What is Government?
“Government” is the term that Cornell uses for the discipline of political science. Political science is the study of power applied for public purposes. Political scientists focus on both the normative and philosophical foundations of politics, and the practice of politics within the United States and around the world. Political scientists study individuals, groups, institutions, and nation-states, and forms of politics that range from voting and lobbying to mobilization, dissent, and war. No other field of social scientific inquiry so unites both the philosophical and practical dimensions of human behavior.
The Department of Government offers broad training in the discipline of political science. Course offerings reflect the breadth of faculty expertise in this exciting and growing discipline, and the study of Government at Cornell trains students with skills that are in high demand in public service, business, law, the non-profit sector, and many other professions. Students receive a broad introduction to the major tools and approaches to the study of politics, and then apply these tools to understand the many facets of public life, from contemporary political thought to campaigns and elections, public policy, conflict and peace, and beyond.
Why Major in Government?
The Government Major is one of the largest majors in the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Department of Government is a world-leading center for the study of politics. Students new to Cornell may nevertheless be curious about why Government is such a popular major. For some the answer is obvious: because the discipline of political science is such a broad and interesting field, many students major in Government to explore their interests in politics and public life, in the U.S. and around the world. However, the Government department at Cornell also has particular strengths that draw students into the major.
Government majors go on to enjoy careers in fields as diverse as law, business, the non-profit sector, and public service. Majoring in government is a natural way to prepare yourself for one of these careers. As a Cornell Government major, you are in good company: nationwide data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that political science leads the other social sciences in the number of undergraduate degrees granted. But your choices are not limited to just those standard careers paths—in recent years Government graduates have accepted positions at Google, joined tech startups, and taught English in Indonesia on a Fulbright.
Many of Cornell’s distinguished undergraduates have also gone on to become distinguished professors of political science themselves, holding positions at Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and others.
Government is a cornerstone discipline of a liberal arts education. But just as importantly, Government at Cornell provides students with training in the specific practical skills that are in high demand among employers and graduate and professional schools. For example, Government courses teach analytical thinking and problem solving: the ability to synthesize complex real-world information in order identify solutions. Government courses also teach persuasive writing, a skill that employers identify as being in short supply among current college graduates. Many of our newer courses teach quantitative skills: these include new courses in fielding public opinion surveys, constructing mathematical models, and solving problems with data. And tying all of these together is the skill of knowledge with a purpose, giving majors the critical thinking skills to understand what is at stake—normatively, philosophically, theoretically as well as practically—in contemporary public debates.
Students who major in Government can choose from among a wide menu of course options to tailor a course of study that focuses as they prefer on one or more of these skills.
The Government department takes undergraduate teaching very seriously. When combined with the department’s reputation for excellent scholarship, this means that students have an unparalleled opportunity to study and take classes from some of the world’s most prominent scholars of political science. Our faculty includes several winners of the Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellowship for undergraduate teaching—Cornell’s highest honor for undergraduate teachers—as well as many other award-winning teachers and advisers. Cornell Government majors have the chance to develop close relationships with prominent faculty who can serve as advisers, writers of recommendation letters, and mentors.
Because our faculty members are outstanding scholars as well as outstanding teachers, their research interests are represented in the courses that they teach. Our department has particular strengths in topical areas such as American political thought, Asian politics, conflict, inequality, political behavior, political economy, public policy, and the study of social movements. Government majors learn from leading faculty working at the cutting edge of the discipline of political science, and it is not uncommon for students to find themselves in a small seminar led by a professor who is one of the world’s foremost experts in that subject.
Overview of the Major
The field of government at Cornell is divided into four broad sub-fields: American Politics, Comparative Politics (the institutions and political processes around the world), Political Theory (philosophy), and International Relations (transactions between nations).
Entering students usually begin by taking our introductory courses, two of which are required to complete the major. The introductory course on American Politics is suitable for students whose interests lie in the domestic politics of the United States. Students whose interests are more internationally focused may take Introduction to Comparative Politics and Introduction to International Relations, while those drawn to questions of political philosophy might begin with Introduction to Political Theory.
Beyond the introductory level, students choose from many upper level lecture and seminar-style courses. Courses offered in the current semester can be viewed here. Our course offerings regularly feature courses on the politics of particular world regions (Latin America, Europe, Africa, Asia), on various topics in U.S. politics (political institutions, race and ethnicity, law, public policy, public opinion), on critical themes in global politics (international relations theory, terrorism, political economy, war and peace), and on the foundations of political philosophy (American political thought, theories of resistance and revolution, and democracy).
The department offers special opportunities within the major such as a minor in Crime, Prisons, Education & Justice, Public Policy, International Relations, the Cornell in Washington program, the Study Abroad program, the honors program, and the option to do an independent study project of your own design with a faculty member.
Students accepted to the honors program take a research design seminar in the fall of their senior year, and work with an individual faculty member on their senior thesis, to be completed by mid-April.
are available in the Government Department Office, located in 210 White Hall, or here:
Requirements and Procedures
To be admitted to the major, a student must pass two government courses taken at Cornell or transferred in from another institution. Major applications are available in the Government Department Office, located in 210 White Hall, or you can complete our online form.
