Should I do a degree in politics?

Houses of parliament, representing politics degrees
Politics degrees offer plenty of crossover between different humanities subjects and frequently also a chance to improve your skills in working with numerical data.

Politics (aka political science) is a wide-ranging degree that connects closely to a range of other subjects such as history, economics, law, philosophy and geography. It allows you to consider and discuss big questions such as how much power the state should have over individuals or what a good society should be while developing practical knowledge such as how different political structures work. Often, you'll also learn data-handling skills, for example investigating differences between countries in a quantitative (numbers-based) way.

Politics degrees include studying international relations – that is, how different countries view each other and interact. Some universities call their degrees 'politics and international relations', rather than just 'politics', while others offer both options. Check how the different titles affect your module choices at the universities that interest you – in practice, there's sometimes not much difference.

Julia studied politics at the University of Warwick, graduating in 2018. She comments: ‘Politics is good if you want a degree that overlaps with lots of different subjects. At Warwick I had lots of really niche topics that I could pick and try out. All my modules were completely different – from 16th century political philosophy to global economic systems to modern Chinese history.’

In terms of why she chose a politics degree, Julia explains: ‘I didn’t do politics A level; I did economics, history and geography, and English literature at AS. In all the topics I was studying, it was the political side of things I liked. I liked modern political history, human geography and the political side of economics, studying impacts on people and the morality of things. I was also getting quite into following the news in the run up to the 2015 general election.’

Politics degree entry requirements

Entry requirements for politics degrees are generally quite flexible and you're unlikely to need to have studied government and politics before. Some universities don't have any subject requirements at all in terms of what you've studied for your A levels, Higher, IB or BTEC level 3. Others ask for at least one subject of a particular type – for example:

  • the University of Durham asks for a social science or humanities subject
  • the University of Manchester asks for one from a list of options that includes social science, science, humanities, languages and business-related subjects.

The University of the West of England doesn't require any particular subjects but recommends ones such as history, government and politics, sociology, English literature, English language, psychology and geography.

Politics degree modules

Typically your first year at university will largely consist of compulsory modules on introductory topics. For example, you might study:

  • Political theory. This is the more philosophical end of politics and deals with ideas around how our societies should and do function – for example, looking at concepts such as justice, democracy, power and equality. It covers both political thinkers from the past (such as Plato and Marx) and contemporary issues.
  • International relations. International relations focuses on the relationships between countries and the theories that are used to explain these.
  • Comparative politics. At introductory level you will learn about how government and politics work in different parts of the world and how quantitative methods can be used to study this.
  • British politics. Depending on the university, the focus may be more on understanding the UK's political system, or on recent UK political history.

If you study in Scotland, you're likely to take broad introductory modules in both your first and second year, while also studying a number of modules from other subjects.

In your final two years, you're likely to be able to choose from a wide range of optional modules covering areas such as:

  • politics and/or international relations in different parts of the world and/or periods in history
  • specific political philosophers, or political philosophy in particular periods in history
  • politics and gender
  • topics such as globalisation, migration, international security, surveillance, humanitarian intervention and climate change.

In your final year one of your modules may be an optional or compulsory dissertation (essentially a long essay) on a subject of your choosing.

When choosing which universities to apply to, Julia advises: ‘Look in-depth at module choices and think about what kind of area you’re interested in. If you’re interested in “standard” politics like political theory and governmental systems, then a less flexible course might be for you but if you’re thinking “I don’t know what I want to do; I might want to do something really niche and strange” then a more flexible, broad course would probably be for you.’

You won’t always get the module choices you want – not everything will fit with your timetable, popular modules can be oversubscribed, and modules might not run at all if the relevant lecturer isn’t available. However, this isn’t always a bad thing. Julia comments: ‘I ended up in second year doing a module on China, because one of my module choices was cancelled and it was the only one they could slot me in on. I knew nothing about Chinese politics but that ended up being my favourite module and I did further studies into the East Asian economy and political history in my third year.’

