3 Tips for Political Science Students Considering Grad School
By David Kahane
Political Science Grades Matter
The bar goes up for grad school. And the top of an undergrad class will make up the full range of abilities in grad school. Or some top undergrad is going to be the worst grad student in their program. So, you should only aim for grad school if you have good reason to believe that you’re a very promising student. Now, you don’t have to be a super-confident person. In fact, the best grad students aren’t necessarily those who THINK they’re the best. But look over your political science grades and ask professors/peers for their honest advice.
A Ph.D. Does Not Ensure Tenure-Track Professor
Another point to keep in mind is that the bar gets raised again when it comes to moving from a Ph.D. to the academic job market: while some minority of political science Ph.D.s will get teaching jobs, only a fraction of this lucky minority will end up as tenure-track professors in large research universities. So don’t assume that going to grad school will have you sitting where your professor does; it may have you on a long term sessional instructor track, or with a very heavy teaching load and little time for research.
Choose Your School Carefully
If your goal is to find employment as an academic once you graduate, the reputation and quality of your program and chosen supervisor matter A LOT. Research grad schools; indeed, treat this as your most important research task EVER. Use the web, reference libraries, journals, and discussions with different professors and mentors. Your decision about where to apply and where to go really matter.
Once you narrow down your list of schools that seem appealing, contact the ones you’re interested in. Grad schools compete for the best students, and will likely be eager to sell themselves to you (if they’re indifferent or rude, you may want to think about whether this indicates something about what it’s like to study there.) Later in the process (say, once you’ve got offers from a couple of places and are trying to decide), you may even want to visit campuses; the ritzier schools may even pay your expenses for a visit.
Here are some things you may want to know about schools that seem interesting:
– What are their completion rates? (As many as 50% of students starting a Ph.D. may not finish.)
– What are the average completion times for the degree?
– What is the placement record of the school like; do their graduates get good jobs? Since some schools are cavalier with claims about successful placement, look for comprehensive evidence (you’re not looking for a few past graduates who got good jobs; you’re trying to find out what their full range of graduates end up doing).
– What kind of funding does the school offer? What proportion of students are funded, and to what level? Is funding through scholarships or TA-ships? How many years of support do they guarantee?
– What is the quality of life like? What are the housing costs like? What’s the town or city like?
– Are there a number of people there you’d like to work with? (If Professor X is the only one you’d want to work with, what happens if she gets hit by a bus the day you arrive? What happens if your interests shift to another part of the field?)
The up-side? If you’re considering grad school, it’s likely because you love the work of your discipline. Grad school means you’ll get to keep doing it full-time (though it’s, of course, possible to be a scholar and thinker in contexts other than grad school, including in some professional schools and professions, or in your spare time). This is the best reason to go to grad school even given my points above: because you will enjoy the ride, even given the uncertainty of the destination.