PPE, that is Politics, Philosophy and Economics, is one of the degrees that Oxford is famous for, and one that only recently a small number of other British universities have begun to offer as well. These three subjects are not chosen arbitrarily, in fact the more you study them the more you realise that there are crossovers on a very great number of levels, and the study of one greatly helps with the understanding of the others. Frequently misunderstandings which occur in one of the disciplines could have been prevented by even a relatively basic understanding of the other two. As a second year student of PPE at Oxford I have been studying it for a while now.
– Overview –
The subjects can all be tailored very much to a student’s particular interests, so summing them up is quite difficult. For the first year (these exams are called prelims) all three subjects are studied, and then you have the option to drop one (if you choose – most do) in the second year. For finals you need to take 8 modules in total, and for each main subject you choose you must do 2 core papers plus enough options papers to make up the 8. Thus if you take all three you have fewer options but it should be the same amount of work.
Politics focuses not on the sort of politics you see in the news so much as the political system itself. There are four main areas of political study that you can choose to look at. Institutional politics (probably the largest discipline) looks at the governments of different countries and how the organisation of the different bodies can produce different effects (this study is almost exclusively focused on democracies). International relations focuses on the international political system as a whole to explain patterns of interaction between countries, with an emphasis on what causes peaceful relations to break down and whether this can be avoided. Political sociology deals with the social influences on politics; how religion or class acts to affect the political outcomes in a country. And finally political theory (which can be taken as a philosophy option) looks at questions of what politics should be, what is democracy, how much liberty should people be allowed, what actions by the state are legitimate and so on.
Philosophy focuses on the wide ranging ‘big questions’ in life. This can range from a close analysis of a particular author or text (examples being Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ or Aristotle’s ‘Nicomachean Ethics’), to much broader studies of the development of philosophical thought over time. Rather than the empirical emphasis of politics, philosophy is based far more on the construction of precise (and hopefully watertight) arguments using rigorous thinking and logic. Learning a system of logic constitutes another option in itself, one which can be usefully integrated into other areas of philosophy.
Economics is divided into macroeconomics, microeconomics and, for final, quantitative economics. Microeconomics is the small scale study of economics, looking for explanations and models of the behaviour of individuals and firms, and reasons why this goes wrong. Options papers for micro include game theory, the theory of the firm, labour economics and public economics. Macroeconomics by contrast deals with the large scale economics of the national and world economy, answering questions such as how trade can be improved and why it should be improved, or why the current financial crisis occurred and how it can be corrected for. Macro options include trade theory, development economics and the economics of OECD (i.e. developed) economies. Finally quantitative economics is a new part of the core finals paper which deals with econometrics, which is the use of statistics to help explain (or disprove) economic trends, and how these are used and often abused by people who don’t know what they are talking about or deliberately misrepresent the data.
– The teaching of PPE –
PPE is largely taught, like all subjects at Oxbridge, in tutorials of between one and three students and a tutor, discussing the work you have produced the previous week. Understandably these can be very intense – with that few students (especially in a one-on-one) there is nowhere to hide if you have not done the work. However, it is also by far the best way of improving your essay technique and clarifying the often very complicated concepts.
Most of the learning however will be done in your own time. PPE has, compared to other universities, relatively few lectures a week, normally 5-10 hours but often even less. The majority of your learning will be done in your own time through reading – and Oxford is a good place for reading. The libraries here overflow with a plethora of academic writing, and there are so many libraries that you will only struggle to find the rarer books. As a general guide I would read about 8-10 books (not the whole thing, just enough chapters to understand the argument) or journal articles per essay, and I have two essays a week normally. Economics tends to involve less wide reading and more reading of one textbook, but it tends to be just as time consuming because although there is perhaps slightly less to read, the material is often much denser.
Terms are 8 weeks long (plus one for revising for ‘collections’ or progress exams that are taken at the start of term), and understandably with this much work to get through it can be intense and exhausting, but it will depend hugely on the subject and your tutor. Last term was relatively relaxing for me, whilst the term before I was working 6 days a week and was half dead by the time I came home! That said, however hard the work is there is plenty of time for socialising and still a lot of time for other activities. Even in the busiest terms I find time to go away kayaking for the odd weekend and every Sunday. If I didn’t, I think I would probably go insane.
– Useful subjects –
Whilst I have little experience of education systems outside the UK, there are a number of subjects that will give you a head start with your application for PPE.
Bizarrely, Oxford is not that bothered about you taking any of the three main subjects, as they will teach you from the beginning anyway, and you’ll overtake your previous knowledge so fast that they will only be of limited use anyway. Furthermore, certainly in the UK, these subjects often constitute softer options at A level than many others. That said, chances are you will be tested on your knowledge of these subjects at interview, so if you do not take them you still need to have a reasonable knowledge of at least one or two of them.
Other than these, the two big ones are maths and history. Maths is a large part of economics, and you will definitely struggle without a strong command of algebra and calculus in particular. History is a major part of politics (especially international relations) and will therefore also be a good one to take. Another important thing about these two is that they are deemed solid, traditional, academic subjects, something which Oxford (I think rightly I’m afraid to say) places much emphasis on. Other good ones to take include science subjects, languages, and English literature. One essay subject will be very useful, although your essay writing will be cranked up a gear (or three) at Oxford anyway. The surest way to put Oxford off you is to take subjects with ‘studies’ in the title – media studies being the most infamous offender but also film studies, communication studies and even business studies.
– The application and interview –
There is no silver bullet for Oxbridge applications since so much of the decision is down to the personality of the tutor – not only do you have to be a good candidate but they have to want to teach you as well. Nevertheless, preparation is your best defence. Read lots, and read books that are likely to give them something to talk about. Reading essays by John Stuart Mill (since ‘Utilitarianism’ and ‘On Liberty’ are both on the prelims syllabus) could be a good idea. Popular economics books also seem to be popular – ‘The Undercover Economist’ is the best by a long chalk in my opinion, but ‘Freakonomics’ is also good if a little less focused on traditional economics. ‘An Introduction to Political Philosophy’ by Jonathan Wolff is excellent for both politics and (political) philosophy, and ‘Think’ by Simon Blackburn is a great introduction to philosophy in general. Most of all though, read what you’re interested in (they’ll smell a rat if everyone has read the above…), and tell them why on your personal statement. I found that this was a useful excuse for not endlessly talking about myself, which I hate anyway and which I don’t think is particularly productive use of more than a couple of lines of the form.
A large proportion of applicants are invited to interview, so with luck you should find yourself spending a few days in Oxford for interviews if you apply. This is a daunting time, but also a really exciting one – a chance to see the stunning city and meet a lot of interesting people, not least the tutors who will be interviewing you. In the interview enthusiasm is your greatest weapon, and although some tutors make it their mission to shoot even the best applicants down in flames, most are very friendly and helpful. Either way, never despair: an awful lot of candidates who come out of their interview convinced it was disaster get in. And vice versa of course. Something as simple as sitting forward in your chair during the interview can give an impression of keeness. Lastly – good luck!
I guess that’s about it. I hope that this has been a useful overview of the subject, and if you have any questions don’t hesitate to get in contact via my About Me page.