Recent political science graduates see brighter days ahead

Blindsided by a pandemic and hunkering down at home instead of celebrating spring on campus, MIT seniors might reasonably have felt blue. But a group of new political science alumni glimpse brighter days ahead, as they springboard from rewarding academic programs into meaningful careers.

“I feel prepared for the life in policy work I have been planning, one that's focused on energy and climate mitigation,” says Michelle Bai '20, a double major in economics and political science with a minor in energy studies. Bai spent last summer interning at the Council of Economic Advisors. Her first job out of college will be with Charles River Associates, a global consulting firm.

Nwanacho Nwana '20, a double major in business and political science, will be working on economic litigation cases at Analysis Group. “I'm happy to have found a position perfectly at the intersection of things I like doing, involving quantitative, data-driven work,” he says. Nwana interned in MIT's Washington office after receiving the Jeffrey L. Pressman Award — a prize (and $6,500 stipend) given to talented undergraduates to support summer projects in American politics.

Suited for political science

Some of these recent graduates landed on political science rather late in their academic journeys. Adelaide Oh '20, whose primary focus is electrical engineering and computer science, added the political science major in early spring of her senior year. A debater in high school with an interest in political philosophy, she had been taking Course 17 classes since her first year at MIT.

“I really like how MIT political science is both rigorous and technical, which makes it possible to apply things I learn in political science to computer science,” says Oh, who will be working with the San Francisco-based tech company, Foursquare. “I'm interested in security and privacy issues, and found my classes with Nazli Choucri [professor of political science, who specializes in cyber security] to be really relevant.”

While Oh will start her tech career doing software engineering, she is already angling for project management positions, which she believes are suitable based in part on a skills set gained at MIT. “In my political science classes, I learned to facilitate and lead group discussions — the kind of soft skills that shaped me to be more of a project manager,” she says.

Passion versus interest

Frances Parker-Hale spent her first two years at MIT as a biology major, interning at the Whitehead Institute for Biological Research and at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. She co-authored an article in Molecular Cell in March 2019. “Then I realized that while I found biology interesting, I wasn't passionate about it,” says Parker-Hale.

A top competitive rower at MIT, Parker-Hale had begun volunteering with Amphibious Achievement, MIT's dual mentorship program that teaches under-resourced high school students how to row and tutors them in academic subjects. “Working with these students and seeing how the education system failed some people and lifted others up depending on where they live and who they are, was something I felt passionate about.”

Parker-Hale says the issues Amphibious Achievement highlighted for her triggered a change of heart. “I thought the way to solve these problems was through policy-making, and research about policy," she says. “It became obvious that political science was right for me, and that I should focus on social policy and policy-making.”

Parker-Hale has not regretted this choice, feeding her passion not merely through classwork, but with an internship at the World Bank focused on education that started the summer after junior year, and continued through fall of her senior year. “I was working on a flagship report on education reform in Europe and Central Asia, and from this experience, I knew I had chosen the right field for sure.”

Before heading into a policy-focused career though, Parker-Hale will be working in a Baltimore middle school as a math instructor, with Teach for America. “In order to know how policy works, you need to see how it gets implemented in classrooms,” she adds.

Mind-broadening internships

Nwanacho Nwana describes his first several years at MIT as “quite a roller coaster.” He found economics too theoretical and computer science not relevant to his interests, before settling on a business major. He didn't add political science until late in his junior year, after taking a class with Evan Lieberman on engineering democratic development in Africa (17.571). “We had to propose an actual startup idea for the class, and it wasn't what I expected at all — it felt dynamic and real-world,” says Nwana.

Nwana has become keenly interested in the problem of government corruption, and more recently, how to promote authentic dialogue between citizens during partisan times. His exposure to the D.C. political scene through his internship gave him a sense for the first time that he might be able to contribute. So after his consulting job, he is contemplating law school. “This opportunity really broadened my mindset about a potential political career,” he says.

Unlike her classmates, Michelle Bai arrived at MIT “knowing exactly what I wanted to study,” she says. “I wanted a scientific understanding of energy and the environment, but I also wanted a foundational background in economics and political science.” She is completing a thesis, under her primary advisor, associate professor of political science In Song Kim, on international trade, a subject she became interested in during her time at the Council of Economic Advisors.

“This internship highlighted the importance of becoming expert in a field to become an important player, and that really shaped the way I viewed my future education steps,” she says. “I really wanted to make an impact, and that shaped everything I've done in college.”