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Measuring the Success of the Political Science Department
Andrew Nathan is the Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science and chair of the department.

The Department of Political Science at Columbia is the best department of its kind in the world, according to a study released by a professor of European and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics. That's not the kind of assessment most department heads would quibble with, but Andrew Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science, and chair of the political science department, has one small clarification to offer about Professor Simon Hix's results: Even at No. 1, the ranking is still too low.

"I like to point out to people that Hix's methodology was to count the number of times professors got articles published in mainstream journals," Nathan explains, between chuckles. "And our faculty publishes a lot, so we came out on top. But if he'd included books and area studies journals, we'd have ranked even higher than No. 1, because our professors are very, very productive!"

Nathan obviously believes in leading by example. In his 30-plus years of teaching political science -- with a specialty in Chinese politics and foreign policy -- the Harvard-educated Nathan has published numerous essays, articles and books (his 2001 exposé of the Chinese government's crackdown on students involved in the Tiananmen Square uprising got him banned from China) and won many academic honors, not to mention a Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

It's the kind of distinguished career that Alex Weisiger, a fourth-year graduate student, hopes to emulate one day.

"I plan on becoming a professor," says the 27-year-old Weisiger, a native of California. "I took a year off after finishing my undergrad [degree] at Stanford and worked at a law firm long enough to realize I don't want to be a lawyer. This is definitely 'it' for me."

Weisiger, who is specializing in International Relations, is one of five member-students in the department's Political Science Graduate Student Council (PSGC). It's more like a guild than a union, he says, and it represents the interests of the 150 or so students in the extremely competitive Ph.D. program. These days, it mainly focuses on organizing social events, but about 10 years ago, says Weisiger, the PSGC did a lot more rabble-rousing.

"I've heard that Columbia's Ph.D. program was severely under-funded 10 years ago and not a happy place to be," he says. "Grad students were miserable, only a few got any kind of help from the school and the selection process was very Darwinian."

In less than a decade, the program went from being under funded to an academic powerhouse, with faculty routinely placing articles and research papers in the most acclaimed world journals. The change, says Nathan, is due to his predecessors, who fought a protracted battle to nail down fellowships for advanced-degree programs and expand the reach of the department.

"I inherited a very good department," says Nathan, who has been the chair for the past year and a half. "It's not very large -- about 30 people -- but very selective. We have different fields of interest and methodologies but a common standard of excellence." Previous department heads recruited professors who immersed themselves in research data but used what Nathan describes as "cutting edge" methods to address questions that had an immediate relevancy to politics and world issues.

"That's really our secret," says Nathan. "Some departments pursue methodology without substance, and others know a lot about something but aren't attentive to the best research techniques. We value work that's in the crosshairs of both."

Currently, the department teaches students enrolled in three separate sets of programs: the undergraduate degree programs of the School of General Studies and Columbia College, master's and Ph.D. students in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; and professional school students who are taking degrees at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), a two-year master's level program for aspiring international affairs or public administration professionals. Of the three, the Ph.D. program is perhaps the most coveted -- 600 students apply annually but there are only 18 first-year slots in the program. It's a reality that keeps the approximately 350 undergraduate majors on their toes, as many of them hope to continue their academic careers at Columbia.

"I came here thinking I was going to do medieval renaissance studies," remembers Lindsey Weinstock, now a junior and president of the Political Science Student Association (PSSA). "I signed up for a class in American politics and then by chance took a class in political theory. And all of a sudden, I realized, 'I really like this.'"

But Weinstock might not have made the official switch, she says, had not the department professors done such a good job of piquing her burgeoning interest. In fact, two classes in particular solidified her decision to change majors: Classical and Medieval Political Thought, and Modern Political Thought, both taught by Associate Professor Nadia Urbinati.

The department is housed in the School of International and Public Affairs.

"I totally agree with the ranking in the Hix study," says Weinstock, "but in my opinion the department's No. 1 because of the way the professors care about and interact with students, not because they publish a lot. This department tries hard to make undergraduates feel like part of the poli-sci community almost as much as the grad students are. I think that's unique from all other universities and a great characteristic in such a large and prestigious school."

Regardless of which degree full-time students are studying for -- undergraduate, master's or doctorate -- Nathan says all of them are given a rigorous training in the social sciences. When assessing potential Ph.D. candidates, the school looks for someone with more than what Nathan calls "raw brilliance." With such an emphasis on scholarly achievement, students need to arrive with a well-developed knowledge of the field and a mature understanding of the methodologies used. "It's not enough to be someone who has a plan to save the world," he adds. "We are looking for future academics who can thrive on our training."

Advanced degree students are expected to do research apprenticeships at places such as the Institute of War and Peace Studies, the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy, the Earth Institute, the Center for the Study of Human Rights, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender and the International Conflict Resolution Program. For students who show an exceptional amount of drive and achievement, there's also the Columbia Public Policy Consortium, an interdisciplinary program that supports graduate teaching and doctoral research in public policy.

But there is time for some student life beyond the library, Weisiger is quick to note. Now that the department has found its footing, he says, the council can focus on traditional campus leisure pursuits. "I think the event we organize the most would be a student happy hour," Weisiger admits. "Part of the department's success stems from the fact that everyone gets a chance to socialize."


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Published: Mar 09, 2005
Last modified: Mar 09, 2005

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