Anyone can become an elected official if one puts their mind to it, but political careers are much more than a bid for a powerful position. If you graduate with a bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degree in political science but aren’t sure which direction to go, don’t despair. This degree incorporates many valuable skills — such as comparative analysis, policy writing, team-building, and oral presentation — that are applicable in a variety of great careers.
Part I. The Political Industry
Why, in a time when many people are struggling to find work, is the political science job market so healthy? According to Jennifer Segal Diascro, director of institutional programs for the American Political Science Association, “It appears that despite economic difficulties, political science has not experienced the severe supply-and-demand problem that other disciplines, such as history, have faced.”
An Overview of Political Careers
- Law and Law Enforcement: Many political science students decide to go on to law school. Because lawyers work within the confines of political structures and legal institutions have an effect on political power, the two fields are very interconnected. To work in law enforcement, a bachelor’s degree is not always required; in recent years, however, many agencies have adjusted their requirements to emphasize a background in higher education. Those wishing to serve in a private practice, as legal counsel, or on the bench must obtain a law degree and pass the bar exam.
- Government Service: Government structure is at the heart of political science, so it’s no wonder most graduates find jobs in government service. Job titles include urban policy planner, public affairs research analyst, and congressional officer. Internships, volunteer opportunities, and professional connections can help launch a career after obtaining a bachelor’s degree in political science, but some government positions require a master’s degree in public administration or public policy administration.
- Education: Teaching at the university level is great for people who enjoy the research and writing aspects of political science. Many assistant professors simultaneously take graduate courses toward a doctoral degree. Job responsibilities include advising students, lecturing, and implementing lesson plans.
- Communications: If you have a knack for writing and public speaking, then contributing to journals, following campaigns for online and print publications, or participating in talk shows on television and radio are great ways to flex your political knowledge. Some people get into these fields with a bachelor’s degree in political science and related internships, but a degree in journalism or communications can also prove beneficial.
- Business: A background in business administration, statistical analysis or economics can be good a compliment to a political science degree. These people might fare well in consulting, marketing, finance or public relations for nonprofits and corporations.
Salary and Career Outlook
In 2010 the median salary for political scientists was $107,420, which was well above the median salary for all occupations. Even among those on the academic level, the lowest 10% of earners in the industry earned a median salary of $47,810. Those with more education and experience can expect a higher salary.
According to APSA data, 2010 to 2011 marked an 11% increase in the total number of job listings from the previous year. In 2009, during a hiring drought among all professions, there were still more political science jobs than there were applicants.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 8% job growth for political science through 2020; this percentage is slower than the average for all professions. Students who enter this job market should expect some stiff competition as more students set their sights on political careers.
Part II. Top U.S. Political Science Programs
- Accreditation: Accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) Commission on Institutions of Higher Education.
- Specialized Degrees: Undergraduates can choose between the standard political science major or, with approval from the director of undergraduate studies, the interdisciplinary concentration major, with focuses in areas like comparative government or international relations.
- Industry Perception: Not only does Yale employ some of the brightest minds in politics, but its graduates are among the most famous in the political arena. William F. Buckley, Ben Stein, Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton are just some of the great political figures to attend this university.
- Cost: $42,300 annually for undergraduate programs.
- Financial Aid: Of the university’s undergraduates, 56% receive grants and scholarships from Yale sources based on need.
- Accreditation: Accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
- Specialized Degrees: The school’s department of government encompasses a variety of political subjects. Undergraduate students are encouraged to develop their own course plan with help from concentration advisors.
- Industry Perception: Yale’s rival touts an equally well-established political science education administered by brilliant industry experts. With eight U.S. presidents among its alumni, it’s no wonder Harvard was ranked the world’s best school for politics and international studies.
- Cost: $40,866 annually for undergraduate programs.
- Financial Aid: During the 2012 academic year, Harvard allocated about $172 million in need-based scholarships to more than 60% of its undergraduates.
University of California, Berkeley
- Accreditation: Accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
- Specialized Degrees: The undergraduate program places value on teaching diversity in political systems and how political power impacts different cultures. Independent study, internships, and research opportunities are available.
- Industry Perception: Well-known as a hub for political activity, the school received national attention with the Free Speech Movement in 1964. Famous politically oriented alumni include Earl Warren and Nicolle Devenish.
- Cost: $11,767 annually for resident undergraduate programs; $34,645 for nonresident undergraduate programs.