Teaching and assessment methods on a politics degree

Teaching methods on a politics degree are likely to include:

  • lectures – large-group teaching sessions in which you'll listen to a talk on a particular topic
  • seminars – smaller-group teaching sessions that are more interactive; some may focus on ensuring you understand a particular area, while others will give you the chance to debate a topic
  • one-to-one support – lecturers will typically have time set aside each week when you can pop by with any questions.

Your course may also include:

  • simulation exercises, in which you and your coursemates will play the parts of different people engaged in a particular political process
  • field trips to political institutions.

Typically you’ll be assessed via exams and written coursework, though there may also be other elements such as presentations.

Contact hours on politics degrees

Politics degrees are very much about independent learning. You'll typically be expected to spend around 75% to 85% of your time studying by yourself (for example reading, writing essays and coursework, preparing presentations and revising), and only 15% to 25% of your time being taught.

Julia had just eight hours a week of teaching time in first and second year (consisting of a one-hour lecture and one-hour seminar for each of her four modules) and six hours in third year. She comments: ‘Motivating yourself to self-teach and meet deadlines, which are often all on the same day, can be tricky. Most weeks I only did a couple of hours self-study per module – for example to do a bit of background reading and review my lecture notes before the seminar – but I did lots more around deadline time.’

Student politics and extracurricular activities

As a politics student there are likely to be plenty of extracurricular activities you can get involved in that relate to your degree. For example you could:

  • get involved with a student political party
  • stand for election for a role in the students’ union
  • join a campaigning group such as Amnesty International, a liberation group (supporting women’s or minority rights, for example by organising a Pride event) or a debating society
  • become a member of a UN society and take part in Model United Nations events, where you’ll be assigned a country to represent in a debate.

You may even get to see your political hero for real. Julia comments: ‘The great thing about university if you’re interested in politics is chances are you’ll be able to see some famous politicians – they will go to university campuses because there’s a big hub of young people. We had people like John Bercow, Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown visit campus.’

Alternatives to a politics degree

If you're thinking about a politics degree but aren't quite sure, related subjects you could consider include:

  • politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) – some universities combine these closely related subjects together
  • languages – either as an alternative or combined with a politics degree, especially if you are interested in international politics
  • history
  • economics
  • philosophy.

Alternatively, you could combine politics with a subject such as business or accounting. Lots of politics graduates go on to work in business and finance (see our quick stats section below), and your political and global awareness could be a big help as you progress in these careers.

If you decide against a politics degree, you’ll still be able to take part in all the extracurricular activities outlined above, allowing you to gain practical experience that will be useful if you want a politics-related career.

What careers can a politics degree lead to?

Careers relating to government and politics

You could work for:

  • The Civil Service – for example, via the Fast Stream.
  • Local government – for example, via the National Graduate Development Programme.
  • The House of Commons or the House of Lords – for example, via the Houses of Parliament Graduate Development Programme.
  • A political party – for example working in fundraising, admin or campaigning, or as a research officer, which involves supporting policy-making work.
  • A trade union – for example as a research officer, which involves gathering, analysing and distributing information and data.
  • A students’ union – there are paid jobs available, for example coordinating marketing activities or student representation.
  • A relevant charity or non-government organisation (NGO – a not-for-profit organisation that’s independent of government) – for example, a role in lobbying, policy-making or campaigns, which involve attempting to change the law or the behaviour of the public.

Find out more about jobs and employers in public service and charity.

Alternatively, you could choose to become a news journalist. It’s likely that you’ll start out by covering a wide range of stories, but these will typically include local and/or national government and politics, and you may be able to specialise as you become more senior.

Other careers for politics graduates

If you decide against a politics-related career, there are plenty of other jobs to consider. In particular, business and finance are popular options among politics graduates – see our quick stats section below. Or if the legal aspects of your degree interested you, you could train to become a lawyer.

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