Let’s face it, the social sciences seem to have received something of a reputation in recent years for not being quite as ‘hard-core’ as the more traditional subjects, particularly the natural sciences. Social sciences in secondary education generally appear to have been cast as the very epitome of all that is wrong with today’s school system: modern; trendy; more focussed on assessing the opinions of the students who are taking the subject in question’s A level exams than on hard facts. And woe betide any young person naïve and foolish enough to invest their student loan in a degree in a social science subject! “Where’s the job at the end of that?” one hears various disapproving parties mutter. Those not in the know might be forgiven for assuming that anyone undertaking a politics, sociology, anthropology or psychology degree was a work-shy freeloader, bleeding the state’s resources dry, rather than a committed student, keen to better understand the world we live in.
This article presumes you want to get on in the world; get good grades; go to a red-brick university; maybe even try for Oxbridge; then have a satisfying career afterwards. If so, are social science subjects to be avoided? In short, no. Social sciences are rather like wine: done well, they can be the perfect conversation starter; the ideal partner to grand thought and the forger of wonderful relations with useful people. Done badly, they can produce at best, insipid and, at worst, completely asinine results. Having seen many students traverse the more tricky parts of the A level Politics syllabus in recent years with varying degrees of prowess, I can honestly say that taking such a subject requires equivalent levels of application and skill as any other and, what’s more, it enables the best students to take abstract ideas and analyse them in a way which the top graduate employers are looking for.
People do not get into Oxbridge because they are clever. They undoubtedly are clever, of course, but so are lots of others. Neither do people get into Oxbridge because they are good at interviews. In fact, people get into Oxbridge because they have an incredible, undying and all-consuming passion for the subject they want to study. They can talk about elements of it with joy and vigour, with confidence yet without hubris, in a small room across a tiny table with someone who, some years before, probably did exactly the same thing in another small room somewhere. In short, they get in to Oxbridge because they are a bit like the people who are interviewing them. Do you have that all-consuming interest in Politics? If so, have the courage of your convictions and take the A level if at all possible! Show the interviewers that you are committed to the subject, not that your school told you to keep your options open and do English, History and Maths. This nation might not need lots more social science graduates, but it desperately needs good ones: to be the thinkers and do-ers of governments of the future; to analyse society and hold it to account; to formulate company policies; to run public services better; to use their expertise in the law; in short, to change the world.
Let’s assume for a minute then that this article has persuaded you: you’re studying Government & Politics A level and you’re thinking of applying for either the traditional PPE at Oxford or the excellently diverse HSPS at Cambridge.