What is HSPS at the University of Cambridge? An Insider Perspective

March 12, 2019

Florence Instone
Posted on March 12, 2019

Florence Instone

Trying to get one’s head around the basics of Human, Social and Political Sciences can certainly feel overwhelming at first, due to the broad and encompassing nature of the degree. In this article, I seek to simplify HSPS so that it is accessible to all – most importantly, to prospective students.

Focusing on HSPS’s structure within the Cambridge system, as well as my own personal opinion of studying the course, I hope to showcase the opportunities and unique experiences that a degree in the social sciences can offer. A popular choice for the politically and socially minded, Human, Social and Political Sciences – HSPS, for short – is a course unique to Cambridge.

HSPS Overview

HSPS is a course characterised by its flexibility and diversity. Rather than facing the dilemma of having to specialise early on, first-year HSPS undergraduates have the opportunity to choose from a range of subjects. Since October 2017, the core subjects have been: Politics and International Relations, Sociology and Social Anthropology. Together, these three courses form the HSPS “Tripos” – that is, a degree which encompasses courses taught primarily through the Departments of Politics and International Studies, Sociology, and the Division of Social Anthropology.

Students are required to take four papers. For example, in my first year, I took Politics, International Relations, Sociology and Social Anthropology. In my second year, I also took four papers, however I decided to specialise specifically in Politics, Sociology and International Relations.

Diversity of subjects in the Tripos

Excitingly, HSPS students do not have to stick exclusively to the HSPS Tripos. Indeed, they are also able to “borrow” papers from other Tripos degrees which relate closely to HSPS. These include Archaeology, Biological Anthropology, History, History and Philosophy of Science, and Psychological and Behavioural Sciences. So, whilst HSPS may seem confusing at first, this is simply because of the sheer diversity of subjects the Tripos encompasses.

Hence, it makes more sense to think of HSPS as an umbrella term. At the core of a HSPS degree is a system of lectures and supervisions. Lectures correspond to papers. So, for example, all HSPS students taking the popular POL1 paper, The modern states and its alternatives, will be in the same lecture. For each paper, students will typically be required to write three essays per term, with each essay being submitted in advance of a supervision.

Supervisions provide for a personalised system of learning, whereby students, in groups of between one and three, sit down with a relevant Cambridge academic to discuss the essay topic and any related questions. Whilst supervisions may seem daunting at first, these are in fact incredibly helpful, as they can be used to investigate terms, ideas and ideologies in greater depth. For example, in my first year, I found supervisions were great for clarifying complex political theories advanced by thinkers such as Marx, Schumpeter and Nietzsche.

Ample flexibility

My personal experience of HSPS has been tremendously positive. In my first year, what I enjoyed most about the course was its flexibility. I had the opportunity to study Sociology and Social Anthropology, subjects which I had never studied before, nor thought that I would have an interest in. However, Cambridge proved me wrong.

I found that I had a particular interest in Sociology, and enjoyed learning about topics such as gender, race and nationalism. I went on to continue Sociology in my second year, focusing in particular on the way in which nationalism manifests itself in the global beauty and pageant industry.

Had Cambridge not given me the opportunity to take Sociology in the first place, I would never thought of exploring the impact of cosmetic surgery in Neoliberal Brazil, or the Nigerian beauty pageant industry. It is therefore safe to say that choosing HSPS has enabled me to discover a whole world of social sciences that I was previously unaware of.

Alternatives to Cambridge

Of course, Cambridge is not the only university that offers undergraduate degrees in the social sciences. Perhaps the most famous and most popular alternative to HSPS at Cambridge, is PPE at Oxford: Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Like HSPS, this degree is flexible, with students able to specialise in two out of the three disciplines from second year onwards. Topics covered in first year include moral philosophy, political theory and micro and macroeconomics.

Aside from Oxbridge, Russell Group universities also offer top courses in Politics, International Relations, Social Anthropology and Sociology. The main difference is that usually, these subjects form separate degrees, rather than being studied together. Top courses are available across the country at universities such as Warwick, Bristol, Edinburgh, Exeter and Durham, and at London-based universities such as UCL, LSE and KCL.

Indeed, you may choose to study Politics and International Relations at a university other than Oxbridge, for the unique opportunities and experiences on offer. At Exeter, for example, the university offers the option of Politics and International Relations with Study Abroad. This is an exciting and distinctive four-year course, whereby in your third year, there is the opportunity to study in a partner University on an exchange, or approved programme.

Edinburgh University offers a similar programme, whereby Politics and International Relations students can study abroad in their third year, through the Erasmus programme or the University’s international exchange programme.

Career Prospects after HSPS

Those who study Politics and International Relations go on to have diverse and fulfilling careers. Some of the most popular choices include: The Civil Service, law, politics, teaching, banking and finance, journalism and broadcasting, management consultancy and the charity sector. Of course, others continue their journey within the education system, completing masters and doctorate programmes and eventually going on to teach at university level themselves.

Summer School Programme by Immerse Education

Clearly, then, studying HSPS, or a similar social sciences degree, can lead to positive prospects for future employability. Should prospective students wish to gain further insight into where a degree in HSPS and the social sciences can lead to, the Immerse Summer programme provides ample opportunity for this. Law, Politics and International Relations are all on offer, with bookings now open for the 2019 programme.

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Florence Instone

has just finished her second year at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she studies Human, Social and Political Sciences. She is undertaking the role of mentor for the one-week Global Leadership course, as well as the two-week International Relations course.

has just finished her second year at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she studies Human, Social and Political Sciences. She is undertaking the role of mentor for the one-week Global Leadership course, as well as the two-week International Relations course.