發文作者:Albert Tzeng | 2009/04/19

Which Univ to Go? Warwick and some Options Compared

A few months ago I got an email from a Singaporean student who got master-level offers in sociology from Manchester, Leeds, Lancaster, Warwick and Essex. I was asked to comment on the learning experience in Warwick and compare it with other options. In the following weeks, I found myself often being asked the similiar set of questions by people planning for their study in UK. (Thanks to the dropping pound rate, which provides great incentive.) So I decide to post my initial responses to the Singaporean guy as a reference to those who are interested. Please note that what was written in this mail only represent my personal and potentially baised judgement.

Dear XXX

Well, first you seem to get plenty options to choose from. This seems to suggest that you were more focused on maximizing your opportunities in submitting your applications without a sound first-round screening. I think this is absolutely understandable from the perspective of we Asian student. But bear in mind that some might considered this a sign that you lack the realization of what you really want (instead of a sign of your qualification).

There are a wide range of issues you ‘could’ consider in comparing options – some often over-emphasized while some overlooked. The relative weight you place on each criteria reflect how you imagine your career and what role you assign for this stage of self-investment. I never believe there could be any meaningful league table ranking all the institutions along one single axis. The contemporary craze for all sorts of ranking in global higher education is most of the time misleading.

The candidates you listed can first be sorted, according to the immediate environment, into two groups: the ‘green-field’ univs like Warwick, Lancaster, Essex, York, and the urban ones like Goldsmith, Manchester, and Leeds. The first groups generally has beautiful country-side scenery, spacious campus, modern buildings, and the intimate classmate-relationship (sense of community) if you seek. But in the other hand you might feel troubled by the lack of metropolitan convenience and the countryside bore-don. The second group generally provides the opposite.

If we further compare these green field one. York is at least a lovely tourist site, and Lancaster has the famous lake district and sea shore, but if you come to Warwick, you would have little to expect aside from endless grassland and trees. Don’t expect too much from Coventry. Its centre is just a shopping area circled by the notoriously bad-designed small-radius ring road. You can hardly expect any inspiring moment while wandering in its alleys. (One French girl I met once jokingly claimed that Coventry is the most soul-less place she ever visited). The 30-mins away Birmingham may offer a bit more (e.g. the China town, the fish market), but just a bit. The only thing you can cheer for is the relative convenient connection to London (2.5 hr by megabus, price 1-9 pounds generally) compared with its northern cousins. I didn’t mention Essex because I’ve never visited there in person. But I know it’s also within manageable distance to London (2hrs).

Goldsmith, Manchester and Leeds are discussed in one group, but London is a city so different from the others. You might have noticed that I took the ‘connection to London’ as one criteria in evaluating universities. I did so because I did my master in LSE, and I have to admit that the year spent in this ‘mega node’ of contemporary world— one year that full of speeches and debates by key figures, demonstrations of various kinds, inspiring people to network with, and the rich resource in the cultural and historical fronts – far more rewarding than I expected. I’ve also been to Leeds and Manchester too. They were both nice city to explore but none can offer more than 10% of what London could offer. In fact I turned believe being in London is distinctive from being anywhere else in UK.

Now we move to discuss the departments. Manchester, Essex, Warwick, Goldsmith and Lancaster (sorted by department size) all have prominent sociology departments. York is also well-reputed but for me it’s a bit small. However, if you look closer at the research orientations you might find that each departments are qualitatively distinctive. My rough impression goes as follow- Goldsmith has traditionally more leaning toward cultural studies (e.g. urban, media, gender, ethnicities) and some experimental approaches; Essex has a strong quantitative segment (which makes its research output more ‘compatible’ with the mainstream American sociology and more well-known in some East Asian societies) and a significant stream of critical theoretical works; Lancaster has a number of big names researching into contemporary issues ranging from mobility, complexity, STS and so on.; and Warwick is a old-time centre for labour studies now gradually dominated by a subgroup of gender people (because of an unsuccessful attempt to launch a women study centre in this campus ) with a salient current of theoretical works.

Having said all these, however, I want to point out that the academic prominence is associated more with ‘how other people imagine the training you would have” (and if you choose to return to Asia, you might even find the Univ’s reputation is more important than the departments’) rather with “the actual quality of teaching you do have”. In fact throughout the one year extensive learning, your actual experience would have little to do with what the staff members are researching. What matters more is the range of courses provided, by whom, and how the program is structured. In this regard, I am personally satisfied with what Warwick provided (much better than the teaching quality I had in LSE) and I’ve been told Lancaster and Essex both have excellent programs, while my knowledge regarding other institutions were insufficient.

At last you must note that Tony Elger, who is really nice and supportive to his student, unfortunately would retire this year. But never mind. Who your supervisor are might not be that important too. With very few exceptions, most faculty members are too busy with their own projects and PhD students to spare much time on MA students. MA thesis is just a minor project and you are expected to rely much on your own. After all, learning to be independent is one of the most important thing in postgraduate level learning.

Summary of Warwick
Pros: good-quality teaching, some sense of community, beautiful and modern campus, acceptable connection to London, good reputation in Singapore (?), and its famous art centre
Cons: in-the-middle of nowhere, Coventry not a inspiring place, declining salience of its labor studie

Advice if you come to Warwick (or anywhere else)
Take initiative and reach beyond your department- to make interesting friends from other departments or even other univs. Travel more to other places for more stimuli, more observations and reflections. Do not confine yourself to course work alone.

Regards

Albert

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Responses

  1. 我另外一些在华威的朋友,也认为先对自己有足够认识再选择学校与专业尤为重要,而不是反之。但是,人人在自我认识的路上,往往走得比较迂回曲折。目前无信仰、无目标状态的我,正堕入迷失。

  2. 总结得很好,albert!!!被你说得有点后悔没有去伦敦念书啊。


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