What courses do I need to prepare for a PhD in Political Science?

I recently had a discussion with some of my graduate students about what an ideal preparation for a PhD program in Political Science would look like. They were discussing the issue because they felt that very little of their undergraduate Political Science education prepared them for what they’d be learning in graduate school, especially in terms of methodological tools and design approaches to applied research. I felt it might be valuable for undergraduates thinking of pursuing the PhD–or new graduate students who hadn’t realized what they were getting themselves into–to post the question to the community at large and have the responses on TPM as a resources.

When undergraduates ask me this question, I usually tell them that someone hoping to study a substantive area (International Relations, Comparative Politics, American Politics, or Policy) would ideally have taken:

  • two semesters of calculus, including differentiation, integration, and infinite series;
  • one semester of matrix linear algebra;
  • one semester of (a) undergraduate econometrics or (b) probability theory from a statistics department;
  • one semester of programming in a relevant language, such as Python, MATLAB, or R;
  • some kind of serious research design/epistemology class; and
  • as many courses as you can take that include reading published academic literature in your subject area (look to see that the syllabus assigns academic journals or university press books, not textbooks)

Some courses may kill two birds with one stone if, for example, they use MATLAB or R as a part of teaching some other subject.

Those hoping to work in methods or formal theory should consider pursuing a Math minor or double major, including all of the above courses plus:

  • a semester of three-dimensional calculus;
  • a semester of real analysis;
  • a semester of differential equations;
  • a semester of discrete math;
  • a semester of some form of mathematical microeconomics class at the advanced undergraduate or introductory graduate level;
  • as many econometrics or applied statistics courses as you can fit into your schedule on top of the above.

Designing an appropriate preparation for people who plan on being area specialists and spending a lot of time in the field using qualitative methods is somewhat outside of my area of special expertise. With that proviso, I usually recommend the following courses in place of the lists above:

  • at least one semester of calculus, covering differentiation and integration;
  • one semester of matrix linear algebra;
  • fluency in at least one of the following: Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Arabic (chosen to best-suit your area of interest)
  • reading and writing proficiency in another language relevant to your area
  • as many courses as you can take that include reading published academic literature in your subject area (look to see that the syllabus assigns academic journals or university press books, not textbooks)

This list replaces most of the math with language training.

It is, of course, worth noting that very few students–including those who are very successful–come into a PhD with this amount of training. But my own undergraduate adviser told me that the more of this stuff that I could get out of the way before I got to graduate school, the more that I could focus on learning the substance of the field rather than picking up mathematical tools. I think that was basically good advice.

What courses would you add to or subtract from this list?

[Update, 10/15/2013 @ 1:07 pm]: Added some language to the qualitative preparation list to clarify that this is in place of the other lists.

About Justin Esarey

Associate Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University.
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18 Responses to What courses do I need to prepare for a PhD in Political Science?

  1. Also, they would benefit substantially from some experience conducting actual academic research. They might accomplish this by working as a research assistant for a professor. Completing an honors thesis would like be highly beneficial. An internship working in practical politics is also potentially valuable, since it helps to build political intuition.

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  3. Jim Johnson says:

    Here is a paragraph from a review of Munck/Snyder Passion, Craft & Method in Comparative Politics (M. Berhard – Comparative Politics, 2009):

    “Almost all the luminaries interviewed spent a substantial amount of time reading political philosophy, especially in their formative years. ClassicaI works of social theory also get a great deal of mention – first and foremost Max Weber, but also Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and some of his follower (notably, Antonio Gramsci). It seem that exposure to the classics of political
    and social theory promote the framing of important and enduring questions, though
    clearly this is not enough in itself. The academic work of many of these scholars. seem”
    to b motivated by solving problems about which they have strong normative concern,
    such as poverty (Przeworski, Bates), order (Huntington), powerlessness (Scott),
    violence (Moore), and despotism (nearly everybody interviewed). Empirically oriented
    university departments that believe political theory is best confined to departments of
    philosophy may inadvertently be depriving their graduate students of one of the very
    sources of inspiration for scientific study.”

    The book under review consists in interviews with nearly 20 big name political scientists. The reviewer is not a political theorist.

    I am a theorist who takes models and methods seriously. Bottom line, without a grounding in social and political theory all the technical training leaves you dressed up with no place to go. I have a difficult time naming more than one or two high tech types currently working in political science who will make a contribution as influential as those made by the folks interviewed in this book (even those whose work I am critical of!).

    We can have a conversation about how the preoccupations of political theorists have been distorted by the intellectual gerrymander that governs the discipline as it stands. But that is no excuse for sending new PhDs in IR-Comparative-American out into the world unprepared to think about important matters.

    In short – students setting off to PhD programs in political science should read political theory and lots of it.

    • Jim, thanks! I couldn’t agree more. Any recommendations in particular? Just telling people to “read Political Theory” is a little like telling them to “study as much math as possible” — basically true, but in need of clarification.

