Updated: May 23, 2020
It depends. Undergraduates get jobs that utilize the soft skills of political science such as communication and writing skills, while those with advanced degrees tend to pursue professional careers with jobs in academia, law or public policy.
So what are the jobs that a political science degree leads to?
The job market for those with political science bachelor’s degrees is strong and quite broad. Most bachelor’s degree grads eventually accept jobs at large corporations, nonprofits, government agencies and political organizations. Others go on to seek graduate level degrees in political science, public policy or law school.
Many employers look favorably upon those with social science degrees because most companies view and manage their business using a perspective that uses the tools of social sciences. Understanding people, institutions, and their respective interactions with a scientific lens is a skill that transfers well to a position within organizations composed of people. And with an average salary of $96,000, those with political science degrees make much more than the median salary of a worker in the United States.
However, with over 40,000 political science degrees conferred each year, many college graduates with political science degrees will struggle to distinguish themselves from the pack. Also, the broad knowledge acquired by studying Political Science does not transfer directly to one specific job. Sure, one can work in politics or government, but most people in those sectors in fact do not hold polisci degrees (of course, many do).
What is the idea job for a political science major?
Most bachelor’s degree grads eventually accepting jobs at companies or government agencies that are looking for the types of skills a political science major likely possesses. This includes a scientific approach to problem solving, critical thinking, ability to write, communicate and understand complex institutions. While the course knowledge acquired in the classroom from Political Science is valuable, to an employer is likely to be less valuable than these “soft skills” that can be transferred to a variety of problems.
But many of those who studied political science, and loved it, might find this unappealing. Those with ambitious dreams about using their degree in political science might find themselves at a crossroads after graduation. The obvious answer is to get more specialized.
But how? And where?
That, I think, depends on your goals. I think there are three paths forward. The first is a law degree. Political Science is one of the best undergraduate majors for law school. The second is public policy graduate work. Public policy graduate degrees are for those looking to get a job at a think tank or policy area nonprofit. It is a good option if that is what you want to do. The third, and most pursued would be entering into a graduate program in Political Science.
Political Science or Public Policy?
Think about your future career before deciding whether you should continue to graduate study in Political Science or switch lanes to public policy. A Ph.D. in Political Science generally leads to teaching and research, and the goal is primarily to get a tenure track professor position. A tenure track professor of Political Science generally makes around $60,000 a year, with potential to make much more. Those who study public policy generally aim to work at think tanks and policy research institutions. These policy institutes vary as some are nonpartisan while others tend to be very ideological. Some have broad aims while others focus solely in one policy area. And like professorships, these jobs tend to be highly competitive with decent starting salaries and the potential to make more in the long run.
What are the Job Prospects for Political Science Ph.Ds.?
College professor is a dream job for many people. It’s a highly prestigious career that is generally high paying. Most take summers off (but this is not really true) and you get to work in a field that caters to your own research interest. Tenured professor is the gold standard and the aim of most Ph.Ds, but to get there, unsurprisingly, will take a great deal of work and skill. Before you take the plunge, it is very important that you understand what you are getting into.
And in this article, I am going to skip over the minor detail of getting the Ph.D, and talk exclusively about what happens after you get it. In making these career decisions, you should always think backwards from where you want to end up rather than the other way around which will guide your actions and the steps you need to take to get there.
The first thing to know is that the demand for college professors isn’t increasing. There are only so many colleges in the United States and enrollment is relatively flat. So to get a job, you will need to make some sacrifices. Do not go to school with the aim of working at the college a few miles away. It is not likely that there will be a job opening when you are ready to apply. You should be willing and able to focus on jobs nationally, perhaps internationally, to have a chance at landing a job right away. One must at least be regionally flexible about location. This reflects the fact that the job market is very competitive, and even with a degree in hand, it can be difficult to get tenure track right away.
Many Ph. D graduates end up accepting visiting professor positions that pay like normal entry level positions but are temporary (generally 1-2 years). This experience usually leads to a job, either at that institution or another institution, but that is not guaranteed. The good news is that sometimes these positions will hire those who do not have a Ph.D in hand but are “ABD.” In acedemia, ABD stands for “all but dissertation” which means you can get a job while writing your dissertation. This definitely something you will likely try to do.
The purgatory of the academic world is the adjunct teaching jobs. While these jobs provide decent experience in the classroom, the pay is low ($2500-$6000 per class) and the job is not guaranteed each semester. It is rare to teach more than just a few classes per semester as an adjunct, but there are a few adjuncts who are pros at it and take on as many as 5 classes per semester, usually juggling several positions. Adjuncts are rarely hired for the purpose of being brought on board permanently.
The experience of being a professor as an adjunct is valuable and underrated but doing it long term is the greatest fear of most Ph. D candidates in Political Science and academia in general. Imagine spending years in graduate program, jumping through hoops, writing, putting off making full income just to land about where you started with a low paying job with no benefits. That is nobody’s dream. Adjuncting is a very difficult life and few choose to do it very long, except perhaps as part-time employment while pursuing another career.
How Does School Ranking Factor In the Job Market for Political Science Ph.Ds?
To get a job with a Ph.D. in Political Science is challenging, and unfortunately the credential that matters most is not you, but rather, the institution you graduate from. This is not at all fair nor is it a good system, but it is not about change soon. Schools are ranked, and those rankings have been fixed for decades. A higher ranked school almost never hires from a lower ranked school. So if you want a job, make sure you get accepted into the highest ranked program possible. Don’t be discouraged though if you are at a mid or lower ranked program. You’ll just have to aim a bit lower which might mean less pay, more teaching and less research, and fewer job opportunities. It sounds terrible as I write that, but it is generally an accepted fact in this industry, and in reality it is not as bad as it sounds. You still get to be a professor! And that is the goal here. On the positive side, if you are at a lower ranked teaching oriented job, there will be less pressure to publish and less competition between colleagues (maybe) so there are some pluses here.
I hope I didn’t make this all sound too unappealing, but graduate programs are rarely upfront about these harsh realities to their applicants. I want you to know the truth about all of this. If you are good with that, then go for it and never look back! BTW, even though nobody tells you this beforehand, once you are in the program what I just mentioned will be a recurring theme in almost all of your conversations with peers.
Follow your dreams but don’t be naive. I know many PhDs from lower ranked programs who are doing very well right now. All of them made some compromise along the way. One I know moved from a major urban city to rural Alabama, which was not his first choice. Another bounced around as a visiting professor, improving her C.V. by publishing papers in lesser known journals (not easy, actually) before taking a job at a small local college. These are not bad outcomes and are quite typical.