The Duck of Minerva

The tradeoffs of getting to graduate school in political science


23 March 2012

This is the nerd equivalent of a dad joke.

A pair of posts today from political scientists I admire prompts me to postpone my musings on the Hunger Games and to talk about how to get to graduate school in political science again instead. In an effort to convince you to read on, I’ll name the authors of the two posts: Dan Drezner and Chris Blattman.

Dan Drezner writes about how a post-graduate (non-Ph.D.) degree can help you to get into the doctoral program of your dreams. I’m surprised, by the way, that Dan doesn’t address the burning issue of whether it’s a good idea to go directly from undergrad to grad school. Ten years ago, when I first began thinking about turning pro, the standard advice from my professors was to wait a year or two. They argued that a year or two of work experience helped you mature after the unstructured bliss of college, and furthermore that it was pretty easy to give up money and security in principle but that giving up those things after having had them represented a deeper, truer commitment to the academic vocation.

But Dan’s post is useful nonetheless, because he addresses the fact that many of us in grad school didn’t decide we wanted to do this until we were well on our way out of our undergrad institutions. Some of his advice is obvious–do well on your GREs, write a good personal statement, and so on–but some of it is not, such as whether it’s a good idea to get a terminal master’s before going to a Ph.D. program.

Yet I think Dan neglects one important point, which stands out all the more clearly when this post is read in conjunction with part one of his series. As political science becomes more scientistic, undergrad training in techniques (game theory, math, and so on) is ever more critical. In other words, if you’re a junior applying to graduate programs next year, it’s time to load up on stats and math right now–and if you’ve been out a few years, you might actually find that your preparation in computer science and other symbol-manipulation fields has been insufficient to prepare you to do cutting-edge research. But the converse of this professionalization, as Blattman notes, is that vast chunks of political science are being dismissed–and professors may find that their grad students can write R code in their sleep but can’t tell Tocqueville from Trotstky.

In part one of his series, Drezner suggests that those considering political science Ph.D.s:

  1. Read actual political science
  2. Write a senior thesis
  3. Get comfortable with math (up to and including linear algebra)
  4. Learn a language and study overseas
  5. Apply for and win something like an NSF

Taken together, however, these add up to a course of study that a talented undergrad would have to begin no later than his sophomore year of college. Accomplishing #1 and #5, for instance, practically require you to have done #3 and #4 in at least some combination–but linear algebra is not the sort of thing you can pick up in a hurry. For instance, in my case, it would have required two semesters of very very difficult math past what I took–and that’s before we add in the at least two semesters of statistics Drezner recommends. If we add to that up to eight semesters of a language (e.g., two or three years of Spanish or French past high school, and up to four years of Chinese or Arabic to begin to achieve conversational competence), then we realize that our hypothetical undergrad should have made up her mind to go to grad school very early in her college career. (Assuming about 20 credits in language and about 10 credits in math and stats, Drezner’s recommendations amount to a full year or more of college coursework in preparation for the doctorate before taking a single political science course.)

At my undergraduate institution, at least, this was not how we trained undergrads. It is also not how we train majors in political science in my current institution. The emphasis in both is on substantive coursework, not preparatory training in methods or theory. That is why comparatively few graduate students (in my experience) really know what professional political science work looks like–if your reading lists are largely drawn from the Foreign Affairs version of International Security articles, then it’s no surprise that you’re shocked to find out that you’re expected to produce work that could place in Journal of Conflict Research

On the other hand, one benefit of this approach was that I learned a lot of substance and I was also forced to learn a lot of political theory along the way (especially in my European master’s programme). Thus, I never experienced the disconnect from political theory that Chris Blattman writes about:

Political philosophy never entered my undergrad education, and I never found the time to read it afterwards. When I made the switch from economics department to political science, it was hard to understand what the political theorists were writing about. What use was revisiting 2000-year-old tomes? Surely it was important stuff to teach, and surely one could squeeze a few original papers out of them. But an entire discipline of new research?

I have since reconsidered. Take these courses for instance. They tackle the first and most fundamental questions in politics: What makes a state legitimate? What makes a good life? What is a responsible citizen to do? What are our obligations towards others? Every course of new book on development, whether it seeks “why people are poor” or “why nations fail”, and every public policy or Millennium Development Goal–all of these implicitly have an answer to these deeper questions.

Chris is an astonishing (and an astonishingly productive) scholar. And, of course, his Ph.D. is in Economics, not political science. But I would wager that privately a huge number of young political scientists, both grad students and assistant professors, have never made the switch from his former dismissive skepticism to his current enthusiasm for normative work.

Since college will not become a five-year program any time soon, and since grad programs are squeezed for what they can offer in their coursework, the shift of resources toward advanced methodology will ultimately displace theory. This will make for a vastly more sophisticated but incredibly more naive discipline.