“Is majoring in political science worth the empty credits and lack of research?”

That is Columbia senior Alex Merchant indicting his major in the Columbia student newspaper. I’ve only been teaching at Columbia two days, so it’s too soon for me to say whether he’s right about this department, but it seems to me to be a fair assessment of too many political science undergrad degrees:

A major in political science should be a research-oriented degree that trains students to analyze complex political and social issues in a precise way. Sadly, the Department of Political Science rarely provides such an education.

Political Science could be the most stimulating program at Columbia College, unique in how it trains both the left and right brain and in providing tangible skills and experience, all the while continuing to expose students to the classic debates about what makes society, democracy, and the nation tick. While the department has a fantastic faculty, the structure of the major does a disservice to undergraduates.

Two issues weaken the program and make it easy to coast through: Students can avoid doing serious research until their required senior seminars and the department does a poor job of instructing in the science of political science.

The lack of research and skills training is the worst offense. Students shouldn’t be left on their own to construct a rigorous program. It doesn’t make sense that graduate students conduct research while undergraduates mostly read 25-page articles and repeat their arguments on a test. Since the discipline is research-based and often quantitative, the department must balance teaching undergraduates foundational arguments with developing analytical skills and research experience.

…What about students who aren’t interested in the quantitative skills? Students exclusively interested in political theory and in qualitative research would merely be confronting the discipline in its modern, more quantitative form. If a handful of quantitative classes tailored to “right brainers” seems unappealing, some students might be happier in other disciplines that examine politics in a purely qualitative way.

I’m not certain I would make the degree so uniform. Political theory (philosophy) might be a reasonable alternative specialization. No reason a discipline could not have two streams, with strong incentives to explore the other. Probably I would let the theorists in a department decide.

Otherwise well said. Worth reading in full.

One caveat: Most professors would love to teach more research-oriented courses that are more quantitative, but we find it very hard to find students with the skills in their third or fourth year, in part because of the absence of requirements, and in part because the students avoid these majors and classes more often than not. We are stuck in a bad equilibrium, that it will take more than just a change in degree requirements to fix.

On how to construct your own degree if left unaided, see my advice to undergrads.

I should know the answer to this question, but I don’t: What US politics departments fit merchant’s description?