It depends… – my experience at LSE

The last year, between September 2014 and 2015, I have not been continuing this blog because I was a student at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). I studied in the government department’s programme ‘Global Politics’ with a special focus on ‘Global Civil Society’ and was thrilled by the UK’s systems possibilities to study basically exactly what you want. While my previous student life in Germany had been an open space of learning, developing and socializing, my time at LSE was – well: different.

After being granted the joint award for the best dissertation of my programme, my Department asked me to write a blogpost. Because I didn’t really know what I was to expect before I started at LSE, I decided to write both about my positive and negative experiences. I thought it might help someone else to decide whether to study in the UK and/or particularly at LSE. My department never published the post (maybe they expected something without negative aspects), so you can read an updated version of it here:

On my first day of the introductory week at LSE, two very important people, who I’ve never seen again afterwards, gave a speech. The first one was praising all of us who were sitting in the audience for being the best of the best – a new elite of young ambitious carreerists. The second started his speech with a drum song, which he said symbolized the time at LSE. In retrospect I have to say: he was pretty spot on. The beginning of the song was slow drum beats, that quickly became faster and faster and almost hectic. After a short period of calming down (the winter break), the drummer was possibly going mad, because the music continuously took up speed for a really long time (essays) before culminating in the most intense beats you can imagine (exams), dropping down a nodge (dissertation) and just ending aprubtly (post-Master-nothingness).

The good

The good is easy. It’s what you would expect from one of the top UK universities: in short, the classes I took were amazing. I know that is definitely not everyone’s experience – especially the people in smaller programmes – but my programme offered such a broad variety of choices, that even my rather niche priorities were covered. I ended up taking a lot of classes outside of my own, rather state-centric, department and switched to EU, gender, development. For every class you take there is a cap and students have to hand in motivation letters for every one of them in order to be accepted. While this can be frustrating if you don’t get one of your preferred choices immediately, you definitely benefit from it during the seminars, where I mostly had great discussion groups. This is of course due to the fact that the professors are great. A lot of them are well-renowned so that I got to meet some people whose papers I read during undergrad (in undergrad I had kindly assumed they must long be dead). UK universities also ask for some critical thinking, which I highly value but still is not necessarily the norm. When I went to an introductory class in October, the professor told us, what everyone in social sciences knows and very few like – the answer to any essay or other research question is always: “It depends”.

The bad

I did not have time! And I am not alone with this. My flatmates in London were students except for one and he called us all crazy. Not leaving the house for days or ‘sleeping’ in the library (which my flatmate regularly did) is not unusual. I distinctly remember, that one time I was incredibly happy to be able to go out to go to the hairdresser and buy groceries – which are both chores I usually despise. But it is not only that there is little time for things besides the studies; there is also little time for the studies. By this I mean, that I was often disappointed by the fact that I only had a week to write an essay, meaning that in the beginning it was hard for me to adjust my own expectations about ‘research’ to what is realistically doable and expected. British essay style seemed to me in the beginning more like a literature review with a personal statement (which however have to follow a very prescribed pattern meticulously to get the highest grades, therefore not allowing a lot of space for creativity). Some students certainly like this approach which you might argue is “less ivory-tower”, but to me it sometimes disconfirmed the self-proclaimed slogan of LSE to “think outside the box”.

There is another ‘bad’ point that me and my fellow students were struggling with: money. London is insanely expensive (read more about this here) and one thing that frustrated me about LSE is that you have to pay in addition to the (for Germans high) tuition fees for everything, from printing, through very high food prices on campus to campus sports and additional language classes or assessments, which makes these things which make your student life easier, healthier and more educational a luxury (unless you belong to the wealthier clientele of the school but more about that later…). The only thing that seemed to me to have always been for free was the Career Service, which brings me to…

… the other stuff or: “IT DEPENDS”

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also the library is not the prettiest of’em all, is it?

There are two facts that one should know about LSE before going there. They are not necessarily good or bad but they give the school a very specific atmosphere and orientation that might not be for everyone:

  1. LSE is known as the university that leaves you with one of the highest job chances after graduation. This reputation, which the school is very proud of, explains the extraordinary focus on Career during the studies. Most of it is voluntary but the school offers a LOOOT and – different than other services, most of it is for free.  This is of course a positive aspect – LSE tries to look after their students after graduation and provide them with the necessary knowledge about job possibilities, qualifications, networking, application processes etc. However, it also brings with it a certain atmosphere: there is a strong career-orientation among students, sometimes and in some department to the degree that there is more reflection about job chances than “Economics and Political Sciences”. This in turn obviously fosters a strong competitiveness, which might bring some students to heights they didn’t know they were capable of  – and others to depression (This can be seen in the fact that LSE offers all kinds of treatment and institutions for students suffering from depression and breakdowns).
  2.  LSE is elitist. This is not hidden in any way. When I arrived, the school still sold T-shirts with the slogan: More intelligent than you since 1895. Also this has positive aspects: like any other elite university, it is exactly this reputation that makes a school more attractive to both students and employers. Different from Oxford and Cambridge, LSE, according to my impression, has more the reputation of a self-made school, meaning that there is a huge focus on ‘hard-working’ instead of ‘rich’. While this is not true regarding its student demographics (however: I don’t have the right means of comparison with Oxbridge) – never have I felt so underprivileged regarding my class status than among other LSE students – it contributes to the LSE spirit. This spirit also has its effects on the atmosphere, and is even sometimes vocally expressed but more often just subtly hinted at: “you have to proof that you are tough enough to make it here”!

While there is certainly good aspects to both these points, my impression was that this combination of elitism, career-orientation and competitiveness is not good for everyone and can also prevent any kind of real reflection, be it on one’s own abilities – the strongest self-esteem generally wins and regarding class(ism), teamwork, or even just the content of the studies.

It’s what you make of it.

In the end of course, this is all I have to say. It depends. I don’t know if I had chosen differently if anyone had presented me an article like this one before applying. And if I had, I also would have missed a year of interesting studies, during which I have learned a lot: be it about development, gender, politics and globalisation; and about myself, my limits and my strengths. I also made some really good friends. I did not love my time at LSE and it took me a while to be able to write about it with enough distance, but I respect it. And I guess that remains true: It is what you make of it.

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view from the rooftop on one of the rare sunny days!

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