How to Self-Learn Political Science (A 7-Step Roadmap)

Ever since I started reading political philosophy a few years back, I’ve had occasional visits from the romantic idea of getting a master’s degree in political science. 

Unfortunately, being a writer full-time, and having no plans to pursue a career in academia or policy, I can’t justify dishing out the funds to do it.  

That said, I’m still curious about the options for self-directed study in the field, so I did some research and put together a systematic process to teach yourself political science from scratch. 

The DIY political science curriculum consists of online courses, books, and other online learning materials. 

And it tracks well with what an undergraduate political science major would experience in a university, except for the pesky lab requirements which are hard to replicate from home. 

I hope you find the roadmap helpful for self-learning political science, and at the very least inspirational. 

Although it’s designed to be followed sequentially from start to finish, feel free to hop around the roadmap and study what most interests you. Following your curiosity is key to avoiding burnout. 

Quick Note: This guide is designed for people who want to learn political science, the academic study of political processes, ideologies, institutions, and behavior. If you want to educate yourself in U.S Politics and Government, and become what you might call “politically informed”, check out my other guide on how to self-learn U.S. politics

How Political Science is Taught in Academia 

Before jumping into the steps, I’d like to cover how it’s taught in the academic world. This insight might give you some helpful context. 

Political science as an academic discipline is typically broken up into three branches —  comparative politics, political theory, and international relations — although many colleges offer scholarship in others, such as American politics (always offered in the US), methodology, political economy, public policy, and even thematic categories like “justice”, “civil war politics”, or “foreign policy.” 

Based on the syllabi I’ve looked into, and conversations with my friend Jackson (a gov major) , political science undergrads tend to take one introductory course for each of the different branches, and then some thematic courses as well, like Justice or Civil Resistance: 

Here are some undergrad courses from MIT’s OpenCourseWare so you can see what I mean: 

Graduate and PHD students in political science, on the other hand, are more focused, usually selecting 1 major field and 1-2 minor fields to study deeply. 

Here’s how Columbia breaks up its Major and Minor fields of study: 

The first few years of a PHD candidate’s career is spent taking classes and reading hundreds of canonical books and cutting-edge journal articles to become well-read in their chosen fields and pass their comprehensive exams, which usually come somewhere around their 2nd and 3rd year. 

It’s totally possible to get to this graduate student level of knowledge, perhaps even beyond it, on your own through reading and taking online courses, but if your goal is to become a political scientist, graduate school is your best bet. 

The 7-Step Process for Self-Studying Political Science 

This 7-step systematic roadmap is designed to take you from absolute beginner to graduate-level knowledge in political science. 

You’ll begin by reading a few popular recent political science books to test the waters. Then you’ll take some core political science courses online — one intro and one for each major branch. 

Next you’ll learn about research methods, take some elective online courses, and wrestle with a few canonical political science books.

Lastly, if you’re so inclined, you’ll narrow your focus to one subfield and continue your studies by reading the books that universities assign to their graduate students in that subfield. 

Read on to learn the steps in-depth. 

1. Read a Few Popular Poli Sci Books to Test Your Curiosity

Before embarking on a long self-education journey it’s important to know whether you’re going to enjoy the scenery — the ideas, concepts, and theories you encounter along the way. 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started studying a subject, gung ho on pursuing it for months, then realizing after the first book that I was interested more in the romantic idea of studying the subject than the subject itself (moral philosophy, cough cough).

The best way to make sure your curiosity is serious is by reading a few books in the field and seeing if they make you feel strongly. 

I’ve chosen some popular and relatively recent classics in political science/history that require little background knowledge and are written for the layperson, not academics. 

Here are some of my favorite political science books that are accessible to beginners: 

  • Why Nations Fail: Learn why some countries are poor while others prosper. I had to read this in an intro economics class.  
  • On Tyranny: A short book explaining how to prevent tyranny and preserve freedom. I read this in a few days and loved it.  
  • 1984: This is a dystopian novel by political writer George Orwell. It’s not poli sci but it shows what can happen when utopian ideas are put into practice. 

After reading 2-3 of these books you’ll either be pumped up to learn more about political science or satisfied with what you’ve gained so far and ready to drop out and try some other subject, like English Literature or Chemistry

Want to Read More Books This Year?

Consider getting an Audible membership to listen to audiobooks on the go. They offer a 30-day free trial where you get 1 free audiobook to start (2 if you’re a Prime member).

I love the ability to listen to books at night when my eyes are tired or on my long walks around town when I just can’t sit in a chair any longer.

2. Take a Political Science 101 Online Course

Political Science 101, or Intro to Political Science, will give you an overview of the discipline, briefly introducing you to its major branches and concepts, and arming you with the terminology you’ll need to go deeper into the field., an online learning platform, offers a great free POLSC101 course that will give you a well-rounded foundation to build on. 

