Choosing a School for a Political Science Major

Once you’ve settled upon a political science major, it’s time to sit down, think deeply about what you’d like to do with the degree, and begin shopping for schools.

Selecting a school usually boils down to four factors. First, you want to go to the best school you can find—not only for the quality of education you’ll receive, but also because graduating from a top school means you leave backed by a stellar reputation. Where you attended school means something in the workaday world.

Another factor that deserves a high degree of consideration is the specialization you want. While most schools offer a core set of specializations and subspecializations, some schools offer programs that are unique. If you are interested in something that has only recently become a recognized specialty, you’ll need to find a school that will teach the subject.

A third contributing factor is where the school is located. For many determined students, this aspect is minor. They will go to the best school they can get into, and that’s that. For others, though, the choice depends upon a practical component. If you need to remain in-state to keep tuition lower, if you want to be close to home, if you live with your parents and want to remain there in order to save money while in school, or if you’ve got a spouse or children who need to remain where you currently live, the decision to attend a school closer to home might be highly important.

Finally, unless you have won the lottery or come from an affluent family, you, like all students, also must consider cost. Some schools are a lot more expensive than others. Some schools offer specific financial aid in the form of grants, awards, or loans that are school-specific. Some schools are located in more expensive parts of the country. Others are located in an area where you will need to have a car.

Example: Political Science Courses

Example Political Science Majors' Handbook

Keep in mind that it might be possible to attend your dream school, even if the tuition is at the high end and it’s in a part of the country where rent or dorm fees, food, and other living expenses are higher. Before crossing the school you most want to attend off your list, look into grants and student loans, as well as into private scholarship monies. Every year, hundreds of scholarships for high school seniors go unclaimed, simply because the people for whom they were designed didn’t apply.

If you’ve got a family, a job you don’t want to leave, or other circumstances that would make pursuing a political science major at a brick-and-mortar school difficult, if not impossible, remember that in recent years the world of online learning has exploded. There are a number of respected, high-quality programs available where you can earn your degree at your own pace and without leaving your home.

If a political science major is your dream, pursue it. Where there’s a will, there’s always a way to make that dream come true.

Basic Education Required

You know you want to pursue a political science major, but you aren’t sure what is required for admission to such a program. Admission will depend, to some extent, upon the school, as well as upon whether you are looking at earning an undergraduate or a graduate degree.

If you are setting your sights on an undergraduate political science program, you will need at minimum a high school diploma. Alternatively, if you left school prior to graduation, you can take the GED for a high school equivalency. Most colleges and universities require proof that their students have a basic education and value it. In many cases, simply having graduated from high school or passing the GED isn’t sufficient. Since political science graduates are in high demand in both the public and private sectors, most programs have an overabundance of applicants and can afford to be selective. Schools want students who have demonstrated a strong aptitude for learning and who have a background in basic coursework.

If you spent your high school career more focused on partying than on learning, however, don’t despair. Volunteering for public-service work in a number of areas will not only help you gain connections, but you can also ask your supervisors for letters of recommendation; you’ll have a big plus on your resume that students with high grades but no real-world experience won’t have.

In addition to a high school diploma or the equivalent, you’ll need to be fluent in English, as well. High school classes in mathematics, American and world history, American government, and statistics can also help you get into a political science program. If you didn’t take some of these classes in high school, you might want to take them as an undergraduate before declaring a major.

If you are applying to graduate programs, the stakes are higher. It’s likely that a master’s or a Ph.D. program in political science will have far more applicants than it can accept. That means you’ve got to really stand out to be accepted. In addition to solid letters of recommendation by professionals in the field and by your undergraduate professors, you’ll also need to include a powerful writing sample that demonstrates your facility with language and research. Some programs want to see a major written project you completed when working for your political science major, such as a senior thesis, or a master’s thesis if you’re applying to a Ph.D. program. The department will also look at your undergraduate grades and the coursework you’ve taken.

