Recruiting and Placing Political Science Majors in Successful Careers

Prof. Scott McClurg of the University of Southern Illinois-Carbondale recently posted some thoughts about the political science major, and his suggestions for reform bear directly on methodologists. Specifically, Scott suggests substantially beefing up the applied statistics portion of our training:

But the idea we teach critical thinking skills — which we do when we are at our best — is a losing argument with the public. We can preach until we are blue in the face that employers care about good writing, creative thinking, problem solving, etc., but liberal arts majors still look like a risk to students who now have to pay more for their education.  And all this despite employers saying they WANT those traits in their employers.

…This doesn’t mean we only teach quant skills, but it does mean to expose them to how do some of the things we do and explain why it’s relevant.

Here’s my preliminary thinking on the topic; it isn’t fully formed, but it might get a few interesting conversations started:

  1. I think we need to differentiate between knowledge/skills that every college student needs and should be part of the general curriculum, and knowledge/skills that are peculiar to some application and should be part of a major. Critical thinking skills are (IMO) the former. Research design and applied statistics are the latter. Claiming that your major curriculum “imparts critical thinking skills” is questionable to me for this reason.
  2. I’m a methodologist, so it’s no surprise that I think our undergraduate major should include far more applied statistics. But I also think that Political Science can’t hang its hat on an applied statistics training alone; our students will always lose that race to majors in Applied Statistics and allied fields. Quantitative data analysis can’t be our (only) comparative advantage. I think we need to do more than we’re doing now, but I also think we can’t become a subfield of Applied Stats.
  3. Training in research design, inference, and epistemology might be one way we can form a comparative advantage over pure Applied Statistics majors, as they are generally more focused on programming and modeling than social science. “Big data” is definitely in demand in the modern economy, but presumably expertise in designing, collecting, and interpreting this data is at least equally important as expertise in managing and analyzing it (the Applied Stats piece).
  4. I presume we can also help our students to compete with other social science majors by helping them attain superior knowledge on topics associated with strong economic demand. Presumably this would include knowledge of: electoral politics and campaigning; mass opinion; policy analysis and impact assessment; area-specific knowledge of countries and regions including language mastery.
  5. Some aspects of education are investments in long-term success, and I don’t think we should forget about these as we think about helping our students position themselves for short-term jobs. A knowledge of political philosophy, American political development, gender politics, political psychology, and lots of other things might not help a student get a job tomorrow, but they might well help a student become the kind of person who excels in their field and rises to the highest levels. (Some things, like international conflict theory or comparative political economy, probably fit between “immediate applicability” and “long term value” depending on what a student’s interested in.)
  6. Nearly everyone gets their job through connections; the curriculum may help qualify students for more and better summer jobs/internships, but we can’t skimp on helping them to secure these vital entry points.

With all of the above factored in, I guess my dream curriculum would involve (i) the creation of a sequence of core courses in philosophy, research design, and applied statistics; (ii) a serious language fluency requirement; (iii) greater specialization internal to the major that corresponded to a career tracks (e.g., replace “American Politics” with “Elections and Campaigning” or “Judicial Politics”, and then cut out the course requirements that don’t correspond to that track).

Many departments aren’t far from this already! But getting the rest of the way could be a painful process on many fronts.

About Justin Esarey

Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rice University.
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One Response to Recruiting and Placing Political Science Majors in Successful Careers

  1. mcclurg says:

    Excellent thoughts. I couldn’t agree more on these points, especially #3.

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