Worksheet to assess your progress in the Major:
To complete the major, a student must:
1. Pass two of the introductory government courses in the subfields of American Government (AM), Comparative Politics (CP), Political Theory (PT), and International Relations (IR) (GOVT 1111, GOVT 1313, GOVT 1615, GOVT 1616 or GOVT 1817)
2. Accumulate an additional 30 credits of government course work, of which only one course can be at the introductory (1000) level. First-Year Writing Seminars can NOT be used.
3. Complete at least one seminar-style course at the 4000 level in Government, which can be applied toward the 30-credit requirement above. This course must (a) be taught by a Government faculty member; (b) yield 4 credits; (c) have no more than 15 students; (d) be taken for letter grade; and (e) have a substantial writing or project component, unless an exception to these requirements is announced by the Director of Undergraduate Studies. Cornell-in-Washington seminars will satisfy this requirement if they are taught by a Government faculty member and yield 4 credits. Cross-listed courses in Government (ie., courses taught by faculty who do not have an appointment in the Government department - see Govt faculty list here) will not count for the major seminar but will count for major credit. If in doubt, consult your major advisor.
4. There must be at least 1 course taken in 3 of the 4 subfields of the study of political science: American Government, Comparative Politics, Political Theory, International Relations.
- All courses used to fulfill Government Major Requirements must be passed with a letter grade of C minus or above.
- Courses with S-U grades cannot be used towards the major.
- First-Year Writing Seminars cannot be used towards the major.
- Students may receive major credit for either GOVT 1615 or GOVT 1616, not both.
- All government coursework applied for major credit must be take with a government subject code. (i.e. GOVT XXXX, NOT ASIAN XXXX).
To summarize: for most students, a minimum of 10-12 government courses (amounting to 30 credits plus two intro courses) are required to complete the major.
When registering for government courses, please keep in mind that the course catalogue is not always the most reliable guide to the courses that are actually offered in a given semester. A more up-to-date listing of courses offered in any particular semester may be found by clicking here.
Students who are interested in joining the Department of Government as a second major (double major) need to submit an application to be accepted just as single majors do. Once accepted, students will be notified by email of their acceptance and assigned a faculty advisor in the department. Note that double majors do not need a specific group of electives to list on the application to graduate.
Enrolling in major seminars
These seminars, emphasizing important controversies in the discipline, cap the majors' experience. Thus, preference in admission to the seminars numbered 4000.xxx is given to majors over non-majors and seniors over juniors. Students who have already taken a major seminar can enroll in other 4000 level courses, but, for those numbered 4000.xxx, only if space is available after students applying for the first time have been admitted. Topics and instructors change each semester.
The major seminar requirement can only be satisfied by taking a class taught by a faculty member in the Department of Government, in a class with 15 or fewer students enrolled. Please visit our course offerings to review 4000 level courses that would fulfill your senior seminar requirement. Cornell in Washington seminars can count toward this requirement if taught by a Government faculty member.
Independent study, Government 4999, is a one-on-one tutorial arranged by the student with a faculty member of his or her choosing. Government 4999 is open to government majors doing superior work. It is the responsibility of the student to draft the research proposal and to find a faculty sponsor. Applicants for independent study must present a well-defined program of study that cannot be satisfied by pursuing courses in the regularly scheduled curriculum. No more than 4 credits of independent study may count towards fulfillment of the major. Emphasis is on creatively and analytically exploring a body of related readings for analysis and criticism, and writing a substantial paper. Independent study cannot be used to fulfill the seminar requirement. The independent study application must be completed at the beginning of the semester in which the course is being taken. It is assigned a different number of credits depending on the amount of work to be undertaken. To apply for independent study, please complete the on-line form at https://data.arts.cornell.edu/as-stus/indep_study_intro.cfm.
Internships are often valuable experiences and students are encouraged to undertake them either during vacations or while studying in absentia. The department does not grant academic credit for this experience. However, internships are integrated into the Cornell in Washington Program.
Transfer students and transfer credits
The department welcomes transfer students who wish to major in Government. Transfer students should note that when the College of Arts & Sciences grants credit for coursework completed at another institution, it does not automatically get applied to the Government Major. To accomplish that, transfer students should review the transferring credits policy here and meet with the Director of Undergraduate Studies who approves courses for major credit.
For suggested courses to take, depending on your interests, please visit Pathways Through the Government Major.
Writing an Honors Thesis represents an important set of commitments on the part of the student, the faculty advisor, and the Government Department as a whole. It provides an opportunity to deepen one’s knowledge about a topic to a degree not possible in a single semester. It requires a considerable amount of work over the course of a year, and imposes opportunity costs on other experiences many students look forward to during their senior year. Therefore, writing an honors thesis is not for everyone. It is a privilege accorded to those students who (1) have demonstrated excellence throughout their undergraduate academic career and (2) who have a compelling desire to answer a clearly articulated and substantively important research question.
Students may apply in the spring semester of their junior year or the spring semester before their last full year at Cornell (if they plan to graduate a semester early).
