Are you curious to know what it is like to study HSPS at Cambridge?
Third-year HSPS student Felix Haynes shares with us what life is like studying at Cambridge.
I’m Felix, and I have just finished my third year studying Human, Social and Political Sciences (HSPS) at St John’s College Cambridge. I was also Access Officer at my college, which involved working on outreach events and open days, and helping prospective students from all backgrounds have the best chance of success.
What Is HSPS?
HSPS is a varied and broad course that introduces you to disciplines within the social sciences.
The core subjects within HSPS are political thought, international relations, sociology, and social anthropology, and you have to take either all four of these in your first year, or three of these core subjects and a fourth “borrowed” paper.
These borrowed papers often come from subjects including psychology and archaeology, and later in the course you can borrow papers from history and economics among others.
There is a common misconception that the breadth of the HSPS course means you don’t get the chance to specialise or look in detail at any particular area, but in fact you have a significant say over what you study and how you approach the course.
I knew, for instance, that I was most interested in politics and international relations, and so when studying anthropology in my first year, I focused on the political systems of different communities and how they are influenced.
In addition, after first year, you can specialise into either a single or joint track. I chose to specialise in politics and international relations, but you could choose to specialise in sociology, or anthropology, or a combination of two (politics and sociology for example).
Why HSPS At Cambridge?
It is the level of independence on the HSPS course, which is perhaps the biggest difference from what you may have experienced at school or college, but it’s also my favourite thing about the course.
While I am set deadlines and have some compulsory papers, the topics I choose to study, how long I spend on essays, and when I work during the day is largely down to me.
This is something that it takes a bit of time to adjust to, but it’s also a great way to ensure that you work in a way that suits you, and gives you time to fit in activities, socialising, and relaxation outside of your work.
Another great thing about studying HSPS is the way in which the subjects work together.
In my first year, for instance, I studied nationalism in sociology, focusing on the way in which national identity is affected by globalisation.
I also studied nationalism in anthropology, looking at how identities are constructed in individual communities, and in politics where I looked at how nationalism is used by political leaders to extend authority.
This multi-disciplinary approach means I had access to insights and perspectives I wouldn’t have had if I studied a single subject, and makes the course a lot more interesting.
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Studying HSPS at Cambridge
My typical day starts with one or two 50-minute lectures.
These lectures are delivered by senior academics who organise all the content for each paper, and give you an introduction to the topic, a discussion of key readings, and the opportunity to engage in the key questions and issues surrounding them.
In some courses, lectures are the main way in which you learn content for the course, but in HSPS they are more of an outline from which you engage further through readings and supervisions (more on these later!).
During my first year, for example, my day could begin with a sociology lecture on global inequality, followed by a politics lecture on the US Constitution.
Lectures are organised by the central university, so are taken with people taking your subject across all colleges, while small-group teaching is organised by your College. Lecturers provide reading lists for all the topics you are taught, including a few key readings, and additional readings for the topics you are interested in.
There is a common perception that you have to read hundreds of full books to do well in HSPS, but in fact many of the readings are single chapters or articles, and even when you need to read books, you’re often not expected to read the whole thing from cover to cover.
After my lectures, I normally get lunch with some of my course-mates at one of the university cafés – they are relatively cheap which helps on a student budget!
Then, I will spend my afternoon reading for an essay and beginning to write it up. Essays are the main form of work within HSPS.
For each of your four papers a year you will produce six essays (three in each of the first two terms), plus have the chance to produce timed essays during revision sessions during the final term.
Depending on how familiar I am with the topic, and the amount of reading I want to do, a typical essay takes me around four days of work, including three days of reading and planning and a day to write up my essay.
These supervision essays tend to be between 1,500 and 2,000 words – this sounds like a lot, but they are not expecting perfection, and once you have done some reading you tend to have plenty to say!
Second and Third Year of HSPS
In second and third year, you have the opportunity to take papers with slightly different formats.
Some papers such as those looking at statistics have a research project in place of supervision essays, while there is also the opportunity to produce a longer piece of writing called a dissertation over the course of the year.
There is lots of support from your Director of Studies – the academic responsible for all your teaching – and plenty of older students to give you advice on what papers to choose.
My day looks slightly different when I have a supervision.
These are one of the features that make studying at Cambridge unique (Oxford have a similar system called “tutorials”), and are the main form of teaching, particularly in humanities subjects such as HSPS.
They involve working with one or two other students on my course, and a supervisor who is either a senior academic or a PhD student.
I usually have 12 supervisions a term, one for each essay I write.
These essays and the issues they raise form the basis of the discussion, which is really interactive and involves lots of useful feedback and new ideas to think about.
Supervisions are a bit daunting at first, but once I realised they weren’t an interrogation or a test, I saw them as a great opportunity to further my understanding of a topic with an expert in it, while also benefitting from the ideas and questions of other students.
Evenings and Weekends
In the evening, I sometimes cook a meal with my flatmates, and sometimes eat dinner at the ‘buttery’, which is the informal dining room in my college.
Occasionally, I have ‘Formal Hall’, which is a subsidised three-course meal in College where everyone dresses up and wears gowns – this is the closest Cambridge gets to feeling like Hogwarts, and is really good value.
Personally, I don’t enjoy working later in the evening (although many college libraries are open 24 hours a day!), so tend to end my day with a bit of exercise and some Netflix.
At the weekend, I often do a little bit of work, but also spend lots of time socialising with my friends and taking part in some of the many societies available.
In my second and third year I was on my college JCR, which is our students’ union, so spent time planning events for students and representing them on committees.
My Top Tips for studying HSPS at cambridge
My biggest tip for succeeding at HSPS is to keep an open mind. You will be engaging with subjects and topics you won’t have encountered before, but if you are curious and willing to give them a try, you might discover a new passion, or find a new way of looking at an issue you care about.
You don’t need to have experience in the topics you study, but it is important to demonstrate that you are flexible, analytical, and confident in sharing and defending an opinion.
HSPS deals with big questions and academics are genuinely interested in how you respond to them, so do not be afraid to take a side and back it up.
Studying at Cambridge is a unique experience. It is fast-paced and often intense, but, if you are passionate about your subject, it is one of the best possible places to explore it.
Studying HSPS, you get access to world-leading academics, vast library resources, and content which is up-to-date and constantly changing.
The short terms mean that you have plenty of time to take a breather, and the freedom to decide how you spend your time means you can work around other activities beyond your degree.
I have loved my three years at Cambridge. The people I have met and friends I have made have been the highlight, and I would do it all again if I could!
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