I thought it would be an interesting idea to write a piece looking back on the first semester of MA Politics Research at Newcastle University, looking over the different units you undertake and challenges you face. So I did, and here it is.
- Thinking About Political Research
Also called ‘Theories and Approaches to Politics” to non-research folk, this module aims to introduce you to the philosophy of political research (ontology, epistemology), key concepts and approaches in political research (postcolonialism, positivism, rational choice theory, Marxism, postmodernism etc.), all of which are approaches to political research in which Newcastle has experts on staff that use them in their day to day work. Each week you are introduced to a new approach. I personally found this a fascinating and intellectually challenging experience, as you are constantly going over the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, comparing and contrasting them with each other, seeing where they are similar and where they clash. It also focuses the mind of which approach, or combination of approaches, can best answer the questions you are formulating (or in my case, I already have) for a PhD research proposal. If anything, it shows just how of many complex and diverse ways scholars can take to research politics in the modern age. For that reason it can be difficult and confusing at times, but like with many complex problems, they gradually become clearer overtime.
- Thinking About Research
Delivered by the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (HaSS) PG Research Training Programme, this unit looks at the nature and practical aspects of the research proposal process (how to formulate research topics, questions, appropriate methods to answer these questions, theoretical approaches etc.). It also looks at how to approach fieldwork, like interviews, and the challenges this can bring. As part of the assessment, you work in a group of other research MA folk on a designated social science topic (for me, underage drinking), formulating you own questions and research methods. You then present your research proposal in front of your peers and a panel of judges, to pitch your proposal as if you were trying to win a research grant. This again was a challenging but beneficial experience, as it develops your skills at presenting academic work to a large audience in a group, defending your choices with reasoned argument. It was also an interesting look on how the research proposal works, both in theory and practice.
- Information and Library Skills
This was a short HaSS unit of three sessions delivered at the Robinson Library. Its aims are to introduce you to what research resources Newcastle and the outside academic world has, how you can access them and which ones will benefit you in your research. It also helps you think more carefully about how you gather and stay on top of the latest information relevant to your field. It is probably of more benefit to those that have not previously been at a UK university, but it certainly has helped me think more critically about my research strategies and how I make sure I don’t miss important developments in my area of interest (email alerts on journals!). You might think, ‘Well I know all of this already, why do I need to go to this?’ In my opinion I would pause when thinking this, as I did, and think do I really know all the sources of information in my area, every single one, and the easiest way to access them? This answer, if we are honest, is probably not.
- Nature of Explanation and Enquiry
Truth be told, this is very similar to ‘Thinking About Political Research’, and for those doing both units (as I did) there was often a great deal of crossover when exactly the same approaches were discussed. Not to worry if you are a prospective student reading this, as this has now been changed, thankfully. However it was very interesting to listen to the lectures by staff that use the different approaches, from across the Social Science community at Newcastle, discuss how they approach academic explanation and enquiry. The discussion groups afterwards, with 1st year PhD researchers and a few MA research students like me, were also very interesting as so many people, from so many different academic fields, had many perspectives on the approaches I hadn’t always considered before. It again really focuses the mind on what approaches are most appropriate for you, in your own subject and for your own area of research.
All in all, it has been a great start to the scholarship. I feel I know much, much more about what it takes to do political research, the processes you must go through and the challenges/difficulties you face. What I know for certain is that the world of political research is a complex one, and I have a lot more to learn next year and in the future.