Political science grad school: yes or no?
September 8, 2012 8:54 AM   Subscribe

Political science grad school. Do you know anything about it? Liberal snowflakes.

I have undergrad degree in Government and have been working various lefty causes and campaigns. After some time doing campaigns, I shed fantasies of working as a policy wonk or a lawyer and found my true love: I want to do quantitative work on elections. Polling, modeling, targeting. Tell 'em how to win, I don't need to be on TV. Here's the catch: I didn't figure this out early enough to get a strongly quantitative undergrad degree.

I currently work at an entry-level gig in a survey research shop, and have noticed that most people doing the work I want to do have master's degrees, and those that don't did heavy math for undergrad. Not just in my office, research on people in mid and upper level positions and up at other firms shows the same thing.

I'd like to do more complex work, but don't know if I can teach myself the skills. My contract will expire in November, so it's time to decide what to do now as deadlines for Fall admission are rapidly approaching.

It doesn't seem that not having grad school is a dealbreaker, but it seems to serve as a good credibility chip for when I try to move up the food chain into analyst jobs/fly solo and open my own shop. (One can't be entry-level forever.) I think I need a really good grounding in statistics and higher-level math, and don't know where else to get it. Is this a good enough reason to go?

So, questions:

1) Work training vs. grad school. Is it correct to think employers aren't there to teach, nor do they have the time? Grad school is expensive, but if I don't go I'm concerned I'll hit a wall in a few years. Do you think it's possible to pick up this sort of training through work experience instead of paying a fortune for it? I am not confident I'd be able to teach myself.

2) Admissions. How much does undergraduate GPA matter compared to work experience or field of interest? I had a fairly rocky start (leaving me with a middling GPA from a #3 state school) but will almost certainly ace the GRE if other standardized tests are any indication. I spent most of my undergraduate career focusing way more on internships and work I was doing, and didn't really think to establish relationships with professors or other positioning that grad school applicants need to do. I am less than 5 years out of school.

3) Debtor's Prison. If I tried to pick up these skills with grad school instead of work, I'd be forgoing a couple years of income and taking on tens of thousands in loans. Is there grant aid available for terminal MA students at all? I have no interest in academia, so funded PhDs won't want me. I am already carrying ~$14k in undergraduate debt, and am unmarried. I have never heard of employers sponsoring MAs in this field. Parents have indicated they are willing to help out some (without me asking), but I wring my hands with guilt and want to pay for it myself.

4) Consultants Needed? This is a lot for AskMe. Can you recommend a good counselors or consultant for the grad school process? I am willing to quietly hire a knowledgeable, objective sherpa whose job it is to guide me and bolster my application.

5) Your experiences. Any personal insights on good programs? Looking more for applied political science than public policy. Bonus if there's a data visualization/GIS component.

Location is US, willing to relocate anywhere within. (Willing to leave if it's cheap somewhere, but planning on staying in the US for life.) I will be asking some people I know inside the political bubble, but I think it would be useful to hear some perspectives from the rest of the world. This is the kind of thing my family or friends don't really know much about.

Throwaway: wharrgarblpolitics@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (6 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Can you take some community college courses and/or local U courses through extension? Statistics for social scientists, sampling, and questionnaire design would probably be enough to get you to the next stage of employment.
posted by k8t at 9:31 AM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding the idea of going to school at night so that you don't forego the income, daily experience, and active connections to people in the field. But I do think you're probably right that earning a masters would help you advance even though the field also highly values experience.
posted by slidell at 9:44 AM on September 8, 2012

I'm inside the political bubble and was actually angling for this very career track until I realized I didn't want to spend that much time in spreadsheets - but it's a great field to go into, and there's a lot of opportunity.

I think you're right that many of the people doing high-level data work for political consulting firms have advanced degrees, but I've noticed that it's mostly PhDs. However, I suspect that this is more that people get PhDs and then decide to go into consulting instead of academia, rather than a PhD being a requirement for these jobs.

I'm not convinced an advanced degree is necessary to get a start in this field because I know lots of people who do this work without one. And most of the big pollsters on the Dem side at least just have BAs. Same with a lot of the senior data people for many of the largest advocacy groups.

I'd suggest trying to see how you do without a degree for now, maybe taking some night classes in stuff like GIS or econometrics. I would also suggest doing NOI's advanced data training the next time it's offered - I did it and found it really helpful. A lot of the analysis needed is honestly pretty low/mid-level stuff, and even just knowing what a p-value is and how to conduct an A/B test will take you pretty far for a while (basically, stuff you can learn in two semesters of stats). The great thing about being into this work is that most people are either terrified of it or think it sounds boring - so if you're good and enthusiastic about it, you can go pretty far.

I could go into a lot more specifics but I don't want to write a whole essay. Feel free to memail me if you have more questions - I can also make some recs on places to look for jobs without an advanced degree.
posted by lunasol at 10:21 AM on September 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Given what you want to do, I'd think an MA in statistics, GIS, or survey research would be more useful to you than an MA in political science. There are programs out there in all 3, and even programs in campaign management (though I know too little about them to know if they're any good at all). At least some of those programs will probably allow you to take courses in vote behavior from the polsci department, which is pretty much all you'd need from polisci. It's not like you need a working knowledge of Plato, realist IR theory, or comparative development to work as a survey analyst.

It works against my own interests, sort of, but I'd recommend applying to funded PhD programs too. It feels crappy, but if those are the incentives programs are giving you, you can hardly be faulted for following them. The bar I'd set for honesty about this is that it's okay so long as you are not completely closed to the idea of getting your phd. In any case, once funded you can quit after an MA, quit while ABD, get your PhD and not be an academic, or -- who knows -- discover you want to do your own research instead of the same poll analysis year in and year out.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:44 AM on September 8, 2012

Oh, and as to this:

Looking more for applied political science than public policy.

Many public policy programs essentially are applied poli sci, albeit with a dose of applied econ and sociology. Mine was. So I definitely wouldn't write off public policy programs.
posted by lunasol at 10:48 AM on September 8, 2012

I agree that there's very little need for a full-on advanced degree. It might be worth getting a certificate in something relevant (randomly selected example.) These cost much, much less and offer a lot of the networking/work-focused stuff that you want from a grad school program.

What are your current math skills like? How long has it been since you took College Algebra? Did you take stats for social science? Have you ever used a stats program like SPSS? Do you feel like you could ace the GRE math stuff if you took it next week?

If the answers are "bad" to the above, I suggest you first focus on seriously improving your math skills. Go through the Khan Academy stuff (the actual practice modules) till it's all easy, watching the videos when you need to. Then buy a GRE math book and use the practice exam to see what else you might need. At that point you'll know all the math most grad programs expect people to have, and will definitely be ready for stats pretty much anywhere. Khan has the really simple stats stuff in the practice modules and quite a lot of stats stuff in the videos.

A person with a college degree and experience in the field will feel like the majority of community college math/early stats stuff is way below them - GIS and visualization, if offered, will be less bad, as will the calculus and advanced stats stuff. The trouble is that community college programs are geared toward people who didn't do that well in high school math, because there's a gazillion people who did badly in Algebra I in 8th grade in community college. I don't see much reason to do anything easier than calc or the second stats class for science majors from a CC - you'll basically teach yourself, with Khan, etc., faster, easier, and much cheaper.

(Khan's math and science videos are approximately 3000% times more helpful than the CC classes I took in those same subjects.)
posted by SMPA at 10:50 AM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

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