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James J. Williamson ’07

J.D. Candidate, Yale Law School

I came to Princeton expecting to spend four years exploring—to be the type of student who goes fishing in libraries. Instead, I was caught early on by the international relations section of the politics department. I was intrigued by new trends in that field that attempted to apply quantitative analysis to political problems. Scholars in international relations were collecting data sets, designing experiments, and building models. 

Because politics is still a social science, statistics alone couldn’t come close to solving any problem. Theories could be developed only with a liberal application of insights gained from sociology, anthropology, history, religion, and psychology. This blend of rigorous quantitative reasoning and qualitative examination appealed to me, as I liked an approach that required attacking every problem from different angles. Plus, I knew I wanted to travel abroad and, with a certificate in East Asian studies, I was hooked.

Since graduation, I’ve been lucky enough to explore the world like a library. I’ve worked as a consultant, in state government, and now, as a lawyer-in-training. In all of these fields, I rarely used any specific fact I memorized (although stories about obscure international conflicts are always a hit at dinner parties), but instead relied on the process I learned at Princeton. For example, after two years working at a management consulting firm, I moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to work as the policy director for the Pennsylvania Treasury. 

Politics in practice

I often was asked, “How do you know what to do every day?” or “What prepared you for this?” The truth is that there was no one way to prepare for that job. There is no one direct training program that could encompass all the different problems the treasury—and I—would face on a day-to-day basis. But each problem was dealt with in roughly the same manner. First, examine the problem. Figure out exactly what the key questions are, what information would be needed to answer them, and then how to get that information. Get the information, and try to draw conclusions from it. Test any answers received, develop a plan to implement those solutions, and then figure out how to explain it all to others. 

This pattern—always shifting back and forth between data-based approaches and a more holistic understanding of the world—is not hard in theory. What is hard is knowing how to employ it, and how to overcome the problems that invariably crop up. This was exactly what I learned in the politics department, and thus, in a way, my Princeton major was exactly the perfect training for a job with no defined job description.

Now, back in an academic setting at the Yale Law School, I find myself again employing the same strategies I learned at Princeton. This underscores that the true basis of a liberal arts education is not learning what to think but, rather, how to think. You may choose a major because you enjoy working with the professors in the department, find the subject matter fascinating, or are excited by the way scholars in the field approach difficult issues. Whatever you choose—and whether you pick a department with only one other student or (like me) one of the largest at the University—you can rest assured that you are being prepared not just for your first job after graduation, but also for your second, third, and, if you should be so lucky, 14th.