What Do Political Scientists Do?

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A young politician, staffer, or lobbyist holds with his arms folded, with a confident smile. The United States Capitol building is in the background.Political scientists are the researchers and analysts who help provide the framework for government operations and public administration. As the test preparation company The Princeton Review described them, “political scientists study the structure and theory of government and seek practical and theoretical solutions to political problems.”

Political science and public administration are intertwined. Both public administrators and elected officials rely on political scientists’ data and expertise to determine executive or legislative strategies and carry out their respective responsibilities.

In terms of occupational preparation, education, and experience in political science can provide a solid foundation for a master’s in public administration (MPA). Likewise, an MPA from a program such as Ohio University’s online Master of Public Administration can help prepare graduates for a range of political science careers.

What Is Political Science?

Political science, as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) explains, is the study of the origin, development, and operation of political systems. Practitioners specialize in researching political ideas and analyzing governments, policies, political trends, and associated issues. Concentrations may include national politics, comparative politics, international relations, or political theory.

The field shares many characteristics with other social sciences, Encyclopedia Britannica adds, but political science “is distinguished from them by its focus on power – defined as the ability of one political actor to get another actor to do what it wants – at the international, national, and local levels.”

Political science, the encyclopedia continues, “studies institutions and behavior, favors the descriptive over the normative, and develops theories or draws conclusions based on empirical observations, which are expressed in quantitative terms where possible.”

Typical tasks for political scientists, according to the BLS, include:

  • Researching political subjects, such as the U.S. political system and foreign relations
  • Collecting and analyzing data from sources that may include public opinion surveys
  • Developing and testing political theories
  • Evaluating the effects of policies and laws on government, businesses, and people
  • Monitoring current events, policy decisions, and related issues
  • Forecasting political, economic, and social trends
  • Giving presentations and publishing articles based on their research

The BLS continues with some of the techniques political scientists use:

  • Using historical documents to analyze past government structures and policies
  • Analyzing voter registration data to identify voting patterns
  • Researching the effects of government policies on a particular region or population and using that information to help plan, develop, or carry out policies

According to the BLS, more than half (53%) of political scientists worked for the federal government in 2018, the most recent year for which figures were available. The next largest group – 26% — worked in professional, scientific, or technical services.

The Princeton Review, however, notes that the “vast majority” of political scientists teach at the college and university level while also conducting research and publishing articles and books about political theory. Topics of current interest for political scientists in the United States include welfare reform, political campaigns and elections, foreign relations, and immigration.

No matter which career path they choose, political scientists need certain skill sets to be effective. According to the BLS, those abilities include:

  • Analytical skills, needed when collecting, evaluating, and interpreting qualitative and quantitative data.
  • Communication skills, essential for writing reports, giving presentations and collaborating with colleagues.
  • Creativity, which is necessary when exploring new ideas and information, as well as for staying up to date on political issues and coming up with ways to think about and address them.
  • Critical-thinking skills, which are a must for examining and processing information and drawing logical conclusions from the data.

Career Outlook and Salary

Employment prospects for political scientists appear to be generally positive.

The BLS expects employment for political scientists to increase 5% from 2018 to 2028, which is about average for all occupations.

But The Princeton Review sees changes ahead stemming from recent societal shifts.

“Fewer vacancies at colleges and universities will mean that competition for existing jobs will be keen,” the organization says. “With the move toward smaller, more efficient government, jobs in local, state, and federal government agencies will shrink rapidly. Limited employment opportunities will be available in the private sector with certain industries, political parties, and individuals seeking public office.”

It concludes, however, that “while future job opportunities are limited, the position itself has been around for a long time and should remain secure.”

Because computers are crucial to the data analysis that constitutes much of what contemporary political scientists do, The Princeton Review continues, “individuals with strong computer training and language skills will fare far better in the field, particularly those specializing in the areas of public administration and public policy.”

As of May 2019, the median annual salary for political scientists was $122,220, according to the BLS. Top earners worked in professional, scientific, or technical services ($133,200), followed by federal government employees other than those in the postal service ($126,060).

Political Science and the MPA Degree

Working in the field and advancing as a political scientist means earning a graduate degree.

“The job of a political scientist is an intellectually challenging one and places a premium on higher education,” The Princeton Review says. “Most jobs require a master’s degree. … Students who specialize in a particular field such as public administration, international relations, or public law will fare slightly better in seeking jobs.”

The BLS notes that an MPA is a popular degree choice, especially for professionals who want to work in government administration. MPA programs offer courses in research methods, policy analysis, and related topics, as well as specific concentrations that can give job seekers an edge over their competition. Other graduate options include a master’s in public policy or public affairs.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Public Administration (MPA) Program

Ohio University’s online MPA program is dedicated to preparing professionals for a career in public administration. Through the university’s prestigious Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, students build skills in policy, leadership, business, management, and communications. The school occupies the No. 18 spot in the SR Education Group’s 2020 Best Online Colleges Offering MPA Programs ranking.

The program, which is 100% online, offers four concentrations: Public Leadership and Management, Nonprofit Management, State and Local Government Management, and Crisis and Emergency Management. Students can finish their degree programs in as few as two years.

Recommended reading:

Citizen Engagement in Public Administration
Policy Analysis in Public Administration
Using Innovative Practices for Change in Local Government


Princeton Review, Political scientists
Encyclopedia Britannica, “What is pollical science?”
Princeton Review, “Political science and the MPA”