      I’m not too familiar with the contours of modern Political Theory beyond the the most prominent contributors (e.g., Rawls, Nozsick, Walzer) and a few people whose work has caught my interest for idiosyncratic reasons. But I did read and still do read a lot of philosophical work in the fields of epistemology and consciousness, and a lot of that was and continues to be influential on my interests and my work. A reader of philosophy of science will probably cover a lot of the main bases as an introduction (e.g., Hume, Bacon, Hempel, Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, Feyerabend) and that could be supplemented with a few other works (e.g., Winch, Bhaskar, Flyvberg).

      I’m also kind of wondering about the tradeoffs for people in different fields. For example, a prospective theorist needs a different background than a prospective qualitative comparativist, a quantitative comparativist, a methodologist, a formal theorist… etc. My own interest in epistemology is pretty natural given my specialty in methods, but that doesn’t mean it’s universally recommended–especially given that all these recommendations must be tradeoffs with one another.

  4. Beth says:

    I would also add a research class. Too many undergrads think research is using Google or Wikipedia. If you are going to go on for a PhD then you should have some familiarity with scholarly databases. I also think knowing the basics is important. That may sound obvious but even if you want to focus in IR or Comparative, you should have a clue about theory and American. Too many students get into PhD programs and take courses for which they are unprepared.

  5. Tracy Strong says:

    not counting languages and courses in one’s area there are two full years of course work (plus what ever into courses you might need + whatever requirements your school might have in addition which would leave by the seat of my pants time for about courses dealing with politics

    • I count six courses in the recommendations for an ordinary quantitative political scientist, which is a semester and a half if you’re taking four courses per semester and less if you’re taking five.

      For methods and formal, it’s a math minor. A political science major/math minor could accomplish that in the normal time to degree given that most schools require a minor.

      For qualitative, it’s a language minor (and ideally a second language minor) with a few math electives that will probably also meet some general requirements. The first minor is fairly easy to fit in, but the second is a stretch.

  6. Turing says:

    Sounds like excellent preparation! They’ll be a contender at any modern econ program.

  7. Along with the political theory and social theory classics, I would add philosophy of science. The technical skills listed here are admirable and ones that I managed to do from UG to PG training, but understanding how we know things is equally important. I think it is also key to understand the more reflexive modes of inquiry as much of politics cannot be quantified but is nevertheless equally important to study.

  8. Michael D. Martinez says:

    Reflecting back on my undergraduate years, my training in political institutions, combined with a minor in history, a lot of computer programming (COBOL and FORTRAN, back in the day), and Spanish, helped prepare me pretty well (though I should have taken that Calculus course I skipped). But I’d also recommend a summer or semester of soaking and poking. For me, that was a summer as a “participant observer”, when I was the lobbyist for the Louisiana Student Lobby, hanging around the state legislature for a summer. An internship or a good study abroad program can also be a good way to sink your teeth into what you want to study.

  9. Zachary M. Jones says:

    I don’t think differential equations are particularly relevant to most of what goes in political methodology. I’d instead substitute in a class on proof-writing (which also covers a lot of discrete math). I also would substitute micro-econ and probability in the econ department for probability and mathematical statistics in the math and statistics departments.

    I’d also note that a single semester of computer science is not very much! Having a class on data structures and algorithms (nearly always a part of the core CS curriculum) is invaluable (and will probably become more-so). It is much better to understand patterns of programming rather than being competent at a particular language.

    • I would be willing to venture that what I took as a “Discrete Math” class in undergrad is labeled as a course in “proofing” at other universities, but covering the same material. And if you make it to Real Analysis, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to write proofs!

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  11. What we do with our students – and it has paid off – is involve them in a real research project. We require methods and that course is usually built around a community research project. The students have to design the study and instruments, put the data into useable datasets, analyze the data, then present the results to the community organization that commissioned the project. A major part of their grade is built around that presentation and the clients grade the work, not us. That means the students have to organize the material so that it makes sense to their (yes, their) clients. Then they have to put together individual papers that analyze the data that I grade myself.

    The research has been variable in quality (these are undergrads), but the effort called forth and the amount learned has been substantial. We’ve sent two students – out of 17 – to Ph.D. programs (one was just hired by a university here in Georgia) in the last 10 years and many to masters programs. They all tell us they are far ahead of their peers when they get to grad work. And all without a single required econ or stats course. I attribute this to being exposed to real research and its problems.

  12. Anonymous says:

    No one would deny that taking these courses as an undergraduate would be beneficial when working toward a PhD. I’ve made these suggestions to undergraduates before, and only a few have taken the advice. The question, therefore, is, does taking such coursework benefit the application to graduate school? If admission committees look favorably on this kind of background, students should follow this path, as it is quite the incentive.

  13. Sukrit says:

    Am wanting to go to Duke University

    Why is it necessary for PhD students to learn 2 foreign languages (e.g. you’ve recommended Spanish, Chinese, Arabic + another language)? Isn’t 1 enough

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