Political science is an increasingly popular degree field with incredible real-world potential. And luckily, major universities and colleges across the country now allow students to earn political science degrees online. Students can better understand these choices by using the resources on the following page. They can narrow their selection and ultimately find online program opportunities at top colleges, or explore the discipline in further detail via the comprehensive guide.
Political scientists study the history, operations, development, evolution, management, machinations and functions of policies and systems of states and governments. They conduct research on a wide range of subjects, including campaigning, the study of court decisions, analysis of the policies of governments, and an examination of the political atmosphere of different nations. Upon graduation, political science majors can become involved in policymaking decisions and the advising of governmental entities. They can become politicians or diplomats themselves, they can work on or organize campaigns, become policy analysts, conduct polling and research, teach, work for economic institutions, the criminal justice system or as municipal and urban planners. Political science education is rigorous and demanding, with many occupations requiring a master's degree or PhD.
To get a better understanding of what it takes to earn an online degree in the field, let’s explore the political science educational timeline from start to finish – from the earliest associate degrees available online to the terminal PhD.
The pursuit of an online political science degree can take from two years to nearly a decade to complete. Degrees are available at the associate, baccalaureate, master's and doctoral levels. Some online political science programs are hybrid courses that require some level of participation at the physical, brick-and-mortar campus, while others can be taken completely online. Many require research projects or advanced labs and/or internships.
An online associate degree in political science takes two years to complete for full-time students. Generally, an online associate program require between 60 and 64 credits. A high-school diploma or equivalent is required, preferably with coursework in social studies, government and history. This level of study gives students a broad overview of the field and will not involve focus on any particular area. Students who graduate with an online associate degree can become legal assistants, campaign workers, they can work for non-profit organizations or entities that support career development. Most, however, will use their associate degree as a foundation on which to build a bachelor's degree.
It takes full-time students four years to complete a bachelor's degree online, just as it would in the traditional course of study. Applicants must have a high school diploma or equivalent, or an associate degree. A previous study of civics, history or government carries extra weight, but is not necessarily required. Many programs require the completion of general prerequisite studies before immersion in political science. Students may complete general studies of humanities, arts, math or history before delving into political science, which could entail courses in statistics, governmental theory, mass communication, new media and business. Students who achieve a bachelor's in political science often go on to law school, and many others pursue more advanced degrees in political science, which are often required for entry into related careers. Common courses or program directions for online bachelor’s students in political science include:
General political science: This course of study exposes students to the foundation of the American political system, as well as the basics of political theory. Students also learn the fundamentals of comparative politics, global politics and develop an understanding of quantitative methods in political science.
Pre-legal political science: This area of study introduces students to the nature of law and the judicial process. It also acclimates them to the law in a way that is more general than the level of instruction provided by most law schools. Students who choose this kind of program may pursue careers in government and with large businesses, or they may choose to work for a law firm, an individual or partnership practice of civil law or trial practice, including criminal law. They may also pursue a career as a teacher, instructor or professor.
Public policy: This popular course of study prepares students for careers in public service, advocacy and analysis. It is designed to impart an understanding of the goals and challenges of public policy, the political process and the creation and development of policy, as well as the implementation and analysis of public policy. Students often pursue this major if they plan to conduct research for public agencies, non-profits or voluntary associations interested in providing solutions for the betterment of government.
Global Politics: This course of study educates students about the political machinations of a wide range of different countries and different systems of government across the world, as well as how they interact with each other. Students can be prepared for transition into higher degrees, or for careers in international affairs in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Students can generally choose to study the regions of the world that most interest them.
Other primary courses include:
To be considered as a candidate for a master's degree, a student must first obtain a bachelor's degree with the minimum GPA required for entry into the master's program, which is usually 3.0. Full-time students can achieve a master's degree — which requires 30 credits — in two years. Just as when applying for undergraduate programs, mitigating factors such as strong recommendations are factored into acceptance decisions. Some master's programs require hybrid study, which is dominated by online coursework, but supplemented with on-campus requirements. Students start with courses that may include communications, political theories, political structures and methodologies, sociology, business, law, the criminal justice system and elections. Generally, a master's requires students to specialize in an area of concentrated study. Most online political science master’s programs have a thesis requirement, which students spend months crafting, researching, developing and writing.
