Political science is an academic discipline that examines government systems, structures, and activities. As one of the social sciences, poli sci focuses on the role of politics and government as they relate to society as a whole. Political science has been studied for centuries, and today this multidisciplinary field incorporates elements of history, law, criminal justice, economics, sociology, geography, anthropology, and philosophy.
Social sciences (including political science) represent one of the most popular degree pathways for today’s students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), roughly 173,000 undergraduates earned a degree in the social sciences during the 2013-14 academic year, making it the third most popular broad academic category behind business and health. Political science degree-holders also often pursue careers with higher-than-average salaries. According to a recent poll by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, those holding a political science degree earn a median annual income of $64,000 — second among all social science majors behind economics.
If you’re interested in pursuing a political science degree, read on. This article will explore jobs for political science majors and the various specializations you can choose from while completing your degree. Our goal is to create a comprehensive resource to help you decide if political science is the right major for you.
What is a Political Science Degree?
Political science programs are designed to prepare students for a range of careers in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. General political science majors are common, but many poli sci students concentrate their coursework in niche areas of the field. Throughout these programs, students build their skills in writing, communication, group project work, and data analysis. Below you’ll find a detailed description of what to expect in a poli sci bachelor’s degree program, as well as a few specializations students commonly earn with this major.
The Bachelor’s in Political Science
Undergraduates who major in political science focus their studies in four core areas of the field: U.S. politics, international relations, comparative politics, and political theory. Coursework emphasizes technical terminology, historical case-studies, and contemporary issues related to law and policy. Rhetoric is another key component of political science; students learn how to analyze different political problems and respond with persuasive, evidence-based arguments. By the time a student completes the required coursework for a political science bachelor’s degree, they will have a thorough understanding of global government systems, different political theory models, and various issues impacting domestic and international politics.
Internships are widely available for political science majors at government offices, law firms, law enforcement agencies, and other public sector institutions, as well as think tanks, policy offices, and other private and nonprofit organizations. Additionally, many students focus on specific subdivisions of political science during their final two years of study in order to earn a specialized degree; others choose to double-major, pairing their political science degree with a related field, such as history, economics, or philosophy.
In addition to required coursework, many colleges and universities require political science students to earn a specialization for their major. Specializations generally entail at least five to seven courses in a particular field, and may also include other elements, such as a capstone project or an internship. Some specializations are grounded in fieldwork and government practice; others rely more on political theory and philosophy. You’ll find details on some common political science degree specializations in the table below.
- Comparative Politics
This branch of political science is grounded in history, geography, and anthropology. Comparative politics courses look at the different cultural and social factors that influence politics around the world. While international relations looks at the relationships between different countries, comparative politics examines the political inner-workings of individual countries. Comparative politics experts, often called comparativists, often concentrate their work within individual regions of the world linked by language, religion, and other commonalities, such as Latin America or the Middle East.
This theory-based social science plays a major role in many different political science careers. Economics explores various theories and strategies related to money management, finance, and the distribution of different resources. Economics is generally divided into two subdivisions: macroeconomics, the study of national economies and their monetary systems, and microeconomics, a field focused on the practices of individual households and organizations. In addition to specialization, economics and political science are a common double-major pairing.
- Environmental Politics and Policy
In recent years, the field of political science has shifted its attention toward issues related to environmental health, such as climate change, pollution, and deforestation. Environmental politics and policy is a suitable specialization for students who wish to pursue careers in environmental law, policy making, activism, and advocacy. Courses cover comparative politics to examine environmental standards and practices around the world, along with strategies for analyzing, interpreting, and arguing about data pertaining to the natural world.
- International Relations
International relations is a broad field dedicated to studying the relationships between different countries, as well as the different socio-economic factors that influence these interactions. Courses often focus on case-studies related to wars, alliances, trade agreements, and other historical events, along with pressing global issues. Subdivisions of the international relations specialization include global economics, international law, and international security.
- Political Theory
The field covers various principles, worldwide trends, and arguments about governance, ethics, law, policy, and civic responsibility. Courses span thousands of years, from philosophers of ancient times to contemporary theorists and rhetoricians. Political theory is often tied to comparative politics, since both disciplines emphasize the political importance of history, geography, and socioeconomic factors.
Meet a Political Science Major
Michael J. MontgomeryMontgomery Consulting
Michael J. Montgomery operates a metro Detroit-based fundraising and nonprofit management consulting firm, Montgomery Consulting, and has also taught in the MBA program Lawrence Technological University and in the MPA program at Oakland University. As a consultant, he has worked on more than $1 billion in campaign and project activities, including some of the Midwest’s most challenging efforts. At the start of his career, Mike was a U.S. diplomat specializing in economic and commercial affairs and later moved into economic development, which remains a secondary area of practice for Montgomery Consulting. He holds an MA from the University of Michigan and an AB from Columbia University, both in political science.
