What is an International Studies Degree?

The world is a big place. A degree in international studies provides students with a greater understanding of it. It exposes them to key issues of debate in the international system.

By its very nature, international studies is an expansive subject. Therefore, programs in the field commonly offer concentration options in both geographic areas and specific topics such as diplomacy and foreign policy, international economics, global culture and gender studies, international public health, and intelligence analysis.

In short, the goal of international studies is to produce students of the world, global citizens, and individuals who think critically about global issues and problems.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in International Studies – Four Year Duration
A typical bachelor’s program in international studies consists of study of a foreign language, core courses in the major, and work in a specialized concentration. In most disciplines, specialization is not common at the undergraduate level. In international studies, however, this is not the case because the field’s subject area is so wide.

While studying abroad is not generally a degree requirement, many programs offer opportunities to do so and encourage the experience to expose students to a foreign culture and language.

Here is an example of how an international studies bachelor’s degree program might be structured:

Required Core Courses

  • Themes in Visual Culture – introduction to the visual arts focusing on selected major works of art throughout history
  • Global Economic, Business, and Social Issues – analysis of controversies and diverse opinions on global economic, business, and social issues; topics include social security, healthcare, poverty, labor discrimination, pollution, and business ethics
  • Principles of Microeconomics – overview of microeconomics as an aid to understanding contemporary society
  • Principles of Macroeconomics – overview of macroeconomics as an aid to understanding contemporary society
  • World Regional Geography – the spatial characteristics that make up and connect regions of the world; environmental, cultural, political, and economic factors are addressed
  • Global Encounters – examination of the social, cultural, economic, religious, and political interactions between Western Europe and the non-Western world since 1500
  • International Politics – overview of the international political system; characteristics of the system, sources of conflict, approaches to peacekeeping, and other current issues
  • Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies – introduction to feminist thought and activism; exploration of gender as a perspective from which to understand social, cultural, political, and economic forces

Possible Concentrations and a Sample Course Per Concentration

International Diplomacy and Peace Studies Concentration

  • American Foreign Policy – the role of the United States in contemporary international politics and the relationship of the domestic political system to that role

African Studies Concentration

  • Peoples and Cultures of Africa – survey of the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa with focus on connections between communities, regions, and between Africa and the rest of the world

Asian Studies Concentration

  • Non-Western Art – geographical and chronological study of the art of non-western cultures

European Studies Concentration

  • Studies in Ancient and Classical Art – studies of the period, the movements, and the artists of the time

Latin American Studies Concentration

  • The Hispanic World: Cultures in Motion – discussion of Hispanic cultures, with focus on Spain’s relationship with its ‘Others’ such as Muslims and Jews; the colonial legacies of Latin America, with focus on the portrayal of women, Indians, and Afro-Latinos; the Latino cultural impact in the United States

Middle Eastern Studies Concentration

  • Introduction to Arabic Fiction – an introduction to the history and development of Arabic fiction through the study of classical and modern texts

Comparative Cultures Concentration

  • Art History: Ancient to Renaissance – painting and sculpture in the Western world from antiquity to Renaissance; the concepts of visual and stylistic analysis

Global Gender Studies Concentration

  • Political Economy of Women – feminist understanding of women’s economic roles and contributions in the context of globalization; the importance of race, gender, class, and nationality in economic processes shaping family life, paid employment, and international market relations

International Economic Affairs Concentration

  • Economics of Diversity – using economic theory, students explore the implications of ethnic, racial, religious, and other kinds of diversity in the US and throughout the world

Research / Intelligence Analyst Concentration

  • Politics of Intelligence Gathering – evolution of intelligence gathering, analysis, and application in US policy making; tensions that characterize the relationship between a democracy and a secret agency; the role of technology

Master’s Degree in International Studies – One to Two Year Duration
At the master’s level students take some required courses but can design their program in consultation with a faculty member, to focus on their particular area of interest. It is not uncommon for international studies programs to offer students multiple options to fulfill the culminating requirement of their master’s degree. Possibilities include the traditional thesis, an internship combined with a research paper, and study/research abroad.

International studies graduate students are typically required to take core courses such as these:

  • Theories of International Relations
  • Advanced Expository Writing
  • Research Methods
  • Historic Origins of Contemporary Problems

Concentration/specialization options are either topical or geographic:

Examples of Topical Concentrations

  • International Public Health and the Environment
  • International Business and Economics
  • International Social and Historical Thought
  • International Language and Culture
  • International Politics and Foreign Policy
  • International Engineering and Technology

Examples of Geographic Concentrations

  • Africa
  • Asia
  • Europe
  • Latin America
  • The Middle East
  • The Caribbean
  • North America (for international students only)

Doctoral Degree in International Studies – Four to Five Year Duration
The master’s program involves a lot of taught courses. It emphasizes the transition from pure subject learning to independent research. On the other hand, the doctoral degree is like a very long dissertation project. Ph.D. students have a great deal of independence. They have the benefit of supervision from a faculty advisor and may complete some taught classes, but their focus is on their independent research, on contributing original – new – knowledge to the field of international studies. Many doctoral graduates in the field go on to careers as a university professor or researcher.

