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This is a collection of former students’ retrospectives about their study experiences. These are personal accounts and should not be seen as objective assessments of any given course. Nonetheless, they aim to be informative and provide an “insider view”. Anyone is welcome to contribute their account and should read the guidelines here. Please note that the views expressed are solely those of their authors, and in no way necessarily reflect the views of the editorial team.
MSc Social Policy and Planning in Developing Countries - Planning for Social Development
Retrospectives - London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
Written by Greg Khine   

Year of graduation: 2004

Why LSE?

I chose the LSE for its reputation, its international atmosphere, but also out of pragmatism. I had been an undergraduate at the school, living in London in the meantime and felt at home. As a one-year Masters isn’t very long, and I was already familiar with all the facilities, particularly the library (which is truly outstanding), I thought it better to stay. With hindsight however, and given the cost implications of studying in London, I would recommend anyone who is on a budget to explore alternative universities.

For example University College London (UCL) and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) both offer highly-regarded postgraduate training in development studies at almost half the cost. Unfortunately one of the disadvantages of studying at LSE is the relatively high level of tuition fees, and (at least at the time) little funding. There are a range of other reputed institutions in London itself, as well as countrywide whose tuition fees are less onerous or can offer funding.

London is in itself an attraction. In my opinion a fascinating city, diverse in every sense of the word, offering something for everyone. A 24/7 melting-pot with a unique yet crude urban charm. However it is also very expensive and can leave a real hole in your pocket.

The Course

As I was relatively new to the subject, and therefore needed to gain an overview, but also wished to specialise, I chose a course which is generalist, yet more specialised than a more general development studies course. Wishing to focus on the social dimensions of development, I found the SPPDC course well suited.

The MSc is a well-established training course, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. The department is a prominent contributor to western social policy development, and was also one of the departments to pioneer training courses dealing with social development in developing countries. The department enjoys a very good international reputation and alumni are found in many NGO’s, think tanks, international organisations, as well as academia.

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The course is mainly aimed at practitioners with some experience, but the age and background of participants varies greatly. If you have little or no experience, don’t be discouraged to apply, I didn’t have any development related experience at the time either, and I recall that in my year there were several people in the same position. You will have the opportunity to interact with a very diverse range of people. I recall meeting people with backgrounds as varied as law, engineering, medicine, economics, and even banking. I found it very enriching to be able to have informal discussions with individuals who at times had 15 years of experience.

Participants get a warm welcome and introduce themselves to other course participants and lecturers during the first week. The course lecturers facilitate a good group dynamic, employing their own brand of social planning, which includes several parties throughout the year. I found the staff in the department extremely accessible and one clearly senses the passion they bring to their research and efforts to promote social development. Students also take part in a residential workshop on planning methodology outside London, which is great fun and an opportunity to meet others on the course.

I enjoyed a very open-minded yet rigorous learning environment. Tutors are very supportive and will take the time to discuss any issues. However, it is important to keep in mind that they are also very busy and you should make sure to be well prepared when going to see them. I am convinced almost everyone in my year enjoyed their studies and developed lasting friendships. Quite a few even met a companion.

Depending on your background and future plans, one main drawback of choosing this course is that being aimed at practitioners, it also offers less training in research techniques. One thing you can do to develop your research skills is to audit courses at the Methodology Institute.

UK and EU students hoping to undertake funded doctoral study should also note that this course is not recognised as a “Research Training” course by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) which is the main UK funding body for postgraduate training in this field. This means that you will need to study for another Masters degree that is recognised as providing sufficient research training as part of any ESRC funded (what they refer to as the “1+3” scheme) doctoral study. There are of course other sources of funding.

Shaping your Studies

One thing that baffled me during my studies at LSE is the sheer range of available course options. Identifying them and being allocated a place requires a pro-active (and at times determined) approach. As I often found myself thinking that in retrospect such and such course would have been great to take, I thought it might be worth sharing my experiences in this area.

Students can choose their electives from an extensive range of courses. Many courses dealing with social development are naturally taught by members of the Department of Social Policy, but students will find it worthwhile exploring the wide range of courses available throughout the School. Although you require approval from both your course director and the person whose course you wish to take, the LSE pretty much allows you to choose any course taught at Masters-level.

