Barriers and Motivations for Postgraduates to Pursue a Career in Australian Political Science

Lyndal Hasselman

Lyndal Hasselman is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra


There are widely recognised and reported gender differences in participation in different aspects of political science academia. Kantola (2008) reports gender biases in academia in general in Finland, Fisher et al. (1998), report gender differences in American political science journal publications, Sawer (2004) reports a lack of women in leadership positions in Australian political science and Akhtar et al. (2005), report gender differences in student progression to post graduate studies in political science. These gender differences are widely accepted as detrimental, with a loss of workplace diversity and associated capability commonly cited. While the gender differences in political science are recognised, the point of attrition from the academic career pathway in political science and the underlying reasons for it remains less understood.

A survey of postgraduate students attending the Australasian Policy Studies Association’s 2015 Conference was undertaken to investigate the barriers and motivations to careers in political science. Completion of the survey was voluntary. The survey was distributed electronically and largely used Likert scales to test levels of agreement with set statements. A preliminary analysis of the survey results has confirmed that there are gender differences in motivations to pursue doctoral research, future career aspirations, perceptions of political science as a discipline and other factors affecting career choices.

The survey was completed by 75 respondents, primarily based in Universities across Australia. 84% of respondents were undertaking doctoral research, with the remainder in post-doctoral, early career or undertaking Masters’ degree course work. The majority of PhD students (76%) were enrolled full time. Survey responses were received from 41 women and 30 men.[1] An overview of the core findings follow.


Drivers to Political Science

Firstly, what were the motivations for doing doctoral research?  The most commonly identified factors were: ‘to learn’ (97%); ‘sense of achievement’ (96%); and ‘to discover new knowledge’ (95%) followed by the desire ‘to challenge myself’ (87%). The least important motivation was ‘to fill an employment gap’ (61% not important). Gender differences in motivations can clearly be identified:

  • 78% of females rated personal circumstances as very important or important compared to 57% of males; and,
  • 71% of females rated flexible hours as very important or important compared to 43% of males.

Only 66 respondents indicated whether they were considering a career in political science academia. Once again significant gender differences can be identified. As noted in Table 1, only 39% of females were considering a career in political science, while a further 44% were unsure. In comparison, 62% of male respondents were considering a career in political science.

Table 1. Percentage of respondents considering a career in political science


Drivers away from Political Science

So why are women less inclined to want to pursue a career in political science?  The survey also provided insights into factors affecting career choices and perceptions of political science as a career pathway. Gender differences are evident across both of these indicators.

For possible factors affecting career choices, gender differences in the extent to which a factor was very important or important were more nuanced. Figure 1 provides a summary of those factors that varied in significance between the genders.


Figure 1. Significance of factors affecting decisions on future career choices by gender


The findings on perceptions of political science academia provide particularly useful insights for Universities attempting to attract post-doctoral researchers and/or actively seeking gender balanced academic staffing. Perceptions were tested using a five point level of agreement with set statements. Negative perceptions of political science academia that the sector may wish to consider include:

  • ‘There are enough future job opportunities available’ (70% of women either strongly disagreed or disagreed)
  • ‘Promotions are objective and merit based’ (61% of women were unsure about this statement)
  • ‘There are clear pathways for career progression’ (59% of women were unsure about this statement)
  • ‘There is fair recognition of performance and contribution’ (52% of women were unsure about this statement)
  • ‘Future employment is based on referral’ (44% of women were unsure and 49% agreed or strongly agreed)
  • ‘There is adequate job stability’ (43% of women were unsure and 44% strongly disagreed or disagreed)

More specifically, with regard to gender differences:

  • 45% of women are unsure that ‘there are plenty of opportunities for career progression’, in contrast with 45% of men who strongly disagreed or disagreed.
  • 33% of women were positive about ‘there [being] a sense of team and belonging’ in contrast with 34% of men who strongly disagreed or disagreed.
  • 45% of women were unsure that ‘it is a supportive environment to be in’ in contrast with 34% of men.
  • 50% of women were unsure about whether ‘there is helpful workplace mentoring’ in contrast with 31% of men.
  • 52% of men strongly agreed or agreed that ‘the field is grounded in reality’ in contrast with 28% of women who strongly agreed or agreed.
  • 41% of men were unsure that ‘the field influences the real world and drives change’ compared with 25% of women.



On a more optimistic endnote, a range of positive perceptions of the sector could be identified and provide potential foundations to affecting progress:

  • Individuals are able to make a significant contribution (77%)
  • I can acquire the skills and knowledge required (74%)
  • I have autonomy over my work (74%)
  • The calibre of peers is high (67%)
  • The hours are flexible (64%)

Given the lower representation of women in political science, it was expected that the gender differences would be starker. While differences are evident within the doctoral studies cohort, additional investigation into the motivations and barriers specific to early career researchers may shed further light on the issue of female attrition.

The analysis of the survey findings are at an early stage. Insights gained informally through the course of the conference, indicate that age may have just as much bearing on motivations and barriers. The average age of respondents was 37, with no difference between the genders. Ages ranged from 21 to 65, as shown in Figure 2.


Figure 2. The age distribution of respondents


Within Australian political science at least doctoral research is no longer viewed purely as a natural next step from graduate studies. A new cohort of potential academics is emerging as a possible mid-career change or pre or post retirement option. Hence the life stage of students and the maturity they bring to their research is expected to have had a far greater impact on their motivations, factors affecting career choices and perceptions of the sector. Full statistical analysis of these survey results, including testing age as an independent variable is now required.

Acknowledgements: I would like to acknowledge the contributions of Marion Carter, Pia Rowe, Nivek Thompson, David Marsh in designing and conducting the survey.


Akhtar, P., Fawcett, P., Legrand, T., Marsh, D. and Taylor, C., (2005), ‘Women in the political science profession’, European Political Science, 4, pp. 242-255.

Fisher, B.S., Cobane, C.T., Vander Ven, T.M. and Cullen, F.T. (1998), ‘How many authors does it take to publish an article? Trends and pattern in political science’, American Political Science Association, 31 (4), pp. 847-856.

Kantola, J. (2008), 'Why do all the women disappear?' Gendering processes in a political science department, Gender, Work and Organization, 15 (2), pp. 202-225.

Sawer, M. (2004), ‘The impact of feminist scholarship on Australian political science’, Australian Journal of Political Science, 39, 3, pp. 553-566.

[1] For individual questions up to 10 respondents elected to skip parts of or whole questions and 4 respondents chose not to state their gender at all.

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