Doctoral dissertation topics are wide-ranging, spanning the areas of international politics, tourism, crime and punishment, international sociology, and war and weapons. Here are some specific samples:

  • Estonia: A model of democracy emerging after communism
  • The effect of the oil boom in Angola upon its poorest citizens
  • The international movement of student ‘gap year’ tourists: changing destinations, changing perceptions, changing priorities
  • An analysis of differing government responses to offensive material on the internet: Iceland, Greece, and Brazil
  • The effects of violence upon depression in adolescents: a case study of Vietnam
  • Colombian and Brazilian family planning: a comparative study
  • The nuclear future of Mongolia after Fukushima: an unrivalled opportunity?

Degrees Similar to International Studies

Students of anthropology study the evolutionary history of people, how they interact, how they adapt to various environments, how they communicate and socialize with one another, and how their bodies and cultures have changed over time. The field attempts to answer big questions on many of the fundamentals of human culture, from gender to political systems to violence, religion, race, and economics.

Economics asks wide questions about world economies, how governments should respond to financial crises, how stock prices and exchange rates are set, and how to help people living in poverty. The degree field is focused on how to use the concepts and theories of economics to study and solve problems in business.

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.

History is the study of change over time. Degree programs in the field examine political history, diplomatic/international relations history, cultural/ideological history, social/living standards history, economic history, intellectual/philosophical history, and military/armed conflict 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.

International Relations
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?

Journalism degree programs teach students how to report, write, and edit articles for broadcast or publication. They include classes in broadcast news writing, copyediting and design, reporting, and media law and ethics.

Linguistics explores the nature of language variations and dialects, how language evolves over time, how it is processed and stored in the human brain, and how it is acquired. It is the scientific study of language and communication, both within a single language and across language groups.

The primary sub-areas of linguistics are phonetics – the study of the production, acoustics, and hearing of speech sounds; phonology – the patterning of sounds; morphology – the structure of words; syntax – the structure of sentences; semantics – meaning; and pragmatics – language in context.

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 Policy
Students in a public policy degree program study the world of public affairs and leadership. They take courses from various disciplines to attempt to answer complex questions like: What do we need to do to find solutions to social problems?

Classes span political science, law, criminal justice, economics, public administration, human services, and sociology. Coursework includes analysis of governments and other public institutions and how they tackle issues and policy problems.

Degree programs in sociology are focused on studying groups, from two people and beyond. Sociology students examine human behavior patterns and relationships at both the micro-level and the macro-level. They study interactions between individuals as well as in families, peer groups, cultural groups, gender groups, racial groups, religious groups, and social classes.

Degree programs in translation prepare students for careers as translators. The work of a translator is to convert written documents and spoken text from the ‘source’ language to the ‘target’ language. The curriculum covers translation of various kinds of content, from technical, scientific, and educational to legal, commercial, and literary.

Students learn about the history of translation, the sociology of translation, media and translation, and how to use translation memory software and specialized dictionaries.

Skills You’ll Learn

Graduates in the field of international studies come away from their studies with a particularly transferable set of skills:

  • A Multidisciplinary Approach – understanding that perspectives on issues may vary from country to country, region to region, and individual to individual
  • Appreciation for History
  • Collaboration – capacity to listen and work with many parties: government officials, business and organization leaders, and diplomats
  • Communication and Debating – knowing how to convey information and complex ideas to different kinds of audiences, both orally and in written form
  • Compiling and Organizing Information
  • 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
  • Flexibility and Negotiation Skills – open-mindedness that will secure the most desirable outcomes
  • Foreign Language Skills – the abilities to communicate in one or more foreign languages and understand cultural differences reflected in language are always valuable
  • Understanding of Social Processes and Policies

What Can You Do with an International Studies Degree?

The multifaceted nature of international studies makes graduates in the field ideally suited for a variety of careers in a variety of sectors. Working in some of these sectors and roles may require further education and/or on-the-job training.

International Business and Industry


  • Foreign Corporations
  • International marketing and Trade Firms
  • International Real Estate Firms
  • Travel and Hospitality Industries
  • Consulting Firms
  • Foreign Financial Institutions


  • Export Manager
  • International Banker
  • Cross-Cultural Relations Consultant
  • Sales Coordinator
  • Public Relations Officer
  • Hotel Manager

Government and International Relations


  • Government Agencies
  • United Nations
  • Relief and Religious Organizations
  • US Foreign Service
  • National Security Councils


  • Foreign Service Officer / Diplomat
  • Foreign Area Specialist
  • International Relations Specialist
  • Translator
  • Intelligence Agent

Language and Human Services and Education


  • Non-profit Organizations
  • International Organizations
  • Educational Institutions
  • Peace Corps
  • Study Abroad programs
  • International Community Organizations


Communications and Research


  • Research Institutions and Think Tanks
  • Foreign News Agencies and International Newspapers
  • Online Publisher
  • Academic Journals
  • Magazines
  • Travel Industries



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