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Post-College Educational Tracks


There is no single educational path to international jobs; in fact, it's quite common for people in the same position to have very different sorts of educational backgrounds. Moreover, there are a lot of people in interesting jobs with only B.A. degrees (and sometimes without them). However, either graduate education or experience (preferably both) is usually essential to get access to these positions.

Graduate programs come in two general types:  professional and academic.  Professional study is, as the name implies, designed to prepare individuals for a profession.  If one wants to be a lawyer, one needs to go to law school.  If one wants to be a doctor, one needs to go to medical school.  If one wants to be a businessman or an architect or an urban planner, it helps to go to business school, or graduate school in architecture, or graduate school in urban planning.  Although there is some variation (the JD degree is, for example, a “doctorate,” and an MD is a “doctorate”), most professional schools principally offer master’s degrees; the course of study is typically fairly standardized; and the course of study typically takes one to three years.  

Academic degrees, by contrast, are designed to prepare individuals for a life in academia – in research and in college- or university-level teaching.  Academic degrees are most typically offered in traditional disciplines – for example, political science, economics, history, sociology.  While an MA degree may be awarded along the way, academic programs are typically geared toward the Ph.D. degree.  A terminal MA degree in a traditional academic discipline is often a “going away” prize for students who discover that they don’t really want to pursue the academic life, who have been strongly discouraged by their program from continuing, or who have decided to shift their studies to another university or field.  An MA degree in a typical academic discipline typically does not offer much market value.  Completion of a Ph.D. typically involves the completion of several years of coursework, successful passing of broad “general” or “comprehensive” exams, and then the completion of a major, book-length piece of independent research called a thesis or dissertation.  Total time to complete this work varies:  in rare cases, students manage to finish all their doctoral work in four years, but five to eight years is more common, and it is not at all rare for doctoral study to take ten or twelve years.

“International relations,” of course, is not a (single, unitary) profession.  Individuals working in the field of international relations may come from, and use the knowledge and tools of, a variety of professions.  Or they may be academics, or use academic training to work in international relations by advancing our general knowledge of the forces and behavioral patterns that may be at work.

  • Law School

A lot of very senior people in international affairs are lawyers, but in general law school is probably not the most efficient way to start a career in international affairs. Law school is three years of a curriculum which is mostly irrelevant to international relations. It is hard to get into good law schools, and there is usually no financial aid except for loans. It's true that you may be able to get an interesting non-legal job with a law degree, since employers figure you must be reasonably intelligent if you have survived law school, but there are other alternatives. If you want to be a lawyer, go to law school. If you don't, think seriously about the alternatives.

There is a good deal of confusion about international law as a career. It is convenient to divide international law into public and private. Public international law is concerned with whether or not the behavior of governments corresponds with international law, whether the American invasion of Panama was legal, for example. This is what the term international law means to most people, but there are very few institutions which will pay people to do such analysis. The State Department keeps about eighty lawyers on staff for this purpose, but most of the other people in the field teach in universities (probably as many in Political Science Departments as in law schools).  Other government agencies dealing with international matters also employ lawyers:  the Commerce Department or the Office of the Trade Representative, for example, may need lawyers to figure out correct legal procedures for handling anti-dumping complaints, and the Defense Department will use lawyers not only to review its own purchases of jet fighters from Boeing or Lockheed Martin but to review its sale of used equipment to foreign allies.  But, again, the number of such lawyers is limited, and the work is not likely to be as glamorous as, say, bringing peace to the Middle East.

Most international lawyers are concerned with private international law, how individuals and corporations can carry on transactions within different and sometimes conflicting legal systems. If a tanker registered in Liberia and owned by a company in the Bahamas carrying a load of oil owned by an American corporation hits a Russian submarine and dumps its oil onto Belgian beaches, who pays what to whom? Private international law is popular because people and organizations will pay money to get answers to these sorts of questions. This kind of work in turn sometimes leads to other things; international lawyers often serve as representatives for multinational corporations to the public and governments, a kind of business diplomatic corps. Nonetheless, international law is a fairly minor branch of law, and this is reflected in law school curricula; if you get two international law courses in three years, you'll be doing well. (The University of Iowa seems to be an exception; it is advertising a more extensive program in international and comparative law.)  A useful discussion is Careers in International Law by the Section of International Law of the American Bar Association.

