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The reeducation of an English major
June 27, 2013 5:23 PM   Subscribe

Having spent the last few years as an attorney, I am contemplating returning to school, with the goal of eventually doing a PhD in Political Science. Potential issue: my background is not in Political Science. How best to fill in the gaps?

First, to be clear, I am not asking whether pursuing a PhD in Political Science is the right idea for me. That's a question I must, can, and will, answer for myself after doing the necessary diligence.

With that out of the way, let me explain my situation. Since graduating from law school three years ago, I have been an attorney (not yours, of course), and the time is approaching for me to move on to something I actually want to do. One avenue I am exploring is pursuing a PhD in Political Science. However, I am quite confident that my academic background (English major followed immediately by law degree) would leave me both a) not a particularly compelling candidate and, more importantly, b) not prepared to excel in a graduate program.

While I don't know precisely what academic background is considered ideal, I'm sure that I am lacking sufficient Political Science and math. I took a handful of Political Science-ish classes as an undergraduate, but neither majored nor minored, and took a handful more in law school. I haven't done any math of any kind since AP Calculus ten years ago. Clearly, I need to do some work to get ready (and, related to the question noted above that I am not asking, to make sure this is something I'm really interested in doing).

My assumption is that I'd likely need to do a master's degree somewhere in order to fill in those gaps in my knowledge/skill set. This is based on my awareness of the MAPSS program at the University of Chicago, which is a one-year masters in social sciences that would appear to offer me the opportunity to polish up my politics and math/stats, albeit at outlandish cost.

So, finally, my question(s): would something like that be enough? Too much? (Almost certainly not too much, but one can hope.) If that's the right way to go, who else offers a good program like that? If I need more, or something else, where best to go? Am I hopelessly far behind?
posted by sinfony to Education (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I'd email a few professors at programs you're interested in and ask them this question. They could tell you much more definitively than anyone here.

That said, looking at for example Stanford's PS program's FAQ, it says: "Are applicants expected to have taken advanced coursework in mathematics and statistics?

No, students are not required to have taken advanced courses in quantitative methods as a prerequisite for admission. In fact, the department offers a two to three-quarter sequence in quantitative methods that introduces first-year students to methodological tools that they can later use in their chosen fields of study."

and

"Is Political Science a required major to apply to your graduate programs?

No, the department does not require that prospective students be political science majors. On the other hand, the department does expect that prospective students have had sufficient exposure to the field for them to develop a clear statement of purpose for attending our graduate program."

My guess is that a law degree could really help you if you worked at a program / with an advisor which valued the intersection of law and political science, indicated on your personal statement you were interested in that intersection, etc
posted by shivohum at 5:34 PM on June 27, 2013


Having some stats under your belt would be nice but the big thing there will be doing well on the math GRE. Even top programs expect their incoming grad students to have limited mathematical or statistical backgrounds.

I can't speak to what top departments would recommend. But I would recommend reading some on your own before talking to faculty. Depending on what area you think you're interested in (ie American politics, IR, comparative), google up some comprehensive exams and reading lists and try some of the stuff out on your own, concentrating more on recent stuff. Or, if you live somewhere where there's a PhD-granting department that will let you, try taking a course or two as an unmatriculated student. As shivohum's quote from Stanford notes, the big hurdle that you have will be writing a statement of purpose that shows that you have a reasonable clue about social science. Anyway, I'd recommend doing some reading on your own so that when you talk to someone you don't come off as -- and you don't here -- a bored lawyer who doesn't have a clue what polisci is about and will leave in disgust after sucking up a year's fellowship.

If you're thinking of moving into judicial politics, there's good news and potentially bad news. The good news is that that subfield has been a bit of a seller's market for a few years, though that's cooled down a bit. But job prospects remain good. The potentially bad news is that outside of a few departments that focus on "public law," the judicial politics field can be pretty alien to lawyers. At least, it can piss lawyers and law-school types off. It would also skew your favored grad-school departments pretty strongly.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:27 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


However, I am quite confident that my academic background (English major followed immediately by law degree) would leave me both a) not a particularly compelling candidate and, more importantly, b) not prepared to excel in a graduate program.

