Graduate School


To discuss your options for graduate school in more depth please contact Professor Shelley L. or 805-756-2017 or during her office hours on Tuesday from 1:00-5:00 p.m. in Building 47, Room 11C.


Master of Public Policy at Cal Poly

Cal Poly's Master of Public Policy (MPP) degree program is open to students who wish to pursue analytic careers in government, non-profit agencies, or businesses subject to government regulations. The MPP is a professional degree structured to prepare graduates to work as program managers and as analysts. The core courses cover statistics, public policy, public policy analysis, quantitative methods, public finance, policy internship, and graduate seminar. This is a two-year program for students taking 8 or more units per term. The program consists of 55 approved units (not including courses necessary to compensate for deficiencies). For more information, see the Master of Public Policy Web siteApplication information is available here.

Types of Graduate Degrees

There are different types of graduate programs and degrees in Political Science. The biggest distinction is between PhD programs and Masters programs; Masters programs are further subdivided into Master of Arts (MA) in Political Science, Master of Public Administration (MPA), and Master of Public Policy (MPP). PhD programs typically require four to seven years to complete, while MA, MPA, and MPP programs typically require one to two years.

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

A PhD may also be beneficial for certain higher level positions in the federal and state governments, as well as for positions with consulting firms. The MPA, like the Master of Business Administration degree (MBA), is required for management positions in the public sector and is of considerable value in the private sector. The MPP is advantageous for those preparing for analytical careers in business or government.

At one time, it was common for students to enroll in a MA program and then proceed to the PhD. Now, however, it is expected that most students who do want a PhD will initially apply to the PhD program; after a specific number of graduate courses have been completed, the MA may be awarded. But, the MPA is a "terminal degree" - i.e., it is an end in itself rather than a degree conferred enroute to the PhD.

Differences In Graduate Schools

The more prestigious the graduate school, the more competitive admissions tend to be; on the other hand, the more prestigious the program where you get your degree, the better your job options will be when you finish. There is a hierarchy among graduate schools that works like this: if you get a PhD at the University of Wyoming (or North Dakota, Tennessee, South Carolina or other less well-established schools), you will not be hired to teach at Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford or the University of Washington. However, you may be hired to teach at any of the CSU institutions, University of Northern Arizona, Boise State, and so forth. If you receive your PhD at Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford or the University of Washington, then you have a variety of teaching positions available to you. Some schools have strong reputations in some fields, but not in others.

The Top Political Science Graduate Departments

It is difficult to find common agreement on the "best" graduate programs, but U.S. News and World Report ( publishes an annual America's Best Graduate Schools issue that is widely used. Remember that some departments may be well known in one or two areas (i.e. Theory or Methodology) but not in others (i.e., African Politics or Public Law).

What's Expected In Graduate Programs?

What's Expected In MPA Programs?

Most programs span 12 to 18 months and require a core of public administration courses, including Finance, Personnel, Theory, Policy, Comparative Administration, and Quantitative Methods. Good MPA programs offer a breadth of course offerings, resident faculty (in addition to practitioners considered as adjunct faculty), and job placement services.

What's Expected In MPP Programs? These programs are structured like the MPA program, but emphasize analytical techniques related to government, economics, and business. This is still a relatively new degree but one which is more versatile than the typical MA and MPA degree. This degree would qualify you for most "analyst" positions in the public and private sectors.

What's Expected In PhD Programs? Usually, only one or two year's worth of courses beyond what was taken as an MA student is required. If you received an MA at one institution and are in a PhD program at another, you will again take the comprehensive exams. An unsatisfactory response on these exams can result in your dismissal from the program. You will also be required to take a foreign language exam, if your special field of study concerns a foreign language, and to demonstrate competency in computers and/or statistics. If your special field of study concerns a foreign country (e.g., Russia, China), or a foreign region (e.g. Latin America), you will be expected to be fluent in the appropriate language(s). You will also be required to take a foreign language exam if your special field of study requires foreign language proficiency. A PhD program will also require you to demonstrate computer proficiency and/or statistical competency. The culmination of the PhD degree rests with the completion of a dissertation, an in-depth comprehensive analysis of a particular problem or issue in your field of specialization. Many graduate students seek teaching positions or other employment before they have completed the dissertation. Such students are known as ABDs ("All But Dissertation.") Your dissertation has to be acceptable to your dissertation committee (usually 3-5 faculty). If there is a single aspect of graduate school that causes grief to students, it is the dissertation. Sometimes the dissertation goes smoothly; usually it does not. Depending upon your topic, you may be required to do fieldwork overseas or to conduct interviews with prominent policymakers in this country.

Qualifications for Graduate School

Most graduate schools require a 3.0 GPA (in Political Science), letters of recommendation, and that you take a standardized test called the GRE. Some graduate programs require foreign language competency on entry or before degree completion.

