06 April 2011

The Life of a KCL MA Student

I recently received a comment asking about the MA International Relations program at King's. I had forgotten that this is the time of year when most people are receiving their offers and making decisions about where they will end up next year. This would also explain the increase in messages I have received on Facebook asking for information about the program. (I was wondering at the sudden increase in my popularity.) There are many good things about King's, but it is not exactly overflowing with information about its programs. Indeed, for those attending the program next year, don't expect to receive any information until early August. Even then, expect to be very confused about what is going on when you arrive in London for the September start. Don't worry: it's essentially a right of passage for everyone going through the MA program.

**DISCLAIMER** Before I post anything else, I just want to note that all opinions about KCL are my own and do not reflect those of the university or the Department of War Studies. My opinions are based on my experiences over the past year with King's and the MA International Relations program. I am not being paid (I wish!) to endorse KCL or the program. Although if someone wanted to offer me money to do so, I wouldn't say no...

About King's College London
King's College London was founded in 1829 by George IV and the Duke of Wellington, making it the third oldest university in England. It is part of the University of London, but in 2007 began to grant its own degrees. (Why is this important? Because it means that at the graduation ceremony you get to wear graduation gowns designed by Vivienne Westwood - how swanky.) KCL has 5 campuses: Strand, Waterloo (across the river from the Strand), St. Thomas' (across the river from Parliament), Denmark Hill, and Guy's (near London Bridge). For those undertaking a degree within the School of Social Sciences and Public Policy, only Strand is of importance.

The Strand campus, the main KCL campus, is located on the Strand in central London, roughly a 10-minute walk from Trafalgar Square (and 30 minutes from Westminster). The nearest Tube stop is Temple on the Circle/District line. For those in the Department of War Studies, almost all of your classes will be held at the Strand campus. The layout of the campus is extremely confusing and there really is no other way to describe it save as 'unique'. Prepare to get lost when you get to KCL. That said, the campus is in the midst of a major renovation. Classroom facilities are quite modern and there are numerous PAWS (student computing) rooms available for use. Strand also boasts Chapters (a cafeteria that in off-hours serves as a study area), a coffee shop, the Waterfront Bar (which is lovely at night since it looks over the river), Tutu's nightclub, an excellent career center, and a useful advising center.

The MA International Relations and Department of War Studies
The MA International Relations is offered by the Department of War Studies, which is unique to King's. It has an excellent reputation within the UK and has been rated 3rd for Politics outside of Oxford and Cambridge. Notable faculty at the moment include: Dr. Marvin Frost, Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, Professor Jack Spence, and Professor Yezid Sayigh (not to mention loads more). Almost all of the professors I have encountered are experts in their field and, more often than not, have written half the books on the reading list. It's quite intimidating.

I am not quite sure how many people are accepted onto the MA IR each year, but my class has roughly 60 people at the moment. I think there were a few more who started off the course in September but either switched to another program or dropped out. The course is one year in duration (September to August) and consists of 3 components: the 2 core modules, the optional modules, and the dissertation.

Core Modules: As an MA student, you will be required to take 2 core modules, both of which are extremely theory-based. Indeed, I cannot stress this enough.  The first, Theories of International Relations, operates from the first week of October to the first week of December. It is essentially an overview to the various theories and approaches within IR. Teaching each week consists of an hour-long lecture (which everyone in the program takes at the same time) and an hour-long seminar (held in groups of 20). Each person is required to lead one seminar, although the presentation given is not graded. Assessment for the entire module is based off a 3000-word essay on an assigned topic that is due in December, and a 2-hour exam taken in May. In the second term, Theories is replaced by Concepts & Methods in International Relations. Essentially, the entire term is spent discussing various aspects of post-modernist theories (those espoused by Habermas, Foucault, post-colonialists, post-Marxists, etc.) and challenging conventional understandings of the 'international'. Teaching, yet again, consists of a one-hour lecture (which has roughly 120 students since several other programs within the Dept. of War Studies are also required to take Concepts as a core module) and a one-hour seminar. Assessment is the same as that for Theories. Once again, I must stress that these are heavily theoretical classes. If you are like me and are not a fan of theory, you will not enjoy these classes.

