Degree Overview: Conflict Resolution and Peace Studies

Conflict resolution and peace studies are related multidisciplinary fields encompassing the practical and theoretical bases of mediation involving research, education, and skills-based training to help build conditions necessary for peace, constructive social change, and universal respect for human rights. Students pursuing a grad degree in conflict resolution and peace studies learn how to analyze conflict and how to uncover the underpinnings of conflict situations. They gain skills to defuse and prevent conflict situations that arise among individuals, groups, and countries.

People seeking conflict resolution and peace education can find these type of programs:

  • Certificate programs or adult learning programs in conflict resolution life skills
  • Graduate certificate programs in conflict resolution
  • M.S., M.A. in peace studies with some conflict resolution
  • M.S., M.A., Ph.D. in conflict resolution
  • Specializations within, and/or joint degrees with professional schools (law, international affairs, education, social work, business)
  • Conflict resolution concentrations within other Ph.D., M.S., and M.A. programs

Conflict resolution and peacebuilding can take on a variety of focal points, from working on international human rights throughout the world to creating healing relationships between victim and offender in your own neighborhood. Therefore, as an academic field, conflict resolution and peace studies can focus on different aspects of conflict and peace, preparing you for different roles to play depending on the issue.

Graduates of conflict resolution and peace studies programs can become activists, negotiators, mediators, teachers, and business executives, and focus on a wide range of issue areas including education, human rights, the environment, international affairs, law, and economic development.

What is conflict resolution?

Conflict is defined as a serious or protracted disagreement between individuals or groups. The source of conflict is usually an unmet need of one or more of the parties involved in the disagreement. (A need could include anything from safe drinking water or a secure home, to protecting intellectual property rights or getting due respect for accomplishments.)

Disagreements typically worsen when people identify a solution to the conflict that works for them but which doesn’t take into consideration the needs of the opposing group. Often in conflict situations, opposing sides stick to their own solution— or position—because they don’t fully understand the needs of the other group, because they don’t trust the other group, or out of pride.

For example you may want a raise at work because you feel you’ve earned it through your dedication, long hours, and accomplishments. But your boss may resist because the organization can’t afford it right now. What you may actually need is a sense that your employer really values your contributions—and a feeling of security that you’ll earn what you deserve in your next position, as well. (You also may need more money to pay your bills.) On the other hand, your employer needs to feel secure that the organization can afford payroll for all staff.

Conflict resolution refers to strategies that eliminate the sources of the conflict—and, optimally, that find the best outcome for all involved. To continue the example from above, through collaborative conflict resolution strategies, you and your boss may both realize that your need for recognition can be met in other ways. For example, granting you a more distinctive title, or offering you a new leadership role on your team. Your employer may be able to accommodate your need for higher income by offering better benefits such as tuition reimbursement, vision insurance, transit passes, etc. You may also decide to revisit the pay raise question once the organization is on better financial footing, say in another six months—before your next annual review.

Not all conflict resolution processes seek a win-win solution, however. Read on.

Other terms used somewhat interchangeably with conflict resolution include “dispute resolution,” “alternative dispute resolution,” and “external dispute resolution.”

Dispute resolution often refers to the processes ending conflict through a judicial process, i.e. one party filing a lawsuit against another. Litigation as a form of conflict resolution usually means that an impartial judge and jury will evaluate your case and determine the outcome. Unlike some conflict resolution methods, settling disputes through the court system does not always result in win-win situations. A lawsuit is often settled in favor of one side or the other.

Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) (or external dispute resolution) refers to processes ending conflict outside the court system, often through a formal process involving the two parties in conflict having conversations with a neutral third party. ADR can be less expensive and quicker than litigation. Depending on the parties involved, ADR can also bring better outcomes that take into account diverse needs.

Processes and other terms

Conflict and dispute resolution rely on different processes:

Arbitration: Two parties in dispute submit their cases to a neutral third party who reviews them both and decides how to resolve it. Although occurring outside the courts, its outcomes are legally binding (the decision is final)—partially because the parties agree ahead of time to abide by the arbitrator’s opinion.

