Home Uncategorized Graduate Programs in International Relations: What to Know | Education

Graduate Programs in International Relations: What to Know | Education

by Ünal Güler


After graduating from the University of Michigan as a political science major, Mahmoud Nofal worked for AmeriCorps as a technology-base food pantry coordinator near Washington, D.C., and gained experience in logistics, budgeting and communications management. To realize his career goal of becoming a U.S. foreign service officer, his next step seemed obvious: Obtain a professional master’s degree in international relations. 

He enrolled at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts and is working on a two-year master’s degree specializing in global governance and international organizations with a focus on the Middle East. The program “is very much geared towards building expertise in the field,” he says. 

Nofal is among about 10,000 current students at 25 U.S.-based professional schools of international affairs, according to Carmen Mezzera, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs. These students learn the terrain of diplomacy, international negotiation and methods of analyzing and solving transnational issues in fields such as the environment, human rights, economic development and national security. They tend to seek careers with entities such as the government, environmental organizations, think tanks and global organizations such as the United Nations and World Bank. 

What Is an International Relations Degree? 

International relations, sometimes called international affairs, is a discipline that studies the relationships among nations and international entities such as nongovernmental organizations. The field increasingly encompasses global issues such as the environment, world economy, human rights and disaster relief. Meanwhile, the term “international studies” usually refers to an undergraduate college major rather than a professional or academic graduate program.

Professional master’s degrees in international relations are distinguished from academic master’s degrees in the field in several ways, particularly their interdisciplinary nature, Mezzera says. These programs “by definition, provide students with a strong base of knowledge about the international system, international economics, a world region, and specialized fields like security, development, diplomacy, trade, and many more,” she wrote in an email.

The interdisciplinary approach provides graduates with the flexibility to apply different lenses when addressing complicated problems, Mezzera says. “They have the context to address the challenges of a rapidly changing world.” 

Meanwhile, undergraduate programs may offer exposure to a broader range of topics, she says. 

International relations is a factor in nearly every policy issue, says Filipe Campante, vice dean for faculty affairs and research and Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University‘s School of Advanced International Studies and Carey Business School in Maryland.

“Issues such as the war in Ukraine, or the role of China, or the challenges faced by liberal democracy in so many countries, all of this just makes that reality inescapable,” Campante wrote in an email. “There is no better time to immerse yourself into this way of thinking about the world.” 

Why Students Seek a Professional Degree in International Relations  

Overall, grad programs in international relations “are geared towards networking and making connections and very much building strong relationships to move forward in the processional space,” Nofal says.

International relations graduate students are sometimes admitted straight from a variety of undergraduate majors, although many possess several years of work experience. This is often by design, program administrators say, as such students enrich the classroom experience.

“The flexibility of an IR degree makes it a great platform for people who want to change or adjust their career paths,” Campante says. “It allows students to acquire and hone a range of analytical and professional tools – data analysis, critical thinking, research methods, policy writing, language skills – that are hugely valuable in the private and public sector, as well as non-governmental organizations.” 

Nofal says an international security course he is taking focuses on the use of force in international affairs – “how threats to security emerge, how it manifests itself, and how they have been dealt with in the past and how they can be de-escalated and resolved within the context of a multi-lateral framework.”

He uses the same policy analysis approach in his classes within the global governance and international organizations concentration he chose. 

Practitioners often teach international relations courses. Elizabeth McClintock, executive director and board chair at The Bridgeway Group, a Massachusetts-based negotiation consultancy, is an adjunct assistant professor of international negotiations at Fletcher and a former negotiation and conflict resolution lecturer at Johns Hopkins’ SAIS.

“I bring a lot of my lived experiences through examples and written simulations to the classroom and sort of validate theory in practice,” she says. “Then I encourage students to reflect on their own work experiences to highlight what might have been unarticulated experiences with negotiations.” 

Students with relevant real-world experiences are often admitted to graduate international relations programs because they are likely to contribute to vibrant classroom discussions, say program faculty and administrators.

Also, while a course at the undergraduate level is likely to involve a research paper or literature review, a professional degree “is more likely to emphasize short memos, case studies, simulations, and collaborative projects,” Michael Donnelly, an associate professor and director of professional master’s programs at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy in Canada, wrote in an email.

To complement classes, international relations degrees often have robust guest-lecturer programs. This is particularly true of schools such as Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, American and George Washington universities, which are based in or near Washington D.C., where many international relations professionals work at foreign embassies and within the federal government. 

Internship opportunities are also used as a training ground for students and are sometimes part of a program’s curriculum.

At the Munk School, an internship is a requirement, Donnelly says. “Those internships frequently feed directly into jobs, and even where they do not, the skills gained in them are often key to the next steps of students’ careers.”

How to Choose an International Relations Program 

Full-fledged international relations schools often teach courses and offer fields of study that reflect a school’s particular strengths, such as:

  • SAIS at Johns Hopkins for quantitative and economic analysis.
  • Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs for economic development.
  • The Fletcher School for international public law and security studies.
  • Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service – the first international affairs school in the U.S. – for programs focusing on regions such as Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe. 

Recently popular subjects and fields of study taught across IR schools include international environmental policy, cybersecurity and information, and global innovation policy.

Prospective students should pursue a degree in the type of program that best suits their interests, needs and career goals, Mezzera recommends, adding that it’s important to carefully consider a program’s structure, including core and elective courses, before enrolling.


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