Optional Modules: The second component consists of the optional modules. These are modules that you choose at the beginning of term. Unfortunately, you will not know what exactly is on offer for the year until you arrive at KCL and go through induction. A sample of the modules offered this year included: Diplomacy (the most popular); International Politics of the Middle East; Open Source Intelligence; Missile Proliferation; Contemporary British Defence Policy; Wars within Wars; Media and Intelligence; Current Issues in Science and Security; Complex Political Emergencies; Counter-Terrorism Approaches; Human Rights & Migration; UK Foreign Policy, not to mention loads more.

'Choosing' your modules at the beginning of term consists of signing onto a special program and listing your top 12 preferences. You have the option to * one option, thus making it likelier that you will get that option (but resulting in a corresponding likelihood that your other module/modules will be drawn from further down the list). I took International Politics of the Middle East and Open Source Intelligence, both of which I really wanted. And, from speaking with my coursemates, it seemed that most people were pleased with the modules that they were allocated. You must take 80 credits of optional modules. Full year modules are worth 40 credits while half year modules are worth 20. You could end up with as few as 2 optional modules (as I did) or as many as 4.

Assessment and teaching for each module varies according to the instructor. In my International Politics of the Middle East class, I had a 1 1/2 hour lecture plus 1 1/2 hour seminar each week. I gave a total of 4 seminar presentations throughout the year (ungraded) and was assessed via 2 3,000 word essays. (We had the option to write 3, with the best 2 grades being counted towards the overall module result.) Open Source Intelligence consisted of a 2 hour lecture each week. In the second half of the year, I gave an hour-long presentation that was mandatory, but ungraded. Assessment for the module consists of 1 1,500 word essay and 2 3,250 essays. Both of these classes were much more practically (and reality)-oriented than the core modules, which played to my own personal interests and talents. I enjoyed both immensely and, for me, they were the saving grace of the program. (I would have been most upset if it had consisted solely of the core modules).

Facilities available
Libraries: As a graduate student, the most important university facility that you will require access to is the library. Since the reading list for just one module's seminar/lecture can stretch upwards of 10-15 (or, in the case of Concepts, 30) sources, you are not required to buy many books. Instead, you are expected to find your reading either online (via KCL's extensive ejournals archive) or at the library. King's has several located on its various campuses, but the Maughan library is the main one. Located on Chancery Lane, a 10-minute (or less) walk from the Strand campus, it was once the Public Records Office for the United Kingdom. It is a beautiful building, but is absolutely enormous. I have spent a year at KCL and have yet to adequately grasp the layout of the library. Luckily, the majority of my required books have been located in one room, albeit one at the very far end of the library. For those who may not be as lucky as me, there are map printouts of every floor of the library available at strategic locations throughout the library. On the backside of these maps are lists of where various book call-numbers might be found. (For example, the majority of IR book call-numbers begin with JZ and are located in room 1.51.) It is confusing at first, but you do get the hang of it after a while.

In addition to being in a beautiful building, the Maughan has several PAWS rooms, a cafe, the octagonal Round Reading Room (featured in the Da Vinci code and which has a policy of absolute silence), hundreds of study desks, and a 'Graduate Tower' which consists of 3 floors of private 1-person study rooms solely for the use of graduate students. Downsides of the Maughan? Confusing layout; drafty and echoing (which means that the effect of people talking is magnified exponentially); there are usually only 2-3 copies of books; books in the 'short-loan' section can only be checked out for 3 hours and cannot be removed from the library; the self-checkout machines can be frustrating to use.

For those who end up hating the Maughan, there are other options available. As a student within the University of London (of which King's is a constituent college), you have access to the Senate House Library in Bloomsbury near the British Museum. A magnificent art deco building, it usually has the books that the Maughan does not. And since you can't take the books out of the library, you can be assured that they are always there. Other options available to KCL students include the LSE library (can't take out books, no access to the short-loan section), the British Library, and the RUSI/Chatham House libraries (restricted access to members only - an application process is required at the beginning of the year).

