WHAT CAN I DO WITH POLITICAL SCIENCE?


The short answer to this question is "Exactly the same thing you can do with almost any other liberal arts major." But since we're at a university, it will take a while to explain this rather counter-intuitive conclusion and expand on several related points.

NOBODY CARES WHAT YOUR MAJOR IS EXCEPT YOU (AND YOUR PARENTS)

All the evidence we have suggests that, after you leave Rutgers, practically no one will care what you majored in. Potential employers will want to know whether you have the necessary abilities and skills to do whatever job they want done. A knowledge of French, say, may be required for the job, but the question will be how good your French is, not how many courses you took in it or what grades you got. Even graduate schools don't care much; one Political Science teacher in this department majored in physics, for example.

Let me give you two real-life examples. Some years ago I spent three semesters on leave working for Exxon Corporation in New York. While having breakfast with one of my bosses (I had lots of bosses at Exxon), I asked him how he had wound up in his current job. It turned out he had majored in art history and was very enthusiastic about his studies. Now I happen to know that Exxon hired at his level only lawyers, accountants, and chemical engineers, but his background hadn't prevented him from becoming a senior executive in what was then the largest multinational corporation in the world. At about the same time I ran across an article about a physician in California who had won the Nobel Prize for medicine; the article noted without comment that he had majored in 17th Century French literature.

What's going on here? Why does your major have so little connection to your occupation? The reason is quite simple. We won't let you specialize much in liberal arts education; to put it crudely, you won't learn enough in your major field to get hired just because of that knowledge. If you major in economics, for example, you're not an economist; you're someone with a bachelors degree who took some courses in economics. (If you want to become an economist, you'll have to do like your teachers and spend seven to ten years living economics twenty-four hours a day. However, since you are a sane person, you probably have better sense. If not, graduate school awaits.)

But don't we teach you anything useful? Liberal arts education specializes in breadth, not depth. You can find whole departments teaching subjects you never even heard of. As you know, we require you to take courses in a number of different fields in order to graduate; you've probably been complaining about it ever since you arrived. The faculty does this, not just because we're sadistic (although of course...), but because we want you to learn to think and learn in many different ways so that you will be able to learn things that will be essential to your job (not to mention your life) later on.

Ideally, of course, we would just teach you the knowledge you will need for the next fifty years or so and let it go at that; it's certainly much easier than teaching you how to think, which is hard. Unfortunately we haven't a clue what knowledge you will need. When I graduated from college in 1963, it never occurred to anyone that I would someday learn to use a personal computer to create manuscripts, do statistical analysis, read and send e-mail, and surf the World Wide Web. So instead I was taught how to learn different things and how to think in different ways, and when the time came I struggled through the computer manuals and changed my life. The knowledge you get in college isn't important in itself; what's important is learning how to get the knowledge you will need and then how to use it. So a study of the likelihood of war comparing the Greek city-states with an classroom simulation (to pick an example from one of my courses) will never be "useful information" to my students again, but hopefully they will have a much better idea about how to analyze future social problems as a result.

College graduates have relatively little specialized knowledge. Instead they (hopefully) have the critical skills of reading, writing, analysis, and open minds. Employers aren't fools (mostly); they don't expect Ph.D. knowledge from a B.A. If they hire a college graduate, they want someone who can learn and do things which will help them. By and large, they couldn't care less what your major was. (The one exception comes in your first job, if you show them a record where the only thing of note is your major. So the trick is to get some more things to show them which they will find more useful--see the next section.)

Moreover, while your first job seems absolutely critical to you now, it also is not likely to shape your life. Management consultants claim that you will typically change not just your job but your entire career several times during your lifetime, and most of you will wind up working in fields that don't even exist now. Survival in this rapidly changing job world will depend, not on your specialized knowledge which will quickly become obsolete, but in your ability to learn new skills and adapt to new situations, precisely what liberal arts tries to teach in its roundabout way.

The good news about all this is that you can study Political Science without penalty; you probably won't ruin your life if you major in the field. The bad news is that no liberal arts major puts you on a track which leads directly to one particular, clearly-defined job. That's the difference between liberal arts and the professional majors like engineering, agriculture, fine arts, communications, pharmacy, etc. If you graduate from the pharmacy program, it is likely you will get a job as a pharmacist. If you graduate with a liberal arts major, you can get a job in practically any field, but there is no guarantee of a job in any field. Welcome to post-modern insecurity (easy for me to say--I've got tenure)!

OKAY BUT THEN HOW DO I GET A JOB WITH A LIBERAL ARTS MAJOR?

