Thoughts on Being a Fledgling Political Psychologist

By David O. Sears ( Distinguished Research Professor, Psychology and Political Science, UCLA)

The following article first appeared in the ECC’s Fall 2018 Newsletter.

was asked for some observations to be passed on to fledgling political psychologists. Here are a few.

Careerism. Political psychology is quite an interdisciplinary field. Not only does it have political scientists and psychologists, but also communications and sociologists and others. Political psychology rarely has an independent institutional base in a university. So you have to decide which discipline to try to become established in, and practice political psychology in. That’s an important career choice. Some specialties in political psychology are more attractive to one discipline than to others. Intergroup relations is a buzzing area in psychology, but international relations, less so. Public opinion, voting, and elections tend to be housed in political science.

Generally there are relatively few jobs directly targeted for political psychologists. More often they are advertised as seeking American politics/political behavior, or social psychology/intergroup relations, etc. So one needs to be prepared to fill these broader roles as well.

Training. No matter what one’s specialty is, you can’t have too much quantitative training. That is the way social science continues to go. Personally, however, I find research more interesting if it mixes some qualitative analysis in with the numbers. Also, some historical perspective.
Psychology has crept into political science research more than Political Science has crept into Psychology. The literatures in the two disciplines, even as written by self-described political psychologists, often seem almost non-overlapping. Therefore it is prudent to expose oneself to coursework in both departments, to familiarize oneself with that ‘other’ literature. Your options will be broader if you are fluent in both disciplines. Before being cowed or self-pitying by that large ambition, remember that many academic disciplines have gone toward interdisciplinary work, and they require similar breadth. For example, behavioral neuroscientists must become familiar with both behavioral psychology and neuroscience.

I am a great believer in the apprentice model of scientific training. It has three advantages. One is that you learn to do what one or more senior scholars already know how to do. You don’t have to be a clone but you can learn those skills, much as 18thcentury apprentices to skilled craftsmen did. Second, the best way to learn how to do research is to actually do it, not just by reading about it. There are many ‘tricks of the trade’ that one will only learn by experiencing them, not by reading about them. And third, getting good jobs increasingly depends on having publications. It is easier to hit the ground running if you can join an ongoing research program early in graduate school and hook on to the publications coming out of it than by sitting in your cubicle spending a couple of years coming up with a genius idea that in the end you may discover someone else has already appropriated.

Networking in a small field. Political psychology is a small field, relative, say, to social psychology (think of how large SPSP is compared to ISPP) or public opinion/voting/political behavior (think of the relative size of those two sections of APSA). Likely there will be few political psychologists in your graduate school. Fortunately there are other opportunities to network with other political psychologists at other universities. The ISPP Summer Academy (three days or so), held just before each ISPP meeting is one good opportunity. Another is the political psychology preconference just before APSA (one day). Both are tilted more toward political science than psychology. Tilted more toward psychology are the Summer Institute in Political Psychology at Stanford, a more intensive residential program (three weeks), and the political psychology preconference at SPSP (one day).

Hope this helps!

About the Author

DAVID O. SEARS is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Political Science, former Dean of Social Sciences, and former Director of the Institute for Social Science Research, all at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was President of the International Society of Political Psychology in 1994. He has published articles and book chapters on a wide variety of topics, including attitude change, public opinion, mass communications, ghetto riots, political socialization, voting behavior, and race and politics.

About the ISPP & its Blog

The International Society of Political Psychology is an interdisciplinary organization representing all fields of inquiry concerned with exploring the relationships between political and psychological processes. The ISPP Blog is maintained by Lucas Czarnecki and Sumedh Rao. If you are interested in contributing an article or have any questions about the blog, please email them or visit the ISPP Blog’s webpage.

The ECC is also looking for contributions as short articles for our Newsletter’s Spring 2019 Issue Theme: Identity Politics

If you have a piece you’d like to contribute for the Spring 2019 themed article, please contact us.

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