Degree Overview: International Affairs
International Affairs, also called International Relations, is a comprehensive, multidisciplinary field that trains graduate students in a broad range of studies. A grad degree in international affairs will expose you to one or some of the following areas:
- human rights
- sustainable development
- global poverty
- environmental issues
- policy analysis
- political economy
- global ethics
- foreign language
Graduates gain the skills and knowledge to pursue international careers and often work for nonprofit organizations, government agencies, international organizations, development assistance programs, media outlets, trade associations, legal agencies, transnational corporations, research centers, colleges and universities, consulting firms, and banking and financial institutions.
International Affairs as a field of study is designed to instill in graduates a globally oriented perspective on the increasingly complicated issues that transcend national boundaries.
What can you expect to find in a program?
Students who want to study international affairs at an advanced level may choose from a variety of program designs and offerings.
General structure of programs
Traditional international affairs graduate programs at the masters level run two years of full-time study, although some such as the Fordham University Graduate Program in International Political Economy and Development are one calendar year of full-time study. Many offer the option to study at a partner school in another country and encourage internships at home or abroad during course breaks.
For mid-career professionals with significant experience looking for an advanced program of study, some international affairs schools such as those at American University and George Washington University offer executive programs. These programs allow students who fulfill a minimum work experience requirement to complete the graduate degree in a condensed and/or more flexible schedule, usually one year full-time. The part-time program is ideal for students who prefer to work while studying in the evenings and on weekends.
The New School Graduate Program in International Affairs offers an accelerated course of study for people with five years demonstrated professional experience in international affairs. Students of the mid-career program earn a Master of Science in International Affairs in only three semesters while the traditional student obtains a Master of Arts in International Affairs.
While there is no accrediting body of graduate schools of international affairs, the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA) is, according to former Executive Director Leigh Morris Sloane, an association with “strict membership requirements which take into consideration the quality of the faculty/students, depth and breadth of the international affairs curriculum, the emphasis on professional development and the autonomy of the program (basically that it is a school or institute within a university).”
Usual coursework and concentrations
Like other professional Masters programs, international affairs graduate degree programs place a strong emphasis on connecting the theoretical with the practical. Experiential learning is usually accomplished through internships with international organizations and semesters abroad. Vanessa Lanza, an alumna of Seton Hall University School of Diplomacy and International Relations, says,
“As an intern, I learned a lot about the United Nations and other international organizations that are trying to tackle the world’s problems. Through this, I learned how to work in a fast-paced environment, writing concise reports and working to bridge the gap between what is going on at the headquarters level with the realities in the field.”
Students of executive or part-time international affairs programs who are full- or part-time working professionals have the benefit of applying what they learn in class to their daily work.
Because international affairs is, by nature, a broad interdisciplinary field, graduate programs offer students the flexibility to explore and cultivate intellectual and professional interests within the degree. Students may pursue specializations offered at the school or develop individual concentrations for their study through elective coursework. International affairs programs often offer two types of specialization tracks, regional and professional/functional. If the program is part of a larger grad school, students can often fulfill electives in other departments or schools.
Some typical core curriculum offerings include courses that give you a foundation in:
- History and theory of international affairs
- Economic policy and analysis
- Foreign language proficiency
- Laws and regulations governing international organizations
- Researching, designing, and evaluating programs
- Leadership and ethics
- Cross-cultural and international communication
- Negotiation and conflict resolution
- Policy development, implementation, and analysis
- Quantitative and research methods
Additionally, depending on your interests and focus, you may be able to take elective courses offered by the program or other degree programs at the university that cover specific skill sets or specialized areas:
- Comparative and regional studies
- Region or country-specific studies (e.g., Latin America or Mexico)
- International politics
- U.S. foreign policy
- Natural resources and sustainable development
- International economic relations
- Trade and investment
- Money and finance
- International business
- Poverty and human development
- Peacebuilding and security
Most graduate education programs post their course offerings online for prospective students to view. Take a look at the curriculum for the programs you are interested in to get a clearer sense of how your graduate education will be structured and what you will be learning. Comparing the curricula of several different programs will also help you determine which graduate program may be a better fit for your interests. Here are a few course listings from a few schools to give you an idea of what other international affairs graduate programs may be like:
In order to earn a degree, international affairs grad students may be required to complete a capstone project or thesis. A capstone project is an opportunity to apply the education you’ve received throughout a program by addressing a real issue and need in the community. It usually culminates in a written report and presentation. A thesis, on the other hand, is an extended written paper on research that you have conducted on a topic relevant to international affairs and your area of interest.