- Financial Aid: About 57% of undergraduates receive need-based financial aid, with the average award around $16,000.
University of Wisconsin at Madison
- Accreditation: Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.
- Specialized Degrees: Undergraduates can focus on areas like political socialization and voting behavior, comparative government and policy and political philosophy, and participate in the Washington DC Internship and Research Program.
- Industry Perception: The school is recognized for placing importance on public service. Famous alumni include Robert C. Bassett and Lawrence Eagleburger
- Cost: $10,384 annually for resident undergraduate programs; $26,634 for non-resident undergraduate programs.
- Financial Aid: Nearly half of full-time undergrads receive need-based aid, with the average award around $6,000.
University of Michigan
- Accreditation: Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.
- Specialized Degrees: Undergrads can choose from focuses in American and world politics to more abstract topics like political theory. Students are urged to participate in internships and service learning to gain practical experience.
- Industry Perception: The school is recognized internationally for research and teaching. Graduate students benefit from the school’s strong job placement record. The diverse faculty consists of accomplished writers, consultants, and political advisors.
- Cost: $13,437 annually for resident undergraduate programs; $39,109 for non-resident undergraduate programs.
- Financial Aid: The average need-based scholarship or grant award is $12,188 going to 47.5% of full-time undergraduate students.
University of Virginia
- Accreditation: Accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
- Specialized Degrees: Government and foreign affairs are popular majors at this school. Highly motivated and interested students can enroll in the Distinguished Majors Program, which includes an extra upper-level course, senior thesis, and seminars.
- Industry Perception: The school was founded by Thomas Jefferson with the goal of preparing students for a life in politics. Famous alumni include Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy, Thurgood Marshall, Jr., Larry Sabato, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr.
- Cost: $12,006 annually for resident undergraduate programs; $38,018 for nonresident undergraduate programs.
- Financial Aid: The average need-based scholarship or grant award is $17,008.
Part III. Launching a Political Career
Be willing to take on jobs that aren’t a perfect match. They might surprise you, and, at the very least, they are stepping stones to your dream job. Tailor your cover letter and résumé to your desired career and don’t discount the importance of networking.
Organizing the Job Search
- Packaging Yourself: Aside from having a thoughtfully written cover letter and résumé, prospective employees should have a 30-second “elevator pitch” prepared. It’s true that you only have one chance to make a first impression, and you never know when an opportunity will present itself. Knowing exactly what you bring to the table and articulating this message to others will help you land the job.
- Internships and Volunteer Opportunities: Volunteering and interning is a great way to try on different career hats without making a big commitment. These positions will also help you network, test drive your elevator pitch, and pick up new skills. The Fund for American Studies, Idealist, and The Washington Center are great places to get started.
5 Tips From Political Insiders
- You can find jobs, but you are going to have to think out of the box. Work for a couple different law firms and I strongly suggest that you go into not one but multiple internship programs before you go to law school and during law school. – Linda Bauermeister, attorney and partner at Barber and Bauermeister
- Create a three-to-five year plan, and think about how what you are doing today will help you get to the next step in fulfilling that plan.The focus of the plan can shift, but having one helps to keep you focused on always moving forward—wherever that leads you. – Lawrence Kaufman, political science graduate and owner of a New York-based real estate advisory firm
- Promotions, hefty salaries and job titles don’t happen overnight. Be a workhorse and be willing to do everything asked of you (no matter how trivial). You might seem like a low man on the totem poll, but keep in mind that everyone has been there before. – Michael Marcus, political science graduate working in marketing and advertising for ESPN Digital Media
- I would absolutely say that the possibilities with a politics degree are pretty far reaching. I know I work for a think tank now, but that certainly wasn’t my intention when I graduated. The reality is that there is a whole host of really cool jobs out there which you don’t realise even exist. – Jenna Collins, networks manager at the think tank New Local Government Network
- Cheap talk is ineffective. Build relationships with political scientists in and outside your university. Attend conferences. Submit a side paper to a political science field journal. Take politics grad classes for credit. Have your advisors write tailored letters, and contact their friends in political science departments. – Chris Blattman, assistant professor of Political Science & International and Public Affairs at Columbia University
Political Science: A Customizable Career
With so many opportunities available for political science graduates, careers are practically customizable. This is a field that can change with your interests, leading to lifelong job satisfaction. In the end, if you decide a political career just isn’t right for you, the skills you acquired along the way will help you find success in a wide range of alternative fields, including public administration, business, law, international development, or education.