The course includes a wide range of internal and external readings (links provided), videos, and study guides, and is broken into the following six units: 

  • Foundational Concepts of Politics: Learn to define key terms like power, state, and legitimacy, and understand the basic principles of politics. 
  • Participation and Public Opinion: Understand the main ways in which citizens interact with their government to advance their interests and drive change.  
  • Ideologies: Learn about the most influential political ideologies in world history — fascism, liberalism, Marxism, Islamism, US conservatism, etc., 
  • The State: Learn about the state, its role and functions, the origin of nation-states, and the concepts of sovereignty and globalization.  
  • Political Institutions: Gain an understanding of the different types of governments and the institutions that come with them.  
  • International Politics: Get the basics of world politics and see how it developed from the Treaty of Westphalia to today’s globalized world.

They say that this course should take 111 hours to complete, but based on my experience with Saylor their estimates are usually on the high side. I wouldn’t be surprised if you could finish it in half or even a quarter of that time, especially if you skip over stuff you already understand. 

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3. Take a Course for Each Major Branch of Political Science

There are a lot of political science courses online that cover the fundamentals of the major branches of political science, from comparative politics to political theory, many of them created by prestigious universities like Yale and Harvard. 

Below I’ve listed some of the best online courses for self-studying political science. Take as many as you’d like. They’ll help you decide which branch you want to specialize in. Order here doesn’t matter. 

Intro to Political Philosophy (Online Yale Courses)

Political philosophy is the philosophical study of government. It attempts to answer questions like “what is the scope of government?” and “what obligations do citizens have to their government?” 

A personal favorite question is about the state of nature — “what would society be like without government?” Great thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Robert Nozick all debate this one. 

Yale’s free Intro to Political Philosophy course will teach you the basics of the subfield and introduce you to its most influential texts, like The Republic by Plato and The Social Contract by Rousseau.   

Here are just some of the 24 incredible lectures: 

If you want to give yourself some extra context around the major debates of the field before diving into the dense books assigned in the course, read Jonathan Wolff’s Introduction to Political Philosophy. I read it after taking this course and now wish I’d read it before. 

For me, the coolest part about political philosophy is that it’s an ongoing debate. Many of the questions that plagued Plato still plague us today. 

Aside from interpreting and debating the writers of the past, the primary role of political philosophers today — often called political theorists in poli sci departments — is to judge what is good and what is bad, what is fair and what is unjust, in any political society. This informs politicians and policy professionals on what issues are most worth trying to fix. 

Introduction to International Relations (Udemy)

International relations is the study of the interactions between sovereign states, like China and the US, or Israel and Palestine, or, less famously, Mali and France. Through analysis scholars try to answer questions about diplomacy, war, peace, treaties, spies, world economics, and more. 

Introduction to International Relations by Kamil Zwolski, PhD, is designed for beginners, covering the history of global relations and the important theories, debates, and concepts in the field.  

Here’s how the course curriculum is divided: 

If you’re a bookworm like me and you’d rather use a book as your entryway into international relations, consider buying Essential Readings in World Politics (it’s what Yale has in their intro to international relations syllabi

Introduction to Comparative Politics (Michael Rossi — YouTube)

Comparative Politics is the subfield of political science that’s concerned with the comparative study of different political systems, governments, ideologies, and other political concepts. 

The comparative method is pretty effective for anyone trying to self-learn a topic. The theory is that by comparing two things, say American democracy and Italian democracy, and highlighting their differences, one comes to better understand each individual thing being compared. 

Michael Rossi, PhD in political science, does a great job in his YouTube lecture series covering the most important beginner topics in comparative politics. 

His lectures are direct recordings from the course he teaches at Rutgers. Unfortunately, he doesn’t put up the readings, probably for legal reasons. 

But, I did some digging, and according to this 2020 syllabi for Rutgers’ intro to comparative politics course, they assign the textbook Introducing Comparative Politics: Concepts and Cases in Context. So you can grab this and study it alongside watching the lectures if you want. I’m not sure if he uses this exact book but it’s probably covering similar material.

Introduction to American Government & Politics (Harvard edX)

American politics, sometimes referred to as American Government, is the study of the American political system, its history, and the groups, ideas, and institutions that make up the system. 

If you were attending a college in another country than the US, the college wouldn’t make this course mandatory for majors in political science. Americans might like to think that they do, but they don’t. Instead, if you were from Brazil, you’d take Intro to Brazilian politics.

For those living in America, or just interested in learning about American politics, you can’t really go wrong learning it from a Harvard School of Government Professor, Thomas E. Patterson. 

Through edx, Harvard offers an American Government and Politics Series, which consists of four courses: American Government: Constitutional Foundations, US Political Institutions, Citizen Politics in America, and US Public Policy. 

For $396, you’ll gain a sturdy and extensive foundation in American politics. You’ll learn about such topics as US public and foreign policy, early American politics, the constitution, the powers of the courts, the presidency’s function, how elections work, why the government moves so slowly (bureaucracy), and more. 

Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be dangerous, if you want to, in political debates, and able to make informed statements about the newsworthy topics in American politics today, before you lean back in your chair, swirling your glass of dry white wine, and wink at the impressed person across the table.

