Men and women who earn college degrees in International Relations will study the cultural, political, and economic factors that play a role in global society, as well as strategies for protecting domestic interests while traveling abroad. Some will focus on international trade and commerce, while others will concentrate their studies on diplomatic relations. What all IR students have in common is their desire to improve the world through impactful change and positive dialogue. To see if this field of study is right for them, students today can enroll in free, online open courses that explore various topics associated with international relations.
Many international relations degree-holders will complete the Foreign Service Exam and work outside the United States at embassies, government offices, educational institutions, and private company facilities. On the other hand, a considerable number of these individuals will remain on the homefront and communicate with international counterparts using remote technology. Where they end up largely depends on their academic specialization, although the overall course of study will generally follow the same pattern.
International relations majors must study subjects like history, economics, political science, and anthropology. Many undergraduate courses (known as ‘comparative courses’) will discuss the similarities and differences between various groups. Additional coursework will explore philosophy, literature, art, science, and other academic fields with universal applications. Topics of contemporary interest ― such as environmental science, information technology, and global security ― will likely be addressed at length. And any student who wants to get a leg up on competition in the workforce is encouraged to study at least one foreign language at the college-level.
Since international relations is such a broad field, specializations for undergraduate or graduate-level majors are restricted to certain fields of study and, often, to certain historical periods and countries/regions of the world. Examples might include 20th century European business, Japanese history, or contemporary Latin American culture. Advanced foreign language courses may be required, depending on the specialization. International relations students should choose a specialization that not only reflects their areas of academic and cultural interest, but also stands to help them pursue a successful career.
In addition to their specialization, students who major in international relations must decide which degree level will be most beneficial to their career prospects.
A two-year associate degree is the crucial first step toward higher education, but this credential alone will probably be insufficient for anyone who hopes to land a long-term career in the field of international relations. In some cases, an associate degree supplemented with career experience (such as military service) might be enough to merit consideration for an entry-level position.
The length and curriculum of an undergraduate program in international relations will greatly vary from institution to institution, but the majority of these programs last four years and are designed to introduce students to the fundamentals of world affairs. While an advanced degree is the most effective way for students in this field to outshine their competitors in the workforce, a bachelor’s degree is all it takes to land a job with many companies, agencies, and nonprofit organizations that operate on foreign soil (as well as volunteer outfits like the Peace Corps and VISTA).
A master’s degree will generally be required for individuals who want to pursue executive or upper-level careers in international business or foreign relations. Most programs last between one and two years ― and although a bachelor’s degree in international relations will increase their chances of acceptance, students who pursued different majors as undergraduates (such as political science or economics) may also be admitted into a master’s program. The master’s degree, coupled with a specialization, will often be sufficient for finding a competitive job within the international relations sector, but some students may opt to receive a Ph.D. or doctoral degree to further boost their chances.
The Ph.D. (or doctorate) is a terminal degree that typically requires students to complete two years of coursework that includes a dissertation, clinical research, and/or an extensive internship. Certain professionals will be required to obtain doctoral a degree before finding work in this field, such as international attorneys or doctors who plan to treat patients in foreign countries. However, a Ph.D. will be unnecessary for most careers in the international relations sector.
As an alternative to the traditional degrees listed above, students may opt to receive an advanced certificate. This credential may focus on studies related to a particular region or cultural group, or specialized areas like ‘International Business Diplomacy’ or ‘Refugee and Humanitarian Emergencies.’
Ideal Candidates for International Relations
Love of travel and an interest in foreign culture are two fundamental requirements of anyone interested in pursuing a career in international relations. As representatives of the United States, these individuals must understand the importance of diplomacy and etiquette if they wish to project a positive image of their country to those who might not otherwise be familiar with American culture. Another important quality is flexibility; the willingness to adapt to one’s foreign surroundings and approach problems with patience and resourcefulness is of great importance in the field of international relations.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the career outlook for professions related to the field of international relations will vary by their specialization of study. For example, the number of jobs for political scientists is projected to grow 21% between 2012 and 2022, which represents a difference of roughly 1,400 people. The number of economists, on the other hand, is projected to grow 14% during that period (which matches the average rate of growth for all professions), while the number of historians will only rise 6%. Regardless of specialization, salary rate will be almost always be higher for employees who have earned a Ph.D. or master’s degree than those who completed their education with a bachelor’s degree.
An additional consideration for international relations majors is where they plan to seek employment, as hourly and annual compensation will vary from country to country. The BLS notes that the average salaries in countries like Norway, Switzerland, Belgium, and Denmark provide exceed earnings in the United States by a considerable margin, but the cost-of-living in these places is also significantly higher. On the other hand, countries where the average salary is lower than in the U.S. (such as Brazil, South Korea, and Mexico) are also much cheaper for residents.
If you want to learn more about career opportunities for international relations professionals, a good starting place is your college campus. If your school does not host a department exclusively dedicated to international studies, then you may be able to obtain membership to a student organization or club (such as Model U.N.) that focuses on world affairs.