I can't speak to B, but your confidence with A is misplaced.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:37 PM on June 27, 2013


You're an interesting candidate to say the least. I would email folks in the departments you're interested in and ask them for 30 minutes to discuss this with them. You'd be surprised.

Husbunny is ABD in a Ph.D. in mathematics, then he left school and became an RN, then he went back to school to study Actuarial Science. He did so well in the courses that he was offered a place in the Ph.D. program in Actuarial Science. Didn't express an interest, didn't even apply.

So an interesting background and a keen mind can take you to many amazing places.

Don't just assume shit, talk to the people who would be making those decisions.

Also, discuss what your goal is post Ph.D. to see if this is the right road for you. Do you want to teach? Do you want to work in the private sector? Doing what?

It may be that there is another way of getting where you want to go, outside additional education. Perhaps working in a particular agency or working for the government.

True, you are the one making the decision to do this, and if you're independantly wealthy and it doesn't matter if there's a return on investment, then HEY, more power. But if you're putting your earning potential on hold, or heaven forbid, taking out loans for this shit, think about 700 times before doing this.

If you're bored and hate your job, you can do something about that without going back to school.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:13 AM on June 28, 2013


If you did well at a well ranked law school and have had an interesting practice I would think you would be quite attractive all else equal. You might face questions about whether your academic interests truly lie in poli sci versus law; a PhD is a frequent added credential for lawyers who seek the law school professoriat, which is much higher paid and with a much faster and higher hit rate tenure track.
posted by MattD at 5:20 PM on June 28, 2013


If you did well at a well ranked law school and have had an interesting practice I would think you would be quite attractive all else equal.

It's unlikely to help much except as evidence that you can do well in traditional school environments, unless it feeds into a very social-sciencey statement of purpose.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:55 PM on June 28, 2013


Your assumption here is incorrect. Plenty of folks get into top tier PhD programs in polisci without a political science degree (the fact that you've taken several classes is a plus). Stats skills would be nice, but not really necessary. The most important things in my opinion is writing a strong statement of purpose that shows you have interesting research interests that match the faculty at the place you're applying (plus, of course, stuff like GPA and GRE scores).

You might face questions about whether your academic interests truly lie in poli sci versus law; a PhD is a frequent added credential for lawyers who seek the law school professoriat, which is much higher paid and with a much faster and higher hit rate tenure track.

Don't know why this would be a bad thing? Quite a few folks in my program have gone this route, either having done law school first or taking off a few years during the PhD to get the law degree. No one thinks it is at all a bad thing!
posted by rainbowbrite at 6:35 PM on June 28, 2013


Thanks all for the advice. Ruthless Bunny, unfortunately, I am not independently wealthy, and have little interest in paying off the last of my mountain of law school loans just to incur another pile of debt if at all possible, and certainly not for something I'm lukewarm about. I am not about to rush into anything.

ROU_Xenophobe, could you expand a little on what you mean by this:

The potentially bad news is that outside of a few departments that focus on "public law," the judicial politics field can be pretty alien to lawyers. At least, it can piss lawyers and law-school types off. It would also skew your favored grad-school departments pretty strongly.

I do have a fairly strong interest in the law (it's the practice that puts me off), so judicial politics is definitely a potential area of study for me.
posted by sinfony at 12:37 PM on June 29, 2013


I don't do judicial myself, but:

The most obvious example is that when looking at the Supreme Court, nearly everyone in judicial politics assumes that justices are basically legislators voting their policy preferences and that all the "legal stuff" is just post-hoc rationalization; the idea that justices carefully weight the legal arguments and decide on that basis, or on the basis of precedent, is seen as basically a comforting delusion. If you google stuff on the attitudinal model versus the legal model, you'll find lots.

At lower levels, it seems to study judges as if they were bureaucrats -- people with their own preferences who do what they're "supposed to" insofar as they avoid being disciplined/overruled by higher courts.

Which is to say that it doesn't generally treat the sorts of things lawyers are trained in, and trained to think are important, as terribly important parts of judicial decision-making.

I'd suggest looking at recent winners of the section awards to see what I mean, and to what extent it seems true to you. You can likely find earlier versions by googling the titles.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:53 PM on June 30, 2013


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