Getting into a good master’s or Ph.D. political science program often means majoring in political science as an undergraduate. This way, you’ve got the basic coursework under your belt, and the department knows they are accepting someone who has not only developed an interest in the field, but who also has a proven record. One more requirement for graduate school is the GRE. Many schools won’t consider LSAT or GMAT scores instead. Spend a good amount of time preparing for the GRE; you’ll need the best score you can get in order to guarantee admission to the political science program of your dreams.

Decide on Career Goals

As with most other fields, a political science degree can be earned at an undergraduate or a graduate level. The basic education required for the type of work you want to pursue, coupled with your degree of interest, your finances, and your available time, will determine what type of degree you pursue. A political science major results most often in careers that have to do with law; journalism; federal, state, or local government; teaching; or the world of business.

Regardless of the type of political science career you set your sights on, plan to take classes that will help you develop writing and speaking skills. Being able to successfully and succinctly make a convincing argument in conversation, in a speech, or in written form is essential to nearly all political science specialties.

Perhaps you want to couple a career in the law with a political science major. Whether you envision yourself in a salaried law-related position with the government, a corporation, a labor or trade union, or another employer, you’ll need to prepare for law school. Twenty-five percent of all political science program graduates continue their education by attending law school. It’s a good idea to take classes in civil liberties, constitutional law, and international law in order to prepare for this next step.

If you’d like to work for the federal government, you’ll need a solid understanding of data analysis as well as the ability to gather and interpret statistics. Understanding the complex relationships between various governmental departments is also important, as is being able to interpret the politics that lie below the surface.

At the state or local level, governments must address issues in consumer protection, soil conservation, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, equal opportunity, water pollution, and public safety: state and local government agencies are always looking for a well-trained political science major. Among the courses such jobs require are studies in American politics, urban politics, and public policy. Consider remaining in school to earn a master’s degree that is related to policy studies.

If reporting political news is your goal, consider coupling a political science degree with a minor in journalism. You’ll need to have a solid understanding of the political arena, especially in the areas in which you intend to specialize.

Love to teach? You might want to consider using your political science education to teach at the high school or college level. If you prefer working with tomorrow’s leaders, you might study American government in depth and combine it with American and world history classes. If you would like to establish yourself in an administrative public school position, you’ll be required to have a master’s degree as well as teaching certification and, in most cases, a minimum of three years of classroom experience. If you’ve set your sights on teaching at the university level, you should look into Ph.D. programs; teaching at the graduate level will absolutely require a Ph.D., and undergraduate programs that don’t require one will still prefer it. A Ph.D. is also generally required for jobs in which you’ll conduct research. Generally, admission to a doctoral political science program depends upon graduation from a political science bachelor’s program. As an undergraduate, you should take classes in statistics and math, economics, and computer studies. Facility with one or more foreign languages may not be a prerequisite, but it is highly desirable.

About 30% of political science program graduates find jobs in the world of business, in fields such as advertising, marketing, public relations, personnel, management training, and finance. Serious studies in international and comparative politics are required for many of these jobs. Additionally, facility with statistical analysis, basic math and economics, and computers is required for many business-related political science jobs.

Online vs. Traditional Learning Courses Available

Once you’ve decided to become a political science major, you’ll want to consider whether you’ll find greater benefit from studying in face-to-face classes at a brick-and-mortar school or from taking classes virtually through a distance learning program.

Both options have pluses and minuses. To a certain degree, how successful you will be in a virtual or physical classroom depends upon how you learn. Perhaps you are the type of student who needs help keeping on- task. You know you don’t budget your time in the most advantageous way because there are so many distractions in your life. If so, it’s highly unlikely you’ll succeed in a distance learning classroom that doesn’t have regular and required meetings.

