On top of the world

Patrick Dunleavy on the best of British

The US or the UK? That is the question in the minds of many students thinking about embarking on a political science course at MSc or doctoral level. With many students reportedly crossing the Atlantic, and continuing concerns over academics' salaries and university funding in Britain, it is perhaps a question worth asking. Signing up for one of these courses is a difficult decision that requires a huge investment in time and money. You need to be certain that the academic quality and the research expertise of the department you choose will be worth it.

So how do you know that you are getting what you pay for, and how do the US and the UK really compare?

In its cumbersome, bureaucratic way, the government has been running a series of operations designed to help prospective students get better information. The central piece of this jigsaw is the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which judges the amount and quality of research by the department's staff.

Unfortunately for students, and even more for the taxpayer who has to meet the huge costs involved, the last RAE has been widely regarded as deeply flawed. Many departments poached high-flying academics at the last minute and "hid" those with less distinguished publication records. And the committees themselves allocated grades in an apparently unscientific way. In political science at least, it seems that a single reader, unaccountable to anyone else, ascertained the quality of work through a mysterious process known only to themselves.

The inadequacies of the government's methods have stimulated academics in many fields to come up with something better. A recent analysis of the research quality of the top 200 political science departments in the world contains some very good news for British departments (see www.politicalstudies.org/pdf/psr/hix.pdf).

The research by Simon Hix, a professor at the London School of Economics, looks at the thousands of papers published over more than a decade in the top 65 English-language journals in the world, and ranks the university departments accordingly. The departments that rank the highest are those which produce academic articles that are then widely cited by other political scientists. It gives lower scores to departments that produce a lot of papers but which are rarely cited or used by anyone else. In other words, it condenses the collective wisdom of the world's (English-speaking) political scientists. UK departments stand very well against their counterparts in the US, hitherto the dominant force in the world political science profession.

In the US, there are at least 500 doctoral institutions in political science - more than 17,000 political scientists spread across 52 states. In the Hix global ranking, 97 US departments are listed. This may seem impressive but, overall, it still means that only one in five of the US doctoral institutions reaches the top 200. Around four-fifths don't make the grade.

By contrast, British universities have 48 placings, nearly five times more than the nearest European country (Germany, with ten placings) or the nearest Commonwealth country (Australia, with nine placings). And they account for around a quarter of the universities included in the top 50. In the UK, there are about 100 political science departments, only 80 to 85 of which are doctoral institutions. Of these, 57 per cent make the global top 200 rankings.

How should we interpret these findings? The US undeniably succeeds in creating some well-funded departments with great research records at the very top of the tree. But outside these gilded few, the research quality and consistency of US departments is rather variable. By contrast, UK political science is a much more consistent performer with a much wider range of departments to bring you in contact with globally approved research.

The quality of the teaching curriculum should also be an important concern, and most UK universities allow you to access their course descriptions and reading lists on the web. Are the courses up to date and tackling topics that appeal to you, will keep you motivated and will give you transferable skills to offer an employer? Does the assessment method suit you? And will you be able to find a good dissertation topic?

Do bear in mind the simple fact that, at graduate level, your power as a consumer is vastly greater than it is at undergraduate level. You can apply to as many departments as you wish, and many may attempt to entice you with "quota" studentships from the Economic and Social Research Council or guaranteed paid teaching or research experience.

The most important thing to remember is that you are in the driving seat. And the message of the most recent research is that staying in the UK guarantees you not only safe, but excellent choices.

Patrick Dunleavy is professor of political science and public policy at the London School of Economics. His book Authoring a PhD: how to plan, draft, write and finish a doctoral thesis is published by Palgrave