On balance, then, law school is the best alternative for anyone who wants to practice private international law, but you must remember that you have to be a lawyer first and an international lawyer second. If you want to study public international law, you may actually do better in a Ph.D. program in Political Science specializing in international law, although there are very few places in the U.S. where this is a serious alternative; your career will presumably involve working in a university as a teacher-researcher, either in Political Science or, less likely, in law school.

One option for individuals who are absolutely certain that they want to work on public international law, or who would like to practice private international law with a possible eye to later government service, is to pursue a combined JD/MPA or JD/MPP degree.  More on the MPA and MPP degrees below, but this option involves gaining separate admission to the two programs.  Typically a semester is shaved from the law school curriculum and a semester is shaved from the MPA or MPP curriculum, and the entire process takes four years.

There is no pre-law curriculum in the United States; essentially law schools will take you regardless of your major if your grade point average and law board scores are high enough. Inasmuch as curriculum makes a difference, they prefer students with broad interests in the liberal arts and tend to frown on pre-professional degrees. In particular they recommend that you do not take law courses before you get to law school, arguing (probably correctly) that we will just teach you incorrectly and that they will have to undo all the damage we have caused. However, anyone interested in law school should take one course which requires intensive reading of cases, just to see if you can tolerate it for three years, since that is what you do in law school. Such courses can be found in the Political Science Department at the 300 and 400 level.

  • Graduate Business Schools

Law school is often attractive to students who want to get an "interesting" job but don't want to be lawyers. For such students business school is often a better bet. It takes two rather than three years, it is a little easier to get into a good one (being female helps in business school admissions; law schools admissions are mostly sex-blind), and there are still jobs for new MBA graduates (although for several years there have been rumblings that this market also will be saturated). The jobs aren't limited to corporations either; American business schools claim to teach management, the coordination of people and resources to accomplish a given goal, which is what all large organizations try to do. As a result, government and even non-profit institutions are hiring business school graduates for jobs which, twenty years ago, would probably have gone to lawyers. Most people now assume that MBA graduates, like lawyers, are intelligent, and as a bonus they may even have some useful skills.

Unlike law schools, most business schools have a separate department called International Business. However, these departments are not usually highly regarded within their own schools, in part because they do not rely heavily on econometrics and are therefore thought to be "soft." Moreover, there are very few jobs for new MBAs with International Business majors. As explained above very few young Americans are now sent abroad by corporations. Therefore you have to get hired by the corporation for your substantive skills; later you can try to develop a special interest in the international side of things. The recommended strategy is to take a double major in a substantive area (marketing, finance, management, etc.) and International Business.

Among the "regular" business schools, the best by reputation are Harvard and Stanford; New York University has been cited as the best in international business, and Yale's School of Organization and Management is an interesting attempt to combine training in business and public affairs. The Rutgers Graduate School of Management in Newark is a good, although not outstanding, business school at the national level. There are also a couple of programs especially geared to students interested in international business. The American Graduate School of International Business, just outside of Phoenix, more familiarly known as Thunderbird, is the only major business school in the country not affiliated with a university, and it has developed an impressive reputation for training high quality personnel in international business. The University of South Carolina business school has developed a program which requires a foreign business internship. Both of these programs stress language competence. Their reputation also attracts recruiters looking for people with these sorts of interests. However, they offer a Masters degree which is not an MBA, which is usually a drawback. Outside of these programs, an advanced business degree that is not an MBA isn't worth much.

For many undergraduates the major drawback of graduate business school is its heavy reliance on economics and mathematics. Anyone interested in business school should take microeconomics and macroeconomics (the order doesn't matter) and several advanced economics courses to see how well they do and whether or not they are comfortable with that mode of analysis. An economics major is not necessary for graduate business school, and an undergraduate business degree is usually not recommended. Note that graduate business schools have their own standardized test, the Graduate Management Admissions Test.

