By Leslie A. Pal.
I wrote the original Careers for Political Scientists in the mid-1980s (a second edition in 1995) at the invitation of the CPSA Board. At the time, enrollments in political science departments were having one of their periodic dips, as was the economy, and the Board suspected that students were opting for fields with better job prospects. Compiling a guide and distributing it to departments across the country would provide evidence, we hoped, that political science was a viable career option. Writing it at that time posed three challenges that have their own special echoes today.
The first was to highlight possible careers without encouraging naked careerism. We obviously wanted to help our students get jobs, but the study of political science is not job training. Like all university level disciplines, it stimulates thinking, builds analytical skills, provides a disciplinary grammar of concepts and traditions, all of which can arm a prospective job-seeker, but are not job-specific skills in themselves. Studying political science will give you a better appreciation of justice, but it won’t help you run a meeting. So, we were trying to show a light at the end of the tunnel, but still emphasize that the journey toward that light had intrinsic benefits and pleasures. In today’s job market, it’s exactly those wider and broader skills, knowledge, and perspective that seem to be at a premium.
And that was the second challenge — the job market itself and the kinds of careers that were actually available. I had to hunt and peck at the various sources available at the time (Statistics Canada had just completed a National Graduates Survey), and the results reflected (with the exception of the delightfully unusual occupation of “land men” in the oil patch) the fairly conventional, stable pattern of government and private sector jobs at the time. The public sector was an obvious target (though students who took their political science with a strong shot of Marxism were more likely to want to smash the apparatus than join it), NGOs, and possibly policy and political relations in large firms in regulated sectors like banking and transportation. Those sectors still employ graduates with degrees in political science, of course, but the job market is radically different now. It is more volatile, for one thing. It’s more competitive, with more BAs chasing fewer jobs than thirty years ago. But there are new opportunities in IT, in the international field, and even in the non-governmental sector. Hybrid degrees and programs have sprung up over the years (essentially, “political science and X”) to meet this demand. But it’s tougher out there than it was, and students have to leverage every aspect of their degree, every connection, every network and contact, and refine and hone their resumés and experiences.
The third challenge — though it was just the reality at the time — was that the original Careers guide was written pre-internet. No Google. No Linked-In. No Facebook. No blogs. No on-line job referral sites. I did what everyone did at the time — review documents and available printed lists, talk to employers and our placement office at the university, and wrote a guide that could be consulted (hard copy!) in departments of political science around the country. From today’s perspective, I might as well have written it on parchment, by candle light.
That’s the enormous advantage students have today — the digital tools to get a rich, deep, and wide scoping of prospective jobs and employment opportunities, all in real time. But of course, everyone can do that. What everyone can’t do, however, is share their experiences and insights in a blog post like Praxis. The format for the Careers guide made sense at the time, but not now. Sharing your experiences and insights, advice and perspectives, does. And like all networked projects, the benefits will grow exponentially with your contributions.
Dr. Leslie A. Pal is Chancellor’s Professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Carleton University.