If, like me, you have studied politics at university and been asked this question before (more than likely, many times before), you and I will probably share a deep sense of frustration at the assumption behind the question; that the only possible reason you would take politics at university, as an undergraduate or postgraduate, is if you wanted to have a career as an MP or work in Parliament in someway. I could insert a joke here about what it is really like being a Member of Parliament these days, but I would like some of them to talk to me one day, so I had better leave it. Of course it is certainly true that many people who take politics degrees do go on to work in Parliament in some form. But this is not the aim or desire of every politics undergraduate, and neither should it be.
While many people asking this question have, naturally, only polite intentions, it does mask an underlying problem with how politics degrees are seen by those that take them at university, by society as a whole, and by some departments that ‘sell’ them to would be students. The perception is this: that after taking politics at university you will leave with a large amount of knowledge about specific political topics and concepts, such as the British electoral system, the nature of Middle East political culture and..…well..…that’s about it. Students, often undergraduates, get stuck and start looking at the floor. The perception often is that a politics degree will give you the edge in debates on the hot current affairs issues of the day down the pub, but not much else. At least, nothing that will help establishing a career after university finishes.
Many of us know that this is far from the case (research skills, quantitative skills, writing skills, presentational skills, to name only a few of the most obvious ones), but what are politics departments doing to explain to students the many transferable skills that a politics degree can bring? What creative teaching and assessment methods are being used that could introduce new key skills to politics modules, the type of key skills valued by many employers? What more could be done to incorporate more key skills into modules and better promote them to the potential politics students of the future?
It is answers to these questions and more that is the aim of a project I am assisting on at the moment, under the lead and direction of Senior Politics lecturer at Newcastle, Dr Alistair Clark. My current role is the formation of a data set of the transferable and/or skills advertised by UK universities (that offer politics, political studies or politics and IR as an undergraduate degree) as being taught through current (2013-14) politics modules. This requires a detailed examination of all the departmental websites that offer a breakdown of the content, teaching, and assessment methods used on their undergraduate politics modules. This is in its formative stages, so it isn’t possible to go into a great amount of detail here.
Of course, the great irony for me assisting on a research project such as this, about transferable skills and undergraduate politics degrees, are the key research skills that I will personally start to develop. From data collecting and analysis, to going through the research planning and writing up process, there are many opportunities for me to develop key research skills that I can use in the future. It is to the great credit of the academic community at Newcastle that those starting out on their postgraduate research careers, like me, are included on projects such as these.