Politics can be studied as a single subject , or combined with other subjects (Politics with .... or Politics and ....). It can be studied as part of a Area Studies degree such as American Studies or as a slightly different subject called International Relations.
It is not designed to 'train you as a politician'. It is not a vocational degree, although many people with a Politics degree will eventually develop careers in the Civil Service, local government, overseas development work, education, journalism, charities concerned with social justice, political pressure groups and think tanks etc, simply because that is the stuff that interests them. Other graduates will end up in totally different career areas where the subject matter of their degree is irrelevant but the skills they have developed such as critical thinking, textual analysis, statistical data handling, considered argument and the general ability to think at a higher level are invaluable.
What is a politics degree? Will I like it?
What is 'politics' - and how is that studied at University?
Politics = the study of power relationships. Not what you thought maybe. Did you think it was only 'what happens at Westminster'? Nope. There is 'politics' in almost everything we do and the way we relate to other people and the world. It's as much about relationships between two individuals in a local setting as it is about enormous things like the next General Election. Academic study of politics is defined as a social science, which means it looks at how and why things happen rather than just the narrative of events. What 'structures' create situations, how and why do the various 'actors' react and behave, what 'agendas' are at play on the various different levels of any situation?
No two Politics courses will be exactly the same at any two Universities. Each will have a particular focus or 'flavour'. Some will cover 'government' and the structures of formal politics, others will look more at everyday social politics and the way pressure groups, peasants uprisings and similar 'grassroots' stuff happens, others will include political history in any number of countries or geographic areas, or indeed eras of history. Most Politics courses will cover all of this in some shape or form within optional units, but you still need to make sure it is the 'sort' of Politics you want to study. There is no point signing up for a degree assuming it will include stuff about Green Politics or the role of the American Presidency and then you discover it doesn't go anywhere either of these topics.
What is an IR degree, as opposed to a politics degree'?
Broadly, at the risk of stating the obvious, IR tends to deal with interstate relations and how these are structured and, importantly, mediated; whereas political science degrees are more concerned with political behaviour and systems, both within the state and outside it, that influence political behaviour at a multitude of different levels.. The point is that IR is essentially 'International Politics' and 'Politics' is about politics in a much wider frame of reference.
What’s the difference between the BA and BSc?
There is no great significance in these different degree titles and certainly one is not considered 'better' than the other. At some Universities you can even decide which nomenclature you want on your eventual degree certificate yourself. In theory a BSc is more 'science' based and relies more on political theory than a BA which might be more empirically focused. In reality this difference is usually very hard to spot.
For instance, Oxford is generally regarded to have high levels of theoretical study and history all the way through their degree programmes, and Essex is known for its highly quantitative course, and training in the use of data-sets etc. As a social science, politics hovers between the arts, humanities and sciences and no-one can quite agree where to put it, and universities tend to decide completely arbitrarily whether theirs is a BA or BSc! This also relates to the degree title: just try not to read too much into it, and check the modules offered.
Do I need to have taken Politics A-level?
In a word – no! A degree is very different to an A-level, at a totally different intellectual level and an A level does not provide any essential pre-requisite knowledge. Although some of the concepts studied are similar (the A-level will introduce you to ideas about British government and theories such as liberalism, marxism etc) these tend to be discussed in much more depth at degree level.
All courses will start at a basic 'what is politics?' level, so any minor advantage felt by those with prior experience of the subject disappears easily by the end of the first term. So long as you have studied a related 'literate' subject like history, sociology, psychology, law or even economics, then studying politics as a beginner will present no obvious problems.
Is a politics degree for me?
Do you watch Newsnight and ask 'but why?' all the time? Do you simply want to know more about political events that happened in our past? A degree in politics can be hard work with lots of reading and thinking, and therefore intellectually challenging, but if you have a fascination about how society, governance and states ‘work’, about why politicians do things, and how ordinary people can sometimes provoke world changing events, you’re unlikely to find it boring.
Politics is a popular course. It is not uncommon to find 20+ applicants per place. This is primarily a reflection of a boom in popularity for the course in recent years (it is seen as a 'useful' degree), and as a result applicants need to be realistic about their application.
With five choices on your UCAS form, it's always worth having a 'risky' choice, but it is not uncommon for politics applicants to end up with only one or two offers from their application batch. As a result, it pays dividends to research the standard entry requirements for programs at different Universities and chose predominantly 'safe' choices where you match the required subjects/grades.
Grades required range from Cambridge (A*AA) to Glasgow Caledonian (CCC). There are approximately 100 different courses offering politics in some shape or form at British Universities and they will all have different content and different admissions requirements, so do your research carefully.
The UCAS search page lists all Politics courses currently available. Other useful websites are What Uni which includes a facility that allows you to search on your predicted grades and/or an area of the country, and WHICH Uni which includes % data of applications per place at most Universities.
This tends to differ dramatically from university to university and it is strongly advisable for any potential applicants to find out as much as they can about the full degree programme as they possibly can. Information about modules, course content, and contact hours is usually available from departmental websites, if not, contact the university in question. However, some general observations:
- Most courses now operate according to a credit structure, whereby you gain 120 credits per year (Oxford and Cambridge being obvious exceptions where the denominations are papers instead);
- In your first year, most modules will be prescribed (i.e. compulsory), with a few optional choices. In your 2nd or 3rd year you will get more optional choices, but there will still be essential elements such a research training to prepare you for completing your dissertation;
- Some courses also offer a relevant work placement or a Year Abroad. These are very favorably regarded by employers and greatly add to your CV.