What types of skills do students develop or build upon in a strong political science program?
Political science not only helps students to develop their reasoning and writing skills, it gives them tools with which better understand human motivations and behaviors. A strong undergraduate program, or almost any grad political science program, also helps students develop a facility for working with data that they can apply in many different fields. In fact, I’ve probably done more economic and demographic analysis since leaving grad school than political science per se.
What was the job search like after earning your MA in political science? How did you end up where you are today?
Actually, I got an offer and then had to hurry-up, write a thesis, and complete my degree before reporting to DC to start work. I had passed the Foreign Service a couple years earlier and my clearance finally came through in the summer of 1983 along with three State Department job offers — admin officer, consular officer, or economic/commercial officer. I asked about the political officer program (after all, I was a political scientist) but — with a very quantitative political science background from the University of Michigan — I was told to just go ahead and take the econ officer offer. So, that is what I did.
Going to State as an econ officer was the best thing I could have done. After a series of economics jobs in DC (in East-West Trade, the Office of Business Practices, and the Office of the Assistant Secretary), I returned to Michigan and was seen as qualified to work in local economic development even as I continued to work toward my PhD (I never finished). I also taught political science courses at some small four-year and community colleges.
The time I spent working in local economic development, however, really ended up being the gateway to my current career. My practice began as an economic development strategy consultancy working with utility companies, local communities, a foundation, state agencies, and (as a subcontractor) the federal government. Over time, however, my firm evolved toward its primary current focus on fundraising and nonprofit management. (We still do some work with local economic development agencies but not much.)
What types of people excel in a political science program?
Political scientists are pretty much all insightful, analytical, and articulate.
Two kinds people succeed in political science programs…
The first are people who are disciplined, patient, and good at seeking out mentors and establishing positive collegial relationships with faculty members — these are the people who finish degrees, get academic jobs, and become university faculty members and scholars. I was not one of them.
The second kind are more self-directed people who view study in political science as a form of broadly-applicable social science training that they can use outside academia and in a variety of fields of work. This second group is as likely as the first to complete master’s-level degrees but then complete PhDs only very slowly or, as in my case, never complete. We are the so-called “ABDs” of the world.
Both types are successful in the sense that they their political science training to build positive, sustainable careers that suit their personalities.
What advice would you give to undergrad students who are considering a graduate degree in this field?
Go to the best, most demanding program that you get into, even if you have to knock down the door to get admitted. In my case, I had to talk my way into UM and did not become a full-status student of the Department of Political Science until after I had successfully completed a first semester as a non-degree student.
What additional advice would you give to a student considering a career in political science?
Students should keep in mind that political science is great training but, outside academia and government, is unfortunately not always well-understood or as highly-valued as it probably should be. As a result, those seeking to go to work with less than the PhD may encounter some initial difficulties and could have real trouble getting a first job. In that regard, an MBA or MPA might be a safer bet on the front end than an MA or MS in political science. But, once they get a foot in the door, political scientists are perfectly well-equipped to make very successful careers in a wide range of governmental, nonprofit, and business organizations.
Job Skills Developed within a Political Science Degree
The best political science programs equip students with the skills needed to succeed in the job market. Poli sci majors master these competencies through course readings, written assignments, group presentations, and internship courses. The table below lists some of the core skills that political science students will learn over the course of a four-year bachelor’s degree program. Candidates who demonstrate these skills can often find relevant work at government offices, law firms, nonprofit organizations, and other organizations that commonly employ political science degree-holders.
- Analytical Thinking
Like other liberal arts majors, political science emphasizes the importance of analytical skills. Throughout a four-year program, political science majors will learn various methods and strategies for analyzing different factors impacting politics and government around the world. Political theory and comparative politics are particularly analysis-driven fields; students taking courses in these subjects must carefully examine historical events and texts for patterns and trends, and then use their findings to form arguments that pertain to contemporary society.
Strong communication is fundamental to careers in law, policy, public relations, and other fields that draw candidates with political science degrees. Poli sci programs often revolve around group presentations, classroom discussions, and other assignments that require students to interact and collaborate with one another. These activities help students boost their oral communication and interpersonal effectiveness skills, which are highly valued in any workplace with a team-oriented dynamic. Additionally, political science majors will be required to submit several research papers; many programs also require a final capstone project. Graduates are typically adept at communicating ideas and arguments in writing.
- Decision Making
Politics and government revolve around critical decisions that hold great influence over community development, resource management and public interests. Students who major in political science will learn how decisions are made at the local and national levels, as well as some of the guiding principles and ideologies that shape these decisions. Poli sci majors who specialize in political theory or philosophy are particularly keen decision-makers, since their studies focus on using established guidelines in order to determine solutions for common problems. Decision-making is also closely linked to communication and interpersonal effectiveness, so political science students with a background in group work tend to excel in decision-oriented roles.
