Graduate School FAQs

Graduate School in Political Science: FAQs

Here are some common questions asked by students thinking of graduate school – and some answers:

Why go to graduate school?

Graduate degrees promote career advancement for certain types of jobs and are the prerequisite for faculty appointments at the college and university levels.  An MA, Masters Degree, qualifies a person for teaching at a community college while the Ph.D. is required for university-level teaching and research appointments.

But graduate degrees are not just about qualifying people to teach college.  A graduate degree may, for example, also be beneficial for certain higher level positions in the federal and state governments, as well as for positions with consulting firms.

Others are simply interested in extending their education by a year or so in an MA program in order to study a topic of special interest in depth.

Isn’t it expensive?

No. In fact graduate students are often paid to attend graduate school. No one gets rich as a graduate student but it is quite usual for students to have their fees paid for them and some are paid stipends.

What are the qualifications for graduate school?

Most graduate schools require a 3.0 GPA (in Political Science), letters of recommendation, and pretty much all of them require the Graduate Record Exam (GRE); however, most schools do not indicate what score is acceptable, just that you take it and do “well.”

While the GRE is only one of several criteria that graduate schools use to evaluate your application, it is one of the most important.  This is particularly true if your college GPA is not as high as you’d like.  Exceptional GRE scores can open up new opportunities for graduate school.

The GRE General Test contains sections that measure verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing skills.   Most graduate schools consider the verbal and quantitative sections to be particularly important in making decisions about applicants.

As you probably did with the SAT it is worth thinking about taking prep classes to get you ready for the GRE.

If I choose to go for an MA does that mean I have to go on to do a PhD?

No.  You can choose to do either.  You can also choose to pursue an MA at one school and a PhD at another.  At one time, it was common for students to enroll in an MA program and then proceed to the Ph.D.  But many people pursue an MA as a way of seeing if graduate school is for them.  After about a year or 18 months, you get a sense of whether graduate school is for you.  If it isn’t for you then you leave with a qualification in hand.  If it is, then you go on to the PhD. You are, however, far more likely to receive financial help (tuition, scholarship, teaching assistantship) if you apply for a PhD rather than an MA.

What’s expected in a graduate program?

Typically, graduate students take classes (seminars) in different subfields of the discipline: International Relations, Comparative Government, American Politics, Public Administration/Policy, Political Theory and Methodology.   And, at the end of coursework, you are examined in a couple of those subfields of your choosing.  What happens next depends on whether you are in an MA program or a PhD program.  Doctoral (PhD) students are required to write a thesis.  Depending on the institution, some MA programs require a shorter version of a thesis.  Dissertation work can be longer or shorter depending on your topic.  For example, if you have fieldwork in a foreign country or seek to develop skills in statistical analysis, acquiring those skills will add to the time it takes to complete.

One point that is generally true whatever the program is that classes are much smaller at the graduate than at the undergraduate level and require that you read the material for discussion and participate in discussion.  The professors do not really lecture, instead they present ideas from the assigned readings for the students to discuss.

Are there differences in graduate schools?

Yes.  There are wider differences in graduate education than is true for undergraduate education.  Most graduate programs have between 15 to 70 graduate students so grad programs are a lot smaller and a lot more individual than undergraduate programs.  You will not be in big classes.  Furthermore, graduate education is a lot more focused and so you may find some schools concentrate more in some topics than others.  For example, some schools have strengths in particular areas of the world or in particular sub-fields.  In that case, you should shop around for graduate programs by looking at their websites and maybe even visit the schools.  So try to get into the best program that helps you study what you want to study.

How can I find out more?

Obviously, the web and publications like US News offer a great deal of information for when you get further into the process.  But the best way to start finding out about graduate school and what it is like is to ask your TA’s and professors.