GW Hosts Top U.S. Undergraduate Political Science Students

The Pi Sigma Alpha National Student Research Conference welcomed keynote speaker Yasmin Sayin of the D.C. Policy Center.

February 23, 2023

GSPM Pi Sigma Alpha conference 2023

College of Professional Studies Dean Liesl Riddle gave opening remarks to the Pi Sigma Alpha Conference joined by Diana Owen (c) and Yesim Sayin (r). (Mariah Miranda Photography)

The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM), which is housed in the College of Professional Studies, hosted top undergraduate political science students from around the United States at the 10th annual  Pi Sigma Alpha National Student Research Conference. About 400 students participated in the three-day conference over the Presidents Day weekend that offered opportunities to showcase student research both in person and virtually as preparation for careers in political science and public policy.

Scores of student panels networked with professionals and delved into political issues such as Russian politics, gender rights, restorative justice and the COVID-19 pandemic. They presented research exploring the link between the climate crisis and violent extremism, Latin American carnivals as a form of protest, the impact of foreign investment on nonrenewable energy and a host of other ideas impacting every region of the world.

At a luncheon Saturday in the Continental Ballroom in the University Student Center, Liesl Riddle, the dean of the College of Professional Studies, offered opening remarks to the day’s events that gave attendants a brief history of the founding of GW as called for by President George Washington in his first State of the Union address in 1790 and the creation of GSPM 35 years ago.

“It is the number one alma mater of those who work on Capitol Hill,” Riddle said. “GW is a fitting place for all of you scholars to meet one another, share ideas from your research and studies and plan for the next step in your career.”

Yesim Sayin, the founding executive director of the D.C. Policy Center, was the weekend’s keynote speaker. She was engaged in conversation by Pi Sigma Alpha President Diana Owen, a political science professor at George Mason University, titled, “Finding a Meaningful Career in Political Science and Public Policy.”

Thinking back to what drew her to a career in public policy, Sayin said that she was “a bit lost” after undergraduate studies in political science and earning doctoral degree in economics.

“Figuring out what is the right question to ask is 90% of the problem,” she said.  “Studying a lot of issue areas as an undergraduate in political science helped me have multiple perspectives in approaching different problems.”

Just as the recession hit around 2008, Sayin said she landed a job in the D.C. government’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer estimating the revenue that would be needed to implement legislation.

“I realized, state and local government is where the rubber hits the road and has an immediate impact on the lives of people,” she said. It was where housing, education and transportation policy “…interact. You cannot think in silos. That’s where I found my education in political science.”

She explained that unless a person is planning a career in law or dedicated to a field of study such as economics there’s a trade off in pursuing advanced degrees in sacrificing three to four years of study to earn those degrees that could be spent acquiring experience in the field.

Sayin told the participants that they are already steps ahead of their undergraduate peers having worked on and presented research. “That is not typical of your peers,” she said, “and are skills that can be used elsewhere.”

Sayin said she’s hired people straight out of undergraduate schools, but she has a rule they can only work for the D.C. Policy Center for up to three years. “There is something to mobility in your career, both geographically and in jobs,” she said. “It is very hard to grow if you are in the same job for a long period of time right after graduating.”

Scanning possible career paths open to political science undergraduates, Sayin suggested becoming part of a large think tank, research organization or consultant firm with government clients, cautioning that the hours would be long and “it’s like working in factories… The value is in what you learn.”

“Advocacy organizations have greater substance and change policy,” she said. “But be careful. They will tax your ideology. You work 80 hours for $30,000.”

Working in the private sector for a few years would also be useful for experience, she said, and to gain more leverage for applying to graduate school. She encouraged the students to consider working for politicians, in a governor’s office or for a legislative committee, handling housing, labor or economic policy. “You learn a lot,” she said, “the most interesting thing being the art of the possible.”