Chris Blattman

“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?

23 Responses

  1. Stanford recently started a new honors program within the Political Science major to address this issue. My understanding is that there was an intradepartmental debate over whether to reform requirements for the major as a whole or to focus on attracting a few students who are committed to the academic research and looking for something more than the traditional undergrad classes. The program requires students to learn Stata, take more stats/econ, take graduate level seminars, and conduct a research project over the summer. The first cohort hasn’t graduated yet, but it could be an interesting model to provide undergrads who are serious about pursuing rigorous research training they might not otherwise have until grad school.

  2. The closest thing I have seen to what he describes is MIT’s undergrad economics program with the obvious caveat it is structured around economic questions not politics. They have to learn maximum likelihood estimation, how to test for a weak instrument, and do an emprical research paper even if they opt out of doing a thesis. Plus they have to learn enough math to understand what Hicksian demand is. But that is all much more true in theory than practice.

  3. Chris- you studied in both the Canadian and US systems, right? How would you describe the difference between the two? I have often described the US system as being WAY more quantitative-heavy than the Canadian (with the associated benefits and drawbacks), but this post seem so indicate that may not be as widespread as i thought…

  4. BYU has a required methods course for undergrads that covers linear regression and useful extensions (limited dependent variables and the intuition behind things like matching and instrumental variables). It’s not perfect and a lot of students don’t “get” it, but it’s better than most departments I’ve seen, even at much higher-ranked universities. I’m not aware of any political science department that sounds like what the student wants, although I wish I did.

  5. I’d venture that the undergrad-grad disconnect in training and emphasis is not unique to political science, but to many social scientific disciplines, including economics. The difficulty, of course, is finding the balance between students interested in the subject but who will never aspire toward academia or professional practice, versus students who want solid training as the basis for subsequent graduate work. Economics departments have generally settled on a compromise solution of requiring a certain number of math classes (Calc 1–2, linear algebra), but keeping all but the advanced undergrad classes relatively less technically-driven (and encouraging those interested in grad school to both take more math classes, as well as the advanced micro/macro sequence). There will never be a clean solution like the way in most of the natural sciences, I believe, because selection effects bite harder in those majors, and we do a disservice to undergrads that have no intention of practising a professional economists/political scientists if we insist on rigorous coursework regardless. In my view, the two-track major would appear to be a reasonable compromise, so long as the less technical track nevertheless contains some courses that are more technically challenging (for econ, this tends to be econometrics and, to a lesser extent, intermediate micro).

  6. Not exactly what the article proposes, but my undergrad alma mater Carleton College has a pretty heavy research focus. If memory serves, all students take a stats class outside the department, a research methods class where the assignments built up to a poster presenting some original empirical work, at least two grad style seminars with research papers, and a senior project that usually revises one of those papers. Probably not a coincidence that a lot of Carls go into academia, in political science and other fields.

  7. I studied poli sci. as an undergrad, and we were required to take econometrics, quantitative political methodology, political inquiry, and a large portion of my elective courses required independent quantitative research papers. There were also many opportunities to do research as RA’s for professors or at the various research centers on campus. I feel I came out with a strong background in quantitative methods, and use them often in my current job. I studied at BYU – but I didn’t realize that other programs may not have the same quantitative emphasis.

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