To get an idea of what some capstone projects may be like, Texas A&M University Bush School of Government and Public Service lists a few past capstone projects from its students.
Some typical dual (or joint) degree combinations with an M.A. or Ph.D. in International Affairs include Law, Management (business and nonprofit), Public Health, Social Work, and Political Science.
» Learn about the benefits of a joint-degree.
Students and faculty
Most programs place a high value on a diverse student body, recognizing that all students learn from each other in addition to faculty. Your classmates may be relatively new to or transitioning into the field. The majority, hopefully, will have at least a few years work experience, whether in the private, public, or nonprofit sectors, and bring varied perspectives and skills to the classroom. Almost all will have some experience living, working, studying, traveling, or volunteering abroad and many may be nationals of other countries.
Your faculty will have an extensive knowledge of and experience in a variety of issue areas that comprise international affairs. Many will also use their expertise or research interests as consultants to, board members of, or even current staff of international organizations across all sectors.
Seton Hall alumna Vanessa Lanza says, “The academic atmosphere was encouraging, with professors that were approachable and really devoted to increasing your understanding of International Affairs. The students brought a balance of mid-career professionals with experiences to share and young bright individuals looking to start their careers. The international composition of students added to the richness of discussions inside and outside the classroom.”
Who gets this degree and what do they go on to do?
Most graduate schools in international affairs strongly recommend, if not require, some work and/or international experience.
“Try to get as much ‘real world’ experience as possible and travel as much as you can,” recommends Matt Clemons, Director of Admissions & Financial Aid at Columbia University School of International Public Affairs. He continues:
“In terms of travel, try to focus on more than just travel for travel’s sake. Try to work, volunteer, or study in some capacity. If you have a chance to study abroad, do so. Participate in internships. Volunteer for organizations related to your proposed field of study. Do things beyond the classroom to make you a more seasoned applicant. Realize that most applicants to graduate school have two to five years worth of work experience. You need to do things that will show you are taking an active role doing activities to ensure that what you think you want to do is really in line with your skills and interests.”
» Read “Setting yourself up for success: Things you can do while you’re an undergrad”
Some specific ways to gain international experience and insight into issues unique to this type of work include:
- Participating in an international service program. Programs such as Peace Corps or Volunteer Service Overseas International (are an excellent opportunity to gain on-the-ground experience in another country working on a project with local community and various organizations, nongovernmental and governmental. As a bonus, Peace Corps has partnerships with many grad schools that include financial and educational benefits for current and former volunteers.
- Volunteering while traveling. This, too, is a great way to gain experience if you are unable to serve for longer-term programs. Although your time may be short, volunteering in another country will give you a good glimpse into how local organizations work and a better understanding of issues from a global perspective.
- Studying abroad, as an undergraduate, or after college. Whether you are there to learn a foreign language or are studying in your native language, studying in another country is a good way to improve your communication skills and gain an appreciation for a different culture. There are many fellowship opportunities to study abroad during and after college such as the Fulbright and Watson.
Students of international affairs use their degree to prepare for and transition into public service leadership positions at organizations of all sizes across sectors as staff or board members, and perhaps even to found their own nonprofits or consultancies. Some typical positions that graduates may qualify for include:
- Executive Director
- Research and Policy Specialist
- Program Manager
- Assistant Professor, International Affairs
- Diplomat or Foreign Service Officer
Your own goals and interests can help you focus in on and narrow down the diversity of position titles and career opportunities offered by this type of degree.
Most higher-level international affairs positions prefer, if not require, a graduate degree and or equivalent experience. Here are a few sample job postings for international positions at a nonprofit, a government organization, and a for-profit found via Idealist.org and other sites. An international affairs graduate degree would help prepare you for the following responsibilities and duties:
Foreign Service Contracting Officer
For a governmental international development agency
- As a technical resource and advisor, backstops foreign development assistance activities in the area of acquisition and assistance. Supports contracting and procurement activities by reviewing and analyzing data and providing assistance and advice on contracting and procurement issues. Assists in formulating, coordinating, and managing strategy, policies, concepts, procedures, guidelines, and models for establishing and implementing acquisition and assistance programs. Analyzes constraints to development, both sector-wide and country specific, and recommends courses of action. Serves as a technical resource, assisting in the planning for a broad range of acquisition and assistance activities, including participating in the formation of policies and guidelines to further contracting and procurement activities in the geographic area; and coordinating development, implementation and performance monitoring plans. Provides technical assistance and guidance in the negotiation and awarding of contracts and grants. Coordinates assigned activities with other agencies and host country officials. Acts as a liaison with counterparts in other Agency regional and central bureaus on behalf of the organization to develop agency-wide policies, strategies, performance indicators, assessments and evaluations of programs.