There are nonetheless likely limitations to what courses your course director will find relevant enough to approve. However, as long as it is relevant and doesn’t change your overall degree course orientation to the extent that a different degree course provided by the school is better suited, you should be able to get approval. In some cases you will require prerequisite knowledge, and this is often the case for law and economics-related courses.

In practice your choice is mainly limited by the availability of places on the course as well as eventual timetable clashes. While a lack of places and timetable clashes will rarely occur for courses taught in one department, they are inevitable across the school. At times, teachers will split seminar groups into several alternative classes, which can solve the problem. In addition, where possible some teachers will even create another seminar group if demand to join significantly exceeds availability. I would recommend anyone to keep in mind that demand for certain courses can far exceed availability of places.

As the process can be somewhat haphazard, it is definitely worth asking and letting teachers know that you wish to join as early as you can. Make sure to keep an eye on how the situation evolves, as decisions governing availability of places will sometimes only be taken well into the first term, and some courses (especially half-unit courses) are only taught during one term. In addition there is a deadline by which your course choices need to be definite. This means you might be foregoing taking a certain course during the first term, whilst uncertain to have a place on another one during the second term.

One way to manage this uncertainty is to identify alternative courses that suit you. To make sure you don’t miss too much of the teaching you can audit several courses that interest you. This means you can attend the lectures, and if there is space some teachers will also allow you to attend the seminars.

It should also be noted that you can audit any lectures given at the school, which can be a great way of discovering a new topic or supplementing the courses you will be examined on. If you already have an idea about your dissertation topic, you’re likely to find a series of lectures dealing with important aspects of your topic. Lectures and associated reading lists are good staring points and can save you a lot of time.

Finding a course isn’t always simple. The main places to look are the other development related degrees offered and their contributing departments. Apart from their respective web pages, you will also find them detailed in the course calendar. You can also go online and search the LSE Experts webpage, which will give you an idea of who knows about your topic and therefore might lecture on it as well.

Another advantage of studying at LSE is the range of public lectures which you can choose to attend. The School welcomes many high-profile speakers and it is worth keeping an eye on the events calendar. Apart from the outside speakers invited as part of the SPPDC course, I would particularly recommend the series of lectures organised by the Development Studies Institute (DESTIN) at the School.

There are also a whole range of public lectures held at other colleges of the University of London which you may wish to attend. The LSE is in close walking distance to the SOAS, UCL, The Institute of Latin American Studies, The Institute of Commonwealth Studies, as well as King’s College. All of these organise lectures that may be of interest. Beyond that, London is generally a treat for the intellectually curious and you will find many other public events that may be of interest and relevance. For example, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) is bound to be organising a series of lectures and policy debates. More unlikely venues will also be of interest. London’s landmark Saint Paul’s cathedral hosts an annual lecture series, which in recent years invited Nobel Prize-winning economists Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz.

Exams and Beyond

I cannot compare LSE exams to those at other universities, however a few points may provide guidance. As is generally the case for British academic training, there is an emphasis on, and encouragement to think critically. One rule of thumb could be that you need to have an informed opinion, and be able to argue it coherently whilst situating it amongst other perspectives.

Another skill that examiners value is the ability to synthesise and draw appropriate links to other relevant debates and themes. For example, if you end up taking both the Rural Development and Urbanisation courses, you are sure to encounter opportunities to draw on both courses. The core course in Social Policy, Planning & Participation in Developing Countries encompasses many cross-cutting issues that you can draw on for other courses and vice versa. Put simply, examiners appreciate a versatile yet judicious use of academic knowledge.

Past exam papers and the course lecture and seminar outlines tend to be good indicators of what is likely to be examined. The exam questions are set by your lecturers, and any change in staffing tends to be discernable when comparing past papers.  If it is the first year that a lecturer is teaching a course, the seminar outline will offer the best guidance.

This link between the seminars and exams is also worth keeping in mind when choosing and preparing your seminar presentations. Students are generally expected to present on one or two seminar sessions per course (for half-unit courses this will generally only be once). Presentations are mostly done in pairs and students choose their topics in the first few weeks.

