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Should he major in political science and minor in statistics or the other way around?

Andrew Wheeler writes:

I will be a freshman at the University of Florida this upcoming fall and I am interested in becoming a political pollster. My original question was whether I should major in political science and minor in statistics or the other way around, but any other general advice would be appreciated.

My reply: I think when it comes to employability, a stat major with poli sci minor will have more options than the reverse. Stat majors have valuable computing skills, also most stat majors aren’t interested in politics, so if you are one of those unusual stat majors with political interests, that will make you special.


  1. Noel says:

    I work for a political data and technology firm, previously worked in data technology for one of the two major parties and on a winning Presidential campaign. My answer is that you definitely major in statistics, minor in political science and not the other way around.

  2. Jeff says:

    Is it possible to not decide in the first year? I would say if you are exceptionally talented at poly scI (and speech writing) as well as somewhat politically connected major in poly sci, minor in math. Otherwise major in Stat. If you are very talented what about the double major. Lastly – stat is a tough course, unless you are REALLY good in math (calculus, Integrals, puzzles etc) you should know it’s a really tough major (hence why it is respected so highly)

  3. Jeff says:

    Sorry I meant minor in stat not math (my brain is old and rubbishy)

  4. Toby says:

    I wonder whether there is a more general lesson here. Should you focus on acquiring knowledge of methods or should you focus on acquiring knowledge of facts in university? It seems to me that you’re often better of choosing the former over the latter as far as the social sciences go. Obviously both are important if you’re going to pursue a career in a particular discipline but it seems that a deficiency in the former is not as easy to remedy as a deficiency in the latter.

  5. Toby says:

    It should read “better off”. Apologies.

  6. Elin says:

    I think it depends a lot on the poli sci department, and you could consider a double major even, but a lot of times undergraduate political science is filled with people who want to go to law school and sometimes they are not that interested in politics.

  7. Greg says:

    As a former stats-bio undergrad (now PhD student in oceanography), I couldn’t agree more. Stats is a skill, science is the application. Focus on skills in undergrad (while you can!). You will spend your time immersed in the application later on and learn everything you need to know. The same kind of immersive experience doesn’t happen going the other way. If you start in science and stay in science, you will always miss the concentrated study that you could have had in undergrad.

  8. Tracy Lightcap says:

    I think this choice depends on how firm you are in your choice of career.

    If what you really – really – want to do is become a political pollster, then I’d opt for POLS as a major and stats as a minor. The reason for this is that, while stats is a good course for methods, POLS is likely to give you the general knowledge that will allow you to formulate the kinds of questions you will need to ask and give you greater insight into what groups you would find it cost-efficient to target. It depends on the stats program, but most of them don’t go into survey design much and the background knowledge you would need to correctly target your data collection efforts are at a premium there. If you end up at a firm that puts you into straight analytical work because of your lack of knowledge about what they are trying to sell then your path upward will be limited.

    Oth, if you just sorta think being a pollster would be cool, then I’d wait a year and see if you still have the urge after some intro courses in both areas. If it turns out that you are more into the nuts and bolts, then I’d major in stats and minor in POLS. That way your education would suit you to more general work and you can sell it at more venues.

    And listen to the above: the kind of POLS program means a lot. At my college we require a course in POLS research methods; many places don’t. You can use that as a rule of thumb to differentiate programs.

  9. Shravan says:

    If I were this person, I would go to Stanford and study with that Bayesian political scientist who wrote that awesome and frightening book on Bayesian data analysis.

  10. Andy says:

    Don’t get too wrapped up in the print on the sheepskin.

    Learn as much as you can, in a wide variety of topics, and you will be able to find interesting and important work. Case in point. My undergrad is International Political Science and Electrical Engineering. Yeah. Weird. I know. But hold on. I also have a Masters in Social Welfare (Social Work). Yep. How many social workers do you know that know Calculus forwards and backwards? I earned my Masters almost 10 years ago. Today, I work for the State of New York State Department of Health. I lead complex program evaluations, usually where nobody thought to set up a control group. I do alot of applied / odd statistics. In an office full of Public Health grads, with no real-world experience, I am often the only person present who has actually worked in a human services agency. Thanks to my undergrad at Georgia Tech, I am comfortable programming in several languages. The statistics I didn’t get in school, I picked up by reading books. Sure, some of the PhDs know more statistics than I do, but that is why I collaborate with them. I know more about Mental Health, Substance Use Disorder Treatment, etc. We do good work. It is interesting and it is very complex. And I wouldn’t change it if I could. (Maybe more $$, honestly.)

    What you can DO is more important than what the piece of paper you have says, and that becomes increasingly true as you gain work experience. There are a handful of jobs I can’t do at the Department of Health, because I don’t have the right degree. In fact, my current job is one of them. But they liked me so much they just hired me as a contractor. Don’t let anyone every tell you that you have the wrong degree if you can do the work. In my experience, someone who is that hung up on a title is going to be a shitty boss anyway.

  11. miccim says:

    People are discounting the political science degree (or social science degrees in general) a tad too quickly, I reckon. I’ve met many statisticians (and more engineers) who were extremely skilled technically speaking, but had no idea whatsoever about how to do interesting and useful applied work on their own. And when that’s the case, then I’m not sure the professional perspectives are that fun. In my old job (consulting), we sometimes contracted statisticians; their work ended up being quite boring (in my view – I’m sure some enjoyed it), because *we* decided on the kind of analyses to perform, and *they* ended doing mostly data collection and preliminary analysis.

    To be clear: I’m absolutely not repeating the old mantra “social scientists know things and statisticians know skills.” What I’m saying is that if you don’t know much about an area in which to apply your statistical skills, your options will be limited. You might be able to learn on the job later, but I’m *not* convinced that this is always realistic, nor that it is easy. I’ve met too many ‘hard’ scientists have silly beliefs about how policymaking works to believe that (“If only our government understood climate change, then they would do something!” Guess what, that’s not how things work!). Or take pundits: they are not only statistically illiterate, but they often have no idea about research conducted on their area of specialization, even though it’s their job! It’s not because social sciences research is wordy that it can be learned later on the side.

    This being said, the idea of pursuing a degree combining stats with social science is an excellent idea (at least at the university where I work now). These people are still pretty rare. Such a degree would open many doors.

    • Anon says:

      Definitely stats. Programming skills, data visualisation, a solid understanding of inference and exploratory methods easily beats the political science curriculum. You’ll also acquire more mathematical maturity, which will make it much easier to learn the stuff polisci students find challenging, like game theory.

      It’s not so clear in fields that have established and strong theory, like the natural sciences. But the social sciences? Almost all the good work is empirical and relatively a-theoretical. Just read a good literature review or a book on polisci during your stats degree and you’ll be fine.

  12. David says:

    Major in stat and take as much math as possible beyond what is required for the major. You’ll then be able to play in far more backyards than if you majored in political science or some other social science. I’d also recommend a minor in computer science.

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