Clubs/sports: For me, one of the most fulfilling aspects of my time at KCL has been participating in extracurricular activities. It is easy to become so absorbed in studying and preparing for classes that you lose track of all else. I find that this is ultimately detrimental to my studies and leaves me burnt out by the time I need to write essays. There are many, many clubs and sports societies available to KCL students. During Freshers' Week in September, a massive 'club fair' is held at a nightclub in the London Bridge area. All clubs send representatives and, just as with undergrad, it is usually best to sign up for anything that you are even remotely interested in, otherwise you may find it hard to join later on in the year. I was an active participant on the King's College London Cross Country Team and can honestly say that it really made my year. I met great people, got to travel to excellent races, and had a grand time overall. (I've extensively detailed my XC experience on this blog, so I won't go into it.) KCL also has its own gym, Kinetic, which is located at the Waterloo campus (directly across the Thames from Strand - about a 10 minute walk). At the beginning of year and half term marks they offer fantastic student deals that are otherwise unheard of in London. They have a decent amount of cardio equipment (ellipticals, treadmills, rowing machines, cross trainers, stationary bikes), nice range of weight machines, a cardio/yoga room, and a wide array of free weights. Alternatively, there is the University of London (ULU) gym at the ULU student union in Russell Square that has a pool, wide range of classes, and nice equipment.

Why I chose King's
'Why did you choose to study at King's?' is a question that I am asked quite frequently. For a long time, I never quite knew how to respond since there are so many reasons why I chose KCL.

I knew from the beginning of my junior year that I wanted to go to graduate school in the UK. I spent the entirety of 2008-2009 studying abroad at the universities of Oxford and Edinburgh, and fell in love with the UK academic setting. Upon researching further, I found that it would actually be cheaper to undertake a  1 year master's degree here than it would be to do a comparable 2-year degree in the US. (For example, if I had chosen to go to John Hopkins' SAIS in DC, I would be paying $50,000 per year in tuition alone, not counting books/housing/travel/etc. Ridiculous.) For this reason, I applied to graduate school solely within the UK. I was accepted at King's College London, University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and, belatedly, to the University of Oxford. (This is a fact that will come as a shock to most people. Yes, I received an acceptance letter in late June to the University of Oxford, despite having been told earlier (over the phone) that my application was unsuccessful. Apparently, this wasn't true. But by late June I had already paid my holding fee to King's and was making plans to move to London. As much as I loved Oxford and as hard as my ultimate decision was to make, I let the offer go.)

I chose the MA IR program at King's specifically because of the Department of War Studies' reputation, the location of the university, and the proportion of graduates from the program who went on to get jobs within a year after graduation. As mentioned above, the Department of War Studies is unique within the UK. It offers many courses, such as my Open Source Intelligence module, not offered anywhere else. In addition, despite the fact that the core modules for each program are strictly regimented, the wide variety of optional modules offered allows for personal flexibility and interests within the program. My MA experience was more heavily focused on intelligence - an area that I am interested in. Others chose to focus on human rights, or diplomacy. At other universities I looked into, there was not as much flexibility allowed within the MA course.

Having attended a small, rural public liberal arts college for undergrad, King's has provided a chance to see life at the other end of the spectrum. With 20,000+ students and located in a major city, KCL is very, very different from my undergrad. The caliber of teaching, expertise of my professors, and range of modules offered is as high quality as I anticipated.

