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Should You Major in Political Science?

Between election frenzy and protests nationwide, the current moment has inspired many college students to consider a major in political science, also known as “poli sci” in common parlance. As a truly interdisciplinary field that draws from economics, history, philosophy, and many other social sciences, political science is popularly defined as the academic study of power. It reliably places as the #1 major amongst law school applicants every year. 


In this post, we’ll discuss the typical poli sci major experience, some potential career paths, and the best programs for exploring this fascinating and ever-so-relevant field of study. 


Overview of the Political Science Major


At the undergraduate level, political science is commonly divided into the following subfields: 


  • American Politics
  • Comparative Politics
  • International Relations
  • Political Theory 


While the middle two subfields may overlap considerably in topic areas, the primary distinction lies in approach: comparative politics focuses on the domestic and historical politics of specific countries or regions, whereas international relations focuses on the relationships and interactions between sovereign states in a broader regional/global context. Note also that in addition to the above subfields, most schools will offer courses, within-major tracks, or entire subfields of study devoted to quantitative methods (e.g. data science/statistics/programming), political economy, and public policy. 


To fulfill major requirements, students are generally expected to take introductory courses in most subfields in their first two years before specializing in one or two subfields. Coursework in quantitative methods is often required, being a necessity for graduate school or even just a senior honors thesis. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of political science, many schools also offer specific double-majors or carve out special allowances for combining programs of study. Some examples include political psychology, public policy and health, international relations and history, or political theory and philosophy. 


Depending on school size and specific degree requirements, introductory courses can really range in size, but most schools offer (and require!) seminars or tutorials in advanced topics for juniors and seniors. Classes also vary in discussion vs. lecture formats, and while most assignments are individualistic, professors generally attempt to integrate group work into the curriculum or at least may run in-class simulations, which require collaboration and full class participation. 


As might be expected of any social science major, students should expect to do a lot of reading and writing. Weekly readings might include anything from historical texts to journal articles, and writing assignments also span the gamut, from expository essays to policy analyses to publication-ready editorials. Formal exams are generally fewer but not uncommon, typically involving significant essay responses within. Many schools will also require significant research essays and projects throughout the course of studies, especially in the senior year to qualify for departmental honors.  


Should You Major in Political Science?


Here are some questions that may be helpful to consider: 


  • Do I like to stay on top of the news cycle?
  • Am I interested in any of the above subfields to the degree that I would be willing to spend 6+ hours weekly on reading dense material and analyses of these topics?
  • Would I be able to produce 3- to 12-page essays on a biweekly/monthly basis?


If your school does not admit applicants based on major, they will likely offer 100-level courses in each department specifically meant for first-year students to sample the curriculum. Taking one of these classes is the best way to test whether the political science (or any other!) major is right for you, along with speaking to department faculty and discussing experiences with upperclassmen. 


The only caveat here is that you should not declare a political science major in order to achieve any particular future outcome — besides perhaps a PhD in political science — because a degree in political science is generally not necessary for pursuing a career in law, policy, consulting, marketing, or anything government-related. Remember that choosing a major is never the end all be all when it comes to defining your path in life! As such, if you plan to spend your next four years studying political science, be sure that you do it because you genuinely want to. 


What Can You Do with a Political Science Degree?


Many political science majors do generally pursue graduate programs, but plenty of other options exist! Here are five of the popular career paths for political science majors, with data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A reminder also that this list is far from exhaustive — social science degrees are truly versatile, and while political science majors often pursue roles in politics and government, many also build successful careers in media, financial services, business, education, and nonprofit spaces. 


1. Lawyer

Median Salary: $122,960 

Projected Growth: 813.9K jobs in 2019, with a projected growth of +32.3K by 2029 (~4%)


No surprises here! Political science is the most popular degree amongst law school applicants every year, and the legal world offers a variety of lucrative careers, all making good use of those reading, writing, and analysis skills. 


Most lawyers work primarily in representing individuals or organizations by protecting client interests and assessing risk in decision-making. Students who are fascinated by legal systems, are great at research, and don’t mind reading and writing voluminously would fit well with this profession. Analytical thinking, attention to detail, and intuition around people are also important traits. A law degree (J.D.) is required for aspiring attorneys and judges, but paralegals and legal secretaries can jump in right after college. 