- Designs, implements, monitors and assesses programs that encompass a wide range of contracting and assistance activities such as procurement analysis, contract negotiation, contract cost/price analysis and policy review. Plans, negotiates, awards and administers contracts, grants and other agreements with individuals, firms and institutions to carry out Agency-financed projects.
- Accomplishes work related to the conceptualization, design, documentation, and/or management of centrally administered contracting and procurement programs. Programs may be targeted toward specific countries/situations or may be targeted to a specific development problem. Develops concept papers, project authorizations and project amendments in line with Agency regulations and guidance. Contributes to the development of the Agency’s contracting strategy and design. Participates and assists in the development of plans and programs for technical assistance, capital assistance and other activities within the contracting sector.
- Performs a variety of duties related to special projects involving program issues that contain complicated elements. Manages special cross-cutting initiatives and task force groups to accomplish programmatic goals. These groups may review specific programs or develop new initiatives in various program areas.
Applicant must have a graduate degree (Masters or doctorate), or be currently enrolled and will obtain a graduate degree (Masters or doctorate) within 6 months from date of application to this announcement in business administration, public administration, law, banking, international affairs, procurement and contracting or finance with an emphasis on commerce, trade and material management
Senior Director, Education and Research
For an international nonprofit that promotes democracy through nonmilitary strategies
- Manage development of new educational applications
- Expand and manage global network of educators
- Acquire institutional collaborators for educational distribution
- Prepare substantive materials for use by scholars, educators and policymakers
- Manage the center’s research program
- Help develop phased-learning strategy for remote practitioners and teachers
- Help expand the center’s use of digital media
- Represent the center at educational and academic conferences
- Substantial experience with an international NGO or front-line organization in education, learning or training
- Wide-ranging intellectual interests, including a dedication to rights, democracy and justice
- Excellent project management and leadership skills
- Demonstrated initiative, creativity, and strategic thinking
- Knowledge/familiarity with training and instructional applications
- Advanced degree in international affairs, education or related discipline
- Superb writing skills
- Persuasive public speaking ability
- Strong group facilitation skills in multicultural settings
- An additional language other than English
- Background or past work in a foreign culture
For an international consulting firm that works with clients from all sectors to solve social problems in creative ways
Key objectives include: Promoting greater understanding of the potential or limits of interventions to promote poverty reduction and conflict/ fragility-mitigation. Encouraging the development of more meaningful measures of poverty reduction and conflict/ fragility-mitigation impacts. Promoting cross-community learning and problem-solving in the area of evaluation and assessment among the poverty and conflict/ fragile states communities.
Currently, we are looking for consultants with technical expertise in the area of monitoring and evaluation, poverty alleviation, and with experience in conflict or fragility regions who can serve as a part-time Company advisor and facilitator. This position will help members of the respective network fulfill their learning agenda. The consultancy will require two to four work days per month over a period of eighteen months. The place of performance will be both online and in-person, in various locations. Some travel may be required. The Company facilitators will report to the Deputy Chief of Party.
Responsibilities: The Company facilitators will be responsible for the following: Providing technical expertise and substantive input, when appropriate, to members of the Company’s participant networks. Guide members towards achieving individual and group learning objectives. Providing overall leadership to the Company’s participant networks, both online and in-person, to encourage knowledge sharing and collaboration among members and to help shape learning agendas to address industry-level knowledge gaps. Guiding activities, shaping technical outputs, and supporting participants in achieving the goals of the learning agenda, both in-person and online.
Requirements: Technical expertise in the following areas: Monitoring and evaluation in conflict regions. Quantitative methodologies. Empirical data collection and analysis. Evaluation and assessment concepts and frameworks. Measuring impact at the community and/or household level. Measuring differential impact on women and other vulnerable groups. Knowledge Management. Experience with poverty reduction and conflict mitigation programs. Experience with online and in-person facilitation. Familiarity with online communities, learning networks, and adult learning methodologies. Knowledge of Web 2.0 tools and their appropriate uses. Bachelors or Masters Degree in Business, Finance, International Affairs, Political Science, or related area.