Study Political Science: PhD, Master's Degree & Online Class Info

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What will you learn in a political science degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of a master's and doctoral degree and potential careers.
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Political Science Ph.D.s and Master's: Degrees at a Glance

A graduate degree in political science prepares you for public and private sector jobs in areas like policy analysis and survey research. If you're interested in becoming a political science professor, you'll generally need a Ph.D., although a master's degree qualifies you for some positions at community colleges.

Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that political scientists earn very high average annual salaries, you're likely to face fierce competition for these jobs. The BLS predicts that the number of political scientist jobs will increase by just 8% between 2010 and 2020, which is slower than the average for all occupations. It's also worth noting that jobs in survey research are significantly less lucrative, but they have higher projected growth rates (24% between 2010 and 2020). In addition, the number of jobs in postsecondary education is projected to grow by 17% during this time period.

Master's Doctorate
Who Is This Degree for? Individuals interested in pursuing careers in political science analysis and research Those who wish to teach and conduct research at the university level
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Junior college instructor ($68,000 - a Ph.D. may be required for some positions)*
- Political scientist ($105,000 - a Ph.D. or work experience may be necessary for some jobs)*
- Survey researcher ($48,000 - some positions may only require a bachelor's degree, while a Ph.D. may be necessary for high-level jobs)*
- Policy analyst (salary unavailable)
- Political science professor ($84,000)*
- Postsecondary education administrator ($97,000 - some postsecondary teaching experience is usually required)*
Time to Completion 2-3 years full-time 5-8 years full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - About 10 courses
- Comprehensive exam
- Master's thesis
- Approximately 60 credit hours
- Comprehensive exam
- Dissertation
- Teaching assistantship
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree Same as for the master's degree
Online Availability Yes No accredited programs

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011).

Master's Degree in Political Science

Master's degree programs in political science can prepare you to enter the job market upon graduation or proceed to Ph.D. studies. If your ultimate goal is to earn your Ph.D., you should keep in mind that many doctoral programs don't require a master's degree for admission; however, such a degree may be helpful if your bachelor's degree is not in political science or a related field.

Admission to some master's degree programs in political science can be highly competitive, with as few as 15 students being accepted annually. You can expect to take about 30 credit hours' worth of courses for your master's program, and you'll usually be required to complete comprehensive exams and a thesis. However, some schools give you the option of completing additional coursework instead of a thesis.

Pros and Cons


  • Opens up political science career options that aren't available to bachelor's degree holders
  • Can get you ready for research-intensive doctoral programs if the preparation provided by your undergraduate degree program was inadequate
  • You'll qualify for positions that may allow you to provide important public services or influence public policy (analyst, survey researcher, etc.)


  • You could face tough competition for a spot in a master's program, and equally tough competition once you enter the job market
  • It will take you 2-3 years to complete most master's degree programs
  • Since more than half of all political scientists work for the federal government, you may have difficulty finding a job if you don't qualify for federal employment (federal jobs typically require citizenship and Selective Service registration for males).*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2010).

Courses and Requirements

Most programs allow you to choose your courses based on the area of political science you're interested in studying. In addition, you can expect to take research methods courses to prepare you for completion of your thesis. Some programs may also feature seminars focused on a particular area of political science, such as comparative politics or public policy. Depending on the program you choose, you may supplement your studies with work as a research or teaching assistant. Some of the courses you may take as part of your master's program include:

  • Contemporary political theory
  • International relations
  • American political thought
  • Foreign policy

Online Degree Options

Online master's degree programs in political science are less common than on-campus programs, but some solid options do exist. Schools may enroll more students to their online programs than to their on-campus ones, with some programs admitting up to 50 students per year. Additionally, online programs tend to have more part-time students than the on-campus programs do. These programs are usually administered solely online and typically require a thesis.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

The BLS reports that job candidates with superior writing and analysis skills, research and public policy experience and specialized knowledge will have the best prospects. Try to acquire these when you're in grad school by completing an internship or taking specialized courses. You can also improve your prospects by acquiring foreign language or computer skills.

If you're planning to teach in a community college after getting your master's degree, or if you intend to go on to get your Ph.D. and then work as a professor, it's a good idea to get some teaching experience and publish or co-author an article in an academic journal. Keeping up with technology can also give you an edge. Take advantage of opportunities to use online learning delivery systems and teach using multimedia tools.

Ph.D. in Political Science

Just like in master's degree programs, admission to Ph.D. programs is very competitive. A master's degree is not usually required for acceptance, but you'll need a strong academic record. If you're admitted, you'll generally have the opportunity to focus on a specific area of study through your dissertation. Faculty members work closely with Ph.D. students through research assistantships or mentorships. Most programs take 5-8 years to complete, including 2-3 years of core courses and 3-6 years of dissertation research.

Pros and Cons


  • A Ph.D. will qualify you for tenure-track university jobs
  • Many programs offer tuition grants and/or living stipends to accepted students
  • University professors typically earn fairly high salaries and have very flexible schedules


  • Ph.D. programs take a very long time to complete
  • Many political science jobs don't require a Ph.D.
  • Although job growth for postsecondary teaching positions is expected to be average, competition for tenure-track jobs will still be fierce*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2010).

Common Courses and Requirements

The first few years of your Ph.D. program will usually consist of courses and examinations that cover two or three specific fields of study, such as political theory, comparative politics, American politics or international politics. You're generally required to have a dissertation proposal completed by your third year. Some programs require you to serve as a teaching or research assistant while you complete your Ph.D. coursework. In addition to your core courses, you might enroll in elective courses like these:

  • Religion and politics
  • Political violence
  • Political philosophy
  • Economic development

Online Degree Options

At the present time, there are no accredited Ph.D. programs in political science that are available online. If you want to earn a Ph.D. in order to secure a job in academia, it is critical that you select a fully accredited program from a reputable university. You may also have difficulty getting a job in the public or private sector if your degree isn't from an accredited school.

Stand Out With This Degree

Since you're probably hoping to work at a university if you pursue a Ph.D. in political science, you could benefit from obtaining as much teaching experience as possible. Getting your work published in academic journals and presenting it at conferences can also give you a head start towards obtaining a full-time position at a university.

In addition, keeping up with e-learning technology can give you an edge. As online programs continue to increase in popularity and schools implement online learning environments, aspiring professors can benefit from understanding how this technology works.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Walden University

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      • PhD in Public Policy & Administration - General
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    2. Northcentral University

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Featured Schools

Walden University

  • PhD in Human & Social Services - Military Families & Culture
  • PhD in Public Policy & Administration - General

What is your highest level of education completed?

Northcentral University

  • DMFT - Military Family Therapy
  • Doctor of Public Administration (DPA)

What is your highest level of education?

Yale University

West Virginia University

Washington University in St Louis

University of Rochester

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill