What Do You Do With a Degree in Political Science?

Bossman recently resigned to take a position with the governor’s administration, which leaves the staff to wonder what’s next for us. I find myself pondering, as I did both when I finished college and left grad school, what can you do with a degree in political science?

A lot of people seem to think political science is pretty useless, ranking somewhere in status just above English or a general “liberal arts” degree. (No judgment from me on either of those fields, but that’s the common perception.) When you study political science, you’re learning how the world works in a social, political, and economic context. It’s a very broad social science that brings together many different disciplines: sociology, psychology, economics, history, culture, geography, philosophy, statistics, and more. Depending on what kind of focus you’ve had in your studies, you can do all kinds of things with a background in political science. The American Political Science Association has an extensive list of examples, but here are just a few things you (or, well, I!) might be able to do once you finish your degree. As a note, this list is necessarily American-centric, as that is where my experience comes from, but many of the categories are common elsewhere in the world as well.

Campaigns are really the first thing that most people who have not studied political science think of when I mention I’m a political scientist. While there is a whole subfield devoted to campaigns and elections, it’s certainly not the only thing. Still, many students who get into the field do so in the first place because they’re interested in what’s going on around them in the political world. A campaign job seems like a natural next step. These types of campaign work come in a few different general categories.

The first is to work for a single candidate. This type of work is cyclical, starting in the late winter/early spring and going through the election, although presidential campaigns have a much longer cycle nowadays. How many staff and how much they are paid will depend on the district size (what office they’re running for) and the candidate’s ability to raise money. There will nearly always be a campaign manager, but support staff with vary based on those other factors. These types of single-candidate campaign jobs often turn into government jobs down the line if that candidate wins (see below). It is a tough living to move from one candidate to the next as a free agent. Paid campaign positions can sometimes be few and far between, but those jobs are often filled by people who have shown themselves to be reliable volunteers or paid canvassers. The best piece of advice I can give is to not be afraid to start at the bottom and work your way up.

The second category is political party work. The national political parties have staff, as do statewide parties and in some cases even local party committees. Other options for party work include places like the Democratic/Republican Congressional Campaign Committees and their Senate counterparts. Some larger states have similar committees for their state legislatures. These organizations do campaign work pretty much year-round, and they work for many different candidates. The focus and intensity of the organization will depend on the size of the organization. The DCCC, for example, might focus on a dozen or two candidates running key races around the country. A county-level party committee will help all of the candidates running for office locally, from town clerk of a small suburb to congressmember. Again, party organizations are often strapped for cash just like candidates, so volunteers will most surely outnumber paid positions, but they are out there if you work hard and can find them.

Beyond traditional campaigns, consultants have started to play a huge role in the election process. I can’t recommend enough No Place for Amateurs: How Political Consultants are Reshaping American Democracy. It’s probably not the best book if you’re already a seasoned campaign veteran, but it’s a great peek at the man behind the curtain for everyone else. Political consulting firms sell their services to one or more campaigns at a time (depending on how large they are) and move from one campaign to the next. While I mentioned that it’s difficult to go it alone from campaign to campaign, a consulting firm is a great place for someone who’s interested in that kind of lifestyle but who wants a little more security.

There are really two different streams of government jobs to consider. The first is the civil service, which sometimes involves a skills or knowledge test and often involves a list. Civil servants are the backbone of American bureaucracy. These are the people who fill the offices of our federal, state, county, and municipal government departments. The job description can vary wildly depending in which department you work. Have a problem with an unemployment claim? That’s a civil servant who will help you out. Drive over a bridge every day? That’s a civil servant making sure it’s safe. Etc. They’re based on seniority, so it can sometimes be a tough road when you first get into the department. (Unfortunately, these are the jobs that are being slashed left and right as budgets are cut, and those lowest in seniority are the first to go.) But compared to other types of jobs, especially for a political scientist, these are the most secure and reliable.

The other type of government job where political scientists often find a home is working in the district and central offices of elected officials, or on central staff for legislative bodies. In jobs like these, you usually serve “at the pleasure of” the elected official (or, for central staff, at the pleasure of the speaker/majority leader). You don’t have the security of the civil service, and your job is at risk when the elected official you work for faces election or otherwise leaves office. I could write a whole post about a day or week in the life of a staffer for an elected official, but these are the people who interact with the community, draft legislation, respond to all of those letters and petitions you write, help constituents navigate the bureaucracy when they have trouble, research policy and keep the elected official informed of everything that’s going on.

How does one get a job like that, then, without a civil service test and objective criteria? There are a lot of ways, but the two key pathways are volunteering on campaigns and internships. Since the elected official can essentially hire whoever they want, these jobs tend to be filled by people who know or who can be vouched for. At least three of us on Bossman’s staff at the moment were also interns here when we were students. Other people who’ve interned here or have volunteered on Bossman’s campaign now work in the government offices of other elected officials on the same political team. Though the grunt work of volunteering and internships is hard (and sometimes financially prohibitive), it’s a good inroad to this type of government job.

Sometimes I think lobbyists get a bad rap. These are the folks who hound elected legislators and try to convince them to introduce or vote for certain bills. While lobbying as an industry has taken on enormous power over the years, it’s not always the Big Bads we think of immediately. Big Oil, Big Tobacco, and Big Health Insurance Companies certainly have a strong hand in American politics due to their lobbying efforts. But large and small organizations of all political philosophies and missions also play their part as well. Planned Parenthood, for example, has its own PAC and lobbying arm. Jobs with Justice fights for wage standards and labor safety. Many businesses and non-profits have in-house “government relations” positions, people who serve as liaisons to local, state, and federal government offices. As a lobbyist, you can use your knowledge about how government works to advance a cause you believe in.

