Political Scientist Career

Political scientists study the structure and theory of gov­ernment, usually as part of an academic faculty. They are constantly seeking both theoretical and practical solu­tions to political problems. They divide their responsibil­ities between teaching and researching. After compiling facts, statistics, and other research, they present their analyses in reports, lectures, and journal articles.

Political Scientist Career History

Political Scientist CareerPolitical science is the oldest of the social sciences and is currently one of the most popular subjects of undergraduate study. The ideas of many early politi­cal scientists still influence current political theories: Machiavelli, the 16th-century Italian statesman and philosopher, believed that politics and morality are two entirely different spheres of human activity and that they should be governed by different standards and different laws; in the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes thought of government as a police force which pre­vented people from plundering their neighbors; John Locke was a 17th-century Englishman from whom we get the philosophy of “the greatest good for the great­est number.” Some people call him the originator of “beneficent paternalism,” which means that the state or ruler acts as a kindly leader to citizens, deciding what is best for them, then seeing that the “best” is put into effect, whether the citizens like it or not.

Common among theorists today is the assumption that politics is a process, the constant interaction of indi­viduals and groups in activities that are directly or indi­rectly related to government. By 1945, political science in the United States was much more than the concern for institutions, law, formal structures of public govern­ment, procedures, and rules. It had expanded to include the dynamics of public governance. Instead of studying the rules of administrative procedure in a political group, for example, political scientists had begun to study the actual bureaucratic processes at work within the group. This signified the start of what would become systems theory in political science.

Political Scientist Job Description

While many government careers involve taking action that directly affects political policy, political scientists study and discuss the results of these actions. “You can look into just about anything that interests you,” says Chris Mooney, an associate professor in the political studies program at the University of Illinois at Spring­field, “but you have to be able to argue that it’s relevant to some basic theory in political science.”

Political scientists may choose to research political lyrics in rock music, or study how teenagers form their political ideas. They may research the history of women in politics, the role of religion in politics, and the politi­cal histories of other countries. Many political scientists specialize in one area of study, such as public adminis­tration, history of political ideas, political parties, public law, American government, or international relations.

About 80 percent of all political scientists are employed as college and university professors. Depending on the institution for which they work, political scientists divide their time between teaching and researching.

In addition to teaching and researching, political sci­entists write books and articles based on their studies. A number of political science associations publish jour­nals, and there are small presses devoted to publishing political theory. Mooney has published two books, and many scholarly articles in such journals as Policy Studies Journal, Health Economics, and the American Journal of Political Science.

In researching policy issues, political scientists use a variety of different methods. They work with historians, economists, policy analysts, demographers, and statisti­cians. The Internet has become a very important resource tool for political scientists. The federal government has been dedicated to expanding the World Wide Web, including making available full text of legislation, recent Supreme Court decisions, and access to the Library of Congress. Political scientists also use the data found in yearbooks and almanacs, material from encyclopedias, clippings from periodicals or bound volumes of maga­zines or journals. They refer to law books, to statutes, to records of court cases, to the Congressional Record, and to other legislative records. They consult census records, historical documents, personal documents such as dia­ries and letters, and statistics from public opinion polls. They use libraries and archives to locate rare and old documents and records. For other information, politi­cal scientists use the “participant observer” method of research. In this method, they become part of a group and participate in its proceedings, while carefully observ­ing interaction. They may also submit questionnaires. Questions will be carefully worded to elicit the facts needed, and the questionnaire will be administered to a selected sample of people.

When conducting research, political scientists must avoid letting their own biases distort the way in which they interpret the gathered facts. Then, they must com­pare their findings and analyses with those of others who have conducted similar investigations. Finally, they must present the data in an objective fashion, even though the findings may not reveal the kinds of facts they antici­pated.

Those political scientists who are not employed as teachers work for labor unions, political organizations, or political interest groups. Political scientists working for government may study organizations ranging in scope from the United Nations to local city councils. They may study the politics of a large city like New York or a small town in the Midwest. Their research findings may be used by a city’s mayor and city council to set public policy concerning waste management or by an organization, such as the National Organization for Women, to decide where to focus efforts on increasing the participation of women in local politics. Political scientists who work for the U.S. Department of State in either this country or in the foreign service use their analyses of political struc­tures to make recommendations to the U.S. government concerning foreign policy.

Political scientists may also be employed by individual members of Congress. In this capacity, they might study government programs concerned with low-income hous­ing and make recommendations to help the members of Congress write new legislation. Businesses and industries also hire political scientists to conduct polls on political issues that affect their operations. A tobacco company might want to know, for example, how the legislation restricting advertising by tobacco companies affects the buying habits of consumers of tobacco products.

Political Scientist Career Requirements

High School

Take courses in government, American history, and civ­ics to gain insight into politics. Math is also important because, as a political scientist, you’ll be evaluating statis­tics, demographics, and other numerical data. English and composition classes will help you develop the writing and communication skills you’ll need for teaching, publish­ing, and presenting papers. Take a journalism course and work for your high school newspaper to develop research, writing, and editing skills. Join a speech and debate team to gain experience researching current events, analyzing data, and presenting the information to others.

Postsecondary Training

Though you’ll be able to find some government jobs with a bachelor’s degree in political science, you won’t be able to pursue work in major academic institutions without a doctorate.

