Quora answer: What does it feel like to attend a world-renowned university?

Feb 26 2012

I went to a world renowned university that no one knows about here in the USA.

It is called University of London. But because it is broken up into a number of Colleges all over London, no one quite notices that it is there. And certainly few in the US know it exists, because somehow they think that there is only Oxford and Cambridge that are “world renowned”.

For instance in this list it is broken up http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/world-university-rankings/2010-2011/top-200.html

But actually it is just one big institution http://www.london.ac.uk/colleges_institutes.html

“The University of London is a federal University and is one of the oldest, largest and most diverse universities in the UK. The teaching is carried by the 19 Colleges and Institutes that comprise the University.  When studying with the University you belong to a particular College as well as the University of London itself.” 


“Between the Colleges and Institutes we have over 120,000 students studying over 3700 courses. Not all of our students are actually located in London either: some study at the University of London Institute in Paris or in the Marine Biological station in Millport, Scotland and we have over 50,000 students studying by distance and flexible learning in 180 countries with the University of London International Programmes.”

So hopefully this will establish the University of London as world renowned, well except for those who live in the USA.

Of the schools that make up the University of London I attended the London School of Economics.

The Fulbright Commission states that “The London School of Economics and Political Science is the leading social science institution in the world”

These rankings would be higher I am sure if the various colleges were aggregated. We do not talk about individual colleges in Oxford or Cambridge.

Anyway, what was it like from1973 to 1982?

First of all it is in London which is the Culture capital of the world. So there are lots of cultural things to do there. But the flip side of that is that there is no student life. You only see other students in class. So the real draw of the University of London is in fact the cultural life of London. The school has become much bigger than I was there, but at that time it was almost invisible down an alley way, with fairly old buildings, but famous faculty. The most famous professor I actually had was Gellner who sent his time making fun of Wittgenstein (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Gellner).

If you are a student at one School you can take classes at any of the schools of the University of London so I audited classes at Kings College about Philosophy of Science, the schools speciality when I was there. I arrived just after Lakatos had Feyerabend teaching at the school. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imre_Lakatos; He died the year I arrived.) It was very popular at the school at that time so I oriented my research toward Philosophy of Science even though I was in Sociology, and that was allowed at the school at that time. Basically once you got in you could follow where ever your research took you. I was rare at that time because I was interested in Continental Philosophy and trying to apply it to understand philosophy of science problems. My dissertation was called The Structure of Theoretical Systems in relation to Emergence. (http://archonic.net/disab.html)

Also you could use the libraries at Senate House, University College London, whose philosophy library is incredible. Basically they buy everything published in Philosophy within the commonwealth I believe. And across the street is the British Museum. So I would check philosophy books out of the Senate House library and then go across the street to read them in the British Museum Library, and anything they did not have was available in the British Museum Library. So basically any book was available, and so I dedicated myself to reading what ever fascinated me. Then when I was tired of reading I would go to movies. For instance you could walk across the Waterloo Bridge and go to the National Film Theater across the Thames. And there were myriad other cinemas, playhouses etc that one could pass the time with, and if you were not doing that then there were teashops, and pubs to visit. And just walking though London itself was a fascinating experience because there were people there from all over the world, and the architecture in every part of town was different based on when it was built. At that time there were lots of interesting bookstores and books were fairly cheap, even though they were dear on a students budget. I especially liked going to the various museums over and over to see the new exhibits, but also the permanent displays. In those days you could live in a bedsit for 10 pounds a week. So there was enough money to eat out every night at the myriad restaurants with foods from all over the world and to buy books. I got there before they raised the fees on International students and so I think my tuition was about about 250 pounds per semester, and after three or four years that went down to 10 pounds per semester continuation fees. My fees did not go up even though they raised them on new students so I lucked out on that score.

I went to do a masters. But when I went to my courses they handed out bibliographies of about 300 books for each of four classes. I asked my advisor how I could read 1200 books in a year, and he said that the other students had spent 3 years reading those books, and they were just suppose to brush up and read those that they had not read already. So when I asked how I could do that with only 24 units of Sociology before arriving, my advisor said one path was to try to get into the Ph.D. program because the masters was for those who did not want to go on to a Ph.D. So I transfered to M.Phil, and then to Ph.D. after I produced some papers that was the equivalent to writing a masters, but was just a rite of passage and not a degree. So I went on to do the Ph.D. I made the mistake of not writing anything until the end. And then I wrote too much and had trouble condensing it. Eventually I had to write on a subject that I did not know as well so that I would be limited in what I could write. I had written 1000 pages of working papers when I finally decided I had read enough, and then they asked me to summarize the argument in that, and that was a fairly long outline, and then I was asked to define my terms and I was in the letter C when I realized I would never graduate at this rate, so I picked another subject and wrote my dissertation on that and it passed, not without drama. And then I was done once the External had decided based on my orals that I actually knew what I was talking about. The orals went all over the place, and lasted a long time, several hours, and I was questioned about all kinds of things not even related to my dissertation. I was glad I had spent so much time reading irrelevant material because it allowed me to pass that exam. But when I was finished I asked my main advisor whether it had taken me too long to finish and he said I was about average. I think they had 15 years as the limit at that time and I came in at nine years. After the orals he said now I had a General Education and I could get on with my real studies. I was shocked at that because I thought I had specialized, but rather he saw that as laying the ground work for future research rather than an end point. And it is true I have gone on to do lots more research over the years in many subjects. I had picked a subject that fascinated me. When I read a book I read the things mentioned in that book that fascinated me. So I was always interested in what I was reading, and it took me all over the map in terms of subjects, but that was good because I knew about a lot of different subjects when it came to the wide ranging questions in the orals. Everything was based on the final Dissertation that had been written. No courses were necessary. Mastery of ones field was what was expected.

How to survive a thesis defence
Survive your viva http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2003/sep/16/highereducation.postgraduate

Preparing for the PhD Viva

When I was there I called up Ph.Ds from the USA from interlibrary loan and compared them to the ones I was reading at University of London. There was no comparison. This was extremely sobering to realize the difference between education in the UK and education in America. And I believe that the same kind of disparity exists between Germany and the UK. Defenses are public in Germany. In the UK it is by someone from another University. There is no departmental committee that one has to please. One  never knows who one’s external is going to be.

I did a PhD and did NOT go mad http://public.randomnotes.org/richard/PhDtalk.html
Actually I did go Mad.

How not to get a PhD .. http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2002/nov/08/highereducation.books
I overestimated what it would take and did way more than was necessary in terms of writing, but in terms of the Oral exams I was glad I studied lots of irrelevant subjects.

Chances of getting a PH.D. — PhD ‘failure’ rates revealed

“At LSE, a 45 per cent qualification rate compares to the 67 per cent benchmark.”


Ph.D. Comic



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