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How to Prepare to Be a Politician
Politicians shape public policy, serve the needs of their communities and craft the laws we all live by. Becoming a politician requires a dogged determination to gain support, win elections and remain in office. Even though a political career does not require a specific educational path, it does require keen skills and a winning personality. Although a political career might not pay as much money as some professions, some politicians earn comfortable incomes.
How Can I Prepare to Be a Politician?
Politicians take various political career paths in route to office. Some are motivated to become politicians at an early age, while others seek office after life-changing events or to address issues that affect them and their communities. George W. Bush followed in his father’s political footsteps to the White House, while U.S. Congresswoman Jackie Speier, ran for office after cult members of the Peoples Temple murdered her boss, Congressman Tom Lantos.
However, many political leaders began their careers by following a common set of steps. Many worked as aides to seasoned office holders. Others landed intern positions for politicians while attending college.
Politicians come from all walks of life. President Ronald Reagan starred in dozens of Hollywood films, before seeking his first political office as California’s governor. For decades, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren taught law at Harvard Law School, before running for the United States Senate.
Common attributes of successful politicians include charisma, good listening skills, a desire to shape policy and good debate skills. Politicians must have good analytical skills to identify issues, problem-solving skills to draft solutions, persuasion skills to gain support for policies, fundraising skills to pay for campaigns and tenacity to move their agendas forward.
Many politicians begin their political careers in local government, before seeking higher office at state or federal levels. For example, President Jimmy Carter began his political career by serving on county hospital and education boards, before running for governor of Georgia and president of the United States.
To succeed in a progressive political career path, a politician must set and achieve short- and long-term goals, while developing a base of supporters that can propel her to higher office. For example, a newly elected city council member must expand her network of citizens, political party officials and business owners. She must craft significant legislation to earn the support of her constituents and succeed in passing bills to develop credibility. At this point in her career, the councilwoman can boost her future career prospects by finding qualified political and policy aides to follower her along her political path. At a local level, politicians often operate with small staffs and limited campaign funds. During this phase of her political career path, she must learn how to raise more money to run the more expansive campaigns required for higher office.
After five years in office, a politician has learned the ropes of his office and likely has sought and won at least one reelection bid. At this point, he has succeeded in drafting and passing legislation and building a base of supporters. Typically, successful politicians earn the respect of their political parties, which provide them with additional support in fundraising and campaigning. With success under his belt, he can launch a campaign for higher office. For example, after serving for a couple of terms as a local school board member, he might run for mayor.
After 10 years in political offices, a politician typically has a substantial base of supporters, trusted aides and the support of her political party. At this stage, she has gained enough credibility to further her career to a larger group of constituents. For example, if the city councilwoman served one term on the council, followed by two terms as mayor, she might decide to run for the state senate or the governor’s office.
How Early Can I Start a Career in Politics?
Age requirements for jobs in politics vary by office and location. The United States Constitution limits seats in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives to candidates who are at least 30 years old and 25 years old, respectively. Likewise, the constitution limits presidential candidates to people who are at least 35 years old, and presidential candidates must have been born in the U.S.
Most states limit candidates to their legislatures to people who are 18 to 30 years old. In many states, state houses of representatives and state senates have different age limits. For instance, Alaska state senators must be at least 25 years old, while house members must be at least 21. Some states impose the same age limit on both houses of the legislature. For example, California restricts seats in both houses of its legislature to people 18 years of age and older.
Most state constitutions restrict their governor’s office to people who are at least 19 to 35 years old. However, some states – including Vermont and Kansas – do not impose age restrictions on their highest office. In fact, in 2018, 14-year-old Ethan Sonneborn ran for the governor of Vermont.
To run for many political offices, you also must meet other requirements. For example, many state legislatures have state or district residency restrictions, as well as U.S. citizenship requirements. Some state constitutions and local charters also ban political candidates with certain criminal convictions.
How Do You Get Involved in a Political Campaign?
You can find countless ways to get involved in political campaigns. Most political campaign websites have pages that allow you to sign up for volunteer opportunities. For instance, 2018 gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis’ campaign website included a “Get Involved” page, which enabled supporters to volunteer to make phone calls or go door to door to speak with voters. You also can call a candidate’s campaign office to inquire about volunteer opportunities or sign up for volunteer work at a campaign rally. Volunteer work often puts you in contact with the movers and shakers of political parties, which can help you expand your network for your political career. If you have marketing skills or political experience, you might qualify for a paid position with a political campaign.
You can join organizations which advocate for causes you support. For example, if you want to advance an animal rights agenda, you can become a member of an animal rights group. If women’s health issues have affected your life, you can find politically active groups at local, state and national levels. Cause-related groups typically hold meetings to discuss legislation proposals and to offer volunteer opportunities for circulating informational flyers, pledge drives and membership recruitment.
To become familiar with politicians and issues, you can attend city council or town hall meetings. By attending such events, you can find politicians whose views align with yours and learn more about issues such as poverty, the environment, wage laws and education. By seeing candidates interact with constituents and learning more about their agendas, you can decide which officeholder you want to support.
City election commissions need volunteers to run polling stations on Election Day. Polling station volunteers maintain voter rolls, answer voter questions and manage ballots.
