Infochemistry for Self-Adaptive Materials at the Russian university’s SCAMT Lab.

There is a common stereotype that only Moscow and Saint Petersburg offer good education and career opportunities. Some people even believe that there is no life outside Russia’s two biggest economic centers. That could have been true in the 90’s, but things have changed dramatically since then. Leading universities of Ural, Siberia and Far East offer postdoctoral programs and research opportunities that attract talented young scientists from Russia and beyond.

South Ural State University (SUSU) runs a postdoctoral program which this year has received applications from as far afield as China, Croatia, India, Tunisia, etc. The young postdocs are engaged in research mentored by the university’s leading faculty members.

Meet C. P. Sakthidharan, a postdoc from India, who is working on an ecology project which, if successful, may produce a new type of carbon nanomaterials highly sought after by industry.

He relates that after completing his PhD he decided to seek a job outside India: in Russia, Sweden or the UK. Having found a SUSU postdoc opening online and made sure that the suggested research topic chimed in with his own agenda, he sent out a CV and before long was invited to SUSU’s headquarters in Chelyabinsk.

Chelyabinsk is not the only place in the Ural region worth considering as a career destination for Russian and international postdocs. Welcome to Ekaterinburg, home of Ural Federal University (UrFU), which has earned its place among Russia’s leading universities in terms of education and academic research. UrFU’s postdoctoral program has been drawing more applicants every year, mostly from the Arab world, China and India but also from the US and some European countries, including France, Italy and the UK.

Vladimir Kruzhaev, UrFU’s Vice-Rector (Vice President) for Research, says: “In Europe, new PhD graduates can expect to be appointed to a postdoctoral position under a three-year contract, renewable once, whereas we offer two renewals. In Russia, young scientists can earn extra income by winning grants and publishing articles in journals indexed by international citation databases. We arrange trips, educational programs and Russian language courses for our postdocs and generally do our best to make them comfortable. There are physicists, astronomers, chemists, several biologists and mathematicians employed in postdoctoral positions at our university.”

What comes to your mind when you think of Siberia? Unique nature and cold winters, right? And also leading universities and research institutions attracting talented young scientists from all over the world. At the University of Tyumen (UTMN), the international staff count has increased more than tenfold over the past five years. There are targeted grants available to postdocs. In addition to earning a good salary, they are reimbursed for rent and book costs.

UTMN takes an innovative approach to hiring faculty for its School of Advanced Studies (SAS). Over the past three years it has chosen 60 out of more than 500 applicants from around the world to attend “project design” sessions wh ere multidisciplinary research teams are formed. They propose and defend projects, the best of which are selected for development, with core members of the initiating teams getting faculty positions at SAS. This year’s session brought together 23 candidates from 13 countries with PhDs from the world’s premier universities in subjects ranging from Anthropology and Biology to Media Studies and ICT.

X-BIO, UTMN’s other strategic endeavor launched as part of Project 5-100, combines cutting-edge research with practical implementation of its findings in agriculture and forestry. Scientists from Brazil, Iran, South Africa, the US and beyond are carrying out interdisciplinary research that draws on microbiology, microfluidics, natural products chemistry and plant sciences.

One of the postdocs working at X-BIO, Omid Joharchi, is an alumnus of Tehran’s Islamic Azad University, the largest non-governmental university in the Middle East. Another, William Julian, has traveled all the way from the University of Vermont in the US to study antibiotic resistance by pathogenic bacteria, which is a major challenge to modern medicine.

 Another Siberian university, SFU, started a postdoctoral program as a pilot to attract young PhDs once it joined Project 5-100 in 2015. Its Vice-Rector for Science Mikhail Gladyshev points out that the competition was stiff and that one in three postdocs hired has stayed on. These are mostly scholars from Spain, Switzerland, etc., who have come expressly to train in Academician Evgeny Vaganov’s dendrochronology methods, in order to learn from the world’s leading experts and get to the top of their profession. And indeed, one former postdoc, Alberto Arzac, has risen to become head of a laboratory and gone on to win international and Russian grants, which, as Mikhail Gladyshev thinks, is very much what an ideal postdoctoral career should look like.

Far Eastern Russia also has great opportunities to offer to postdocs who are eager to make a scientific career. Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU) has been running programs to recruit both postdoctoral students and leading scientists since 2015, which has helped it to strengthen its ‘science schools’ and open up new fields of research. Over this time it has hired more than 100 first-tier academics, some of whom have been granted Russian citizenship.

Vice President for Research Kirill Golokhvast remarks that, while young, talented scientists may be attracted to FEFU by the state-of-the-art equipment, the vibrant international scholastic environment or even the sea view from the lab windows, it is an opportunity to undertake independent research that remains the chief inducement. Generally, when young scientists land a job in a US, Asian or Australian laboratory, they are expected to put their shoulder to the wheel of its research agenda and only much later are given a chance to get on with their own. FEFU is different: here, if one has made a compelling case for the relevance of a topic, one will have a free hand to pursue it.

With instrumentation upgrades at Russia’s leading institutions, the creation of five unique megascience facilities, the construction and modernization of research vessels and a host of other measures coming on top of expanding postdoc programs, this country’s appeal for both domestic and international researchers is set to increase dramatically.