Durham: Chinese Studies, or Combined Honours in Social Sciences?

(43 Posts)
shockthemonkey Tue 02-Aug-16 14:05:03

Hello, this is a question about the relative prestige of these two degrees from Durham. My charge is trying to choose between Combined Honours in Social Sciences (where he would mix History/IR/Econ with Chinese Language), and the Chinese Studies route. He is equally happy with the content of either choice.

He already has his school-leaving qualification, Bac ES from France with International Option, having scored 17.93 out of 20 -- this comes out at over A*AA on Durham's conversion tables.

The entry requirements for Chinese Studies at Durham is AAB, and for Combined Honours in Social Sciences it's A*AA. I am thinking the difference in typical offers reflects a difference in difficulty and it may follow that employers would be more impressed with the Combined Honours... but am I right?

This is a quite ambitious and proud student who is nonetheless quite happy to take the easier route if it leads to the same outcome. (Not workshy, but likes to conserve his efforts!)

I hope someone who knows Durham well, or who is involved in graduate recruitment, can advise. He fancies a career in the diplomatic service.


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shockthemonkey Tue 02-Aug-16 14:08:23

Forgot to mention, he's taking a gap year during which he'll spend five months au-pairing in China.

Also, he took Mandarin as his third foreign language in his Bac and scored 20/20 in his test (which it must be said is relatively basic!). This is not seen as anything like having an A level in Mandarin. It might be like a GCSE at best.

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marialuisa Tue 02-Aug-16 14:53:39

Keep in mind that the AAB entry requirements for the Chinese Studies course reflect the lack of "market" for such programmes rather than academic standards. MFL and area studies degrees in the UK are all struggling to recruit sufficient student numbers to remain viable. The standard offer for Oriental Studies at Oxford is just AAA, for example.

shockthemonkey Tue 02-Aug-16 15:23:24

OK, duly noted though of course I find it a sad state of affairs that MFL in the UK is in such dire straits!

Cambridge will probably be on his list too. We're not holding our breath there... but if he does not get Durham he'd be quite gutted!

Anyone else on the relative standing of the two degrees at Durham?

I'm fighting against a tiny part of me that shrinks from any programme with the word "Studies" in it, for instance...

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Banderchang Tue 02-Aug-16 15:40:48

I work in HE and would say that he can probably make the Combined Honours option into something very like the Chinese Studies option and get the best of both worlds. Looking at the choices you state for his CHSS course, they are predominantly social sciency (IR and Econ), both of which, alongside History, will be very employable. He can probably add in a year abroad if he wants to pursue Chinese in the Combined framework, and it would be worth contacting the director of combined to check whether this is possible.

Chinese studies tends to be a little more arts based (history, literature, language etc) so then he would miss out on those social science options from the combined route.

I'd go for Combined for the flexibility, personally.

whatwouldrondo Tue 02-Aug-16 17:12:24

I am a Chinese Studies Master's graduate. I think your son has to decide whether he wants to specialise in developing an in depth knowledge of China, it's language and culture which does make you marketable to employers but perhaps in a semi vocational sense, though I know of graduates that have gone into all sorts of other areas of graduate employment. However clearly the business employers with global operations, overseas employers (many have ended up working in Asia) charities and development organisations and media would all find the knowledge and skills useful.

I would however say that the Durham course by the look of it seems to be very language focused with history and culture options. Other Chinese Studies courses would offer a much wider chance to study China in terms of things like Economics and International Relations.

The Social Sciences course would offer the chance to study those subjects but with Chinese as an option. I doubt he will emerge with the same language proficiency (and you would need to check what the language courses aim to teach you, gaining the proficiency to read the characters necessary to study Chinese Literature and other sources in Mandarin for academic purposes is very different to being able to conduct a business conversation. ) It won't by the look of it be offering that depth of China or Asia specific study in the history and culture though exposing him to the study of economics and IR in a general sense. There is necessarily a trade off, studying China even if you have lived and worked there is a bit of a road to Damascus since it is really about losing your western perspective and understanding the context of their society and culture. Obviously only specific study gets you along that road.