You also might organize a voter registration drive geared toward citizens whose views align with those of the candidate support. For example, if you support a candidate who advocates for bicycle lanes on city streets, you could set up a voter registration table along the route of a bicycle rally. Check with your local election commission to find out more about how to register voters.
Do I Need a Political Science Degree to Get Into Politics?
Political careers do not require a degree in political science. In fact, political positions do not require you to have a college degree. While many politicians have college degrees, others have successfully worked their way up the political ladder without one. For example, Scott Walker dropped out of college before completing his studies, but served two terms as Wisconsin’s governor.
According to a 2015 New York Times report, political strategists prefer candidates who have college degrees, because over 40 percent of voters hold degrees. Nonetheless, many politicians win elections based on their political stance to important issues, not on their educational background.
What Majors Do Politicians Have?
While political offices do not require a college education, most politicians at the federal level have at least one degree. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center report, in the 115th Congress, all but 5 percent of House of Representative members had college degrees. During the same congressional period, all U.S. senators had college degrees.
Successful politicians have a wide variety of college degrees. Jimmy Carter earned a graduate degree in nuclear physics from Union College, while Ronald Reagan studied sociology and economics at Eureka College. George W. Bush earned a history degree in American and European studies from Yale University and Barack Obama studied political and international affairs at Columbia University, before earning his Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School.
Debates often center on the type of degree best suited for aspiring politicians. Many politicians hold law degrees, which prepares them for political office in numerous ways. Law school teaches students how to think critically, challenge conventional policies and learn debate skills.
The law profession tends to attract the same types of personalities that jobs in politics do. Lawyers and politicians have the tenacity to put their views forward and argue their positions to win. Perusing the alumni of Harvard Law School, you can find the names of many high-ranking past and present politicians, including Ted Cruz, Elizabeth Warren, Mitt Romney and Elizabeth Dole.
Law school prepares aspiring politicians in ways that other degree programs do not. In legal debates, students must understand and consider the perspectives of people who oppose theirs. Lawyers must understand how precedents in case law affect their cases and how and when they can challenge precedents. This prepares politicians for proposing legislation or policies that challenge the status quo. Navigating the complex nature of many legal cases provides a foundation for future politicians to learn problem-solving skills. A law education also teaches students how to compromise and find a mutually beneficial outcome when two parties disagree.
How Much Money Do Politicians Make?
Politician salaries vary by office and pay limits set by the local, state and federal governments in which they serve. According to a 2018 CNBC report, citing a Zippia survey, Pennsylvania state representatives make more than $85,0000, while their governor takes home nearly $190,000. Kansas’ governor makes nearly $100,000 per year, but its state representatives earn less than $10,000. New Hampshire’s state representatives make a paltry $100 per year.
The president of the United States makes $400,000 per year, while the vice president earns $230,000. Members of the U.S. Congress take home $174,000, while majority and minority leaders of both houses make $193,400.
At a local level, some mayors earn more money than federal congress members. According to a 2018 The Business Journals survey, San Francisco, California’s mayor makes more than $300,000, while the mayor of New York City earns $260,000.
- The White House: Ronald Reagan
- Jackie Speier for Congress: About Jackie
- United States Senate: About Elizabeth Warren
- Monster: How to kick-start your career as a politician
- The Guardian: Seven ways to get a career in politics
- The Princeton Review: Politician
- Glamour: A Step-By-Step Guide to Getting Involved in Political Activism
- CNN: 25 ways to be politically active (whether you lean left or right)
- The Washington Post: This 14-year-old is running for governor before he can even vote
- The Council of State Governments: The Governors: Qualifications for Office
- National Conference of State Legislatures: Candidate Qualifications
- Library of Congress: Requirements for the President of the United States
- United States Senate: Constitutional Qualifications for Senator
- United States House of Representatives: Constitutional Qualifications
- The New York Times: Running for High Office Without Higher Education
- Pew Research Center: The changing face of Congress in 5 charts
- The Guardian: How a law degree could launch your career in politics
- Harvard Law: Why Do Law School Graduates Become Leaders?
- University of Virginia Miller Center: Barack Obama: Life Before the Presidency
- University of Virginia Miller Center: George W. Bush: Life Before the Presidency
- CNBC: The 5 states with the highest and lowest paid politicians
- United States House of Representatives Press Gallery: Salaries
- The Business Journals: Public paychecks: What does a city mayor earn? Here's the breakdown...including one who makes just $8,400
- Try to put a positive spin on everything. Optimism is a must for any politician.
- Don't attempt to become a politician if you cannot handle criticism well.
Michael Evans’ career path has taken many planned and unexpected twists and turns, from TV sports producer to internet project manager to cargo ship deckhand. He has worked in numerous industries, including higher education, government, transportation, finance, manufacturing, journalism and travel. Along the way, he has developed job descriptions, interviewed job applicants and gained insight into the types of education, work experience and personal characteristics employers seek in job candidates. Michael graduated from The University of Memphis, where he studied photography and film production. He began writing professionally while working for an online finance company in San Francisco, California. His writings have appeared in print and online publications, including Fox Business, Yahoo! Finance, Motley Fool and Bankrate.