The first-year PhD cohort at the LSE’s Department of Social Policy includes students in the Social Policy and the Demography/Population Studies programmes. At a recent seminar, they discussed why they chose this programmes, and the pros and cons of being in a multidisciplinary department. The conversation generated six posts that will be posted on the Social Policy Blog over the coming weeks, which together demonstrate the wide variety of research topics the department accommodates, and the intellectual, practical, and personal factors that contribute to choosing to study here. This may prove useful for future students who might be deciding whether a research degree at LSE’s Social Policy department might be right for them, too.
What are you studying? PhD in Social Policy
What is your background? Undergraduate and Masters’ degrees in economics and several years’ experience working as an economist.
Did you apply to other schools? Yes, I applied to several programmes in both the US and the UK. They were all Social Policy, Health Policy or Public Policy schools.
Why did you choose the Social Policy department?
I wanted to do economics research, focusing on applied, policy-relevant research questions. I know many people do applied research in economics departments, but I had two main reasons for choosing Social Policy:
First, to enhance the research that I do. There are a lot of interesting and important questions that we can’t answer with the tools of economics alone. I think interdisciplinary work can be very powerful. I wanted to learn more about what other disciplines have to say about my research topic, and how I might be able to apply – or collaborate with others who have expertise in – other methods. Being surrounded by researchers trained in different disciplines makes it easier to do that.
And second, to communicate my findings. I wanted to build the knowledge and skills to communicate my work to policymakers and researchers who are trained in different fields. But to do that well, I feel that I need to learn more about those fields. The Social Policy program lets me take coursework and attend departmental events where I can gain exposure to methods and perspectives that you don’t encounter in an economics department.
On a more personal level, I didn’t want to spend an extra 1-2 years on coursework, which is part of most economics programmes and would stretch the PhD out to 5+ years. Having worked for several years already, it didn’t feel like a good time in my life to commit to such a long break from paid work. I also was lucky that I had a research topic I was excited about, and between my Master’s degree and my work experience, I felt I had the skills I needed to get started straight away. That’s why I preferred the Social Policy department’s model of allowing students to audit or enrol in classes as needed to fill any gaps in our previous training, rather than requiring the additional 1-2 years of coursework.
How is the experience so far? What are the pros and cons?
I really like the wide range of seminars and events that we learn about through the department. My research is on welfare policy, and just in the past two months I’ve had opportunities to hear from researchers approaching this topic using participatory action research, structural economic models, quasi-experimental impact evaluation methods, and qualitative interviews. I’ve had to question – and defend – my approach, which has given me a better understanding of where my research fits in.
There’s no compulsory coursework as part of the program, but I have been auditing classes in the economics, health policy and social policy department. I have also been able to go to the drop-in ‘methods surgery’ for help with specific statistics questions, and have been regularly attending seminars at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion. Even though everyone in our cohort is going to different classes and seminars, we have made a point of catching up regularly and sharing what we learn with the rest of the cohort.
Within the department, there is a group of other students who are doing quantitative research, and we meet regularly to discuss work in progress. But I have actually learned more from discussing my research with students and faculty from different academic backgrounds, who ask questions or make points that I wouldn’t have thought of.
The main downside of being in a multidisciplinary department is that if I wanted to go into a career as an academic economist, the path would not be as clear as if I was coming out of an economics program. It’s definitely possible – previous graduates from the department have gone to the economics job market successfully. But I probably wouldn’t have chosen this school if that was my main goal.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.