- Problem Solving
Political science is, at its core, the study of how individuals and governments solve problems. Lawmakers and policy writers work to enact legislative solutions for different problems, while government agencies and departments are created to mitigate the threat of different problems in public education, land management, transportation, and other important aspects of modern society. Political science bachelor’s degree programs teach students how to address contemporary issues by exposing them to historical case-studies; by studying the past, students learn how to frame discussions about the present. Political science programs also examine the legality and ethics of strategies used to solve problems in today’s geopolitical climate.
- Research Skills
A thorough understanding of history and legal precedent is required for crafting effective political decisions and arguments. Liberal arts education is grounded in academic research, and political science majors should expect to spend a lot of time in the library. Virtually every political science course will require students to craft at least one written research paper, and many also include research-based group presentations. In addition to classroom coursework, political science students often learn how to conduct and analyze research as part of an internship or other practicum-based course.
What are the Best Careers for Political Science Majors?
Today’s political science majors can choose from hundreds of different career paths, both directly and indirectly related to their undergraduate studies. Contrary to the widespread notion that social sciences and other liberal arts majors are impractical, poli sci graduates are actually quite employable in a variety of fields. Below, we have highlighted some of the most common political science jobs — as well as a few less traditional career choices for candidates with a background in political and government studies.
Common Career Paths
Political science bachelor’s degree programs are designed to prepare students for careers in fields like government, law, economics, and public advocacy. Although a master’s degree or PhD will be required for some managerial positions, graduates with a bachelor’s degree can often obtain entry-level jobs. Students can boost their professional standing while still in school by completing an internship or earning a specialized degree. The following table includes some of the most common career paths for students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
A four-year political science program can be an effective first step toward becoming a lawyer, but more education is required; in order to practice as a lawyer, you must complete an accredited law school program and pass your state’s bar exam. However, there are entry-level legal professions available to poli sci majors. Paralegals and legal assistants, for example, are hired by law firms to research various laws and policies, and then write reports about their findings that can be used for court proceedings. Another option is a role as an arbitrator, mediator, or conciliator. These professionals work with disputing individuals or groups and help them arrive at viable solutions. All of these positions are generally available to candidates with a bachelor’s degree in law or a related field, such as political science.
- Social and Community Service Management
These professionals organize and coordinate social service programs, community service projects, and other endeavors designed to augment their community. They must work alongside various community leaders and members in order to spread their message and impact to as many people as possible. Day-to-day duties include statistical analysis, budget management, and proposal writing. While a master’s degree is preferred for top-level positions in social and community service management, candidates can usually find entry-level roles with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a background in fields such as policy, economics, and project management. In addition to internships, political science majors can develop experience in this field by participating in student-led community service programs, campus-based initiatives, and other activities.
- Public Administration and Policy
Public administration and policy is closely connected to the social sciences, since government decisions are often based on different socio-economic factors that affect local communities and nations as a whole. Poli sci majors may be able to find entry-level work in the public administration and policy field, but continued education is usually the best option for this career path. Urban and regional planners, for example, are usually required to have a master’s degree in planning. These individuals analyze market data, calculate budgets, and assess the viability of different civic projects. Sociologists also play a role in public administration and policy by researching the inputs that affect administrative decisions. Most sociologist positions require a master’s degree, though some require a PhD. Political science students who are interested in this career path should focus on administration and policy courses as an undergrad and, if possible, earn a specialized degree that will help them get accepted in a graduate-level program.
- Politics and Government
A four-year bachelor’s program in political science will help you lay the groundwork for a career as a political scientist, though you’ll eventually need a PhD. Political scientists apply the methods and principles they have learned in school to practical problems. Their duties typically include research, statistical analysis, report writing, and forecasting political trends. Some political scientists focus on domestic affairs, while others specialize in international relations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), more than half of the nation’s political scientists are currently employed at federal government offices, and another 23% work in professional, scientific, and technical services.
- Public Relations
Public relations specialists help promote individuals, groups, and products through the media. Some public relations professionals work on a freelance basis and represent a large number of clients, while others dedicate their skills to representing a single individual or organization. Public relations specialists write press releases, arrange interviews, book speaking engagements, and take care of other tasks to create a positive public image for their clients. Many public relations specialists find work with a bachelor’s degree and a background in communication. Similarly, public relations and fundraising managers network with different organizations that support their clients’ causes and help secure financial support for various projects. Although a master’s is often preferred for public relations and fundraising managers, those with a bachelor’s degree and strong communication skills can often land entry-level positions.
