Picking a major: a plug for political science

Picking a major can be a difficult task, and is certainly an important one. It’s a decision that all students should take seriously. Even so, it is possible to overstate the enormity of choosing a major. The stakes are not quite as high as some students imagine them to be, and so you should always try to keep the decision in perspective.

To be sure, your choice of major will help to define you as a young professional once you graduate from college. But it is only ever going to be one part of your overall professional profile—and not necessarily the most important part. You should think of your major as a stepping stone or gateway; a qualification that will enable you to pursue certain avenues but should never box you in or trap you.

First, however, a disclaimer: I’m not an academic adviser! Universities and colleges employ professionals to help students make choices about majors and minors, and those people are always going to be the best resources available to you when it comes to getting advice on such topics. What follows are merely my own thoughts about picking a major—and, of course, a shameless plug for political science as a strong choice.

In order to make any important decision in life, you need a set of criteria that can help you to clarify your goals and ambitions. When it comes to picking a major, there seem to be two major considerations that stand out.

First, what are you good at, and what do you enjoy? These aren’t the same things, of course, but there’s often overlap between them: You’re more likely to be good at things you enjoy, and vice versa. Choosing a major at which you stink and/or which you hate is a surefire recipe for terrible grades, poor letters of recommendation, and little upside.

This might sound like a banal point—that you should study what you’re good at—but a lot of students seem to undervalue the benefit of being a high achiever at college. They don’t realize that good grades and a strong GPA are keys to unlocking scholarship and fellowship opportunities, getting nominated for prestigious awards, and preserving the option of pursuing a graduate degree, for example.

Second, what do you need in order to begin your preferred career? Most students don’t know exactly what job they’d like to pursue after graduating, but it pays to at least have a sense of your general direction and to pick a major that will help you towards that end – or at least one that won’t close off any doors.

Again, this might sound somewhat obvious. But I meet a lot of students who chose their major without giving any thought to what might come next. The point isn’t that everyone should map out their whole lives as freshmen or sophomores, but all students would be well served to do some research into the implications of choosing a particular major. It’s possible that your future career options will be affected in significant ways.

Once you’ve factored in these two considerations, the reality might be that you have less choice than you had originally imagined. If you are lousy with numbers and don’t have the time or energy to improve your proficiency, for example, then it makes no sense to pursue a degree in statistics. Or if you have your heart set on being a civil engineer, it’s obvious that a BA in English literature isn’t going to help. And so on.

If you’re reading this blog, however, then political science has probably caught your eye in some way. Perhaps you’ve always been interested in politics, or perhaps you think that a BA in political science constitutes the ideal springboard to your dream job in journalism, public affairs, or political consulting.

Whatever the origins of your curiosity in political science, here are a few reasons for why you should continue to give it some serious thought.

In many ways, political science is the quintessential liberal art. As you may already know, the word liberal comes from the Latin “liberalis,” which translates as “pertaining to a free man.” It follows that a liberal education is an education suitable for free people; a curriculum that is intended to impart the span of knowledge and abilities that free men and women require in order to thrive in a continued state of freedom.

At its very core, political science is the study of power as it is exerted in the public square. Because of this, political scientists often find themselves questioning authority and challenging those who wield power over others. At the same time, however, political scientists also know when it is appropriate to value authority, rules, norms, and established institutions. It is neither liberal nor conservative but ruthlessly analytical.

This foundation makes political science uniquely suited to equip people for life in a free society. Our discipline encourages students to think critically about human interactions—that is, to step back from the contemporary world and analyze its core components and antecedents—and to challenge conventional wisdom where proper to do so.

Political scientists are trained to think abstractly, to use theories and concepts to make sense of the real world. We are supposed to shed light on aspects of society that are hidden to the less inquisitive. We look for evidence to confirm our explanations of social and political phenomena, as well as facts that will cast doubt on our suppositions. Ours is not a “hard” science but, done well, it is rigorous and committed to uncovering truths.

Political scientists know how to observe, document, catalog, describe, theorize, and problem-solve. Good political scientists are trained in research methods and written communication skills. These competencies make political scientists highly versatile, which, in turn, makes them valuable to both public and private sector organizations .

But the substantive knowledge acquired over the course of a political science degree—a detailed understanding of international affairs, political parties and elections, bureaucracies, public law, and so forth—is also a prized asset. Lots of organizations need to know how elections are won, laws are enacted, and policies made effective. And they need employees on the payroll who can serve as capable repositories of such knowledge.

The point is that, coupled with some strategic resume-building on your part, a political science degree opens many doors and—for most people considering it as an option—will close off very few. It is a liberal art in the sense that it prepares people for life in a free society, but it is social science in the sense that it is committed to rigorous inquiry.

Are you considering political science as a choice of major or minor? I hope so—especially if you find the subject interesting or have judged it to be an intelligent choice for your future career. And if you have any questions? Feel free to get in touch.


Other posts in this series:

Asking for letters of recommendation, 25 April 2017
Extra-curricular activities: Are they worth it?, 18 April 2017
Avoiding plagiarism, 11 April 2017
Writing professional emails, 4 April 2017
Strong writing skills aren’t optional, 28 March 2017
Writing a great introduction, 21 March 2017
What good in-class participation looks like, 7 March 2017
Credible sources: Who to trust when doing research papers, 28 February 2017
How to study for an exam, 21 February 2017
“Showing up” to college: What choosing to succeed looks like
, 14 February 2017
Taking notes, part two: What should you write down?, 9 February 2017
Taking notes, part one: In defense of pen and paper
, 7 February 2017
How to manage your time effectively in college, 31 January 2017
How to get the most out of office hours, 24 January 2017
College is a team sport
, 17 January 2017