A Day in the Life of a Political Scientist

Political scientists study the structure and theory of government and seek practical and theoretical solutions to political problems. Most current studies and research concentrate on tangible topics such as welfare reform, political campaigns and elections, foreign relations, and immigration. The vast majority of political scientists are teachers at colleges and universities where they conduct research and write books and articles on political theory. Political scientists armed with the practical and theoretical knowledge of government may enter political life. They generally do not run for public office, but very often their expertise is enlisted by candidates to ensure a successful run or reelection. A great many become political aides, helping those elected analyze and interpret legislative issues and their constituencies. Some become political commentators on television and radio or write columns for newspapers; others become public opinion pollsters. Political scientists approach problems using one or a combination of four distinct methods: Objective, analytical, comparative, and historical. The adequacy and integrity of a political scientist’s theory rests on his ability to set aside his own prejudices and remain objective in gathering, analyzing and presenting her findings. Using commonly available research-interviews, newspaper clippings, periodicals, case law, historical papers, polls and statistics-to test theories and develop new ones, political scientists analyze, compare, and even trace problems back to their sources. In gathering data, political scientists often employ the technique of the “participant observer,” blending with crowds while carefully observing a particular interaction. The questionnaire is another research tool the political scientist uses. Questions are carefully ordered and worded to be as objective as possible.

Paying Your Dues

The job of a political scientist is an intellectually challenging one and places a premium on higher education. Most jobs require a master’s degree. If teaching at the college and university level is your goal, then nothing less than a Ph.D. will do. Students who specialize in a particular field such as public administration, international relations, or public law will fare slightly better in seeking jobs. Computer and language skills will also significantly enhance job prospects. Entrants start out as trainees in political science research at universities and think tanks or as assistants in independent public opinion research organizations. Education, experience, knowledge and an area of specialty-especially public administration-are indices of better salary levels.

Present and Future

Aristotle, considered by many scholars as an early patriarch of political science and a major influence on the discipline, attempted to classify forms of government. Although Plato further offered his theories on ideal forms of government, political scientists now consider the subject of utopias to belong outside the scope of their discipline. Computers now figure greatly in the organization and analysis of data which forms the core of the political scientist’s work. Individuals with strong computer training and language skills will fare far better in the field, particularly those specializing in the areas of public administration and public policy. Fewer vacancies at colleges and universities will mean that competition for existing jobs will be keen. With the move toward smaller, more efficient government, jobs in local, state, and federal government agencies will shrink rapidly. Limited employment opportunities will be available in the private sector with certain industries, political parties, and individuals seeking public office. While future job opportunities are limited, the position itself has been around for a long time and should remain secure.

Quality of Life


At the two-year level, the political scientist is probably employed as a trainee or a research assistant. He is concerned about acquiring significant experience and working his way up the ranks. It is important that the relative newcomer establish mentorships. Those who have finished their Ph.D.s are either seeking or already have positions as assistant professors.


Five years into the profession, the emphasis is still on experience. Those who have specialized in public administration may see greater progress in their career, moving up the ranks and being called upon to head up research projects. Professors, usually associates by now, are publishing and seeking tenure.


At this level the political scientist teaching at a college or university should be a tenured professor with a body of scholarly research, articles, and books to show for his years of work. The political scientist who started out in research may have advanced to research director at his organization. With ten years of experience, the political scientist has a fairly secure position and commands the respect of his peers and potential employers.