Numbers

Political science grad students tend to spend their summers sharpening methods skills at workshops (like SWAMOS, which I attended last summer, or ICPSR), writing or tuning up papers for publication, or simply taking a short break from the vicissitudes of graduate school. It’s unusual to see one stuck in a teenager-packed lecture hall four days a week desperately scribbling down notes on intro calculus and computer programming material. Stranger still for that poor bastard to be there voluntarily. Yes, friends, I am said bastard!

Why would I be subjecting myself to this misery? I have my reasons, above and beyond a well-documented masochistic streak. I’ll start with the general observation that political science and economics, which have always been related, are well into the process of merging. The cutting edge of each discipline is slicing deep into the other.

In 2012, a lot of the top job candidates in political science have an MA in statistics and are  more comfortable building formal models than they are discussing Aristotle–or Huntington, for that matter. This is a natural consequence of the triumph of rational choice theory: departments that routinely hire economists alongside (and often before) political scientists. The writing is on the wall, all over the floor, and spelled out in the sky via smoke-emitting biplane: we need to be data and math people now, or else.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of economists are interested in topics that would have been considered pure political science a few decades ago: political institutions, civil wars, ethnic group salience, legislative politics, and on and on. Although I’m not an economist, my sense is that the old core of the discipline, finance and labor studies and the like, is no longer considered very interesting or sexy from a jobs standpoint.

Economists in general have a better command of advanced quant methods than any other kind of social scientist, and as such, they are well equipped to address and conquer any topic they choose. Political scientists and anthropologists and sociologists of the old guard like to say that economists have no knowledge of theory, or of conditions on the ground in rural Bolivia, or what have you. Maybe not.

But which is easier to acquire–advanced quant or subject/area knowledge? How about advanced quant or political theory? All three are difficult, to be fair, but advanced quant is in relatively short supply. Furthermore, the state of the art in quant is accelerating away from standard-issue quant. So, if you want to be a top-shelf quant guy now, you don’t just need to be able to use statistical packages with competence; you need to be able to program new ones yourself.

Finally, if one looks outside the academia to see what kinds of skills are valued–and many of us graduate students are, given the putrid state of the academic job market–it’s pretty clear what employers are looking for. Big Data is the big dawg. My guess is that Big Modeling will recover from the financial crash sooner or later to form a two-dawg axis.

That there is a high-level explanation of why I’m currently doing what I’m doing to myself. In slightly more detail, I’ve decided that I need another 24 months of math and programming (at a minimum) to pull off my new dissertation idea. I honestly don’t know if I can combine video games and political science in a way that will a) answer interesting political science questions b) in a way that other political scientists will buy while c) being fun to play, but I’m sure as heck going to try!

And if it doesn’t work, that’s okay too. I’ll go start something up in silicon valley.

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