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Straight talk on Sciences Po?
November 7, 2011 3:20 PM   Subscribe

Can anyone give me some straight talk on Sciences Po, otherwise known as l'Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris? It's quite expensive and I don't know that I could get in, but on the other hand, it could be an awesome opportunity.

I'm a dual US/EU citizen currently living and working in southern France. I've been thinking hard about it for almost two years now, and I still can't help wanting to work on the city/regional level, in public policy. (Social justice, idealistic white girl from a low-income family, etc.) I prefer to to continue to make my life in France for as long as that is viable, so I'm left considering my options in the French higher education system. Sciences Po de Paris is almost the only school of political science that offers the field of study I want, and is certainly the most reputable. Unlike most applicants to ScPo, it is no longer my goal to work for the United Nations or become a high-level EU official of awesome--I couldn't get a position like that, for one thing, and for another, urban/regional management interests me more (especially transportation and sustainable development).

However, there's an excellent chance that even if I were accepted to ScPo, and to the program I want (Stratégies Territoriales et Urbaines--Regional and Urban Studies/Management)--I would wind up paying a hefty sum, at least for the first year (13.000 euros). It would also of course mean living in Paris, which for me would mean a chambre de bonne, a steady diet of ramen noodles and probable social rejection. Opinions on the value of a ScPo degree vary wildly based on what I've read and heard so far: "ScPo graduates are the elite of France! Their job prospects are endless!" "It's just a school for the children of rich Parisians to polish their credentials. If your name isn't Fancy du Fancypants, forget it." "It's the Harvard of France!! Do whatever it takes to go there (but you probably can't)!!"

I realize this is a highly specific and in many ways subjective question, but can any of the wise, down-to-earth denizens of MeFi help me out here? Is applying to ScPo, let alone paying for it, worth the effort? Or should I just disregard criticism of the French public university system, and enroll at Université de Paris Number Umpteen? I also realize this is yet another "confused twentysomething" post, so I would be very grateful to anyone patient enough to read and give some feedback. Thank you.

(Coldly practical shut-downs of my intended field are also welcome, but I have to admit: I know I sound like a whiny kid, but given the continuing meltdown of almost every sector...I'm kind of at my wits' end as far as practical career choices.)

Brief background in case anyone finds it useful: BA in History (minors EU studies and music) , University of Washington (Seattle), June 2011. 3.7 cumulative (higher in-major, blah blah). Senior thesis, French/English research, 3.9 and positive feedback from advisor, respected in the field (not OMGSOFAMOUS, but well-respected). No honors because missed required class while on independent study-abroad in France. French language test results sufficient for admission. Currently teaching English in a French high school (teaching program selective, but not like the Peace Corps or anything). Obvious missing aspect is related internship, which I realize is crucial for a) knowing whether I actually want to do this sort of work and b) applying to school, but at 6 months out of undergrad, I already feel like I'm losing time and just need to get my @ss into a profession already--whether or not I ultimately do it by going to ScPo.
posted by peakes to Education (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Are you sure ScPo is expensive? I thought French students admitted to les grandees écoles were paid a salary for their studies, well certainly that holds for ENS and surely for EP too. Are you perhaps not French enough for grandees écoles tuition and student salary?

If you wish to do politics or such in France, or Europe, then attending ScPo sounds like an enormous asset, although yeah you might need to work in Belgium to pay it off. We aren't talking about some U.S. state mega-university that charges Ivy lead prices despite not being anywhere near Ivy league, nor even an ordinary French university. Sciences Po is the real deal. If you don't get in, then your problem has been solved for you. :) Try the ENS too if it makes any sense with your background.

If you don't get in, but end up attending a university with a good political science program in another European country, and you are not a French national, then you've some chance to spend one year at ScPo via Erasmus, I think. If you did well that year, you could always brag about your ScPo grade on your French resume.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:42 PM on November 7, 2011

Imho, you should take advantage of the essentially free university education in some European country, not just jump into a profession, well unless you really like one. I suppose you might not speak the language of the countries that'll offer you free tuition, but I know various people who've attended university in a foreign language, including some Americans, it kills your social life but hey.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:51 PM on November 7, 2011

Is your "tax residence" in the EU? If it's not, wait to apply until it is. According to this, it's a sliding fee scale based on your income. Do everything you can ahead of time to master the areas of French you'll use, if you haven't already. I'd assume there is a fair amount of social sciences and other academic jargon used there. Bonne chance!
posted by mareli at 5:21 PM on November 7, 2011

Thanks to everyone for their responses, I do appreciate it.

jeffburdges, in terms of whether ScPo is really expensive, mareli asks the right question--it depends on my tax residence. (As far as I know, the only Grande École whose students are paid is the Polytechnique. :) I didn't want to babble about it in the question itself, but my situation is ambiguous--one set of government rules says that EU nationals who have previously held a "real" job (i.e., one with a contract--my teaching job counts, I think) in France are eligible at least for tuition remission, while a different set says that's it's based only on years of residency--in which case I have another year to go.