Applicants must have a minimum grade point average of 3.5 in the Government Major. (FWS are not included in the major GPA). Students who hope to write an honors thesis are strongly encouraged to complete preparatory coursework in the relevant subfield(s) before filing an application.
The Honors Program involves two courses taken during the student’s senior year. Participants enroll in Government 4949, the Honors Thesis Research Seminar, during the fall semester. They formulate their research questions, develop a research design, and begin reading and research under the supervision of their thesis advisor, with much discussion and preliminary drafts shared with classmates and the honors course instructor. The chair of an honors thesis must be a faculty member in the Department of Government. A current list of the Government department faculty may be found here. In consultation with their Government thesis advisor, students may opt to name an additional “ad hoc” advisor from outside the Government department, should both student and advisor deem it necessary. Participants are enrolled in Government 4959 during the spring semester; GOVT 4959 is operated as a one-on-one independent study experience with the thesis advisor (there is no class meeting in the spring). Students submit the final thesis for evaluation in mid-April. Each of these courses, GOVT 4949 and GOVT 4959, carries four credits and each receives a separate grade. Government 4949 also fulfills the senior seminar requirement.
The Government Department’s Undergraduate Committee meets in early May to determine the level of honors for each student. The final decision about honors is based on the quality of the thesis, the grade record in the major, and the oral thesis defense (if any).
Submitting an application for the honors program
Applications are accepted from juniors completing their second semester. (Please note, for students who wish to pursue honors but intend to graduate early from Cornell: Please plan for two semesters to complete both GOVT 4949 and GOVT 4959. You may apply to the honors program the semester preceding your last full academic year). The Honors Program applications are due by 4:00PM, March 1. The students who are accepted to the program will be given a permission number to enroll in 4949 during the enrollment period.
Click here for detailed information on the two undergraduate minors offered by the Government department, as well as other related minors.
Cornell Abroad/Cornell in Washington
Cornell encourages students to study abroad. However, approval of credit for work done abroad is not automatic. It is important to realize that some courses students may wish to pursue might not be applied towards the major. Careful planning is essential.
Before students go abroad, the Government Department requires that majors meet with their advisor to go over the following points:
- Determine the courses that interest you and will count towards your major requirements. It is advisable to try to find courses that are similar to or compatible with courses that are offered at Cornell. Courses that have unusual requirements, duplicate course work already taken at Cornell, or do not meet the standards of upper level Cornell courses should be avoided. To be awarded four credits toward the major, the course should have reading and writing requirements commensurate with our upper-level courses.
- CUA applicants must draft a proposed course schedule using the Cornell Abroad form and discuss it with their advisor before leaving. If the course program should change later, you should forward the new course information to your advisor for review as soon as it becomes available.
- Students are required to bring back a complete record of the courses that they took while abroad. This record should include: course syllabi, copies of papers written and exams taken abroad, any additional statements explaining the course requirements, and the official transcript. Abroad courses must earn a B- or better to be counted for the major.
Studying in a host country where the official language is not English
The Department warmly encourages students to study in non-English speaking countries. However, credit for GOVT coursework in a non-English speaking country will only be granted under the following conditions:
Government majors should only study in non-English speaking countries if they have achieved near-native fluency in that country’s language of instruction. Students are expected to study in the host country language, to be fully integrated into the student body of the host country, and to receive instruction at or above the level at Cornell. Thus you should select courses carefully, and ensure that you will not segregated with foreign students in any course intended for GOVT credit. If you have a concern relating to this rule, consult with the Director of Undergraduate Studies. Note also that the number of credits assigned to a course at the host institution may change when transferred to the major here. A course taken for a semester will usually earn 3-4 credits, depending on the level of work for the course.
On returning from study abroad, students must make an appointment to see the Director of Undergraduate Studies who will review course materials and make the final determination regarding whether courses will count towards the government major, and at what level of credits. This should be done as soon as possible after returning to campus. The form should then be submitted back to the Abroad Office for final processing.
Cornell in Washington
The Cornell in Washington Program allows students the opportunity to study public policy and to do supervised research during a semester in residence at its Wolpe Center building, 2148 O Street (near DuPont Circle) in Washington, DC. To start your application, go to the website or stop by the CIW office in 2314 Martha Van Rensselaer Hall with your questions.
Students at CIW enroll in a variety of seminars in political science, history, economics, sociology, natural resources and architectural history at the Cornell in Washington Center. The course listing changes each semester. One of those courses must be GOVT 4998, Inquiry in Politics and Policy. This course is the core of the program and involves a research project on a subject you are interested in. GOVT 4998 may not be used to satisfy the major seminar requirement. No course credit is given for the experience aspect of the externship by itself.
Students may serve as externs with agencies or departments of the executive branch, the Supreme Court, or congressional committees. Externships with interest groups, research institutions and other policy organizations are also possibilities. Students are expected to work three days a week and carry a full academic load of 12 to 16 credits.
More information, as well as application forms, are available from the Cornell in Washington web page (www.ciw.cornell.edu) or the CIW office located in Martha Van Rensselaer Hall.
Click here for answers to frequently asked questions about the undergraduate program in government.