Skip to main content

Suppose you want to influence the way our society works. You’re certain that enrolling in a PhD program in political science is a good next step, but you’re looking for some guidance on which schools to apply to. In this podcast, IHS’s Jeanne Hoffman sits down with Dr. Nigel Ashford to discuss how to choose a PhD program in political science.

The topics covered include:

  • The five types of political science programs.
  • The importance of a program’s rankings.
  • What you should be looking for in a faculty advisor.
  • Programs for people who believe in limited government or are libertarians.
  • What you can do to increase your chances of getting into your top-choice program.

Transcription for “Choosing a PhD Program in Political Science”

Jeanne Hoffman:
Welcome to this IHS online podcast. I’m Jeanne Hoffman. Today my guest is Nigel Ashford, and we’re talking about choosing a political science graduate program and using your degree. Dr. Ashford is the Senior Program Officer at the Institute for Humane Studies. Welcome Dr. Ashford, thanks for joining us once again.

Nigel Ashford:
Thanks for the invitation.

Jeanne Hoffman:
What should you think about when applying to political science programs?

Nigel Ashford:
I’m going to start by the assumption that your goal is going into academia. If you’re not, there may be other considerations, but let me assume for the moment that it is. You need to think about who are the people who get academic jobs if that’s your goal. The evidence suggests that there are two main factors determining where you get an academic job. The first is the ranking of the department of your institution.

One thing we need to be clear about is that when you looked for undergraduate programs you looked at the ranking of the university.

One thing you need to be clear about is that’s not necessarily the same thing as the ranking of the department. Sometimes, you’ll have a good school, but the political science department isn’t great, or you’ll have a mid-ranking school but the political science department is really good.

You need to know about the ranking of the political science departments. You can look, for example, at US News and World Report have a website or APSA. If you go to APSA, American Political Science Association, they have a ranking of schools. So the ranking of the department is one thing.

The second thing that’s most important is your faculty advisor.

That’s going to make a big difference to whether you get an academic job or not. One of the things you need to know before you’re going there is. “What is the general area I’m going to work with? What are the field I want to work with?”

In political science, we usually identify five fields:

  • American politics
  • comparative politics
  • international politics or international relations
  • political methodology
  • political theory

You need to know, “Which of those fields do I expect to work on?” That may change as you go through your graduate program, but you know in advance. Then you need to ask, “Well, who does American politics if that’s my field? Is anybody in American politics in that department doing stuff that relates to the things that I’m interested in?” You need to delve down quite deeply into looking at individual faculty members in making a decision.

The third thing, you also have to take into account your own quality of life.

Do you want to live on the West Coast, do you happy to live in a big city, etc.? These things may also affect your decisions, but the most important thing in terms of getting a job is the ranking of your department and who your faculty advisor is.

Jeanne Hoffman:
Is there much difference between the programs themselves?

Nigel Ashford:
Generally speaking, they’ll be the same. Some of them are stronger in others. Again, that’s something you might want to, when you look at the ranking of the sub-fields, you might want to look at. “Oh, that’s really good in political theory, but I don’t want to do political theory,” or, “I want to do American politics, and this school looks really good. It seems to have a lot of people working in American politics.” You may have a very specific interest. “I want to do research on India.” You need to do the research about in which departments that have faculty members that work on something like India.

I think once you’re there, you will be expected to do a variety of different coursework so you get some sense about all these different fields, and indeed you may then change your mind about where you’re going. Broadly speaking though, it’s fairly similar, and if you go to their websites they will often say, “We’re known for our strength in one of these sub fields.”

Jeanne Hoffman:
What about specifically in the top programs?

Nigel Ashford:
Again, the top programs, most of them are fairly large departments, so that means they should have good people in all the sub-fields that you’re looking at. Again, you may want to be careful that maybe the top person in your field that you’re interested in is retiring soon, so they’ll be gone. Is there somebody else there who’s also of good name in your field?

The thing I was thinking you should think about when you’re applying to graduate school: “What’s the question that interests me? What drives my interest, my intellectual interest? What are the things that I’ve read that have stimulated that interest? Where do the professors who I’ve read, what departments are they at?”

That may give you a clue, “Oh, that’s the sort of person I would like to work with, because they seem to be interested in the same things that I’m interested in.”

