PhD Program


The PhD program in Political Science is designed to train scholars for careers in college and university teaching, research, and public service. While emphasizing the scientific study of politics, the department recognizes and incorporates a range of contemporary approaches to the acquisition of knowledge about politics. In this spirit, the PhD program maintains a broad-based orientation to the discipline, which enables students to make intelligent choices about those lines of inquiry most suitable to careers and intellectual concerns. PhD students are an integral part of the learning and teaching experience in our department. They conduct research, teach courses and work closely with various faculty members and students throughout the department.

The greatest strength of our PhD program is its faculty, who are internationally recognized leaders in their fields. They serve as editors at major academic journals in the discipline and publish actively. A recent study published by the American Political Science association found that the UWM political science department had the 9th highest per-faculty-member research productivity among all PhD granting political science departments in the US over the period 2010-2019.

PhD students at UWM collaborate closely with faculty members on research and teaching. Coauthorship with faculty members is viewed as a natural and important part of PhD training.

Our PhD program is distinguished by its:

  • Low student-to-faculty ratio (most graduate seminars have fewer than 10 students), which allows for close collaboration with faculty
  • Research active faculty, who work closely with graduate students
  • Rigorous training in quantitative methodology, which prepares students both for careers in research and analysis

The PhD program is for applicants desiring to be trained as independent, original scholars and researchers. Most PhD graduates seek faculty positions at colleges or universities and our department has a strong record of placing candidates in such jobs.  Those students who do not seek academic careers are also well served by the high-level analytic training that the program provides. The most important skill that PhD students acquire is the ability to think rigorously. This, combined with our department’s emphasis on research design and quantitative methodology, leaves students well-prepared for careers in data science, policy analysis, and government service.

Program Summary

The PhD program consists of coursework, preliminary examinations, a dissertation prospectus, and a dissertation. In addition, graduate students participate in departmental professionalization sessions and seminar series. Most PhD students complete the program in 5-6 years. An overview of the major program components is below.  More detailed descriptions of all program requirements can be found in our Graduate Handbook (PDF).


During the first 2-3 years of residence, PhD students will complete their coursework.  Students typically take 3 courses per semester. Students must take one required research design course and three courses in political methodology. The remaining classes are typically substantive seminars selected by the student. In consultation with the director of graduate studies, students plan a program of studies through which a high level of competence is gained in two primary subfields. The department offers four fields of study: American Politics, Comparative Politics, International Relations, and Political Theory. To ensure broad exposure to the discipline, students must take a minimum of three courses outside of their primary  fields, at least two of which must be in a single field.

Preliminary Examinations

The first major milestone in the PhD program is the preliminary examination.  In their 3rd year, most students take their preliminary examinations. The preliminary exams are a capstone assessment that gauges the ability of students to synthesize, evaluate and critique the major literatures in their chosen subfields. The preliminary examination process consists of written exams in each of the student’s two fields of study.

Dissertation Prospectus

The next major milestone in the PhD program is the dissertation prospectus, which is a detailed proposal for the dissertation that is defended before the student’s dissertation committee. The prospectus ensures a smooth transition between the preliminary exam and the dissertation stages. Students typically identify a major advisor in their second or third year and begin working with their advisor on the development of a dissertation plan. The dissertation prospectus lays out the student’s plan for conduting and completing their dissertation research. The dissertation prospectus is typically defended in the 3rd or sometimes 4th year.


The PhD program culminates in the writing of the dissertation, which is a major work of publication-quality research. The purpose of the doctoral dissertation in political science is to provide the student with an opportunity to (1) investigate a problem in greater detail than has been possible at any previous point in their graduate career, (2) demonstrate his/her ability to perform original research, and (3) transmit the written findings and conclusions to others. Originality is defined broadly to allow the student considerable scope in the nature of their contribution to scholarship. Dissertation projects may be designed to criticize or reformulate problems that have concerned students of politics for decades, to replicate or extend previous research, to formulate an original theoretical statement, or to conduct an empirical investigation of significant questions. The candidate must, as a final step toward the degree, pass an oral examination in defense of the dissertation. This typically occurs in the candidates 5th year.