  • Graduate Schools of International Affairs

Graduate schools of international affairs should not be confused with graduate programs in political science.  The distinction between a graduate program in political science on the one hand and a school of international affairs (or public policy or management, discussed below) on the other hand is sharp. Graduate programs in political science are designed to provide academic training: the required coursework and research are aimed at preparing students to become professors of political science.  Usually one of the fields of study with a graduate program in political science is “international relations.”  The study of “international relations” within a traditional, disciplinary political science department, however, focuses on understanding competing theories of international relations, learning the methods one might use for empirical testing of such theories, and mastering the extensive literature by earlier scholars dealing with various central questions of international behavior.  In other words, it is designed to prepare young scholars to do their own, independent research as university professors.  

International affairs schools, by contrast, provide professional training. Much as law schools teach their students the practical knowledge needed for a career in law, and business schools teach their students the practical knowledge required for a career in business, schools of international affairs aim to teach the management, communications, economics, statistics, and foreign language skills needed in a professional career involving international affairs. The precise name of the degree offered by these schools varies from place to place: Master's of Public Policy, Master's of Public Affairs, Master's of Public and International Affairs, Master's of International Affairs, and so forth.  The degree typically takes two years to complete (some mid-career programs are designed to be completed in one year).

Originally, some of these schools were designed to produce candidates for the Foreign Service. However, since so few applicants are accepted into the Foreign Service and since admission is now by examination, these schools have altered their focus and now try to prepare students to work for other government agencies and for international businesses as well. 

In some cases, schools of international affairs are merged with or are part of schools of public policy or management (see below).  Examples of this include Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School and Harvard’s Kennedy School.  Within these schools, there are typically one or more tracks that focus on international politics, international development, international security, and other similar international issues.

In general, the curricula at schools of international affairs stress international politics, history, and economics. There are, however, substantial differences in emphasis between various schools of international affairs. Some put relatively more stress on management skills and economic and statistical training, seeking to train generalists who can comfortably move into a variety of jobs or fields. Others put relatively more stress on language or area skills, or on specialized training in a particular policy problem (for example, international trade or arms control), in an effort to prepare students for a more narrowly-defined career track. In addition, different schools offer different geographic or policy specializations. If you are considering this educational route, you should, therefore, write to particular schools for their catalogs and compare the curricula offered.

These schools take placement seriously, an important point to consider. Typically they require (and help arrange) an appropriate internship in the summer between the two years of the program. The older and better established schools also have a considerable alumni network upon which to call. If you're interested in working for the government in international affairs, one of these schools may be your best bet. To varying degrees these schools also provide training that is useful (and is seen by potential employers as useful) in the business world, particularly in the world of international banking and finance. Certainly many graduates of international affairs schools get jobs with major corporations. It is less clear, however, whether this training is optimal for a business career and whether or not graduates of international affairs schools may have to go back to business school later on.

There are relatively few schools of international affairs. All of them are competitive for admission and the best are extremely competitive. Increasingly, the top schools strongly prefer admission candidates who have already had some relevant career experience -- for example, who have worked in Washington for a few years, have been in the Peace Corps, or have worked with an international charity, PVO, or NGO. Financial aid varies substantially from school to school typically and is based on merit rather than need.

A 2009 survey of international relations scholars by the journal Foreign Policy ranked the following programs as the top ten:  the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University; the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins; the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard; the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts; the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia; the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton; the Elliot School, George Washington University; American University, Chicago, and Syracuse.  In some specialties, however, other schools are extremely strong.  The School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS) at the University of California, San Diego, for example, is an excellent choice for anyone interested in the Pacific Basin.  The University of Texas at Austin, not surprisingly, is strong on Mexico and Latin America.  The University of Maryland has a very good program for students interested in security studies.  For students particularly interested in intelligence work, a new program, the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University is rapidly developing a good reputation.  The Rutgers Division of Global Affairs in Newark is a good but not outstanding school of this type.

