I am a self-confessed political junkie and have followed the electoral process for many years.  I totally understand, given the current presidential election cycle that many college-bound students might be apprehensive about careers and an education in government and politics. Today, as we head into the close of the cycle, I felt compelled to write a post to encourage college-bound students to become engaged in public service within “the system” or as an advocate for change from outside it.

I can imagine what some readers might be thinking: an undergraduate Political Science degree cannot lead to an entry-level job after graduation where the graduate will use the major. It is a complete waste of credits and time. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The education gained in any major, including Political Science, no matter how “easy” or “hard” in a cynic’s mind, can be parlayed into a rewarding career, provided a student builds upon a career direction while s/he is still in school. It also helps if the school will not leave a student with a pile of excessive debt to pay for a bachelor’s degree. While entry-level jobs in government and politics are not as difficult to get for those who built a resume in college, they are not as lucrative as those in Accounting, Computer Science or Engineering. The senior-level positions can be, for those who are willing to pay their dues.

Analytical and leadership skills are highly prized in politics. You do not need to become a lawyer to acquire such skills. But they can be acquired in college by becoming involved in campaigns, causes and student organizations on campus. It is useful to understand demographics and statistics. It is more important to learn how to write well and to talk to and listen to people who may neither understand nor agree with your views. Policy ideas are “sold” much like many products or services that you can buy in a store. A legal education is certainly useful for those who want to turn public policy ideas into legislation and for interpreting policies and regulations that are already law. However, there are lobbyists who work the legislative process who have never gone to law school, let alone become lawyers.

The best way to succeed as a Political Science major is to develop complementary skills within as well as outside of the major. My own undergraduate education with a Political Science major, for example, included courses in Accounting, Computer Science, Economics, Geography and Mathematics as well as the more quantitative work in Political Science and Urban Planning. If you envision working in the political process at any level and you have the opportunity to take courses in Journalism Writing, First Amendment Law, Marketing or Statistics courses, you should. These are valued skills for anyone who has to help their boss get elected and to help her sell her ideas if she does.

I knew of others who majored in Political Science who chose elective courses with the intent of presenting an impressive transcript with a very high GPA that would help them to gain admission to law school. However, too many people choose this strategy with little to no idea of what a lawyer actually does. If your interest is to use the Political Science major as a “pre law” track, then consider schools that will help freshmen find “shadowing” experiences in a law office between the fall and spring semester breaks and also aid sophomores in finding internship opportunities in the law. I strongly advise against choosing courses with law school admission as the primary goal unless the student truly knows that s/he wants to be a lawyer.

Many elected, appointed and career public servants have successfully worked in government and politics without the benefit of a law degree. These days the debt can be an albatross around the neck of a young man or woman wants to be more engaged in politics than in the practice of law. I have also heard comments such as “I’ll make my money as a lawyer before running for office.” That can happen if you graduate from law school with good connections and little debt. And how can that happen? A family can treat the costs of a law degree as an obligation much like college and pay all of the costs. The law student can go to law school with the aid of a generous scholarship. Or s/he can work, even in some public service positions, and attend law school at night.

Politics is actually one of the easier professions to gain entry as a college student, provided that you are willing to work for very little money at the start. The entry point is, more often than not, an unpaid internship in service to a governor, legislator or mayor or as a volunteer for a political campaign. However, depending on a college’s connections as well as interests, upper-class Political Science majors can also work in corporate government and community affairs offices, lobbying and polling firms and city manager’s offices. The more complementary skills you have, the better the position will be. The better located your college, whether it be in Washington DC, a state capital or large city, the more likely that you can graduate with a resume that shows more than one internship experience.

You can get college credit for that position during the school year, provided that you go to school in a place that’s in or near work and have a professor who is willing to sponsor the internship. At the same time an intern has to realize that s/he is there to help their boss accomplish their agenda, not to show off their conclusions from a research paper that got an ‘A’ from a demanding professor. Every profession requires its youngest workers to pay their dues. Politics is no exception. But good work is often rewarded with the offer of a new position with a higher salary and more responsibility, no matter where you attend college.

Need help considering an academic program, or choosing between them at different colleges? Contact me at stuart@educatedquest.com or call me at 609-406-0062.

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