Finally, I decided to attend KCL and graduate school in the UK because it would allow me to gain a non-American perspective of International Relations. Many of the leading IR academics these days come from the same group of US universities: JHU, GWU, Georgetown, Harvard, etc. Many are realists (or neo-realists) subscribing to the Washington consensus, influencing policymakers to make decisions based on the same assumptions held by previous generations. Although British IR and US IR differ very little, attending KCL has allowed me to interact with a more global audience than I might have had the opportunity to meet had I attended university in the US. The majority of my classmates are non-American, which is very refreshing. Many are not even from the UK. The wide array of experiences, perspectives, and opinions means that I have been forced to reassess many of the views I previously held about the world. It has also changed how I view the US. While never one for being overly patriotic, attending KCL has allowed me to take more pride in my country. I see its faults quite clearly (the US is far from perfect, but what country is) and the mistakes that continue to be made by US leaders to this day. However, I also see the benefits and valuable qualities that the US possesses that have allowed it to maintain its position as a superpower. Such a change in viewpoint is not only the result of what I've learned in my modules, but also through having interacted with my fellow classmates. Several have held very anti-American opinions. Discussion with them has opened my eyes (not that they were every closed, mind you) to how others perceive the US and the ways that US policy has affected other nations and, therefore, the lives of other individuals, both directly and indirectly.

It has been incredibly enlightening and I hope to apply this perspective to my future career when I return to the US. I am not so presumptuous as to suppose that my opinion will help change anything. But I do hope that perhaps my viewpoint will provide a counterbalance to the opinions of others that I might encounter. Change comes slowly, but it does come.

Life in London
As for living in London - it's exciting, it's fun, but it is not for everyone (not for me, at least). London is a major city. There is always something to do, somewhere to go, someone to see. In addition to the major cultural attractions (the dozens of museums, Parliament/Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Tower of London, etc.), there are the theaters of Leicester Square and the West End, the street markets that dominate the side-alleys on the weekends, the many parks (the largest of which is Hyde Park) in which to engage in outdoor activities, and the hundreds of high end shops spread about the city. In addition, London boasts unexpected surprises: When Julian Assange (founder of WikiLeaks) was detained by UK authorities, he was held and engaged in legal proceedings at the Royal Courts of Justice located down the street from the KCL Strand campus. I would pass by crowds of reporters waiting for his lawyer to emerge for a statement as I walked to class. The Royal Wedding is taking place in a few weeks time at Westminster Abbey - just downriver from where I live. And in 2012, London will be hosting the Olympics. Not every city can boast of that!

The Tube and Overground (bus) network makes traveling within London easy, as does the Barclay's Bike Hire scheme, although I personally prefer walking. The National Rail and National Express (bus) lines mean that you can travel pretty much anywhere in the UK from London. And Stansted, Gatwick, and Luton airports, the operational hubs of the major budget airlines, are within an hours bus ride, thus opening up the possibility of traveling anywhere in Europe for relatively little (especially compared to flying from the US!) That said, London is expensive! The dollar is currently very weak against the pound, which makes everything seem ridiculously expensive if you try to convert prices back into dollars. (I gave up long ago.) A pint of beer here is around £3.85, although that can increase in the ritzier areas of the city. A basic meal of fish and chips can run you anywhere between £7.50 and £10.50 depending on the quality of the restaurant. Luckily, if you head outside of the tourist areas (Trafalgar Square, Oxford Circus, Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Piccadilly Circus, Westminster) then prices tend to drop a bit. Still, for a student it can be quite expensive. Groceries are more reasonably priced if you shop as major chains such as Sainsburys, Tescos, or, if you're feeling flush, Marks & Spencer's. Cooking at home is definitely a more viable option

For those of you looking for information about King's, I hope that the above has provided some insight into the overall experience. If you have any more questions, feel free to leave a comment and I will try to respond!


  1. Thanks for your review. Do you have a kitchen to cook and what about supplies? My daughter is thinking of doing program in Fall.
    Thanks for the info!!!

  2. Hi Rebecca,
    Thank you very much for your post about KCL! I really appreciate the time you spent providing such detailed and thorough information! It's so useful to have a current student's perspective about the program.
    Did you find the transition from History to IR difficult? I also majored in History as an undergrad.
    Thanks again!

  3. No problem! It is my pleasure! I understand that the lack of information provided by KCL can be quite frustrating.

    1. There are two types of accommodation offered by KCL: catered and non-catered. In catered housing, you essentially have a single room (bed, desk, wardrobe (no shelves), chair) with a bathroom. Food is included in the cost of accommodation and is provided in a dining hall in the building. I don't live in catered housing, so I have no idea as to the quality of the food. I can say, however, that the majority of grad students do not go this route, feeling it a bit too like the undergrad experience for their tastes.