Collaborative law: Two parties in dispute (often divorcing couples) and their lawyers hold meetings to work out a settlement together, and agree ahead of time not to go to court. While many conflict resolution situations involve neutral third parties, collaborative law doesn’t necessarily—but it does strive to account for the needs and priorities of both parties.

Conciliation: Disputing parties take their issues to a neutral third party who meets with each party separately and helps them work towards an amicable solution by diffusing tension, opening up new options for resolution, and ultimately improving communication among the parties. The results of the conciliation process aren’t legally binding, and may involve sacrifice and compromise from each side in the conflict.

Litigation: One party in a dispute, the plaintiff, sues the other party, or defendant in a civil (non-criminal) court of law. The plaintiff makes a case that they’ve received damages by the defendant. A judge and/or jury decides the winner, and may decide on outcomes such as compelling the losing side to take a specific action to resolve the case, including paying money.

Mediation: Facilitated by a neutral third-party, the disputing parties enter into a dialogue that explores the sources of their conflict, their unmet needs, and solutions that can result in an equitable (win-win) outcome for all. The neutral third party— the mediator—doesn’t decide how to resolve the case. Sometimes mediation begins as litigation—a judge may feel that disputing parties could resolve their issues more successfully through dialogue and order them to take part in mediation.

Negotiation: Representatives of disputing parties (often called “negotiators”) meet to work with or against each other for their own position or pre-determined, desired outcome. Often formal negotiation proceedings take place between groups of people rather than individuals, and the list of tactics that negotiators may use is long and varied.

  • Diplomacy: Negotiation among nations is called diplomacy and may take place over issues of peace-making, trade, war, economics, and culture.

Ombudsmen processes: An organization or company hires someone—an ombudsman—to respond to and represent constituent (or consumer) views and complaints. Using mediation techniques between the organization and constituents, and/or offering suggestions to the organization, the ombudsman attempts to address constituent concerns.

The scope of conflict resolution studies includes learning about theories of conflict and various approaches to ending conflict— and also may take into account practicing conflict resolution processes in specific settings, according to varying sets of rules or laws.

What are peace studies?

Closely related to resolving conflict, peace studies examine the prevention, de-escalation, and solution of conflicts by peaceful means. Often the work of peacebuilding begins where the work of conflict resolution leaves off: in post-conflict situations/regions, peace workers (including international development workers and others) look to creating sustainable futures for affected communities, absent of violence.

Peace studies sometimes distinguish between “negative peace” and “positive peace” processes. Negative peace refers to practices such as peacekeeping—activities that take place in a post-war situation like monitoring peace processes and helping former foes implement their peace agreements. Positive peace refers to peacebuilding and peacemaking activities—strengthening societies so that structures and systems are in place to make violent conflict less likely.

The scope of peace studies involves learning theories of conflict and processes of conflict resolution, but also incorporates countless other academic disciplines from psychology and sociology to economics and international relations.

Who enters a conflict resolution and peace studies program?

Like most graduate programs, professionals enter the field for a variety of reasons and with a range of backgrounds.

Part-time programs like Columbia University’s Masters in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution may attract people like human resources professionals who are already responsible for solving conflicts in the workplace and who seek formal training to do their current jobs better. Some programs also attract people who have decided for a variety of reasons that they’d like to dedicate their careers to serving as mediators. Dispute resolution programs that are part of law schools, like the George Washington University Master of Laws in Litigation and Dispute Resolution, may attract practicing lawyers who want to increase their pre-trial advocacy skills in seeking alternative dispute resolution when two parties can come to a better outcome through negotiation and mediation out-of-court.

Some schools, like University of San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies Master of Arts in Peace and Justice Studies, offer programs of varying lengths, depending on the amount of professional experience an applicant has had. People with three or more years of experience can apply to the school’s year-long track; people with less experience apply to the school’s 17-month track which includes an internship requirement.

Prior experience

Most graduate schools in conflict resolution and peace studies strongly recommend, and some require, professional experience and/or demonstrated interest in using conflict resolution skills or in the field of peacemaking. Since conflict can be found everywhere, you can build skills resolving disputes in any sector and in any job.

