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Tips for being a political science student at university

James Davis

Political science is a discipline spanning hundreds of years, but what’s it like to learn about and be a student of?

There aren’t many better places to study political science than at a university. Unlike with many other disciplines, everyone has an opinion on this particular subject. Some will insist on communism and complete equality. Others will swear by neo-liberalism, pulling back all manner of government regulation. Many more will hold all manner of views along the political spectrum, armed with ready-to-deploy statistics, anecdotes and counterpoints in preparation for whenever debate may strike. They’re a terrifying breed, and you’re likely among their number now. So then, how is a new political science student to survive? Fortunately, we have a few friendly pieces of advice.

Try not to have political opinions

Failing that, at the very least don’t talk about your personal beliefs. Contrary to what you may think, political science is more about exploring ideas rather than defending them. You must be able to assess the merits and flaws in equal measure to be effective; having a foot in one camp or another will compromise your impartiality. Granted, at some point you’ll almost certainly be asked to defend one position, or explore a variety. In cases like these, it’s still wise to not hold any particular beliefs. Let your knowledge and research guide you. The term ‘science’ is in the title of this discipline, so employ the scientific method by aiming to falsify your hypotheses rather than prove them. Politics have a funny way of exciting our biases, so doing all you can to minimise them is an admirable and wise practice.

Always argue in good faith

It doesn’t matter if you’re criticising Thomas Aquinas or a classmate. It’s good hygiene to practice bolstering each opponent’s position and arguing against their best possible rendition (to the best of your knowledge). This way, you’re forced to thoroughly comprehend the opposing position and less likely to conceive a strawman. This is another way to reduce personal biases, but it also serves another important purpose, particularly in class discussions or just talking one on one with colleagues. By arguing in good faith, you’re showing through action that you care about your opponent’s position. It’s an even higher form of politeness that any conversational partner ought to respect. The practice becomes even more powerful in the face of more...passionate opposition. It serves to lower the adrenaline that may be present in any given conversation and drag it to a more suitable level of ferocity.

Read consistently and widely

It doesn’t matter what your level of expertise is, nor your current thesis. Politics as a whole concerns a great deal of processes and interactions no single person can ever hope to fully comprehend. However, this shouldn’t stop you from trying! As a budding political scientist, you ought to read texts on economics and political thinkers you’ve never heard of. It pays to ask questions of these writings so as to consolidate this knowledge. Write them somewhere, even if it’s a private blog or notepad. Making time to expand your horizons will inadvertently help in whatever it is your main focus is. The theories of others across time can more often than not influence those that came afterward. Likewise, economics plays a part in all political theory. The knowledge won’t go to waste.

Don’t engage in mud-flinging

At the postgraduate level, everyone ought to be mature enough to avoid this. Sometimes however, civility takes an altogether different form. If you find yourself in a situation where you might feel obligated to enter a yelling match or a discussion where decorum has fluttered away, have the strength to just walk away. There’s nothing to be gained by any participants from abusing one another, or even just arguing in bad faith.

Hopefully this short article has given you some greater insight into being a political science student at university. It’s unlikely you’ll experience any unpleasantness, but it has been known to happen. This is a subject charged with fiery passions and it pays to know what to do in case of ‘emergency’. Good luck!