The whole point of the previous section was to explain why choosing a major and choosing a career are separate choices. If you're nervous about getting a job (and everyone whose family doesn't own a major corporation is), the solution isn't to pick the "right major." Instead, try to acquire the skills and experiences which will make you more attractive to an employer. About a million people will graduate from college in your year; you need something on your resume which will make you look different than the rest. After that, it's a matter of job performance broadly defined, which is up to you. The trick is to use the academic resources available in the university; after all, you're paying for them, so you might as well get their benefit. There are lots of opportunities at Rutgers, but as you have probably already noticed, you have to seek them out; they don't come looking for you.

A. Give a lot of time to your studies (that by itself will put you in front of a fair number of your classmates). Faculty assume that full-time students are full-time students, not full-time employees of Federal Express who study in their spare time. Students can get through college while working full-time and taking a full college schedule, but they will lose a large amount of the experience they are paying such a price to get.

B. Pick your classes and teachers with care. Ask your friends about courses and teachers, even though you will have to decide how much of their judgements are useful for you. Student evaluations of faculty will soon be available in the reserve rooms of the libraries; use them. If you're nervous about a math course, find out what teachers have a reputation for being good with students like you and take them, even if it's at an inconvenient time.

C. Take courses which require reading, writing, and analysis. These skills are like swimming; a little instruction is helpful, but basically the only way to learn is to get into the pool. Getting into the pool means taking courses which will make you use these skills. If you have trouble with them, use university facilities like the Writing Centers and the Learning Resource Centers. If you're not happy with them, complain (loudly) to faculty or your college advisors.

D. Seek out opportunities to get experience out of class which will help later on. Internships are particularly important. In an internship you work for no money in return for experience and contacts. You can arrange this on your own if you like, but it's easier if you work through a university, both because we can give you a little academic credit in lieu of salary and because your employers have an incentive to give you interesting work if they hope to get more students to work for them in the future.

The Political Science Department runs several different internships. One is the Washington semester, a full-time job in Washington combined with academic experiences, a major paper, and living with students from other schools; a shorter version is available in the summer, although there are real advantages to staying for a full semester. There is a brochure available in the department. We also run a local internship course both for those students who have found their own placements and for those who have not. Another option is the Citizenship and Service Education (CASE) program, which puts students into the community in placements related to their academic courses; several of our introductory courses have CASE sections for extra credit, for example, as do many courses in other departments.

Most importantly, internships let you decide whether this particular line of work is something you like or not. You will learn how to operate in a work environment. You will get recommendations by bosses who have seen you work, which are more impressive than those from teachers since you're being hired to be a worker, not a student. You get a chance to ask people in the field what you should do in order to enter it (specialized education now or later, type of job to apply for, what else do I need to make myself a strong candidate, even whether Licklider was right or whether you really do need a particular major in order to get into the job you want). And you get the personal contacts which often determine what sort of job you wind up with. Internships are an investment of your time in your future, and you need to treat them that way. They are considerable trouble and expense, but they are well worth it.

BUT WHAT DO POLITICAL SCIENCE MAJORS DO AFTER THEY GRADUATE?

The short answer is "lots of things"--now you know why. To be more precise, the appendix of this paper has two list compiled by Rutgers Career Counseling: some recent first jobs of Political Science and history majors and some jobs of experienced alums. Each of these lists has a lot of variety, to put it mildly, and all faculty can add cases from our own experience.

We have lots of pre-law students among our majors, for example, although not because you have to do Political Science to be pre-law. Law schools don't care what you major in, although they seem to prefer liberal arts majors and don't want you to study a lot of law, since they figure we will teach you wrong and they will have to unteach you. But students who are interested in law tend to be interested in politics, so we have a lot of them. And anyway, pre-law is a glamorous answer to give to anyone who asks what you want to do when you haven't a clue.

It's hard to get into law schools (if you want to figure your chances, consult the Pre-Law Handbook at most bookstores and libraries), and they are expensive and take three years. Moreover, jobs are tight for new lawyers, and dissatisfaction in the profession is high, especially among women. Given this, students may want to think seriously about alternatives. It is probably also a good idea to take at least one course which requires extensive reading of cases, since that is what law school involves; the Political Science Department has several such courses. If you're uncertain about whether you want to be a lawyer, try to spend some time in a law office (sorry to keep harping on internships but...)

Probably more of our students wind up in business than any other single career category, just like the U.S. as a whole (see the appendix for supporting evidence). Given this, it makes sense to take some economics--stick with it until you dislike it intensely. Economics by itself isn't essential to a business career, but it's the common language, and people who know it have an advantage. Other graduates go into government, from local and county to national and international. Communications attracts lots of students. Others prefer teaching at various levels. Non-profit organizations offer intriguing careers. One of our graduates became a doctor and later the State Physician of Pennsylvania. Students interested in international careers should consult the separate essay on this subject available in the Political Science Department.

