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Political Science or Public Policy PhD program?

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Hi All,

I know this question has been asked before (I have gone back and look through the previous responses), but I would appreciate any additional insight folks could give on this topic.

Background: I’m about 3yrs out of undergrad (top 10 school), currently working as a federal contractor in DC (original, I know). I’m looking at grad school as a way to “get back on track” with my professional goals because I stumbled into the field I am in now (healthcare) after undergrad and it had never been a long-term interest of mine.

My research interests are (very broadly) in climate change as it relates to national and global security (happy to talk by PM if you’re interested in more detail). I unfortunately went 0-7 in the F12 cycle for Political Science PhD programs. After a lot of evaluation, I know that I was unsuccessful for a variety of reasons (weak SOP being the biggest factor-lesson learned though). I will be enrolling in a MA program this fall focusing on environmental science and public policy and am planning on reapplying to PhD programs for F13 (my MA program is only 1 yr long). As an undergrad I was a Political Science major and Astronomy minor.

Test Scores: 155Q, 164V, 4AW (planning on retaking the GRE this summer). GPA of 3.63 overall in undergrad and 3.89 in major.

Question: As I rework my strategy and application materials for a second try at a PhD program, I have realized that my interests may be better served by a PhD in Public Policy than a PhD in Political Science.

I didn’t consider Public Policy when I applied for F12 (in part, for lack of information, since I only discovered grad café as all of the decisions were being released). My question to you is this: what do you think is the main difference between Public Policy PhD’s and Political Science PhD’s? I am interested in academia and teaching; however I would also be open to federal employment or a think tank. With the (admittedly incredibly general) topic area I have provided here, what schools would you suggest I consider applying to (in either program)? Would you say that Public Policy or Political Science is more competitive? What would you consider to be the benefits/downsides of each?

I’m open to any advice you might have, so please share! Thank you in advance.

Edited by strangepeace
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If you're interested in academia, I would think PSCI would be safer. If you want to work in policy, I would say the MPA or MPP is adequate. You can get a degree in PSCI and focus on policy, and get an appointment in PSCI or PP departments/schools. I'm not sure I know of many (some, but not many) DPPs who get appointments to PSCI departments.

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I second brent09 on this: you need to figure out what your ultimate career goal is and investigate individual schools. Many PubPol PhDs don't enter academia; they go off to work for think tanks or to be economists at the World Bank. It all depends on what you want. I wouldn't say that one is necessarily more competitive than the other because in many cases, they aren't directly competing for jobs. There has been a small trend of late for PubPol PhDs to land polisci jobs (some of the HKS people and UCSD-IR/PS people have had good placements in this respect). But I wouldn't necessarily call that a norm--in some cases it reflects the fact that certain departments find experimental methods especially compelling as a relatively "new" direction for political science research (whereas in pubpol it's the gold standard already coming from economics). The other major reason is that if you wanted an academic position, there are actually very few policy schools in the United States. And if you take a look at their faculty rosters, they tend to overwhelmingly employ political scientists, area specialists, former practitioners, and economists--all of whom have somewhat more direct knowledge of their subject matter. I don't think you can necessarily make an objectively wrong choice--but choose wisely based on what you most want out of your career.

Less generally, though, if you're interested in environmental issues and security, you should pick the programs that are right for that, regardless of whether they are polisci or pubpol. I say this because environmental politics has traditionally been a bit of a niche area in political science that many departments do not address well--which presents challenges with the adcomm trying to figure out who you could possibly work with.

I think you'd probably have a better shot this time around with a master's that demonstrates a commitment to your area of interest more so than it sounds like your career path might have indicated. But after that I would say some of this is about researching individual schools and programs, and getting a list of those together that make sense for you and what you want to do. You'll want to evaluate their placement, whether it's academic or professional, and also the relative productivity and engagement of faculty who do work in your area of interest (I don't mean productivity like # of articles/citations necessarily, but more about whether these people are doing good scholarly work and getting it published, and that they're ideally at a productive place in their careers, not struggling for tenure or about to go emeritus).

In terms of specific programs, it depends on what you mean by climate/security issues (do you mean, for example, things like water crises? or do you mean more IR-style issues like negotiations over the Kyoto Protocol and the security implications of those relationships?) Resolving some of that ambiguity will be helpful in clarifying whether you might want to take a policy vs. polisci track. For policy, I would say, look into HKS (Calestous Juma, Meghan O'Sullivan, Robert Stavins); the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton (they have a science/environmental policy track); and Pardee Rand for sure. For political science, maybe UCLA (Michael Ross, if you're into natural resource issues), MIT (they are really strong on security and are picking up Chris Warshaw, a recent Stanford PhD with an interest in environmental issues--and they also have the TPP program and DUSP, which have students and faculty doing environmental issues), and UWashington-Seattle (Peter May).

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