Both degrees will be marketable to employers though. It has to be about his own focus.

He probably realises learning Chinese is a hard slog, lots of memorising and testing. Sometimes it was only studying the history politics economics and culture that kept me going!

shockthemonkey Tue 02-Aug-16 17:14:45

Thank you very much, Banderchang.

Although Chinese Studies has many module options coming under Econ, History, Pol and IR too, their concentration is, as you point out, more artsy. So if he goes for Chinese Studies I suppose it will look less like a Soc Sci degree than the CHSS will. That's definitely pertinent, thanks.

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shockthemonkey Tue 02-Aug-16 17:18:47

Ah, Ron, cross-posted. Many thanks for that insight. Brilliant to have your view. It will all get digested and disseminated to the candidate.

If you don't mind me asking, Ron, where did you take your degree? You sound a lot like my charge!!! If you enjoyed yours, he should be thinking about putting your alma mater on his list.

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bojorojo Tue 02-Aug-16 22:24:58

This may be a very simplistic response, but I have always felt that a degree with "Studies" in the title is a bit less language focused than one without it. I would imagine Mandarin is the language acquisition course. The entry requirements tell you what you need to know. The higher the grades required, the more sought after the degree.

goodbyestranger Tue 02-Aug-16 22:45:34

The combined honours courses at Durham are a legacy of the old general arts and general science degrees. I've recently had to evaluate a Durham combined honours graduate with a first class degree and a Durham single honours graduate with an upper second and there was no contest - the single honours student won hands down.

marialuisa many humanities subjects at Oxford have a standard offer of AAA and this has nothing to do with a lack of 'market'.

whatwouldrondo Wed 03-Aug-16 09:04:46

I am glad to hear of another China enthusiast!

He will obviously appreciate having studied some Mandarin that studying it in isolation without some "studies" is actually not going to help with his linguistic skills. Learning even a proportion of the 20000 characters without understanding the cultural context would be nigh on impossible. They, and the way that you express yourself verbally and in writing, are rooted in a history, ideologies and culture that are very different to Europe's. Obviously if you study a European MFL you have much more of that context already.

And required grades reflect the demand for the course amongst 18 year olds not the academic prestige / rigour of the course. Many courses punch above their weight in terms of required grades versus the quality of the course. I would say that was particularly true in relation to Chinese Studies as not many 18 year olds have yet developed an enthusiasm for learning about China, a lot of undergrads are either expat or have travelled on gap years etc. as your son plans to do.

If he wants to start on that road to Damascus he could start with the books by Julia Lovell / Frank Dikotter, both are very readable and made it into best seller lists but also very well regarded academically unlike Jung Chang

goodbyestranger Wed 03-Aug-16 10:17:20

Quite ron. The standard offer grades are absolutely not the key to the academic prestige of the course. They don't even necessarily reflect 'competition', certainly not at Oxford - there are very good political reasons for not increasing the level of grades with humanities, to do with access.

whatwouldrondo Wed 03-Aug-16 10:44:27

goodbye Yes, and I think area studies are one of the subjects that have particular issues with access, often pupils without the cultural capital of travel and global awareness will not even think of applying, their awareness will tend to be of "traditional subjects" or the sorts of "studies" offered in some state schools. (That "studies" is by the way not a derogatory reference, subjects like media and film studies are a vital part of the mix of humanities subjects that enable you to access other cultures, and I note that whilst Durham seems to offer a narrow range of modules on China, film studies is, quite rightly, one of them ).

goodbyestranger Wed 03-Aug-16 11:02:44

Film studies are essential to the study of all 'modern' regimes, to an extent. There's an absurd amount of snobbery about these more esoteric courses - how many DC go into law or medicine without thinking whether they're properly engaged with the subject? I expect a far higher proportion than on a Chinese Studies course! With regards to the Durham question in particular I'd say that was an excellent example of demand pushing the standard offer up rather than any acknowledged prestige of the much more generalized course.

shockthemonkey Wed 03-Aug-16 15:02:42

Excellent! I have ordered one Lovell and one Dikkoter, thanks.