Our graduates go into all of these fields and more (see the lists). But none of them got these jobs because they were Political Science majors. They got them because they persuaded other people that they could do the job, whatever it was. Often this involves finding an organization whose mission interests you, taking a job at a fairly low level, and demonstrating on the job that people who promote you won't be embarrassed. To put it differently, people make their own careers; over time, if they do good work, they can shape their jobs to suit their own interests or move on to those which work better for them.

SO, AFTER ALL THIS, SHOULD I MAJOR IN POLITICAL SCIENCE

I don't know--that's up to you. But my advice (which is worth every penny you're paying for it by reading this web page--none) is to try lots of different things. I even encourage students to take at least one course they don't think they will like every semester; the distribution requirements practically guarantee this will happen for the first two years anyway. Then just follow your nose. Take courses in areas that you like. Find faculty you like and follow them around to take their courses (a good teacher is more important than the course topic anyway, as you know). Eventually you will find that you have a bunch of courses in the same area--that's your major. In other words, major in what you like; you will have much more fun, learn more, and get a higher grade point average (which actually is sometimes useful after school, mostly in getting into other schools--faculty put great stock in grades, but almost no one else does except parents). The worst thing you can do is to major in a field because you "should" major in it or because someone else thinks you should. You're the one who has to do the work--pick your own major. If you can't find what you want among the standard ones, you can design your own.

In the meantime you have to tell Rutgers you're majoring in something to get us off your back. But what if you don't know what you want to major in? Put down something plausible, and don't worry; you're not signing your life away. This is Rutgers--if you change your mind, you just fill out another form. Several years ago a student came in at the end of her junior year and said she wanted to shift her major from chemistry to Political Science. It seemed routine until I discovered that she had never taken a Political Science course before in her life. Despite my protests, she took eleven Political Science courses in her senior and graduated on time with her chosen major. Now, I do not recommend that you do this, but it's an indication of how much flexibility you have to change your concentration even fairly late in your college career.

By the way, if no one cares about your major, they care even less if you double major. Everyone is different, but I think that the only double majors which make sense involve very different fields. We have had a couple of students double major in Political Science and dance, for example. That makes sense to me, since the fields don't overlap much (although we do teach a course on the politics of culture by a senior Political Scientist who is also a novelist and dramatist), so you need to spend a lot of time in each to develop some competence. But a double major in related fields (history and Political Science, for example) winds up repeating a lot of material; more importantly, you can't take advantage of the breadth which is the strength of liberal arts education. This is the only time in your life when you can take a course in astronomy or Buddhism without having to explain it to anyone; use the opportunity to explore your interests. (If your parents ask why you took that weird course, tell them your advisor recommended it. We'll take the heat.) Ultimately you should double major if these are the only two subjects that really interest you. But don't do it because you think it will look good on your transcript. No one will care.

APPENDIX

Taken from "Career Opportunities for Majors in History and Political Science," prepared by Career Services and available there and from the Political Science Department.

First Jobs of Recent Graduates: account analyst, account executive, assistant director of admissions at a New Jersey college, assistant mortgage analyst, customer service representative, department manager at a department store, editor, editorial assistant, federal investigator, financial analyst, health claims examiner, kindergarten teacher, legal assistant, management associate, program development specialist for a country government, research assistant for the New Jersey General Assembly, sales representative, high school social studies teacher, store manger, taxpayer service representative for the IRS, technical analyst for an insurance company.

Jobs of Experienced Alumni: account manager, assistant editor at Philadelphia Inquirer, associate editor with a publisher, associate publisher, directors of labor relations for corporations, deputy state attorney general, career services director at a college, guidance director at a high school, district sales manager for a publisher, director of the New Jersey Election Enforcement Commission, financial consultant for a stockbroker, history professor, human resources manager (the evil Catbert?) for a stockbroker, instructor of Easter Seals, superior court judge, director of a public library, marketing manager, personnel administrator for IBM, police chief, president of a political consulting firm, product development manager for A & P, program officer for the New Jersey Office of Higher Education (now in another job, since the office has been disbanded), public relations director for a charity, purchasing services manager for an insurance company, real estate attorney, real estate broker, reporter, sales representative for Johnson & Johnson, staff associate for a non-profit, planner for New Jersey Office of Planning, specialist in gerontologic services for a charity, budget analyst for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bank vice president, hospital vice president.