May 17, 2024  
USC Catalogue 2022-2023 
USC Catalogue 2022-2023 [ARCHIVED CATALOGUE]

Political Science and International Relations (PhD)

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USC Graduate School Requirements

The PhD degree is awarded to students who have demonstrated in-depth knowledge of the disciplines of political science and international relations and the ability to make an original research contribution. The PhD in Political Science and International Relations requirements are fulfilled by successfully completing a minimum of 70 units beyond the BA, the PhD screening process, three fields of concentration, a substantive paper, a foreign language requirement (if applicable), qualifying examinations, a dissertation proposal, and a written dissertation and its oral defense.



The faculty of the Department of Political Science and the School of International Relations welcome talented candidates from a variety of backgrounds. Although a prior degree in political science or international relations is not necessary, it is strongly recommended that applicants have completed at least some course work in related fields, including political theory, statistics and social science research methods.

Admission decisions are based on a holistic review of applications. This review includes, but is not limited to, consideration of applicants’ prior academic performance, as reflected in course grades, the results of the Graduate Record Examinations, letters of recommendation, and a statement of intent that demonstrates a seriousness of purpose, a high level of motivation and a desire to benefit from our faculty’s areas of expertise or interest. Applicants also are required to submit a sample of their written work in English, preferably a research-oriented paper. Business, government and other practical experiences may also be taken into account. Applicants whose native language is not English must take the TOEFL or IELTS examination.


Screening Process

Before completion of 24 units, students will be reviewed by a screening committee made up of the director of Graduate Studies and the faculty who taught the core courses. This committee will review the student’s progress, including grades and written faculty evaluations of course work.

The committee will be responsible for deciding, at an early stage in the student’s career, if the student is likely to finish the PhD program. After reviewing the student’s record, the committee may decide to (1) continue the student, (2) not continue the student and admit the student into a terminal MA degree program, or (3) fail the student’s performance in the screening process, i.e., not continue the student in either the MA or PhD programs.

Course Requirements

All doctoral candidates must complete an approved sequence of four courses in core theory and methodology, including a classics-oriented course in political theory (POIR 660 ), a multivariate statistics course (POIR 611 ), a social inquiry and research design course (POIR 610 ), and an approved course in advanced research methods.

The selection of additional courses should be guided by the distribution requirements of the PhD program. The student will choose three fields of concentration, of which two will be examined fields. Each examined field of concentration requires completion of four graduate-level courses, including the core course in standard fields, with an average grade consistent with university and program requirements. The third non-examined field of concentration requires the completion of a minimum of three graduate-level courses with an average grade consistent with university and program requirements. Students are also advised to take an independent study course to work toward their substantive paper requirement. Additional courses necessary to complete the 70 units required by the Guidelines for Graduate Study in Political Science and International Relations should be taken in consultation with faculty advisers.


Fields of Concentration

All students must complete two examined fields of concentration and one non-examined field of concentration. The standing fields of concentration include: American politics (AP); comparative politics (CP); international political economy (IPE); international security and foreign policy (ISFP); and methods and research tools (MRT). Students may also select a customized field of concentration as their non-examined field with the approval of their faculty adviser and the Director of Graduate Studies.

For the American politics; comparative politics; international political economy; and international security and foreign policy fields, students must complete four courses and pass a written and oral field qualifying examination. For the methods and research tools field, students must complete the program’s methods core course sequence required of all POIR students and a total of four additional approved advanced methods courses. Students must also write and orally defend a capstone project as part of the qualifying exam utilizing the skills they have learned in their coursework. Students should consult the methods and research tools field coordinator(s) and the POIR Guidelines for a list of approved courses and requirements.

The student may satisfy the third non-examined field by completing one of the following set of requirements: (a) complete at least  three courses in the AP, CP, IPE or ISFP fields, (b) complete four additional methods courses in the MRT field beyond the program’s methods core course sequence;and/or (c) complete at least three courses in a proposed customized field of study to be approved by relevant faculty and the  Director of Graduate Studies. For example, students can design a third field that cuts across disciplinary boundaries or focuses on specific areas of political science and international relations beyond the standing fields. The guidelines and the Director of Graduate Studies  can provide illustrations of this type of third field.


Foreign Language

The student is required to demonstrate intermediate proficiency in a language other than English if the student’s primary field and/or dissertation research requires it. Students should consult the guidelines and the director of Graduate Studies.


Substantive Paper

To show evidence of the capacity to conduct original research and before taking the qualifying exam, each student will submit a substantive paper. The student will submit the draft of his or her substantive paper to the chair of the qualifying exam committee one month prior to the qualifying examinations. After consultation with the chair and necessary revisions, the student is to distribute the paper to all members of the qualifying exam committee at least 14 days prior to the oral defense. The substantive paper should be presented and defended in the oral component of the qualifying examination as a viable journal submission to a peer-reviewed professional journal. It is strongly encouraged that the paper should be submitted to a professional journal approved by the student’s adviser within one year of the defense. Students who select the MRT field as one of their examined fields are expected to write a more sophisticated methodological section of their substantive paper that reflects the skills they have learned in their coursework; or produce an additional capstone project in addition to the substantive paper that has as its focus a significant methodological component.


Qualifying Examinations

Ordinarily, students will take the qualifying exams no later than the fifth semester in the PhD program. Students will be examined in two of their three fields of concentration. The qualifying exam committee will evaluate the quality of the two written field exams as evidence of the capacity to define and complete a PhD dissertation.

With the exception of the methods and research tools field examination, the written examinations will be administered over two days at least once per academic year. Examination questions will be written by a committee of the tenure track faculty in each field. The Director of Graduate Studies, in consultation with the chair of the Department of Political Science and the chair of the School of International Relations, will appoint one faculty member from each field to serve in the POIR Steering Committee and also serve as the field coordinator for  the relevant field. The field coordinators will then seek assistance from other faculty in their field, including those with whom the student has studied, to compose the written examination questions. Students who select the methods and research tools as one of their examined fields of concentration must complete a capstone project which involves writing and orally defending a methodological component of their substantive paper or an additional paper with a substantial methodological component if the substantive paper does not have a significant methodological component.

The oral portion of the student’s qualifying examination will be administered by his or her qualifying exam committee. The oral examination will be based on the student’s written field exams or capstone projects; and the substantive paper. The qualifying exam committee will be made up of five members. In consultation with his or her principal adviser, the student will select two members, one from each standing field in which he or she will be examined, and the other two field examiners and the outside member of the qualifying exam committee. Final approval of the qualifying exam committee requires the signature of the Director of Graduate Studies and the Dornsife Vice Dean of Academic Programs.

Students will pass the qualifying examinations if no more than one member of the qualifying exam committee dissents after reviewing the student’s record at USC and performance on the written and oral parts of the qualifying exams. At the discretion of the qualifying exam committee, students who do not pass the exams may be allowed to retake the qualifying exams the next time they are offered. Students are admitted to candidacy for the PhD when they have completed the university residency requirement, passed the written and oral portions of the PhD qualifying examinations, and defended their dissertation proposal.



Upon completion of the qualifying examinations, the student, in consultation with the principal adviser, selects a dissertation committee in accordance with university rules. Within six months of completing the qualifying examinations, students should have a formal defense of the dissertation proposal before their dissertation committee. The PhD is earned upon the submission of the written dissertation and its successful defense before the dissertation committee.

Consult the Requirements for Graduation section and the Graduate School section of this catalogue regarding time limitations for completion of the degree and other Graduate School requirements.

All graduate students considering an academic career should generally have research, teaching and advisement experiences as part of their program of study.

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