Jeanne Hoffman:
Are there any programs that are overtly friendly to Classical Liberals?

Nigel Ashford:
No. There may be specific individuals who are, but I can’t say, “Oh, you should go to this particular department because it particularly sympathetic to classical liberals.” What you may want to do is, where you see where is a good department that looks good in what you’re interested in, you might want to contact the IHS and say, “Is there anybody in that department who’s sympathetic to classical liberal ideas?”

There might be somebody in your field that you we can tell you, or they may not be in your field but they’re at least in your department. I come out of the question, the most important thing is a ranking and the faculty advisor. There’s no “The Classical Liberal School” that you should go to.

Jeanne Hoffman:
Once I decide what programs I want to apply to, do you have any advice that’s specific to political science for the application process?

Nigel Ashford:
I think you’ll find most of the departments have on their own websites, “This is the process. These are the things you’re going to apply for.” It tends to be the same sorts of things you’d expect elsewhere.

The GRE is very important. So is how well you did at school. Getting good recommendations from your professors matters. They tend not to vary that much in political science than from other disciplines.

It’s also very important to find a reason for why you’re applying to that school. You’re giving a clear reason about why you’re interested in that particular school. I don’t think political science is that much different than other sorts of disciplines.

Jeanne Hoffman:
How open should I be when applying to programs or discussing applying with faculty with my classical liberal views?

Nigel Ashford:
You don’t want to label yourself as a classical liberal. You’re going to work with people who are not classical liberals. You shouldn’t be accepted onto a program because you’re a classical liberal. You shouldn’t be accepted onto a program because you’re a Marxist.

What you should be accepted for is you have interesting questions. Things that interest you.

Now, you presumably think that by pursuing this question it will lead you to classical liberal friendly results, but you should start from the question, because you want to find a faculty member to work with who’s interested in the same question. As long as you do good work, they won’t mind that it ends up with a classical liberal solution.

I think you should these sorts of situations with “What’s a question that interests me?” Not: “I’m a Classical Liberal; therefore, you should accept me at your school.”

Jeanne Hoffman:
What kinds of coursework could I expect in my first year and is there anything I can read to prepare for that?

Nigel Ashford:
One of the things you should look at are the courses. There may be some courses which are compulsory that you have to take. For example, you’ll probably have to take some courses in political methodology.

  • Look at what the courses are that you’ll have to take, and often the syllabi are on the website.
  • Familiarize yourself with the courses that are going to be your choices in your first year.
  • Look at what those courses are that you’re going to take and what are the books that are recommended for that. The more work you can do before you arrive for the courses you’re going to take, the better.

Jeanne Hoffman:
Aside from academic careers, what type of careers could I get after completing a PhD program in political science?

Nigel Ashford:
The American Political Science Association has a section, indeed a whole booklet, on careers in political science. They list sixty different careers other than academia that are interested in people with a political science graduate program. Some obvious choices might include working in government in executive or the congressional branches.

Remember to not only think about the federal level, but to consider the state and local level as well.

There may be opportunities like working in journalism or working for a think-tank or a policy analyst. Working in government affairs for corporations and business, is also an option. (Sad to say, they’re strongly affected by what goes on in government and most business people have no idea how the political system works.)

You can bring your knowledge to table and explain how the political system affects their business and what they need to do to try and (as I would put it) limit the damages that government will do to them.

There are lots of opportunities other than academia. Just to mention, if you are interested in non-academic careers, that might actually affect where you go to do your PhD. Some places may not be so highly ranked for academic purposes, but might actually be more highly ranked for non-academic careers.

Jeanne Hoffman:
Thank you very much for your insight into political science programs.

Nigel Ashford:
Thank you.

Here is the timeline for our application process:

  1. Apply for a position 
  2. An HR team member will review your application submission  
  3. If selected for consideration, you will speak with a recruiter 
  4. If your experience and skills match the role, you will interview with the hiring manager
  5. If you are a potential fit for the position, you will interview with additional staff members
  6. If you are the candidate chosen, we will extend a job offer


All candidates will be notified regarding the status of their application within two to three weeks of submission. As new positions often become available, we encourage you to visit our site frequently for additional opportunities that align with your interests and skills.