Presentations are not graded, but provide valuable practice and can also provide a head-start in your exam preparation. At times, students will “shy away” from presenting a second time, especially towards the busier end of the second term. Yet time spent on seminar presentations is also exam preparation, and the discussions that follow a presentation are a great opportunity to get some feedback on your ideas.

Beyond that your presentation will obviously be better and result in a more interesting experience for everyone. Most people will also feel much more comfortable presenting something they know they have put effort into. The quality of the seminar presentations (admittedly mine included) was, at times, disappointing. The lecturers facilitate the seminar, but as seminars are student-lead it really is up to you to assure their quality. It is worth keeping in mind that preparation is also important if you are not presenting. In all likelihood you will not be able to cover the readings for every seminar, but it is worth at least covering the essential readings. If the group as a whole is prepared, the seminar discussions naturally tend to be far more interesting.

Discussions with others on the course are another very effective way of learning, and many find exchanging essays and reading notes a useful way of filling gaps in their exam preparation. It is perhaps important to remark that the school generally attracts pretty competitive students. This seems to vary greatly across departments and degrees, and I found the atmosphere on this course to have been far more cooperative than on my undergraduate course. Therefore it seems worthwhile emphasising that students are not in competition; any number of students can obtain a distinction as long as their performance is excellent. In my opinion sharing your work can only be of benefit. It encourages others to do the same and you are bound to come across something of interest, be it a line of argument or a simple reference.

Students will also be required to write a dissertation, which your tutor will help you substantiate. However dissertations at the LSE rely on the student’s initiative and it is best to start thinking and reading about an eventual topic early on. Don’t hesitate to approach other lecturers throughout the school to discuss your ideas. Most will take the time if you’re well prepared.

The dissertation is a real opportunity to pursue a narrowly defined interest at considerable depth, and I found it very satisfying. In terms of your degree, it is also the only part of the examination process over which you exercise a great deal of control. An outstanding dissertation can also be publishable, and publishing your dissertation will be a good asset to anyone planning to undertake doctoral study. Don’t be fooled by the relatively short-length (10,000 words), this actually makes it more difficult. The emphasis is on quality, not quantity. I think the majority of people find themselves struggling to fit everything in.

Unsurprisingly it is best to try and do everything early on, but exam preparation and staying on track with your dissertation is the most important. The pre-exam period can be very hectic and the library will be pretty “loaned out” so it is best to make sure to get your readings progressively during the year. Getting familiar with the library’s extensive resources early on will also save you a lot of time.  It is also worth getting organised to put together a supplementary reading pack, which saves everyone a lot of time and can be somewhat cheaper.

In any case, the beyond alluded to in the subheading is clearly more important and it also seems futile to obsess over the formal assessment process. Arguably the most important aspects of the learning experience are the exchanges and social ties that are part of university study.

Overall, I would recommend anyone to take this degree. For lack of comparison, I cannot comment on the quality of teaching and much will depend on the options you take, however I generally found it to be good to excellent.

Obtaining an MSc from the LSE will obviously leave you in relatively good stead; however don’t expect to be headhunted by the UN either. For mid-career professionals this is less of an issue, and I am under the impression that many of those who returned to their respective organisations were able to make their degrees “count”. For those with little or no prior experience, development remains a very difficult sector to get started in. Prospective students shouldn’t rely on a “fancy” degree to guarantee entry.

My impression is that there are very few entry-level positions, and often one can find oneself in a “catch 22” situation where access is contingent on experience, yet you obviously have to gain this experience somewhere. In this case volunteering and (often unpaid) internships can offer a way forward. I’d recommend anyone new to the sector to commence looking into this early on.

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Advantages:

  • Very good reputation
  • International and friendly atmosphere
  • London
  • Staff are accessible and the learning environment is supportive
  • Extensive study options
  • Excellent library

Disadvantages:
  • Cost of living
  • Cost of tuition
  • At times, the quality of student-led seminars as well as some lectures
  • The eventual problem with course option availability and timetable clashes


The author can be contacted at: gkhine[at]yahoo.com