2. Legislator 

Median Salary: $29,270

Projected Growth: 53.7K jobs in 2019, with a projected growth of +3.3K by 2029 (~6%)


While politicians on the national scene might spring to mind first, elected officials actually exist at all levels of government, and the vast majority only work part-time in their roles as public servants. A political science background is definitely not required for those running for office, but the major does provide an excellent overview of U.S. power structures and government systems, along with helping to develop the communication, analysis, and people skills necessary for effective lawmaking. 


Career politicians devote significant energy to campaigning and making connections, and most learning/training happens on the job through trial and error. Aspiring public servants who aren’t interested in running for office might instead consider the plethora of government jobs available, becoming legislative aides or program managers in local, state, or federal offices. International relations majors may be especially interested in serving as diplomats or foreign service officials. 


3. Political Scientist 

Median Salary: $122,220

Projected Growth: 7K jobs in 2019, with a projected growth of +0.4K by 2029 (~6%)


No-brainer, right? Political scientists might be professors, research consultants, or policy analysts, drawing upon their academic and research work to inform public understanding of how political systems operate. These roles will often necessitate a graduate degree of some kind, but the overall skillset is certainly a continuation of the one developed at the undergraduate level: reading, writing, research, and analysis. 


This path is a great fit for political science majors who prefer the more academic and intellectual side of their studies, i.e. those who loved what they were doing in college and want to continue that same work in the professional sphere. However, varying degrees of practical engagement do exist. Political scientists who advise legislators, government agencies, or campaigns can expect to work more on pressing issues of the day, forecasting and analyzing the potential impacts of imminent legislation and political decision-making. 


4. Public Relations Specialist 

Median Salary: $61,150

Projected Growth: 274.6K jobs in 2019, with a projected growth of +19.7K by 2029 (~7%)


The link between public relations and a poli sci degree might be less obvious, but think about it: PR specialists focus on assessing public opinion and creating positive narratives, in the same way that politicians try to do! Accordingly, lots of political science majors who don’t deal with government and law often end up in communications, simply because their skillsets align and the work is ultimately quite similar. 


Because lots of different organizations have reputation management needs, PR specialists enjoy great flexibility in where they work. Those who wish to be more involved with government and legislation specifically can also explore careers in the broader field as lobbyists, pollsters, or press agents. 


5. Marketing Manager 

Median Salary: $136,850

Projected Growth: 286.3K jobs in 2019, with a projected growth of +19.1K by 2029 (~7%)


Careers in marketing are similar to those in PR — both involve influencing people, and both exist in every industry. Marketing managers specifically oversee a portfolio of communications with customers, working (just like politicians do!) to make new connections and strengthen existing relationships. As such, skills in communication, research, and analysis are also valuable here. 


Another point of relevance would be data analysis and quantitative skills, which are in high demand as digital marketing takes off. Accordingly, many political science majors are bringing statistics and programming skills to the table due to coursework requirements, making them strong candidates for careers in marketing. Those who especially prefer numbers to words may be interested in foregoing management to become marketing research analysts or consultants. 

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Best Colleges for Political Science Majors


1. Harvard University 

Location: Cambridge, MA

Acceptance Rate: 4.5%

Undergrad Enrollment: 6,788

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1460-1580 SAT, 33-35 ACT


One of the most famous and selective colleges in the world, Harvard is located just across the river from Boston, right down the road from MIT and alongside 43 more institutions of higher learning in the immediate area. Students enjoy all the perks of living in a beautiful, historical city with a wealth of resources and substantial student population. 


Harvard’s Department of Government offers a concentration (major) in government with four optional program tracks (Data Science, Tech Science, Public Policy, and Political Economy), requiring 10 classes for the standard path or 13 classes for department honors. Students may also elect a secondary (minor) in government by taking 5 classes, or pursue a joint concentration in government and another field by special application. Government concentrators engage in research, study abroad, and are eligible to take graduate classes at Harvard Kennedy School, enjoying excellent post-grad outcomes in fields as diverse as academia, business, and media. 


Learn more about Harvard and what it takes to get accepted.


