A political scientist is a person who studies government, political processes and political issues in a scientific way, often within the context of an academic institution. This field of study encompasses many things besides the formal institutions of government. Formal laws are indeed studied, but so are things like public opinion, parties and economics. As a science, the study of politics in an academy strives to be systematic, objective and impartial. Randomness and subjectivity are avoided, while personal biases and partisan views are kept out of the process. A political scientist can give opinions as well as conclusions, but they are always based on fact and supported by evidence and reasoning.
The field is diverse and includes many different subfields. Some political scientists specialize in the study of a single country's unique institutions, such as in the study of American Government. Then there is the subfield of Comparative Politics, which compares different systems like democracies, republics, monarchies, etc. Political Economy is the subfield that deals with economic policy, such as fiscal, monetary and stabilization measures, as well as public regulation of industry. Foreign policy, military questions, national security, trade policy and international finance would generally fall under the category of International Relations. Finally, there are the two closely related subfields of Political Theory and Philosophy. These two areas would deal with more philosophical and analytical questions like justice and rights, and how these concepts would be applied to current institutions; for example, the ways in which political reform might lead to a more just or efficient arrangement of society.
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In an academic setting, the process often starts with curiosity about some observed fact. The political scientist asks intelligent and answerable questions, and then the process of gathering data or doing research begins. If the questions are more philosophical or historical, research might involve reading texts, either classic works by thinkers like Plato or more contemporary historical works. On the other hand, if the questions concern more practical matters like government economic policy, the researcher might spend time looking at statistics on recent budget deficits or the rate of inflation. The results of research are often published in academic journals or in book form.
Besides pursuing academic knowledge for its own sake, political scientists also engage in four other broad areas of activity: advice, commentary, government employment and direct political action. Political advice involves providing policy analysis and consultation to governments and corporations. Political commentary involves expressing opinions on the important issues of the day through various media, such as newspapers, television, radio, and blogs. Government employment means working for some public entity or agency, whether at the national, state or local level. Finally, direct action could mean being an actor in the political process itself, either through holding an elected office or engaging in lobbying activity on behalf of a company or a cause.
The most important quality is a healthy curiosity and the desire to understand. The political scientist is an asker of questions and a seeker of truth. The questions posed must be answerable, at least in principle. Training in political science is a matter of becoming more skilled in asking questions and more skilled in finding the material for answering them. For those subfields that touch on quantitative matters, such as economic policy or public opinion polling, skill with statistics is essential. In more philosophical subfields, ability to analyze abstract logical relationships and to present reasoned and persuasive arguments is a valuable skill. In fields like International Relations, fluency and facility in a particular foreign language and ability to adapt to different cultures is often very helpful.
In order to secure a university position as a political scientist, some degree of formal study is normally required. This typically means at least some post-graduate work in a university. In many countries this process culminates in the completion of a dissertation and the granting of a doctorate. For some non-university positions, such as with a government agency or a "think tank, " a doctorate might not always be required. The requirement will vary depending on the needs of the particular agency or organization. One should never just assume that a doctorate is an absolute prerequisite for a particular job.
Political scientists may be found in a variety of workplaces. Of course, professors and graduate students teach and do research within the ivy-covered walls of universities. Within the skyscrapers of big cities, many graduates of political science programs are employed as policy analysts, writers, and commentators, and find themselves working in bustling offices or television studios. Yet others are called to public service and may spend their time within the halls of government. Finally, those who work for private corporations may have their workplaces located on placid suburban campuses.
According to a November 2008 report of the American Political Science Association, for PhD-granting departments in the United States, the average starting salary that year for junior faculty hired with a PhD with teaching experience was $65,547. For privately funded institutions, the average starting salary that year for junior faculty hired with a PhD with teaching experience was $63,683; for publicly funded institutions the corresponding figure was $57,966.