What is Political Science All About?
When you think of the term political science, you might think of presidential campaigns, political parties or policy analysis on the evening news. But political science also seeks to analyze and predict critical issues that affect our lives every day, including globalization, terrorism, climate change, civil rights and diplomacy.
Political science broadly refers to the study of governments, public policies and political behavior both in the United States and abroad, according to the American Political Science Association. And a degree in political science can help you develop a wide range of skills you can apply to numerous roles in many different fields.
What is Political Science?
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy reveals that the field of political science is a social science that dates back 2,500 years with the works of Plato and Aristotle, who defined it as the "study of the state" and were interested in the greater good of their citizens.
Dr. Andy Tuholski, an adjunct professor of political science at Southern New Hampshire University, said it’s also a field that evolved with the times. While the traditional definition of political science can be defined as the study of the state and its institutions, modern political scientists have a much broader view. Tuholski said they also look at the impact of race, gender, communication, public opinion and more.
“A political scientist aims to be an inquisitive, objective, fact-based researcher grounded in evidence and reasoning,” he said. “Political scientists can use the results of their research to enhance understanding and raise public awareness of social issues, hoping to influence government action.”
In addition to being inquisitive, other skills political scientists find valuable according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics include:
- Analytics skills
- Communication skills
- Critical-thinking skills
“A political scientist should ideally possess a high degree of intellectual curiosity,” Tuholski said. “Good critical thinking, writing and communication are all highly valued, and different research methods are typically added to one’s knowledge base over time.”
What Does a Political Scientist Study?
Using a variety of tools and methodologies, political scientists examine the processes, systems and political dynamics of countries and regions of the world and how they affect their constituents, according to the American Political Science Association. Some might look at why governments adopt particular policies or what issues drive citizens to vote. Some might develop surveys to predict political opinions or analyze voting trends, while others may focus on statistics to analyze election results, The College Board notes.
Most political scientists in the United States conduct research in one of four areas, according to BLS, including national politics, comparative politics, international relations or political theory. Specific duties can include:
- Researching national political systems or a country’s foreign relations
- Analyzing and evaluating policies or laws
- Predicting future political and social trends
- Collecting and analyzing public opinion surveys
- Tracking current events, political decisions and assess their impact
“Political science also intersects with other fields, including philosophy, sociology, history and psychology, among others,” Tuholski said.
The International Association for Political Science Students describes today’s political scientists as seeing themselves "engaged in revealing the relationships underlying political events and conditions, and from these discoveries, they attempt to construct general principles about the way the world of politics works.” For example, they might evaluate the financial impact of specific policies, such as health care reform, collect data from public opinion surveys to analyze how different subgroups feel about a new law, policy or candidate; or even forecast social trends based on historical data, according to BLS.
Is Political Science a Good Major?
Studying political science develops strong research, writing and analytical skills and opens the door to a diverse number of careers that aren't exclusive to a role in government or politics. The Princeton Review suggests that to be successful in political science, your undergraduate program should emphasize the following knowledge and skills:
- A strong understanding of your audience
- Ability to manage crises and solve problems
- Writing and research skills
- Public speaking and presentation skills
- Proficiency with social media
As an undergraduate, you can expect to take courses in the sub-fields of political science, including American politics, comparative politics, international relations and political theory, in addition to liberal arts courses. These courses focus on political concepts, political behavior, policy issues and structures of government in the United States and across the globe, according to the American Political Science Association.
No matter what area of political science you study, the critical skills you develop in research, analysis and communications can help you succeed both inside and outside the political arena.
“Skills developed in the study of political science are transferable to a variety of career paths,” Tuholski said. “For instance, the ability to read a body of existing literature, understand it, synthesize it, identify gaps and apply that knowledge to present circumstances can make an individual particularly valuable in the marketplace.”
What Can You Do with a Political Science Degree?
A political science degree can open the door to a diverse array of roles that allow you to apply your writing and analytical skills across a wide range of industries. If you are asking yourself, “Is a political science degree worth it?” consider the following potential political science careers:
- Political Scientist – If you're interested in researching political subjects, collecting data or forecasting trends, a career as a political scientist allows you to work in government, education or for a nonprofit organization, according to BLS. Political scientists typically specialize in one of the following areas: national politics, comparative politics, international relations or political theory. They may use both historical documents and quantitative methods to develop theories about voting patterns and political thought, according to BLS. A master's degree or Ph.D. in political science, public administration or a related field may be required for some positions, according to Payscale. The median annual salary for political scientists with graduate degrees was $122,220 in 2019, BLS reports.
- Policy Analyst – Apply your research skills as a policy analyst to evaluate current policies and events using public opinion surveys, economic data and election results. From these sources, policy analysts look to anticipate the effects of new systems, according to BLS. Policy analysts often work directly in government or for non-government organizations that lobby for policy adjustments. Some for-profit companies use policy analysts to help influence political action. Payscale reports that the average salary for policy analysts is $59,312 per year.
- Legislative Assistant – Legislators need help during the law creation process, including appointment setting, research and communications. As a legislative assistant, you would help create and analyze drafts that meet legislative standards, track legislation and conduct research on legislative and policy issues, according to Payscale. A legislative assistant earns an average salary of $40,488 per year, Payscale reports.
- Public Relations Specialist – Public relations specialists manage the public image of businesses, government and nonprofit organizations. Many of them represent special interest groups, associations, or political campaigns. Political science courses place heavy emphasis on developing writing and speaking skills, which is beneficial for success in a public relations role, according to the American Political Science Association. Job duties include responding to information requests from the media, writing speeches, organizing events, building social media campaigns, and analyzing public opinion, according to BLS. The median annual wage for public relations specialists was $61,150 in 2019, BLS reports.
- Market Research Analyst – Winning political campaigns and successful policy decisions rely on good primary and secondary market research. As a market research analyst, you apply math and analytical skills to examine the profitability of a product or service. In politics, you might use market research to help a candidate or campaign shape a strategy. Market research analysts help organizations better understand what products people want, what segment of the population will buy them, and how they should be priced. In addition to collecting data through surveys and opinion polling, market research analysts interpret and forecast data for their organization or clients, according to BLS. The median annual wage for market research analysts was $63,790 in 2019, BLS reports.
While those are some of the most common positions, there are many good fits for people with backgrounds and education in political science. Before entering academia, Tuholski worked as the director of an environmental nonprofit organization.
“A degree in political science can serve as a foundation upon which an individual can aim to work inside or outside of government in careers that involve planning and development, research, campaigns, law, education, public policy, lobbying and advocacy, and administration,” he said.
Krysten Godfrey Maddocks ’11 is a writer and marketing/communication professional. Connect with her on LinkedIn.