On the other hand, distance learning political science programs can be the answer for mature students who work well independently and need flexibility in their schedules. Perhaps you want to study in a program that is far from home, but you don’t want to leave home. Maybe you’ve found a program that’s closer, but the rising cost of gas or your very limited free time is a concern. In these cases, a distance learning program might be the right fit. You can attend a school several states away or in the next town without leaving the house. If you’ve got a job you can’t afford to give up, or if you’re a parent to younger children who need your attention for a significant part of the day, online learning might be right for you. Look into programs that allow you to learn at your own pace, completing assignments when you can. It might take longer to earn a political science degree in this way, but you’ll do it without sacrificing a job you love or need, or the well-being of your family. And, after all, getting there eventually is much better than not getting there at all, isn’t it?

There are, however, some advantages to studying at a traditional school. Some people thrive in a classroom environment. And there are distinct advantages to getting to know your professor. For one thing, an instructor who knows you will be able to write a stronger letter of recommendation if you decide to pursue a master’s or Ph.D. He or she might also prove to be an invaluable mentor who can both guide your academic studies and help you get a job later. An instructor who sees you a few times a week is also more available to answer your questions as they arise.

Another advantage to attending classes at a brick-and-mortar school is the presence of other students. If you are a highly social individual or if you learn best with a study group, then online learning might not be the best choice for you. Consider, too, that your fellow students are also going to pursue careers in the field of political science. They won’t just be schools friends; some will turn into lifelong professional connections. This is much less likely to happen with schoolmates you meet online.

B.A. Degree

A political science Bachelor of Arts degree, also called a B.A. degree, is an undergraduate liberal arts degree. Most undergraduate programs take four years of full-time study to complete, and this is no exception. Many students begin their undergraduate careers by first taking required core classes and then declaring a major.

There are well over a thousand schools throughout the United States that offer political science programs. If you are interested in becoming a political science major, you’ll need to have exemplary communications skills, both in speaking and writing. Taking classes in composition and rhetoric early in your college career is a wise move. You’ll also need to have a good understanding of math and statistics.

As a political science major seeking a B.A. degree, you’ll undertake studies that look at the world from both a scientific and a humanistic perspective. You’ll learn about the systems of political organization both in this country and abroad, and spend time examining the relationships between governments around the world. Political science majors will graduate knowing how to gather and analyze data in order to track cultural and political shifts, migratory patterns, and other sociopolitical data.

Among the courses you will be offered are classes that look at American political thought, Latin American politics, American government, gender politics, American foreign policy, political ideology, the politics of developing countries, Middle East politics, political analysis, community politics, and presidential politics. It’s important for political science majors to have a strong understanding of political history and theory. Expect to study ethics, human rights, and the responsibilities of citizenship. Most schools offer a number of political science specializations, such as American government, American politics, population studies, and International politics.

Some political science students combine their major with a minor in a related field. If you have a passion for history, philosophy, economics, sociology, education, or mathematics, consider how these minors can be used to enhance both your studies and your employability upon graduation.

Graduating political science majors have a very wide range of professional directions open to them. A B.A. degree in political science can prepare you for work in public administration, politics, the law, teaching, marketing, public relations, advertising, journalism, intelligence, human resources, lobbying, advocacy, and a host of other jobs.

M.A. Degree

While some professionals are satisfied to earn a bachelor’s degree, you might be more interested in earning a master’s degree in political science. Doing so offers a number of advantages. For one thing, a master’s degree qualifies you for certain types of work that you aren’t sufficiently trained for if you only have a bachelor’s degree. You’re also likely to climb the professional ladder more quickly with a master’s; you’ll know more and be better equipped to take on increasingly complex and specialized tasks. Of course, along with greater responsibility comes a bigger paycheck. Political science graduates who hold a higher degree can earn considerably more than they would if they had received a bachelor’s degree alone. Add to these things the increased respect from coworkers and earning a master’s sounds more and more like a great idea.

Maybe you’ve already got a bachelor’s degree and you’ve been in the workforce for a number of years. You’ve gotten tired of watching others climb past you while you seem to be stuck on the same old rung. The decision might not be easy; returning to school will almost certainly mean taking a temporary cut in income, and you’ll have little free time. But remember that your current employer might contribute to your tuition if a political science master’s degree would benefit the company. You might also find scholarships and grants to help defray the cost. Tightening your belt for one to two years in order to live at a more comfortable level for the rest of your life can be a pretty good trade-off.