    The other type of housing is non-catered. In this type of housing, anywhere between 4-8 students share a 'flat'. Each student has their own single room (bed, desk, wardrobe (no shelves!), chair, cabinet, and mini-fridge (with a very, very small freezer - I can fit a water bottle in the freezer and that's it)) and bathroom. The entire flat shares a kitchen, which comes with: an oven (perhaps 2 if their are 8 people sharing), a stove with 4 burners (once again, there may be 2 depending on the number of people), a sink, a water-kettle, and a microwave. That's it. (Note: I live in the second most expensive non-catered housing, Great Dover Street, which is considered to be one of 'the' places to live. Stamford Street, the number one most desired accom., may have more facilities - perhaps a common freezer in the flat kitchen).

    As for supplies: you must buy/bring any cooking supplies that you plan on using. This is rather inconvenient for international students, who are forced to buy pans, pots, plates, etc. only to have to get rid of them when they leave.

    2. The transition from history to IR was not too difficult. In all honesty, the two are very similar, in that IR mostly looks at events that happened in the past. The main difference is that IR attempts to explain what happened using theories about the relations between states and then try to predict what might happen in the future.

    The main difficulty in the transition comes with experience. I have found that many of my classmates are several years out of undergrad, have worked in IR/politics, and have loads of experience that I don't currently have. PRactical experience in the field, unfortunately, is much more useful than things read in books. That said, I have been successful in my classes and do not feel like my history background has hindered me in any way.

  4. Thanks again for the useful info! The admissions office should be paying you!
    According to Google Maps, the walk from most student accomodation to the Strand Campus is about 35 minutes. Is this correct? Is it safe to walk from the library to your dorm late at night? Do you think KCL's housing or intercollegiate housing around Bloomsbury is in a safer area for returning home at night?
    Although you haven't graduated yet, do you know about the job prospects for MA International Relations graduates? Is KCL's career services helpful?
    Thanks again! I really appreciate all of your advice!

  5. No problem!
    1. It really depends on where you are living. The Intercollegiate (catered) housing is located in Bloomsbury near the British Museum, so about 10-15 minutes from the Strand. Stamford Street (self-catered) is just across Waterloo Bridge from the Strand and is perhaps an 8 minute walk. Where I stay now, Great Dover Street, is a 40 minute (quick-paced) walk. (Strangely, it also seems to be a 30 minute Tube journey since you have to transfer lines. I hardly ever take the Tube though so I'm not quite sure if that is always the case.) So, yes, most accommodation is within a 35 minute walk from the Strand. The only exception that I am aware of is the Hampstead housing, which is an hour Tube or bus ride. (There is a bus that goes directly from the accommodation to the Strand, apparently.)
    2. Once again, it really depends on where you live and at what time of night. For the areas around the Strand, it is safe at most hours of the night since these are located in the central city and are pretty busy at all hours. Would I walk to where I live now after 11pm? As a female, no. Southwark can get quite rough in the later hours and the accom. office really stresses that students stay to the main streets after midnight.
    3. In general, the intercollegiate housing in Bloomsbury seems safer (and closer) since it is near the British Museum and in a posh district. Although Stamford Street is not too bad since it is right across Waterloo Bridge from the Strand and near the Waterloo Train Station, with excellent security.
    4. Setting aside the fact that jobs are hard to come by these days due to the economic climate, an MA from KCL tends to provide an edge within the UK. I am not quite sure what the situation is in the US, although I will shortly be finding out. I don't know the official figures, but most MA IR students are either employed or go onto higher education within 6 months after graduation.
    5. I haven't personally used it myself (the flood of essays doesn't really allow much time for it, I'm afraid), but those who have say that it is useful for UK citizens. Since the visa laws are about to change (again) to make it even harder for foreign citizens to become employed in the UK, I don't know how much help it would be for those from the US.


  6. Hi! I sent you a message on fb for some information, check the spam box :)