Here at Sciences Po we are already in week 9 of the fall semester and there is only one more month of classes until the Christmas holidays. As this blog is also meant for inspiring students to go on a year abroad I decided to dedicate this entry to what studying at Sciences Po is like and how it differs from studying at Durham. I hope that it will help some of you to evaluate whether or not a year abroad would be something for you, especially since around now is the time to start applying for one. I cannot emphasise how much I recommend doing one and so far I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t love their Erasmus experience.
So while this post might not be the most exciting, the next one will be more fun again, I promise.
Our semester here started way earlier than the academic year at Durham, precisely at the end of August. That means that while my friends were posting their holiday pictures and then later all the ‘reunited-at-Durham’ photos, I had already attended classes and studied a fair bit. That might not sound so appealing but I assure you this shouldn’t deter you from going on a year abroad. Being an exchange student usually isn’t very stressful. You get to try new things and discover new places so it gives you the feeling of being on a year-long holiday with that bit of occasional work in between. Also my last exam will be on the 5th of December so I finish very early. Different holiday/term times also mean that your friends can come and visit you.
As exchange students we were free to choose any courses we liked as long as we comply with Durham’s regulations. In my case that means that 50% of my classes have to be related to politics (as my exchange is through the politics department); I need to cover at least two out of my three PPE subjects; and I have to take classes worth 60 ETCS in total over the year.
Due to the semester structure I will get to choose new modules for the second half of the year which is great as it allows you to try different things and drop classes/topics you don’t like as much. As Pippa (a Durham history student who is here at Sciences Po with me) likes to point out, it also means that you won’t have any work over the Christmas holidays.
Some of the classes here are also quite specialised, dealing with one specific issue instead of a generic topic which can be very fun as it allows you to properly engage with something you are interested in. And maybe you’ll also get some extensive inspiration for your dissertation if you are very keen…
Another cool aspect are the teachers here at Sciences Po. Obviously some are better than others but what is special is that many classes are taught by external people, e.g. by (former) politicians, independent researchers, or people from businesses. My favourite examples are that a few years ago Hollande, now the French president, gave a class here and a former Italian prime minister still does. One of my classes for example is delivered by a researcher who works for a think tank in Brussels and another professor of mine is currently employed by the World Bank to do research. They can give you loads of anecdotes from their field work in Bolivia or the problems they faced in Indonesia, which sheds a more fun light on academia and research than those endless library sessions we are used to.
As already mentioned here at Sciences Po we do not only have exams in May or all of our essay deadlines clogged up on the last days of term but instead they put a strong emphasis on continuous assessment. Depending on the course structure you could have an exam at the end of the semester, and then maybe another mid-term exam that counts slightly less. Other classes here have no exams and therefore grade you based on presentations, papers and participation in class. Yes, you read that correctly: you get a grade for how active you are during seminars! Which in turn has the nice effect that most people are quite vocal and those long periods of embarrassed silence that I know way to well from some Durham classes rarely comes up here.
Overall I think that this encourages students more to engage with a course during the whole time. Unlike in Durham no one gives a presentation here while sitting down and reading out bullet points and if you have not read your seminar texts it actually can have a negative impact on your performance. And you can also choose your courses based on your strengths.
The downside of this is of course that you have to work continuously and due to different deadlines your friends might be super busy when you’ve got loads of free time or the other way around which complicates doing things together. Attendance gets registered for all classes and there is a strict policy that you fail a class if you miss it more than twice which I find somewhat paternalistic. It can also be super hard to stay concentrated for two hours as that is how long all classes here take. My concentration span is very much trained to last those 50 minutes that lectures at Durham take; but one eventually gets used to it and some professors also schedule little breaks halfway through. Furthermore course sizes are generally bigger here, especially in comparison to my politics and philosophy seminars at Durham.
I hope this post has given you a rough idea about how different university systems can be and what to expect if you come to the Sciences Po. I prefer the modes of assessment at Sciences Po personally. However I am also very grateful that I get the chance of experiencing both systems and to have this extra year of exploring topics I am interested in. I have a great freedom of choice concerning my classes, improve my presentation skills and benefit from the diverse learning environment. And if all that doesn’t convince you yet: my grades from this year don’t count towards my degree – so it’s first year all over again!