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What It’s Really Like to Study in Moscow

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The first thing you’ll notice upon arriving in Moscow for the first time is the sheer scale of the city. Individual buildings take up entire blocks, roads contain more lanes and cars than you can count; it’s as if someone has taken a normal city and scaled everything up by a factor of four.

This awesome sense of scale is unlike other capital cities around the world, where construction has reached towards the sky as space comes at a premium. Moscow, meanwhile, has plenty of space. So much so, in fact, that its top tourist attraction is a large, empty space the length of more than three football fields. In person, Red Square somehow manages to be even bigger than the mental image that description has given you.

For international students, the idea of studying in Russia can feel like a step into the unknown. Barring a few surrounding countries, Russian isn’t widely spoken around the world. The climate and people are both perceived to be cold, the political situation fraught. Of course, the reality – as with all preconceptions – is extremely different.

Here’s what we learned on a recent trip to Moscow about what it’s really like to study in the Russian capital.

There’s a reason Russia produces so many Nobel Prize winners

Only France, Germany, Japan, Spain, the UK and the US have produced more Nobel laureates than Russia and the Soviet Union, and one tour of the laboratories at a top Moscow university is enough to reveal why.

Serious levels of investment into STEM and innovative technologies has occurred across lots of Russia’s top universities but the facilities at the National University of Science and Technology MISIS are particularly noteworthy. On our visit, we were shown how researchers are looking to produce hydrogen from aluminum waste, literally creating energy from Russia.

As well as impressive, space-age facilities, money has also been invested in ensuring students are taught by the best faculty members available. Professor Alexander Gromov, who works in the university’s Non-Ferrous Metals and Gold Department, had spent time working abroad in Italy before returning to Russia and ending up at NUST MISIS. To be led by him from lab to lab, from one science experiment to another, was like being shown around a sweet shop by an excited child. The passion is infectious.

This passion extends all the way to the top and Rector Alevtina Chernikova. She told us with great pride of the advances made by the institution in recent years, and of the number of NUST MISIS scientists featured in leading academic journals and publications around the world, proof of the university’s growth in research and development.

New ideas are everywhere at Moscow’s top universities

The level of innovation you’ll encounter at the top universities in Moscow is staggering. NUST MISIS have even gone as far as creating a whole academic conference dedicated to digital innovations in education, called EdCrunch.

Away from the conference hall, you don’t have to look hard to see how some of these ideas are being put into practice. At the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (also known as RUDN University), we spoke to medical students who are able to use a training simulation center to practice their craft and learn how to overcome the language barrier with patients.

We also saw the Mission Control Center used by the university’s Institute of Space Technologies, which receives the same live feeds as the country’s actual space agency. Researchers excitedly talked us through how students were able to use the center’s data to identify illegal mining sites on satellite images and report them to local government.

No, you don’t need to speak Russian to study here

The idea of living and studying somewhere where you can’t speak, read or understand the language can be terrifying, especially if you’re interested in pursuing a technical degree which requires using a complex vocabulary.

What is most noticeable when visiting universities in Moscow, however, is how open they are to English speakers. It’s extremely rare to meet a faculty member or student who can’t confidently speak in more than one language, and many degree programs are English-taught. At the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), for instance, there are now three English-taught bachelor’s degrees available.

Speaking to current international students in Moscow, it’s also remarkable how many of them have learned the language alongside their studies. It’s a fairly common practice at some universities, including MIPT, for international students to attend a preparatory one-year course to learn Russian before their degree starts, and the extent to which this helps students assimilate into the local culture is remarkable. Several students told us of how learning the language helped them settle into their new home and make more from their time in Russia.

Students here genuinely love what they do…and that’s not true everywhere

Have you ever met someone in love with a type of metal? Visiting RUDN University, one student spoke to us excitedly about a fire- and explosive-resistant steel material that they were working with as part of their studies. This level of passion and excitement was evident in everyone we spoke to, whether they were designing artificial bone replacements or studying Russian as a foreign language.

Maybe it’s a sign of how much a university degree is taken for granted in some parts of the world, but it’s clear that for these students their time at university isn’t just a rite of passage or a stepping stone to a particular job. There’s an earnest enthusiasm which is, for example, a long way from the British stereotype of apathetic students sleeping in late and missing lectures.

By contrast, studying in Moscow means fully embracing every academic opportunity available, so much so that one of the NUST MISIS Students Science Society members we met wasn’t even a scientist - Maria Peremitina joined to learn new skills and meet people from other subjects. The society, one of around 10 at the university, is open to anyone and provides a fantastic opportunity for personal development which students are eager to take.

Think you’d like to learn more about studying in Russia? Find out more about the top universities in the country with the QS BRICS Rankings 2019, which features the top universities in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

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Written by Craig OCallaghan
As editor of TopUniversities.com, Craig oversees the site's editorial content and network of student contributors. He also plays a key editorial role in the publication of several guides and reports, including the QS Top Grad School Guide.

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