2. Yale University

Location: New Haven, CT

Acceptance Rate: 6.1%

Undergrad Enrollment: 5,964

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1460-1570 SAT, 33-35 ACT


Steeped in tradition yet with an emphasis on global education, Yale is one of the oldest and most venerable institutions in the United States, being the first ever to grant PhDs and producing a slate of famous alumni in politics. Situated in the college town of New Haven, students enjoy excellent pizza, a healthy rivalry with their Ivy neighbor in Cambridge, and easy access to NYC via the 2-hour bus ride. 


Yale’s Department of Political Science divides their curriculum into five subfields: international relations, American government, political philosophy, analytical political theory, and comparative politics. Students must take at least two courses in each of any three of these fields, electing a standard major (12 courses) or intensive major (15 courses), the latter of which involves a yearlong senior essay instead of the standard one-term senior essay. An interdisciplinary concentration can also be added to both tracks by special application, and exceptional students may pursue the combined BA/MA degree program with proper planning. 


Learn more about Yale and what it takes to get accepted.


3. Princeton University 

Location: Princeton, New Jersey

Acceptance Rate: 5.8%

Undergrad Enrollment: 5,267

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1460-1570 SAT, 33-35 ACT


Ranked right up there with the first two schools on this list, Princeton is unique in many ways: world-class programs in international relations and economics, just 37 concentrations (majors) but a rare Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree, an enduring tradition of eating clubs, and a stubborn lack of business, law, or medical schools. Students enjoy a beautiful campus located just an hour away from both NYC and Philly. 


Princeton’s Department of Politics offers a major involving 10 courses. Students will choose a subfield to specialize in for their Princeton-wide junior independent work requirement and yearlong senior thesis, taking 3 courses in that primary field, 2 in a secondary field, and 1 in a tertiary field. Within the major, optional program tracks are available in American Ideas and Institutions, Political Economy, and Quantitative and Analytical Political Science. Students may also construct their own special interdisciplinary program by petition.  


Learn more about Princeton and what it takes to get accepted.


4. Stanford University 

Location: Stanford, California 

Acceptance Rate: 4.3%

Undergrad Enrollment: 7,087

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1440-1550 SAT, 32-35 ACT


A break from the Ivy League and chilly East Coast weather, but certainly no less impressive! Situated in the heart of Silicon Valley, Stanford has a famously entrepreneurial culture that prizes innovation and interdisciplinary work, with strong STEM offerings across the board and a history of producing Olympic medalists. Students enjoy a vibrant, sunny campus and easy access to San Francisco by train. 


Stanford offers majors and minors in political science, public policy, and international relations. Delving into the first here, the political science department divides subfields (“tracks”) into 1) Data Science, 2) Elections, Representation & Governance, 3) International Relations, 4) Justice & Law, and 5) Political Economy & Development. Six classes are required for the minor, with four dedicated to one track, while majors must take five courses in a primary track and three in a secondary track, completing 14 courses total with a senior honors thesis option. 


Learn more about Stanford and what it takes to get accepted.


5. Georgetown University 

Location: Washington, D.C. 

Acceptance Rate: 14.5%

Undergrad Enrollment: 7,459

Middle 50% SAT/ACT: 1370-1530 SAT, 31-34 ACT


From location alone, Georgetown’s resources in political science are impossible to beat. The oldest Catholic and Jesuit institute of higher learning in the United States, this storied institution has a reputation for emphasizing ethics and a global perspective in all things, and is sufficiently traditional enough to still accept paper applications. Campus is just 4 miles away from Capitol Hill, and Hoyas easily find internships in DC agencies, think tanks, and other organizations every semester. 


Across its four schools that enroll undergrads, Georgetown offers too many poli sci majors to name (e.g. Culture and Politics (CULP), Global Business (GBUS), International Politics (IPOL), International Political Economy (IPEC), and so on), but the Georgetown College Department of Government specifically grants degrees in political economy and government. The latter is a 10-course major or 6-course minor, both requiring one introductory course per subfield followed by additional higher-level electives. Seniors may elect an honors thesis, and Georgetown also offers BA/MA programs in American Government or Democracy & Governance by application. 


Learn more about Georgetown and what it takes to get accepted.


There are many more schools that are great for political science majors. See the complete list of best colleges for political science.


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Lauralyn Lin
Blog Writer

Short Bio
Lauralyn is a junior at Wellesley College studying political science and psychology. She's been with CollegeVine for two years now as a test prep consultant, marketing intern, and livestream host, and spends the rest of her time on ballroom dance and books.