A big congratulations to all of you who have received your study abroad results – I hope you’ve celebrated!
I’ve just come back from a one-week break where I took the opportunity to make a quick jump to Prague, swapping croissants for trdlník and almost crying a little over how much cheaper everything was. I had a great time and made yet another promise to make more time for travelling while I’m here. You have to admire the exchange students who go somewhere new every single weekend.
Of course, these students tend to be here on a pass/fail basis, meaning they don’t have to worry about grades at all. For Glasgow students at Sciences Po, this is not the case. Your exchange year here contributes as much to your final degree classification as it would have if you had stayed in Glasgow for your junior honours year.
This means that you do have to spend some time hitting the books and adjust yourself to the way things are done in the French system and the specific requirements of the Sciences Po method. You will not find yourself assessed in the same way you’re used to.
Fortunately, this is not really anything to worry about. I’ve just received my grades from Semester 1 (and I thought Glasgow was slow about getting them up on MyCampus…) and I can now safely say that all my worries about different grading standards were unfounded – you will do just fine in terms of grades, and the conversion to the Glasgow scale is pretty generous. I’ve certainly been having a different kind of academic experience than what I’m used to – and mostly, it’s been a good kind of different.
If you’re headed to Sciences Po, here’s what you should expect in terms of studying:
- More of it
Yes, your workload will be heavier than what you might be used to. However, I found this to be a bit more hyped up than it deserves to be. In France, Sciences Po is infamous for being rigorous, but it is far from brutal. Your spare time will remain intact.
The main difference is that your assignments are more spread out throughout the semester rather than having most of your grade be dependent on a final exam. You will usually find yourself completing 4-5 assignments per course (of which you will have 5 per semester for a full credit load). These come in a wide variety of formats – quizzes, essays, debates, presentations, policy papers, hypothetical party manifestos…
This means that your academic rhythm will be more consistent and balanced. – and as I found it, less stressful. Exam period, while still not a walk in the park, is not as intense as it is in Scotland, as most exams only count for about 30% of your grade.
2. Problématique – no problem
Every single assignment at Sciences Po revolves around this word and yet no one can really explain what it is. You will need to identify and formulate a problématique for every presentation and every essay, and every professor will emphasise how important it is to have a quality problématique. Yet, even translating the word seems to be, well, problematic.
Basically, it’s a research question. When you’re given a topic, you have to dig deeper to find the paradox and the puzzle baked into it. The topic behind the topic, if you will.
It’s really not as complicated as some professors make it sound, and you will have many methodology classes to help you figure it out. Though it may be a slightly obstinate way of going about it, I’ve actually found that identifying the problématique is a vital academic skill that will allow you to write better papers, no matter the system. (This feels especially relevant for me right now, as I’m struggling with increasing desperation to pin down my dissertation topic…)
3. Vagueness is king
Well, not really. What I mean is that one big difference between the French and what people here will call the Anglo-American system is that you’re not going to be starting your essays with a thesis statement which you then defend. Here, they like things to be far more nuanced.
A typical structure will be ‘dialectical’, meaning 1. thesis, 2. antithesis, 3. synthesis. For example: 1. studying in Paris is great because a, b, and c, 2. studying in Paris is difficult because d, e and f, 3. studying in Paris has good and bad sides.
It’s a different mindset than the “this my opinion and here’s my argument for it” style that we’re used to in the UK, and takes some getting used to. The French are very proud of their essay tradition, especially at Sciences Po, where a number of conventions have evolved over the years over how things are done. One teaching assistant I had last semester got glassy-eyed waxing lyrical over how a good French-style essay should be structured like a French garden. Still not sure what that meant.
(Not every paper you write will follow this structure, particularly if it’s a more quantitative course – it depends on the teacher).
4. What do you mean there’s a real world?
This is actually my favourite part about studying here. Sciences Po prides itself on how it hosts a large number of practitioners (as opposed to pure academics) as lecturers, and how this helps to link your studies with what you will actually be doing after graduation.
If it’s a UN course, it will often be taught by someone who works at the UN and teaches as a side gig. The coursework will simulate actual tasks that you might be doing as a policy analyst at a UN agency. They will share endless anecdotes about their professional life.
This does have the downside that some teachers are a bit confused in their teaching methods and may have trouble with time management or getting things graded on time. Often, sessions will be cancelled because they will have to be at a conference. However, having this practical focus brings a whole new dimension to your studies and makes them feel far more relevant. It’s rare to see in an undergraduate political science programme.
You will of course still have your more traditional, theory-focused courses, and I really love having a balance of both to keep your studies multidimensional.
Overall, though a few things have felt confusing and inflexible, I’ve really appreciated the way things are done here. By shaking things up and trying out new ways of presenting what I’m learning, I feel like I’m growing as a student. I’m actually quite keen on applying for a Master’s here, purely because I feel like the teaching here really works with how I learn best (well, that and because I can’t wait to return to Paris as soon as I can).
Side note: I’m writing this from the public library in the Centre Pompidou modern art museum, which is a really cool venue for sitting down to get productive. I’d also recommend the Sainte-Geneviève library, which will make you feel right at home with its Hogwarts aesthetic.
Questions? I’m always available on Facebook or my email (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com).