Most of the best-known, most highly regarded, most established graduate schools of international affairs are members or (less prestigious) affiliate members of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA).  The APSIA website ( provides helpful information and links about its members.  There are 34 universities that are full members of APSIA, 21 of these in the United States: American, Columbia, Duke, George Washington, Georgetown, Georgia Tech, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Syracuse, Tufts, California at San Diego, Denver, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Southern California, Texas at Austin, University of Washington, and Yale.  Affiliate members include Boston, DePaul, Florida International, Fordham, George Mason, Howard, Monterey, North Carolina State, Pepperdine, Rutgers-Newark, Seton Hall, Stanford, Texas A&M, Thunderbird, Miami, and Oregon.

Many of these schools also offer combined international affairs/law degrees with selected law schools; admission to combined programs requires separate admission to both the school of international affairs and the law school.

  • Graduate Schools of Public Policy

As noted above, many graduate schools of international affairs are part of or integrated into graduate schools of public policy.  Graduate schools of public policy typically offer very similar training to graduate schools of international affairs, but may not have a clear international relations focus or international relations track. That is, they offer professional training in public policy or policy management designed to prepare students for a career in government or dealing with government but do not offer as much specialization in the particular problems of international affairs. As with the schools of international affairs discussed above, many of these are highly competitive and, again, there are curricular variations between schools so you should read their catalogs carefully. Again like the international affairs schools, the Master's programs at these schools are typically a two years long, with an internship in the intervening summer.  Combined MPA/JD or MPP/JD degrees are usually possibility.  Graduate schools of Public Policy, too, tend to take placement very seriously. If you are interested in a career in government and are interested in domestic policy issues as well as international ones, this may be the right educational track for you.  

Graduate schools of public policy vary substantially in their breadth and focus.  Some, for example, focus nearly exclusively on urban policy and urban planning; others are geared very much toward “public administration” – that is, toward training on how to carry out or implement programs efficiently, rather than on how to design optimal programs.  Before selecting a program, students should not only review the program description carefully, but discuss the program with administrators and faculty members at that program to make sure the program will actually meet the student’s interests and career aspirations.

The professional organization to which most graduate schools of public policy belong is the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM).  The APPAM website provides a list of APPAM members, links, and useful brief program descriptions:

  • Political Science Graduate Programs

Most major American universities have a Political Science graduate program awarding a Ph.D. degree, and international relations is a field within almost all these departments. The departments also award a Masters of Arts degree, but this is not particularly useful. The Ph.D. requires two to three years of coursework, followed by comprehensive examinations and a thesis, which usually takes another year or two full-time; obviously the time will be longer if you have to go part-time because of limited resources.

The Ph.D. degree is basically a research degree. It is essential for anyone who wants to teach at a college or university, and it is often found among researchers and analysts working for the government as well. On the other hand, the degree is given in Political Science; you can concentrate in international relations, but you are required to take courses and examinations in other fields such as American government and political theory as well. Moreover, it takes longer to get than any other option discussed here, and it's not clear that it's worth the extra effort and money unless you're going into college teaching. One group of Foreign Service examiners, when asked how useful graduate school would be, said that the two to three years of coursework would be useful, but that the candidate would do better spending a couple of years in the Foreign Service than working on a doctoral dissertation. Several programs retraining people with Ph.D. degrees to go into business have been fairly successful, but this is a pretty roundabout way to get into business; if that's what you want, try for graduate business school.

A major in Political Science is not required for admission to graduate programs in the discipline, but you should take at least enough courses to decide if you want to do this full-time for a long time; the biggest difference between graduate and undergraduate work is that you have to live one subject twenty-four hours a day. Admission is usually based on grade point average, Graduate Record Examination (yet another standardized test) scores, and faculty recommendations. In general the best departments are found in the leading universities. If you want more specific guidance, talk to Political Science faculty; this is one subject they know something about, and they will be current on the varying reputations of Political Science programs around the country.

In a 2009 survey conducted by Foreign Policy magazine, professors of international relations ranked the following ten programs highest for Ph.D. study in international relations:  Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Columbia, Yale, Chicago, California at Berkeley, Michigan, California at San Diego, and MIT.

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