At least, I suppose that’s what will happen after taking a Harvard course. I personally went the textbook route for this branch, but that’s because I spend too much time on this blog and not enough time writing about software or some other profitable topic and therefore can’t justify buying the fancy Harvard course. But if you can, it’s probably worth your while.

Reading Option: I’m currently working my way through the textbook Power and Purpose and it’s extremely in-depth, well-written, and helpful for self-learning American Government and Politics. You could take this route instead of the course if you prefer reading. 

Free Course Option: Khan Academy offers a pretty solid online course for learning the basics of American Government and Civics.

4. Read 1-2 Books on Research Methods

Research methods are the techniques political scientists use to discover new information or gain a more accurate understanding of something already accepted.   

Political scientists use two categories of research methods: qualitative (interviews, surveys, observation, etc.,) and quantitative (data analysis and numerical methods). 

In Dr. Emily Maiden’s video Top 10 Books for Political Science Majors, she recommends the following two books to beginners learning political science research methods: Designing Social Inquiry and Guide to Methods for Students of Political Science. 

If you’re interested in mastering in or majoring in political science after doing some self-directed study, Emily Maiden’s channel is a good resource to learn about what those paths entail. 

5. Take a Few Elective Political Science Online Course 

In addition to the core courses introducing you to each major branch of political science, you should also take some elective courses if you want to more or less align your self-directed studies with the curriculum of the average political science major. 

Below I’ve listed some of the best free online political science courses: 

Choose the ones that most interest you! As an econ major, I especially liked Duke’s Intro to Political Economy. I also enjoyed Coursera’s Moral Foundations of Politics — I’m a sucker for the romance and grandeur of political philosophy. 

6. Read Some Classic Works of Political Science

To round out your early phase of your self-education in political science, read some of the canonical works of the field. If you’ve taken the online courses, you’ve probably swept up parts of a few books in the process. Now dedicate some time to really studying a few. 

Below I’ve listed some of my favorite works of political science: 

  • The Republic: In an effort to try to answer the questions “what is justice?” Plato ends up building an entire utopian city ruled by a philosopher king. The book is widely considered to be the foundational work of political science in the West. 
  • The Prince: In this classic, Machievelli uses historical examples to teach princes how to maintain rule over their principalities. I found this one to be an easier read than many other pre-1800 poli sci books, probably because it’s practical rather than theoretical. 
  • The Federalist Papers: This is a collection of essays arguing for the ratification of the US constitution in 1788. It’s still used today to interpret the framer’s desires for the constitution. 
  • Democracy in America: If you want to understand American politics and society, read this 19th century Frenchman’s profound observations. This is widely considered to be the best book ever written on America. So far, I’d have to agree. 

For more political science books that have influenced the field, not to mention entire nations, check out this article on the 100 best political science books of all time

7. Focus on One Subfield & Read its Major Works

If you find that political science is your calling and you want to continue seriously studying the subject on your own, try to focus on one subfield that most intrigues you, be it political economy, American politics, comparative politics, or something else. 

Then read books that universities make their graduate students read to pass their comprehensive exams. 

You can usually find these daunting book lists by googling “comprehensive exam {insert your political science subfield} reading list”. 

For example, when I type in “comprehensive exam political theory reading list”, the following links come up: 

When I click on any given link, it will open up PDF file and display a list that contains an absurd number of books, many of which political science graduate students probably skim because they’re pressed for time. 

I’ve heard reading the opening and closing chapters and skimming the rest for information they need is a common strategy.

Anyway, here’s the first of ten pages for the Columbia political theory reading list

If you were mad enough about the subject to do such a thing, it might be time to consider pursuing political science as a career, or even getting a formal degree in the field.  

However, you could also use your knowledge to write blogs, articles, essays, books even. And you could also go on studying for the sheer enjoyment and intellectual development the hard cognitive work stimulates. 

If you can put yourself through rigorous self-education to learn a complex subject for no other reason than to satisfy your interest, the world is your oyster, my fiend. You are powerful, more than you know. 


Can You Self-Study Political Science? 

It’s possible to self-study political science, without teachers or schooling, by studying political science textbooks, taking free online courses, and reading classic works of political science. If you have a strong interest in the subject and consistently study it, there’s no reason why you can’t give yourself an impressive political science education equal to that of a college student. 

Bottom Line: Self-Learning Political Science

Whether it’s to test the subject as a possible college major, to become more politically informed and articulate, or to satisfy a lust for knowledge, following a political science self-education roadmap makes the learning process easier and more effective. 

If you want to self-study another subject that pairs nicely with political science, consider checking out my Western History Self Education Roadmap, where I share the step-by-step process for self-learning history through books and online courses. 

By studying history, you can learn about key and exciting political decisions and events, and analyze them with your new intellectual toolset of political science knowledge and skills. 

Want to Self-Learn New Subjects Systematically?

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After graduating college with an econ degree I realized I was still anything but well-educated. Over the last 4 years, I've been trying to fix that, autodidact-mode — by reading books and engaging in self-directed study across multiple subjects. On this blog, my goal is to share my learnings and help others get a well-rounded education outside of school. Education, after all, is a lifelong process, one well worth the investment.

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