Sunday, April 15

Politics and International Relations at the University of Aberdeen

King's College, Aberdeen (Source)
As I come to the end of my four years studying Politics and International Relations at the University of Aberdeen I thought I should write a little summary in the hope that it is of use to some people in the future.

Please do comment with any questions, I paint a bit of a negative picture, but have for the most part really enjoyed my time here.

I'm rather horrified to think that students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland starting this September will pay £9,000 a year (capped at  £27,000 for a degree, how generous).

Courses and class sizes

The general is that as you progress through your education the classes become more specialised and smaller with all teaching and tutorials led by the course lecturer. 

First year: 300+ students in introductory classes

Second year: 200+ students

Third & fourth year (Honours): This is where it's all supposed to get better. Classes are supposed to include less than 40 students and in many cases less. However, in my experience my classes have been at a minimum 40 and my final term courses have had between 50+ students in them. Take what you will from this, but I don't find a 'discussion' group of 28 to be particularly god.

“This is getting ridiculous”
A lecturer who shall remain nameless

Course structure

Students are expected to take eight courses in their first year at the university, spread across two terms from late-September to June. You will be required to take a 'Sixth-century' course in a multidisciplinary topic such as sustainability. 

A recent change has meant that rather than taking both introductions to Politics and International Relations new students will take only one Politics and International Relations course per semester in First year. 

That's only 1/4 of your time studying the topic, with the remainder having to be chosen from other subjects such as History or Sociology. Now this is certainly not necessarily a bad thing, but for those who are sure that they want to study Politics and/or IR it is certainly a negative factor that you will do so little in your first year. For reference in my first year 2/3 of my courses where in Politics and IR!

This move is not unsurprising given that senior staff at the University were sent to leading American schools such as Harvard and more teaching orientated institutions like William & Mary. 

For a full list of Politics and IR courses click here

Academic staff

Many of the lecturers really are great and engaging, a few that spring to my mind are Dr Teti, Dr Vij and Dr Glencross, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. The staff they have are generally good and if their interests match yours it's a real plus

However, the department has lost ~6 or more lecturers over the four years that I have been here and is on its third head of department.

Unfortunately the outlook for the future does not look particularly rosy. A major recruiting drive for over 100 new academic staff was recently launched and while other Arts and Social Sciences like History and Sociology are gaining additional staff, Politics and International Relations are not.

University Library (Source)


Great new library and modern lecture theatres & tutorial rooms in a lovely location. Obviously there are less pleasant rooms, but on the whole it's good.

An area in which Aberdeen University cannot really be criticised.

The City

Aberdeen is very much what you make of it with many loving it and many hating it! It's certainly not as busy or as exciting as Edinburgh or Glasgow, but it's pretty close to the highlands and Aberdeenshire has some lovely countryside. For what it's worth the university is always near the top of student satisfaction surveys :) so most people must be happy!

International Relations is a great topic to study and if Aberdeen is your only choice I would jump at it! I do not regret the time I've spent here, I'm just a little sad to see the department shrinking with areas's I really enjoyed studying such as Asia not really covered any more.

Again any questions do just comment.

Tuesday, April 3

Why I'm applying for a PhD in the US and not in Britain

EDIT: I will write detailed posts on funding in the UK and some other topics later on J.

For quite a while I've been keen to apply for PhDs in International Relations or Political Science. By chance I stumbled upon the application information for a US program and was amazed at the contrast with the UK.

Despite being pretty much set on the idea of applying to programs in the US I'm going to run through a few of the things that led me to this conclusion.

Britain vs America  (at a glance)
- Poor funding.

In most cases you must first pay for a masters degree (varies). 

Scholarships (ESRC & University provided) are available, but funding is less common. If you’re interested look up
-  Great funding at most schools

Certain state schools are contrary to the norm e.g University of California, San Diego
- 3 years to completion

The short time frame means you must have an implementable research proposal with little room for change over time.

A Masters degree is required and the majority of scholarships will not cover this. Fees are commonly £5,000 and go up to £10,000 at Oxford and £13,000 at LSE.
- 5-7 years to completion 

Plenty of time to identify academic interests, but significant cost in lost earnings.
- 'Inferior' training from a US perspective

No coursework requirement (we focus more as undergrads)

Limited methods training - largely trained in what you need for your project alone.

A barrier to employment in the US.
- 2 years of coursework + methods training

Possibly some repetition on the coursework, especially as I will have completed a 4 year degree almost entirely in International relations.

The graph is sparser than I intended, but it's very difficult to compare the broad range of differences even within the countries. I'm sure it will get bigger with time though.

To me there is simply no comparison. In the UK funding is sparse and requires a firm idea of your research interests with fewer opportunities for person and academic development.

I'm lucky that my academic interests are focused more in line with US academia too. I doubt a critical security studies theorist or post-structuralist would be encouraged to study there. Should certainly be considered in light of recent comments by some academics on the heterodox psuedo-scientific nature of the discipline and graduate training.

Finally, a great video on why many of us are heading to postgraduate/graduate education, though I hope these aren't my real reasons.. ;)

Monday, April 2

7,000 votes from oblivion:4,500 votes from 'success'? The Scottish Greens, 2011 Scottish Parliament elections and AMS.


The 2011 Scottish Election produced and will be remember for the extraordinary majority gained by the SNP. The damp squib that was the Scottish Green Party's result was only remarkable for the fact they managed to stay exactly still on 2 MSPs in spite of expectations that the party would double or triple it's representation.
While some have discussed the possible failings of the campaign ( this is personally beyond my judgemennt. What I'm really interested in is the peculiarities of our electoral system that that while far more proportional than FPTP and what that means for small parties. Below is a simple graph showing how many votes each party achieves divided by their seats in Holyrood.
In 2007 the Greens scraped back into parliament with 2 MSPs (just). This time round things were a bit more secure. Patrick Harvie was elected with a margin of 2,100 votes and Alison Johnston with approximately 5,000 votes to spare. So that's ~7,100 votes from electoral oblivion.

So let's look the other way. Eleanor Scott lost out on a seat by 378 votes, while Mark Ruskell & Martin Ford were 2,000 votes off.  In the end the Greens were less than 4,500 votes off what many would have considered a 'respectable' showing. Was the result disappointing? Of course. A disaster? No. Proof that there is no future for the Greens in Scotland? No. 

Sunday, April 1

Did the SNP break AMS?

Many Nats quite reasonably point out how some commentators are now considering the idea of electoral reform at Holyrood following the unprecedented SNP majority, is this really much different to the majority commanded by Labour and the Lib Dems in from 1999-2007?

1999 (Lib/Lab)
2003 (Lib/Lab)
2011 (SNP)
38.8 + 14.1 = 52.9%
34.6 + 15.3 = 49.9%
33.3 + 12.4 = 45.7%
29.3 + 11.8 = 41.1%

 Looking at the majority Governments we've had previously we can see that they have all commanded less than 50% of the popular vote, although the SNP has a fractionally lower share than the 2003 Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition. 

For an essay I had to work out how proportional a result different electoral systems produce. I quickly added in a rough score for the 2011 Scottish Election and as we can see it would have appeared to have risen to a devolution high. (I used the simplest method, there are other variants to this.)

Deviation from Proportionality (DV)
In summary the SNP did not 'break' AMS they simply managed to get a higher percentage of the vote than any party before them. This thanks to the bias towards large parties, at the expense of the small, pushed them over half the available seats.

EDIT: This post was written last year and meant to be longer..