What is an International Relations Degree?

Students of international relations learn about international politics and institutions and the principles of diplomacy and foreign policy. They examine interactions between governments on several levels: political, economic, cultural, and militaristic. In the current U.S. political climate, they may deliberate questions like: How has the Donald Trump presidency affected the world view of the United States? How have allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election impacted diplomatic and trade relations between the United States and Russia?

Through lectures, debates, discussions, the writing of essays, and guest speaker presentations, degree programs in international relations focus on the art of diplomacy and negotiation between countries. Here are some sample courses:

  • International Relations Theory
  • International Organizations (examples: the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization)
  • International Law
  • International Political Economy (the interaction between politics and economics within a global context)
  • United States Foreign Policy
  • The Politics of the Middle East
  • The Politics of Africa
  • The Politics of Latin America
  • The Politics of Europe and the European Union
  • Global Human Rights Issues
  • Global Environmental Issues
  • Diplomacy

Program Options

Associate Degree in International Relations - Two Year Duration
While most positions in international relations call for at least a bachelor’s degree, an associate degree in the field can prepare students for some secondarily related jobs in the travel, tourism, and hospitality sectors, such as tour guide or flight attendant. At this level of education, students typically take introductory classes in world geography, comparative government, economics, political science, and global affairs.

Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations - Four Year Duration
Holders of a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations generally qualify for entry-level and some mid-level positions, such as Peace Corps officer, human rights advocate, and Foreign Service officer.

Students pursuing a bachelor’s in the field may choose to concentrate their studies in one or more of several specializations: comparative politics, European studies, Middle Eastern studies, or comparative cultures. Here are some samples of courses offered in international relations bachelor’s programs:

  • Law and Democracies
  • Industrialized Societies
  • Developing Nations
  • Terrorism
  • Economic Ethics
  • Russian Foreign Policy

Master’s Degree in International Relations - Two Year Duration
A Master’s Degree in International Relations often leads graduates to careers as public servants, politicians, or educators. Concentrations at this level include international economics, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and global theory.

Coursework often covers:

  • International Law
  • International Trade
  • Comparatives Politics
  • Comparative Economic Systems
  • Conflict Resolution

Doctoral Degree in International Relations - Four to Six Year Duration
Graduates with a Doctorate in International Relations may pursue positions as Foreign Service diplomats, government agency analysts and international relations professors and researchers.

At this level of education, students are expected to gain proficiency in a foreign language. They may be permitted to customize their curriculum or they may choose among standardized concentrations like international political economy, political communication, global institutions, or security studies.

Selected courses may address issues such as:

  • Global Change and Security
  • Technology in National Security
  • Global Environmental Policy and Law
  • International Politics
  • Politics of Race and Class

Degrees Similar to International Relations

Area Studies
Students usually focus on a specific area or region of the world and study its histories, politics, economics, languages, and cultures.

Programs in economics teach students how the global economy works and prepare them to apply critical thinking and problem-solving skills to real-world issues.

Ethnic Studies
This is the historical, social, and cultural study of minorities in the United States. Through coursework in history, political science, economics, sociology, literature, and art history, students examine race, racism, and forms of institutionalized violence.

Students of geography study the Earth’s surface; its climate, soil, and water; and the relationship between people and the land. Some typical courses in a geography program are cartography, climatology, geology, political geography, statistics, and spatial analysis.

This degree field is focused on the study and interpretation of events, objects, and written documents of the past. A typical curriculum may include courses in Ancient Greek history, U.S. economic history, and pre-colonial African history.

International Business
Students of international business study business from a global perspective. They learn how to work cross-culturally, how to manage multinational businesses, and how to turn local and national companies into international corporations. Coursework often includes some foreign language studies, as well.

Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies
The focus of this degree program is the origins, resolution, and prevention of conflict between countries, communities, and individuals. Students study the components of peace building; the history, theory, and practice of nonviolence; and international relations.

Political Science
Political science degree programs focus on the theory and practice of government and politics. ‘Poli sci’ students learn about the structures of politics and government and issues like the nature of political power, the causes of conflict, and globalization.

Public Administration
Public administration is the implementation of policy at various levels of government to support areas like economic growth, social and community development, environmental protection, and the building of public infrastructure.

Skills You’ll Learn

As its name implies, a degree in international relations is concerned with teaching students how to relate internationally, that is how to understand and work with a diversity of cultures within a diversity of political and social systems. It is not surprising, therefore, that graduates in this field come away from their studies with a particularly transferable set of skills:

  • Communication – knowing how to convey information to different kinds of audiences
  • A Multidisciplinary Approach – understanding that perspectives on issues may vary from country to country, region to region, and individual to individual
  • Flexibility and Negotiation Skills – open-mindedness that will secure the most desirable outcomes
  • Collaboration – capacity to work with many parties: government officials, business and organization leaders, and diplomats
  • Critical Thinking and Creativity – the ability to think critically leads to successful analysis, creativity, and ultimately to solutions
  • Cross-Cultural Appreciation – appreciation for different political values and cultural expectations facilitates negotiation and collaboration
  • Foreign Language Skills – the ability to communicate in one or more foreign languages is always valuable

What Can You Do with an International Relations Degree?

Foreign Service
Potential U.S. Foreign Service roles for international relations graduates include consular officers, economic officers, management officers, political officers, and public diplomacy officers. An ambassadorship is the highest level of diplomatic/foreign service.

It is not uncommon for international relations majors to end up working in the business world. Many sectors – banking, marketing, advertising, communications, public relations, and human resources – appreciate the level of understanding of topics like economics, conflict resolution, and cultural diversity that international relations graduates bring to the table.

While true ‘international relations’ is generally taught only at the college and university level, graduates in the field may find positions teaching history, social studies, or civics courses at the elementary and secondary school levels. Depending on the school system, teacher certification may also be required.

Government / Politics
Government officials and legislators work at various levels of government to pass laws. They can face a vast variety of issues and problems. And while it is difficult to imagine the best way to prepare for such a job, a degree in international relations provides a solid foundation in the fundamental skills needed.

Intelligence specialists work for the various branches of the military, national security departments, and national government agencies. They collect and analyze intelligence data such as mission reports, maps, and charts.

An understanding of and an appreciation for government political systems often leads international relations graduates into a career in the legal field.

News anchors, news reporters, and correspondents cover a wide variety of topics and stories. Those who cover government, public policy, and international politics are able to combine this interest with their journalistic skills.

Organizations, Associations, and Non-Profits for International Aid and Development
In this sector, international relations graduates find jobs with institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the American Enterprise Institute, chambers of commerce, trade associations, and labor unions. Opportunities also exist with non-profit organizations, such as World Vision International, Save the Children, Habitat for Humanity International, and WaterAid.

Political Science
Political scientists study political systems, how they came to be, how they grew, and how they work. They strive to identify trends, survey political opinions, and analyze election polls and elections.

Public Interest / Advocacy / Lobbying
Individuals who work in this area can affect government policies by raising public awareness of the issues they believe in.


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