But (also @jeffburdges) thank you for the reminder about being careful re: trying to just jump into a profession, and the existence of *other* EU universities (sometimes Belgian schools only require French and English, rather than Flemish in addition, so I could perhaps look there--but without Flemish getting a student job might be tough :D).

Thanks again for your replies!
posted by peakes at 11:42 PM on November 7, 2011

eligible at least for tuition remission

In case anyone wanders by later and sees this, I should clarify that that's based on income, not just previously having held a job.
posted by peakes at 2:06 AM on November 8, 2011

This is a good question but I'm not sure you're asking it in the right place. On the other hand, I'm not entirely sure there is a right place to ask it.

Outside France, Sciences Po is one of the relatively small number of French institutions to have serious name recognition. This means that a master's from Sciences Po might be more useful than a master's from most (non-UK) European universities for someone applying to, say, a highly regarded PhD program in an American university. But you're interested in doing a professional master's and taking it onto the job market. An employer in London or Milan might or might not have heard of Sciences Po, but they'd probably take a master's from another French university at face value too--in the same way that a British employer might go 'Ooh, Harvard!' if they saw a job application with a BA from Harvard, but would probably also go 'BA, University of Washington, Seattle? Okay fine' on reading yours. And in any case, you're planning to stick around in France.

Inside France, Sciences Po polarizes opinion (to put it mildly). This, as you've observed, makes it hard to get useful advice about whether it's especially worthwhile going there. (I know a few people who have, and I know one or two people who've taught there, but that's all on the more strictly academic side.) What you could try and do, perhaps, is identify some places where you'd like to work afterwards and see if you can find out what they think. It's worth taking a bit of time over this, especially if you might end up committing yourself to a €13,000 fee. If you discover that there's a perfectly serviceable Master 1 et 2 at Rennes or Bordeaux or Paris 8 that costs €250 a year and has a good reputation among employers (and whose graduates get jobs because they've worked hard, not because their dad's the minister), that might suit you better.

I'm not sure if that's telling you anything you don't already know.

In any case, make sure you get assistance with your accommodation from the CAF wherever you go if at all possible. (Unbelievably, the CAF website is 'en maintenance' right now, otherwise I'd point you towards a link.) Also see what you can get out of CROUS.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 4:37 PM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Okay, some more information about Sc Po and alternatives, from a more informed source than me:

A Sciences Po qualification does indeed open doors, especially in the administration: L' "étiquette sc po" en France fait des jaloux! But it's not the only game in town.

The Institut d'urbanisme de Paris apparently has a very good and widely 'recognized' Transports specialisation. The institute has good profs and good teaching, and has both 'research' and 'professional' Master's programs (with a very active research team). It's linked to Paris XII. Website.

The Ecole nationale des Ponts et chaussées has an extremely highly-regarded Master's degree in Aménagement et Maîtrise d'Ouvrage Urbaine with good profs and a long work placement, and apparently also a good transport Master's. However, it's out in Marne-la-Vallée.

Also in Marne-la-Vallée is the Institut français d'urbanisme, which is certainly highly regarded on the academic side (and seems to run professional Master's programs too).

The diploma in Techniques de l'urbanisme, de l'aménagement et du paysage at Paris 8 is very practically oriented. This one is unusual in that it is 'payante' (though €6,000 is rather less than €13,000); it also includes training for the concours you'd need to sit to get a job in the fonction publique.

There are also good programs at Lyon (though more on the urban sociology/anthropology side) and Paris 1 (more on the historical side).

I hope this is useful. Drop me a memail if you'd like to be put in touch with my ahem native informant--she'd be happy to help.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 3:40 AM on November 11, 2011

I apologize for the delayed response on this--for some reason I couldn't see anything in "recent activity" for about a month, and now I come back to see new replies! Thank you again to everyone for giving such serious, helpful feedback; it's been a lifesaver!!
posted by peakes at 5:23 AM on December 18, 2011

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