Outside-the-Box Career Paths
Due to the multidisciplinary nature of political science, students who earn a bachelor’s degree in this subject are not limited to roles in government and politics. Since these subjects are taught at high schools and postsecondary institutions across the country, many poli sci majors with strong communication skills go on to pursue careers in education. The research-oriented curriculum of most political science programs is also a good fit for fields like journalism and marketing. The following table lists some of the less traditional political science jobs for today’s graduates with a bachelor’s degree in this field.
- Journalism and Writing
Journalists are responsible for researching various topics, interviewing subjects, and writing informative, unbiased articles for public readers. Many journalists specialize in political writing, and this area of expertise — or ‘beat’ — will require a strong expertise in law, policy, government systems, and other political matters. Although this career path has lately been in decline due to stagnating newspaper and magazine sales, many journalists today find work as correspondents for online news sites and blogs. Similar to journalists, writers and authors research different subjects in order to compose books (fiction or nonfiction), plays, scripts, screenplays, and other written works. A bachelor’s degree in political science will provide sufficient foundational knowledge for any aspiring journalist, writer, or author who is interested in writing about politics and government.
- Human Relations
Human resources (or HR) is an organizational discipline dedicated to serving employees of different backgrounds, ensuring safe workplace conditions, and creating a cohesive, productive professional environment for all employees. HR and political science both draw on principles of sociology to improve work environments. There are many different subfields within HR. HR specialists specialize in screening, interviewing, and hiring job candidates for various positions at their organization. Another branch of HR is compensation and benefits management; these employees oversee worker pay, 401K, and employee-issued insurance coverage. HR managers typically lead human resources teams, and often meet with top management executives to provide updates and offer advice in different areas. Other positions work alongside HR personnel. Management analysts, for example, explore strategies for increasing organizational efficiency and optimizing logistics.
The field of marketing is concentrated in demographic research, statistical analysis, and public relations — all of which are key to political science. One suitable career job for poli sci majors is market research analyst. These employees are responsible for collecting data on consumers, products, and economic conditions that can be used to effectively market products and services. They are also expected to compile their findings into thorough, user-friendly written reports. Advertising, promotions, and marketing managers oversee marketing programs in terms of budget, personnel, and public delivery. These managers must be effective communicators, since they must often meet with members of other departments at their firm, including art, design, sales, and finance. Furthermore, experts project that jobs in marketing will grow significantly over the next decade.
- Social Services
Social services are in place to help individuals and families who struggle in certain areas, such as money management, employment, or substance abuse. Jobs in social service require a keen knowledge of the inner workings of government bureaucracy. Social work is a common career path for individuals who want to be involved in social service. In addition to helping clients, social workers often research and advocate for social programs like food stamps and child welfare programs. Poli sci majors with a background in law, policy, and community service often make strong candidates for social worker roles. Nearly 30% of today’s social workers are employed at schools, hospitals, and other facilities maintained by state or local governments. The BLS projects positions in social work to climb 12% between 2014 and 2024.
From high school civics classes to upper-level political theory courses in master’s and PhD programs, skilled educators teach students about politics and government. A bachelor’s degree in political science is the first step toward a teaching career in this field, though you’ll eventually need a master’s degree in politics, government, or a related field as well. Once students have completed their master’s degree requirements, they are also required to earn licensure in the state where they plan to teach. College professors do not need to earn licensure; however, most post secondary teaching positions require a PhD or doctoral credential.
- American Political Science Association: Considered the world’s leading professional organization for political scientists, the APSA was founded in 1903 and currently boasts more than 13,000 members in 80 countries.
- International Political Science Association: The Paris-based IPSA was founded by UNESCO in 1949 to build positive relations between different countries and explore solutions to different geopolitical problems. The organization holds an international conference each year in a different country.
- International Association for Political Science Students: The IAPSS is an organization that sponsors conferences, provides networking opportunities, and offers other services geared towards political science college students at all degree levels.
- APSA Job Board: This online employment directory features jobs for political science majors in fields like higher education, foreign affairs, public policy, journalism, and local, state, and federal government offices.
- Political Science Quarterly: PSQ for short, this nonpartisan academic journal covers a range of poli sci topics and boasts an online archive that dates back to the 1880s.
- American Journal of Political Science: Published since 1957, this peer-reviewed quarterly journal is dedicated to advancing the “knowledge and understanding of citizenship, governance, and politics, and to the public value of political science research.”
- American Political Science Review: Published since 1906, APSA’s flagship publication is today edited by four faculty members from the University of North Texas.
- Bipartisan Policy Center: This nonprofit organization hosts a large blog about various U.S. political issues and developments, with an archive that dates back to 2009.
- Politico: This online magazine and news outlet spotlights government agencies, laws, policies, and other aspects of domestic and international politics.