Since starting college my goal has always been to get a PhD. I want to go into academia to teach and research. I enjoy teaching and working with people. But also I love research especially basic level research. Universities are where a majority of basic level research takes place because most other places you can’t get any funding unless you can show that your research will lead directly to a marketable product. Yet basic research is very important and rarely do you know the consequences of it until many years later. A great example is the work of John Tate on number theory which later formed the basis of internet encryption. But there are many other examples of basic research done for the sake of knowledge has been of great benefit.
Well I want to research problems with our political system such as political strife / dissatisfaction, political polarization, social movements and revolutions. Each of these can play a major role in politics and politics effect the lives of every single person. Simply put I want to understand the sources of unrest in order to mitigate their effects. I want to try and figure out how to turn the screaming match we call politics into a civil discourse.
This last fall I applied to a number of graduate programs, unfortunately in the US if money is short education is frequently the first thing to go. So many programs are hurting. While at the same time because of the economy the applicant pools are rather large. Due to this I was unable to get an offer for a PhD program but I do have two offers for Masters programs; Stony Brook University in NY and University of Kent in UK. In trying to evaluate my two options I decided it might be best to write down my thoughts since writing something could really help me identify why I may or may not want to chose one or the other. To this end I am going to focus on the programs themselves and not the locations. I feel it is important to chose the education that I want not the location I want to live. Also I will start by comparing the Masters programs and the department as a whole. After that I will look at the PhD programs because my ultimate goal is to earn a PhD.
The first program is MA in Political Science at Stony Brook University on Long Island, NY. The program has a heavy focus on psychology, methodology and statistics. These area are strengths of mine. I have a bachelors in psychology, I have always been good at methodology and I work with statistics very regularly. Also because of the focus on psychology they have a bottom up approach to social research. A bottom up approach is where you start with individuals, then build them into groups then build the groups up to larger groups. So the focus tends toward the individual processes that take place in group behavior and social influence. This approach has always appealed to me because I view people as individuals first and social groups second though there is a lot of mutual influence between the two. Classes like “Thinking and Emotion in Public Opinion”, “Persuasion and Propaganda” and “POL 562: Passionate Politics: Mobilization, Interest Groups, and Social Movements” are all course I would absolutely love to take.
The second program is MA in Political Sociology at University of Kent in Canterbury England. The program has a heavy focus on social movements and in fact they have the Center for the Study of Social and Political Movements with 12 professors on staff. Kent takes a broader look at issues and seems to tend toward a top down approach. Top down approach utilizes high level information about social / political conditions then works down toward the causes at play in smaller groups and even individuals. Now I have a tendency to prefer a bottom up approach but there is much to be said about a top down approach as well. With top down you get a wider breadth but it more general; bottom up the view is much more narrow but it is also more detailed and specific. In fact both can complement one another very well if you can get them to meet in the middle. Kent has course like “Social and Political Movements”, “Social Suffering” and “Sociology of Violence” which I find very appealing and interesting.
You probably have noticed the social / political movement focus I have. I feel that social / political movements drive much of the national discourse on politics and they influence policy heavily. You can’t really discuss gun policy without discussing the NRA. You can’t debate about nuclear energy without understanding the environmental movement. So much of our system is driven by social movement. Furthermore social / political movements drive public opinion and frame issues which has a subtle but profound effect on the political environment. They create the reference points that many assume when talking about the issues. For those reasons I believe study of social movements is critical in understanding politics.
Next Stony Brooks Political Science department is small, it only has about 20 professors and about 40-50 students. That means that there will probably be a lot more contact between students and professors as well as between all the students themselves. Being small like that it more likely that people in the department will know me personally and my focus. Also that means it might be easier for me to make a good impression on some of the professors thus increasing my chance of being admitted. In addition a smaller department means it is more likely for me to form connections, friendships and collaborations between people at Stony Brook. That could be helpful while there and once I move on to my career after I am finished. Though a smaller department means that I would have access to fewer professors and thus a more narrow range of expertise would be available for me to consult with.
At Kent the sociology department is larger, there are nearly 40 professors in sociology. In addition to that sociology is a subdivision of the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) with nearly 60 professors that I could reasonably access. That provides a wide breadth of knowledge that could be utilized in my studies. I am not sure how many students are in sociology or the entire SSPSSR but it is sure to be quite a few more. Though the down side is that I could end being another faceless student among many. Also the larger department means that there is a wider variety of courses available for me to study as well as a broader range of expertise to consult with.