I blush to admit I read Wild Swans many years ago. Of all the harrowing stories therein, the thing about the poor sparrows made a lasting impression!

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whatwouldrondo Wed 03-Aug-16 15:13:46

The issue isn't with Wild Swans but more of the rather subjective bitter nature of her historical work especially on Mao.

shockthemonkey Thu 04-Aug-16 18:04:42

Yes OK fair enough, I think I picked up on that at the time. However I was reading it for emotional impact mostly (and if it added to my very basic knowledge of Chinese history in the process, that was secondary).

Her family really really suffered under Mao. The way she had to pretend to weep when his death was announced was very "real" and yet crazy to think you had to put on a show like that!

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whatwouldrondo Thu 04-Aug-16 18:51:55

Yes that was the distinctive thing about the Mao era. He didn't really have an effective mechanism of control in terms of local bureaucracy, no Chinese ruler ever has and they certainly do not now. However he manipulated minds through fear to an extent people were afraid to reveal what was in their minds, far more effective. There was always an enemy to mobilise behind whether it was the enemy without or the enemy within, sat next to you even. That is basically the point of Dikotter's book. It was a very ineffective sort of rule in terms of information flowing upwards and understanding what was happening in the country, all about fear running down and causing utter devastation.

bojorojo Fri 05-Aug-16 13:50:22

"Sought after" equals "Demand". Surely the Mandarin course offers cultural aspects too but probably features stronger language acquisition? Often language courses do not require particularly high grades but are, of course, considered academic. The topics available for study within a language course are very varied and second guessing what might be offered can be misleading. I had no idea my DD would study medieval French - but she did! Who would have predicted that when she was 17?

shockthemonkey Fri 05-Aug-16 14:25:22

We looked closely at the modules already, so no second-guessing as to content. Chinese Studies includes Mandarin language, and quite a lot of literature/film studies combined with Sino-centric history and culture.

Although he is going for Chinese studies in other universities, it is the possibility at Durham to have a wider geographic focus with the CHSS (via the IR modules he'll be taking) that also attracts him. As much as he loves Mandarin, and finds the history and culture fascinating, he wants to work for the Foreign Office one day and thinks being "just" a China specialist might limit his chances of being hired.

I don't know which one would give him stronger language knowledge, since the Mandarin course is going to be just part of a combined degree, whilst the Chinese Studies degree is only partly about language. Any difference will be minimal from my charge's point of view.

A huge thank-you for your contributions, especially our Chinese Studies expert ron grin

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bojorojo Fri 05-Aug-16 15:26:54

I do know of someone who did Chinese and Japanese. Has he thought about combining another subject/language ab initio? This would widen his areas of study away fromjust one language and culture. What do the FO like to see in their recruits? I assume you have checked to see what they want.

whatwouldrondo Fri 05-Aug-16 17:00:23

I hope I have been of help, or are you as fed up of experts as most of the U.K. grin

GypsyFl0ss Sat 06-Aug-16 15:11:56

My DD is about to go into her second year of CHSS at Durham. Last year she did politics, French and ab initio Arabic and will be taking up Persian and dropping French this Autumn. The one thing we perhaps didn't understand last year is that the science/ politics side of CHSS must be 50% of the year's work , so the Arabic and French ended up as 30:20 respectively. She felt that this just wasn't enough French to keep her fluency and so has opted for ab initio Persian instead as a sideline to her Arabic. In hindsight I think she would have applied for CH in arts had she known. She is loving the course though, came out with a first at the end of the year and has her sights on the FO/UN at the end .

shockthemonkey Sat 06-Aug-16 16:16:47

Thanks Floss, very interesting and most useful!

No Ron, not at all fed up of experts -- it's expertise I'm looking for on here!

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GypsyFl0ss Sun 07-Aug-16 12:15:13

Glad it was useful smile The other thing she found complicated was picking the modules to fulfill all subjects and avoid timetable clashes. Some other students she had been chatting to , also doing CHSS, found they couldn't do Arabic for example due to timetable clashes and the need to keep the science / arts ratio right. I know sorting modules is always tricky but the more subjects you have in the mix the more complicated it seems to be.

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