The American Political Science Association (APSA) publishes directories of under­graduate and graduate political science programs. An under­graduate program requires general courses in English, eco­nomics, statistics, and history, as well as courses in American politics, international politics, and political theory. Look for a school with a good intern­ship program that can involve you with the U.S. Congress or state legislature. U.S. News and World Report publishes rank­ings of graduate schools. In 2005 (the last year the maga­zine ranked schools in this dis­cipline), Harvard was deemed the top-ranked political science department. Stanford, Univer­sity of California (Berkeley) was ranked second, and University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) was ranked third place.

Your graduate study will include courses in political parties, public opinion, com­parative political behavior, and foreign policy design. You’ll also assist professors with research, attend conferences, write articles, and teach undergrad­uate courses.

Other Requirements

Because you’ll be compiling information from a number of different sources, you must be well organized. You should also enjoy reading, and possess a curiosity about world politics. “You have to really enjoy school,” Chris Mooney says, “but it should all be fairly fascinating. You’ll be studying and telling people about what you’re study­ing.” People skills are important, as you’ll be working closely with students and other political scientists.

Exploring Political Scientist Career

Write to college political science departments for infor­mation about their programs. You can learn a lot about the work of a political scientist by looking at college course lists and faculty bios. Political science depart­ments also have Web pages with information, and links to the curricula vitae of faculty. A curriculum vitae (C.V.) is an extensive resume including lists of publications, conferences attended, and other professional experience. A C.V. can give you an idea of a political scientist’s career and education path.

Contact the office of your state’s senator or repre­sentative in the U.S. Congress about applying to work as a page. Available to students at least 16 years old, and highly competitive, page positions allow students to serve members of Congress, running messages across Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. This experience would be very valuable to you in learning about the workings of gov­ernment.


Political science is a popular major among undergrad­uates, so practically every college and university has a political science department. Political scientists find work at public and private universities, and at commu­nity colleges. They teach in undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs. Teaching jobs at doctoral institutions are usually better paying and more prestigious. The most sought-after positions are those that offer tenure.

Starting Out

“Go to the best school you can,” Chris Mooney advises, “and focus on getting into a good graduate school.” Most graduate schools accept a very limited number of appli­cants every semester, so there’s a lot of competition for admittance into some of the top programs. Applicants are admitted on the basis of grade point averages, test scores, internships performed, awards received, and other achievements.

Once you’re in graduate school, you’ll begin to per­form the work you’ll be doing in your career. You’ll teach undergraduate classes, attend conferences, present papers, and submit articles to political science journals. Your success as a graduate student will help you in your job search. After completing a graduate program, you’ll teach as an adjunct professor or visiting professor at vari­ous schools until you can find a permanent tenure-track position.

Membership in APSA and other political science asso­ciations entitles you to job placement assistance. APSA can also direct you to a number of fellowship and grant opportunities. Michigan State University posts job open­ings on its H-Net (Job Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences) Web page at https://www.h-net.org/jobs/home.php. Due to the heavy competition for these jobs, you’ll need an impressive C.V., including a list of publications in respected political science journals, a list of conferences attended, and good references attesting to your teaching skills.


In a tenure-track position, political scientists work their way up through the ranks from assistant professor, to associate professor, to full professor. They will probably have to work a few years in temporary, or visiting, faculty positions before they can join the permanent faculty of a political science department. They can then expect to spend approximately seven years working toward ten­ure. Tenure provides political scientists job security and prominence within their department, and is awarded on the basis of publications, research performed, student evaluations, and teaching experience.


The U.S. Department of Labor reports that median annual earnings for political scientists were $84,100 in 2005. Salaries ranged from less than $39,890 to $132,600 or more. Starting federal government salaries for politi­cal scientists with a bachelor’s degree and no experi­ence were $24,677 or $30,577, depending on academic record, in 2005. Those with a master’s degree earned an average starting salary of $37,390. Those with a Ph.D. averaged $45,239 or $54,221, depending on their level of experience.

Political science teachers employed at colleges and universities had mean annual earnings of $67,990 in 2005. Those employed at junior colleges earned $52,770 annually.

Work Environment

Political scientists who work as tenured faculty mem­bers enjoy pleasant surroundings. Depending on the size of the department, they will have their own office and be provided with a computer, Internet access, and research assistants. With good teaching skills, they will earn the respect of their students and colleagues. Politi­cal science professors are also well respected in their communities.

Political science teachers work a fairly flexible schedule, teaching two or three courses a semester. The rest of their 40- to 50-hour workweek will be spent meeting individually with students, conducting research, writing, and serving on committees. Some travel may be required, as teachers attend a few con­ferences a year on behalf of their department, or as they take short-term assignments at other institutions. Teachers may teach some summer courses, or have the summer off. They will also have several days off between semesters.

Political Scientist Career Outlook

Overall employment of social scientists is expected to grow more slowly than the average through 2014, accord­ing to the Occupational Outlook Handbook.

The survival of political science departments depends on continued community and government support of education. The funding of humanities and social science programs is often threatened, resulting in budget cuts and hiring freezes. This makes for heavy competition for the few graduate assistantships and new faculty positions available. Also, there’s not a great deal of mobility within the field; professors who achieve tenure generally stay in their positions until retirement. Employment opportu­nities with the federal government are expected to grow very slowly.

The pay inequity between male and female professors is of some concern. In the workplace in general, women are paid less than men, but this inequity is even greater in the field of academics. The AAUP is fighting to correct this, and female professors are becoming more cautious when choosing tenure-track positions.

More and more professors are using computers and the Internet, not just in research, but in conducting their classes. According to an annual survey conducted by the Campus Computing Project, computers and CD-ROMs are used increasingly in the lecture hall, and many pro­fessors use Web pages to post class materials and other resources.

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