Typical first/second year modules generally comprise some combination of the following. Don't be put off if you don't understand the'big words', you aren't expected to at this stage, :
- Political theory/philosophy, covering an overview of political thought throughout history (Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, Machiavelli etc). This isn't as daunting as it sounds and classes discussing the pros and cons of each are usually hugely enjoyable!;
- Political analysis, covering the main 'ism' theories: Marxism, elitism, pluralism, feminism etc, and the main bones of contention in the social sciences, such as ontology and epistemology, structure and agency, and other social-science concepts and methodologies &c;
- Elements of International Relations/Politics or units concentrating on the politics of different nation states - America, France, China, Nigeria etc, and what makes each different.
- British Politics or Political History which is fairly self-explanatory and could cover anything from 'Thatcherism' or 'The Sixties' etc to 'Scottish Nationalism' or 'The politics of black youth';
- 'The Politics of ....' anything from Sport to the Media, Childhood to Old Age, Racism to Terrorism, the range of possibilities is endless;
- Methods, covering quantitative and qualitative research techniques;
Life as a Politics Student
- Current postgraduate
Now that the majority of universities have switched to a credit structure, most politics degrees are structured as a combination of 120 credits per year, which translates as 4-6 modules. In your first year they will usually be predominantly pre-selected to ensure that students get a thorough grounding in the nuts and bolts of academic politics and get an introduction to the various sub-fields. It is a law of nature that you will find at least one of these core modules insufferably boring, but there is usually more choice in the second year.
I found (and having had a quick google for other universities, it seems this is quite common) that most modules were organised as one, one-hour lecture per week, with an additional one-hour seminar/tutorial to discuss the week's work. This means that your average politics timetable is likely to be in the region of about 12 hours per week (and it's not unusual to find that you only have contact hours 3-4 days per week). Before you rejoice, though, at your wondrously light timetable take note: your relatively abundant free time is not intended to be used for watching Neighbours and playing online poker. If you don't enjoy spending quite a lot of time with nothing but journal articles and a packet of biscuits for company, you might want to think about whether this is the degree for you. You will generally be expected to do a lot of reading around your subject in preparation for seminars (although whether you do it or not is another matter, of course), and this is in addition to the work you will need to do to prepare your assessed work.
Which leads me neatly in to the essays. The workload here will vary quite dramatically (at Oxford I believe you'll normally have two summative essays per week, some universities will give you very few but they'll all be formative), but I found I was being asked to submit around 15-18,000 per term in assessed coursework papers which seems pretty standard. You'll need to be reading for, and writing, these essays throughout the term to keep up. Hence, although you scoff now at the medics with their 30-hour timetables, you will probably spend quite a few Friday nights slaving over textbooks trying to stay abreast of your reading. This is particularly the case in your final year when the number of contact hours generally declines and you will be expected to complete a lot of independent research, in addition to applying for jobs/postgraduate places.
Overall, though, providing you have good time management skills and a genuine interest in the subject, it is completely manageable.
- Current postgraduate
My timetable across the three years has been fairly constant; between eight and ten hours a week of contact time (lectures and tutorials), usually having a day off with no lectures or tutorials at all. I spent most of my time in the JCR, idly socialising with people, or going to the one of many quirky and random events held at SOAS (which take place on a daily basis). With essay deadlines nearing, a rush to the library to get hold of the key texts would mean that an all nighter would ensue; the essay is handed in the next morning. Generally, I didn't bother with the tutorial reading unless it was a topic that really interested me - the beauty of politics is that you can bullshit your way through tutorials as long as you have a basic grounding. Final year did become more serious and more reading took place than the previous two years combined; such is life. In short, if you're organised, do your reading, hand in your essays on time and revise properly for your exams, you'll breeze through your three years.
Graduate Destinations and Career Prospects
Politics is a sought-after degree amongst employers. The core (subject-specific) and transferable skills (the current buzzword in graduate employment) a politics degree teaches are useful in a variety of careers. Politics teaches you not just about how governments work, but to be highly analytical, to write fluently, present confidently and argue effectively, all useful skills. This prospects.ac.uk page gives an indication of the employment rates of politics graduates. Only 6.7% of graduates were unemployed after their degree, with the remaining 93.3% in employment or further study.
Although graduates end up in all sorts of roles, from investment bankers to accountants, popular career paths include:
Jobs directly related to your degree
- Public affairs consultant (lobbyist) - uses their understanding of the political system to provide political and public policy advice to their clients.
- Politician's assistant - provides their elected Members with the administrative, secretarial, research, constituency, parliamentary and publicity support they require to carry out their role.
- Government research officer - provides research required to help inform the policy decisions of ministers.
- Social researcher - designs, formulates, carries out and manages social research projects, either personally or via agencies.
- Civil Service Fast Streamer - fast track training programme to work with and for government; roles include policy adviser, project leader, consultant and researcher.
Jobs where your degree would be useful
- Charity fundraiser - employed to achieve an annually agreed money-raising target through actively marketed and promoted activities, campaigns or events.
- Education administrator - organises and oversees administrative activities and systems that support and facilitate the smooth running of an education institution.
- Local government administrator - deals with the administrative needs of different departments, assists in the development of policies and procedures, and helps coordinate their implementation. There are many areas of specialism including: finance; personnel; education; social work; and IT.
- Event organiser - identifies potential business, researches markets and plans and runs all aspects of events on behalf of a client or their own organisation.
- Market researcher (qualitative/quantitative) - collects data from a variety of sources and uses it to enable informed decision-making in many sectors.
- Volunteer work organiser - coordinates the work of volunteers and develops new voluntary opportunities either within their own organisation or on behalf of other organisations such as hospitals.
Further study is also a popular option. Postgraduate study (Masters and Doctoral degrees) within politics or related social sciences are obviously popular, although many politics graduates choose to pursue a career in teaching or law, through the PGCE and GDL qualifications.