At the core here is the question of breadth or depth? There are benefits to highly focused and deep study into an area. That can achieve a very sophisticated level of understanding in the subject. Yet a broad view can help one see the overall picture and develop a well round knowledge of the whole. At Kent I could learn about a far wider range of subjects. While at Stony Brook I can dig deep into individual decisions and motivations around politics. Furthermore Stony Brook focuses on American politics a great deal with less focus on international affairs. While Kent has a much more international view with a good focus on world affairs. Understanding American politics could really help me to focus on solving the problem our nation faces but the solutions may not be generalizable to other countries. Taking a world wide view may result in my solutions having a lower efficacy but they could potentially be applicable to a variety of countries and situations.
Then I have to consider how structured I want my program as opposed to self directed. At Stony Brook the program is primarily course work. It will be approximately 10 course over 2 semesters. That is good in some ways because it is very directed, even though I may have some choices in what I take I know that I will be going to class every day and learning what the professors want me to. I will be focused in the areas the professors have chosen for the course with only some discretion on my end. Though a big plus is that you don’t know what you don’t know. So taking a lot of courses will expose me to a lot research and ideas that I never knew existed. That kind of exposure could help immensely in developing my own ideas.
While at Kent the program is far less structured. Only 4 courses are required, so I will basically take one semester of coursework. After that I will have a 15,000 – 20,000 word thesis to write over the next semester. That gives me a great deal of freedom to delve into the areas of my choosing. I will be able to focus my studies and ideas in the direction I have chosen for myself. Yet the lack of direction could cost me. I may not be exposed to pertinent ideas and research because I am busy looking into areas of my choosing. Though the freedom to pursue my own direction may take me places nobody else could have thought of. Also working in a self directed environment is a good skill to develop since in the future I will be doing my own research of my own choosing.
Self direction can be great thing and provide a lot of freedom to my studies. Yet more direction could take me places I never knew existed. Both have strengths and weaknesses to them.
At this point I will go onto the PhD programs. Though I would only be enrolled in a masters program my ultimate goal is a PhD. I intend to pursue a PhD at the school I do my masters. The masters program will provide me with the opportunity to develop a repertoire with the professors in the programs which will improve my chances of getting into the PhD program. At the same time the graduate education will improve my chances. So the goal is to make a sufficiently good impression so as to get myself into the PhD program.
Stony Brook’s PhD allows for a focus in political psychology. I would continue with more course in a similar vein to the master courses. The program is very structured with a specific set of course for the first couple of semesters and after that I get a more choice though the requirements specify a lot of coursework either specifically by course or by require me to chose for several options. After the coursework I would move on to my own research and eventually a dissertation. Stony Brook has a heavy emphasis on methodology. A 3 course series in methods, data analysis and statistics is required as well as an advanced methodology course and an advanced experiment methods course. On top of that advanced statistic course are recommended and they even have a computation modeling course available. So that is a minimum of 5 courses in experimental design, methodology, statistics and data analysis with additional work in the area recommended.
Kent’s PhD is extremely self directed. There is no required coursework, all course are optional though my adviser could recommend that I take certain courses. The entire PhD is dedicated to my own research project as determined by me and guided by my adviser. I would take a number of course because classes always interest me and there are a number that I would like to take. But when it comes down to it developing and researching my own project is the primary focus of Kent’s PhD.
In conclusion both programs are strong yet there are polar opposites in many areas. Stony Brook is empirically focused with an great deal of emphasis on methodology and statistics. Stony Brook requires a great deal of coursework and is very structured. Stony Brook has a strong emphasis on psychology and bottom up understanding of individual and social behavior. Also Stony Brook could provide a very deep understanding but in a far more narrow area. Kent is very much self directed and requires far less coursework. Kent allow me to research and study what I want to greater extend. Kent provides a much broader view which could allow me to see a bigger picture and provide an understand of the large scale shifts in the social and political environment.
The question is do I want breadth or depth? Structured or self directed? Top down or bottom up?
All questions and comments are welcome. I wrote this with the primary intention of clarifying my own thoughts about my choices ahead of me. But I always welcome alternate perspectives or even just somebody to kick around ideas with.