It is possible to earn a PhD — the most advanced degree available to a political science major — through online learning. Some of the most sought-after experts in many relevant fields have doctoral degrees in political science. Top economists, researchers, policy experts, diplomats, analysts and statisticians hold PhDs in the field. Applicants must hold a bachelor's degree or — preferably and usually — a master's degree, although not necessarily in political science. Graduates who hold this degree are qualified to teach at the university level instead of or in addition to the potentially lofty real-world pursuits.
Online political science degrees can focus on anything from local government to international politics. They can be started at the two-year associate level and taken all the way to PhD. Like any other degree program, some are better than others. No matter what program you choose, make sure your program includes the following:
Accreditation is the process of an independent and impartial body reviewing a college or university to ensure that it conforms to a high and consistent level of academic standards. Accredited online political science programs have been approved by a body that is recognized by other schools, employers and the government.
There is no single accreditation body that governs the realm of political science. Therefore, it is up to the individual to make sure that the school administering online political science programs has earned accreditation from one of the seven regional accrediting bodies. If you pursue a program that is not offered by an accredited school, you run the risk of receiving subpar instruction and a degree that holds zero weight in the professional world.
Studies show there is a correlation between the graduation rate of students and the level of support they receive from their school. Each student should have a dedicated advisor who guides the student from the enrollment process through graduation. A student should be able to change advisors at any time. Upon graduation, alumni should receive support from their college or university in career advancement or in the pursuit of further post-secondary education for the rest of their lives.
Nowhere is it more important to have stellar supporting resources than in online education. Since students will do most of their interaction online, it is important to look for communication technology, remote support, digital libraries and other supporting platforms and materials. Some colleges and programs have 24/7 tech assistance in case there’s a breakdown during off-hours – the times when some online students need to submit work.
For online learning, scheduling flexibility is incredibly important. Students must be able to take classes on schedules that suit their needs and other obligations. Courses should be available on a part-time or full-time basis, night and day, and seasonal and out-of-session options should be available. Instructors should be university or college professors who teach at the physical campus when they aren’t giving online instruction.
The only way to get a true feel for the experience of taking an online political science program is to speak with someone who has done it. Students and alumni can provide real-world insight about what to expect along the journey, from enrollment to graduation. Meredith received an online master’s degree in political science from California State University, Los Angeles.
1. Why did you decide to pursue a master’s degree after you had already landed a job with a consulting firm?
Well, getting a job is great. But my prospects for advancement — not to mention my salary — were extremely limited, not just at my firm, but in the consulting field in general. The overwhelming majority of people in supervisory positions had more than just a bachelor’s degree. My firm was clear on their hiring standards and actually recommended that I pursue a higher degree.
2. Did you have to quit your job?
No! There is no way — never — that I could have achieved my master’s if not for online education. My firm agreed to cut back my hours while I pursued my degree. I only took reduced hours for one semester, then I was able to balance full-time work and school. I doubled up on weekends and took a lot of classes at night. Once I crossed the halfway point — well, actually a little past — my firm put me on a management-training track. I was incredibly close to having a promotion waiting for me when I graduated, but cutbacks forced them to wait a year to promote me. But either way, without my master’s, I’m certain that I’d still be where I started.
3. Consulting isn’t exactly something you dream about doing in high school — how did your journey end there?
Hahaha. No. I did not dream of working for a consulting firm, but for me, it really has become a dream job. I come from a very political family — they weren’t active, but aware and passionate. I grew up with a lot of reverence for our system of government, even though I’m often frustrated with the individuals and parties running it. I never wanted to be a politician, but I wanted to be involved with policy, with fixing what was broken — which in a way, I am.
4. Do you have any plans to pursue a doctorate?
Honestly, no. I contemplated it. I talked about it with my family, but it’s just too much school. I’m in a wonderful place with work right now and my master’s is such a powerful tool. Right now, I just want experience in the real world. I don’t want to say I’m afraid, because it’s not a fear decision, but my master’s was brutal. I’m so glad I did it, but I honestly couldn’t imagine doing it again.
5. What advice would you give to incoming PolySci majors?
Take the preparatory coursework seriously. I was in such a hurry to get to the PolySci coursework that I rushed through the required general studies that came before. It’s not so much that science and math and history are going to make you a better PolySci major, but it conditions you for the rigors of the coming workload. You’ll get into good study habits and develop better time-management skills — and your professors will notice.