Alternatively, perhaps you’re currently working on your undergraduate political science major and are considering going directly into a master’s program. This, too, can be a great plan. You’ll enter the field at a higher level from the get-go, and you’ll gain both confidence and experience by spending another one to two years in school.

A master’s program will be intense, as it should be. You’ll eat, drink, and sleep political science, learning the most current, cutting-edge theories, designing your own research, and writing a book-length master’s thesis. If this sounds like an awful lot of work, it is. But when you’ve got that piece of paper framed and on the wall, you’ll look back on these additional years of focused study as among the best years of your life.

What can you do with a master’s? For starters, every occupational door that a bachelor’s in political science can open will swing wider for you with a master’s. If you’re interested in consulting in the business world or the world of politics, a master’s in political science from a top school will pretty much guarantee that some of the hottest firms will compete for you upon graduation. Don’t be surprised if you make your way into a six-figure salary very quickly. One caveat, though: This type of work will require considerable travel, as clients will need you to come to them to help strategize a campaign.

Another use for your master’s degree is to take on a supervisory position at a government agency, where you might be tasked with resolving power struggles, working with your team to develop new approaches and strategies, or making sure that your constituency receives the services they are entitled to.

It’s certainly possible to get a journalism job with a bachelor’s in political science, but a master’s is a better choice if you’re interested in becoming a political analyst; writing about issues of power and politics on the local, state, federal, or global level; or covering international transformations and their inevitable upheavals.

Research Schools Available

If you’re going to put in the time and energy required to earn a political science degree, you want one that’s going to work for you. You want the best education at the best school you can afford. Since there are well over 1,000 schools with political science programs in the United States, how can you decide which one is right for you? You’ll need to research available schools.

Research doesn’t have to be as time-consuming, or as impossible, as it might sound. First, eliminate schools that just won’t work for you. If you need to remain where you currently live because you’ve got kids in school, a spouse who works, or a great job that will let you work part time while you attend school, you can cut 90% of the schools off your list. If your high school grades were only so-so and you haven’t done any volunteering in political science – related programs, you probably need to be realistic about applying to the handful of extremely competitive top schools. Once you’ve figured out the type of specialization you’re most interested in, you can eliminate schools that don’t offer it and focus on those that do.

As you’re doing your research, remember that distance learning opportunities not only exist, but are also the wave of the future. If there’s an excellent school several states away, don’t cross it off your list before checking to see if you can take classes virtually. Also, if attending school full time is going to be tricky, consider both distance learning and programs that will allow you to attend classes on a part-time basis.

One important thing to keep in mind, especially regarding online learning opportunities: Don’t even look at schools that aren’t accredited. There are a number of reasons accreditation is important. First, federal and state grants, scholarships, and loans are only available to students who are attending colleges or universities that have undergone and continue to undergo periodic rigorous evaluations to ensure that the quality of education they provide is both satisfactory and uniform. Accreditation isn’t just a seal of approval a school pays for or earns once and then never again; it’s a voluntary, ongoing process in which the school is assessed to determine if it is meeting its educational goals. You also want an accredited program because, should you decide to transfer to another school or pursue a master’s or doctoral political science degree, a nonaccredited program won’t have transferrable credits. Finally, schools that aren’t accredited might as well be advertising that their graduates have earned a substandard education. A degree from such a school will carry very little weight in the real world, and you might discover that all those years and all that money that you invested in your future have come to nothing.

For accreditation purposes, the United States is divided into six regions, each of which works with an accrediting agency for higher education programs. Do a little online research to determine which agency accredits the schools you’re interested in. While you’re doing this research, you’ll find many links to online programs and schools that are considered by professionals to rank among the very best.

Last Updated: 09/18/2014

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