Non-governmental organizations can be as big as the United Nation or as small as a local housing organization. Generally, the NGO classification is used for not-for-profit groups that have a social or political end in mind. The large, international ones like the UN or NATO are a natural fit for students in the international relations subfield. Some of the higher-level positions may require an advanced degree, but there are research and administrative jobs that a background in political science can be helpful for.

Our very own ailanthus-altissima regularly writes all about academia, and it’s certainly a common path for students of political science. My brother used to tease me, “You’re going to grad school to learn political science so you can get a job teaching other people political science? What a racket!” Of course, a career as an academic requires much further study in the field of political science. At minimum, you’ll need a master’s degree to be able to adjunct courses. But if you hope to make teaching and researching for a college or university, you will need a PhD, which can be a pretty grueling process. It’s also important to keep in mind that graduate level political science is often quite different from what you might experience in your undergraduate studies. This is particularly true if you have an interest in a subfield that skews heavily toward the quantitative side of things. There is also a gaping chasm between people who study political science and people who practice politics in terms of communication, sharing of ideas, and respect, which is worth bearing in mind if you have an interest in both. I say these things not to scare you away from an academic career in political science, but because they are things I wish someone had told me before I plunged head-first into a graduate program.

“Think tanks” are independent institutions that conduct policy research. These are the organizations you probably hear about on the news. (The Pew Research Center, the Brookings Institute, etc.) They are organizations separate from the government that research major and minor policy issues, publish reports, and recommend action. Think tanks are a bit like academia without the teaching. But also like academia, you will probably need a PhD to advance very far in a think tank, although you may be able to get in on the entry-level with a master’s.

And, well, there’s always… LAW SCHOOL.
I sometimes feel bad for people who genuinely want to be lawyers from the get-go. No, this isn’t an [insert lawyer joke here] crack. Law school seems to be every political science major’s backup plan. I have yet to meet one of us who hasn’t considered it at some point or another along the way. It makes sense, I suppose. We learn about history, how laws are made, how the system works. A career in law seems like it should logically follow. I would caution against going to law school unless you really want to be a lawyer or a job that requires a law degree. (Often, government departments and agencies need people with legal backgrounds. The Federal Elections Commission, for example, is an agency I’d love to work for but always seems to be hiring lawyers and accountants.) As our resident lawyers will tell you, law school will cost you a lot of money, time, and effort, and the job market is saturated once you graduate. Using it as a fallback is not necessarily the wisest decision. That said, a degree in political science isn’t a bad place start if a legal career is something you decide you want.

So what say the rest of you? I know we have a number of political scientists floating around these parts. What type of work do you do? What do you imagine your ideal job to be? To our students of political science, what are your plans when you graduate? Think big!

By BaseballChica03

Political hack. Word nerd. Stays crispy in milk. Oxford Comma user. Blogger since 2001.

8 replies on “What Do You Do With a Degree in Political Science?”

I actually didn’t major in poli sci at undergrad, I majored in history (which I loved). Now I suppose I’m a political scientist, but I’m in England, and so far into the ‘English school’ and the world of discourse that I’d say most American political scientists would think I’m a crackpot (and an innumerate crackpot at that, since I take one look at statistical analysis and burst out laughing). Which is fair enough.

I’ve stayed in academia so far – doing a postdoc now, leading a big collaborative research project – but I think ultimately I’d like to get out and work in a think tank/policy research capacity. I’m continually surprised (in a negative sense) by the gap between academic research and political reality, and I worry that sometimes we academics – at least, those of us who ostensibly work on real-world issues rather than theory – may abstract ourselves into irrelevance.

I did the opposite! Studied political science at undergraduate level, but now you could say I work ‘in history’, as a museum curator (social history)

Naturally there’s a massive overlap between the politics/history disciplines. At the most basic level they can’t be seperated – I’ve always thought of the study of politics as the study of the distribution of power, and history as the study of how that’s working out for everyone.

Last year I completed the academic stage of law school so I guess I am a massive cliche in that respect…

My boyfriend was a poli sci major, intending to go to law school from the get-go. He thinks it prepared him well for law school, and he says he loved his major. I’m from the English camp (and I had no idea it is considered a lowly degree, although I certainly would agree it isn’t useful unless you go to some kind of grad school), intending to go to law school. I took a three-year detour first, into publishing. Now that law school is over (for both of us), I can say I feel I was well-prepared.

As for the cost, effort, and job issues, yeah. We both just graduated and sat for the Bar, and I’m already getting twitchy thinking about how long I’ll be waiting tables until my “real” job comes along, and I was in the top of my class, on law review, and had externships, so compared to many, I’m in an okay position. Still. It’s nerve-wracking.

The only person I know who used law school as his “fallback” is an aspiring actor. I think he’s delusional on all fronts. Don’t go to law school unless you want to be an attorney. Because law school really sucks, and then you graduate, and then it sucks more.

I had no idea it is considered a lowly degree

When I used to tell people what I was studying in undergrad, I got a lot of comments along the lines of, “At least you’re not an English major!” And when my English major friend graduated and couldn’t get a job because of the shitty economy, she would hear, “Well, what do you expect?” I think that even without a graduate degree, a course of study in English prepares you well for a lot of different jobs. You learn how to think critically, write coherently, and read effectively. But for a lot of people I’ve encountered in certain circles, anything that doesn’t have its own clear path to a career (like engineering or “business school” or whatever) is “bad.”

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