Taking the GRE

The GRE is an aptitude test meant to measure your potential to succeed in graduate school. Though it 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 grad school. We recommend strongly that you prepare for the GRE in advance of taking the exam, by doing one or more of the following:

  • Buy a GRE review book
  • Download sample tests and do practice tests under conditions similar to the actual GRE
  • Based on your practice score, devise a study plan to help you brush up on vocabulary, reading comprehension, analogies, algebra, and geometry.

Plan to take the GRE well in advance of application due dates. Try to take it the Spring or Summer before you apply to grad school. You can always retake the GRE, but remember that you're allowed to take it only once per calendar month. Because all prior scores are sent to the institutions to which you're applying, never take the GRE as practice.

Differences Between Undergraduate and Graduate Education

In contrast to the conventional undergraduate experience characterized by a wide variety of required survey classes spread out among several disciplines, a graduate program is focused and theoretical. PhD seminars and skills requirements are designed to train students to research and publish using an assortment of theoretical frameworks and data analysis techniques. Master's programs typically also contain significant theoretical components, but provide less in-depth preparation in the area of study. In terms of financial support, Master's students receive little or no support; many PhD students receive teaching or research assistantships, or fellowships, during the course of their graduate careers. Most graduate programs have between 15 to 70 graduate students.

Comments from Cal Poly grads currently in Political Science PhD programs

On the transition from undergraduate school to a graduate program:

  • "The level of reading for graduate school is easily twice what was assigned as an undergraduate." (Claremont Graduate School)
  • "Huge amount of work, especially the reading level. I was also surprised by the dominant methodological orientation of the field toward Political Science as a science." (UCSB)
  • "Grad school workload makes undergrad look like a joke. Did not realize how quantitative the discipline was." (Florida State University)
  • "The workload was much greater than I expected. I was under-prepared in the classics of political science literature and poorly prepared in statistical analysis (largely on my account for both deficiencies)." (University of California, Irvine)
  • "Ironically, I found that I had no idea what political science was. This sounds strange, but political science is not a study of politics in the traditional sense (i.e., who will win the next election, where is the next war to occur). Rather, it is a field desperately trying to find itself methodologically...and theoretically. There seems to be an endless war between structuralists, culturalists...In many ways political science is number crunching and is extremely statistically minded." (University of Colorado)
  • "The transition from Master's program to PhD was really hard. The work at the PhD level has to be near perfect all the time. There is a lot of work and you're expected to know your stuff." (Cal Tech)

What advice or observations should be passed along to our seniors who are considering pursuing a PhD in Political Science and the possibility of university teaching?

  • "Take a long, serious look at the scuttle of employment in higher education. Inquire seriously about working conditions for graduate employees...Find a place where you have multiple faculty that you will fit with (intellectually, personally, etc.). Ask what percent of graduate students complete their PhD's. If you are a woman or minority male, ask about the success rate of people like you." (University of Oregon)
  • "Students will need to come into graduate school with a basic understanding of micro-economic principles. Also, they should have (at least) two courses in statistics...I can't emphasize enough the need to get some non-academic work experience before entering graduate school." (Claremont Graduate School)
  • "Really look into programs--talk to grad students and faculty at universities before you go there. You have to be highly motivated to make it to a PhD. In a competitive job market, the reputation of the program you are in will make a difference, even if this is mostly academic snobbery. Much of political science is highly scientific and quantitative. Be prepared for this. Teaching is fun and rewarding." (UCSB)
  • "Job market is scary. People with lots of great publications in (select journals) not even getting job talk flybacks. If given the chance, go for as highly ranked a school as possibly. Name is high at this level. Be clear in who you want to study under as well as what research you wish to undertake; meet with faculty to see if you like them and what they do. Publish or perish is now going on at the graduate level--no publications, no chance to perish in a job! Grim as this all sounds, I still remain cautiously optimistic that people will want people who are interested in teaching as a vocation at this level--this has been my bet and still is." (University of California, Irvine)
  • "Peruse the journals, get a feel for what the discipline is about. Take stats courses; learn a stats package such as SPSS. Buy as powerful a computer as you can reasonably afford." (Florida State University)
  • "Do not go directly into a PhD program! Travel, see the world, work in D.C., join the Peace Corps, teach English in Costa Rica or something that you have always wanted to do but were afraid to try. The experience will give you perspective, enrich your research and make yourself a much, much more interesting lecturer. The discipline is now dominated by statisticians so a very strong mathematics, computer, statistics, research methodology background will serve you well. I recommend calculus, at least two statistics courses, and one or more computer related social science courses. Also, take as much economics as you can stomach because politics and economics are inseparable. Most importantly, establish a working relationship with the faculty at Cal Poly; try to collaborate on research or become published before graduate school, then you are light years ahead of most students. Political philosophy shouldn't be underemphasized either. Read Mill, Locke, Hegel and Marx, because they are the foundation of what we do." (University of Colorado)
  • "The top programs want to know how well-prepared you are mathematically. These programs will assume you can write well. One advantage you have (coming out of Cal Poly) is the school name and your senior project. Put a really good effort into your project and send a copy to a professor you'd like to work with." (Cal Tech)

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