Some grad students are motivated by a passion to end a specific conflict, while others are driven by an urge to increase their conflict management skills—because they are already engaged daily in conflict situations, possibly playing a role that puts them in a mediation role.

Chana Kaunda, Elections Project Officer with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP Zambia), who graduated in 2006 from Kennesaw State University’s Master of Science in Conflict Management program says, “With the passion I have of helping victims as a result of natural causes around the world and knowing that I originate from a continent (Africa) that is flooded with wars, I felt the need to study conflict and peace studies in order to mitigate the effects of conflict and inculcate a culture of peace amongst my people. Further to this, I had a relative working in the foreign service in the late ‘90s who educated me on this degree known as conflict studies and encouraged me to undertake this while he consistently shared various papers presented by experts at symposia in Japan over conflict and peace in Africa.”

Non-academic training in conflict resolution

Finally, if you are looking for training in a different setting, local mediation centers throughout the country often offer intensive professional development training in conflict resolution that can expose you to the basic principles of mediation and offer documentation you can use to demonstrate what you’ve learned. The practical skills you can gain in such a training should touch on the basic principles of what causes conflict, and how to find common ground in building win-win solutions. Community mediation training takes much less time than grad school (typically 24 to 40 hours of in-class learning and practice), and costs less money—but also has less depth.

As a result of the training, you may earn some kind of certification or other documentation of your achievement that you can refer to as needed on your resume/CV or in job interviews. Participating in such workshops also offers you a local network of people who are interested and/or engaged in conflict resolution. To find mediation centers near you, the easiest way may be to search the web for your location name (for example, the nearest city) and “mediation center.”

What can you expect to find in a program?

Students who want to study conflict resolution and peace studies at an advanced level may choose from a great variety of program designs and offerings. In addition to certificate programs discussed above, Masters degree programs can be full-time or part-time, and cohort-based (where you go to classes in lockstep with other students who started at the same time as you), or individually paced.

Most Masters degree programs offer interdisciplinary coursework. Depending on the program you choose, the emphasis may be on:

  • practice: practical skills for resolving disputes between two parties, and/or facilitating decision making among diverse community stakeholders
  • research: research into the causes of conflict and violence

General structure of programs

Both practice-based and research-based programs usually offer a foundation in conflict analysis, as well as an introduction to conflict resolution theories and ethics. Very often students must gain field experience (i.e. an internship or practicum) as part of their degree requirements. For example, during a five-month field experience at Notre Dame University Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, masters students “integrate peace building theory with practice in institutions and communities dealing with issues of peace and conflict, economic development, human rights, and justice.”

The conflict resolution field can include issues such as bullying or other school-based conflicts, conflict in marriages and families, conflict within an organization, violence prevention, mediation, negotiation, facilitation, restorative justice, nonviolent social change, international conflict resolution, and dispute systems design and evaluation. Importantly, the study of conflict resolution and peace also includes looking at the conditions that can sustain peace like human rights, physical and food security, access to clean drinking water, and education for all.

Professional versus research-focused degree programs

Among degrees that focus on conflict and peace studies, two main distinctions exist: those that concentrate on practical skills to prepare students for dispute resolution expertise, and those that focus on research skills to prepare students for academic and teaching roles.

A program geared toward practical conflict resolution skills prepares you to directly help others (individuals, large and small groups, businesses, governments) settle disputes. Coursework may offer a foundation in:

  • Traditional mediation
  • Negotiation
  • Adjudication
  • Conflict resolution models and theories
  • Ethical issues
  • Cross-cultural competency
  • The causes of conflict
  • The psychology of bargaining
  • What it means to be a third party in a conflict mediation setting

Other programs are more research-focused, preparing you to study the causes of conflict and to create and test models for establishing peaceful outcomes in a variety of settings through best practice and policy. According to Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, peace scholars largely focus on contemporary issues, like terrorism, genocide, civil war, and religious and ethnic violence.

Programs that establish new theories in the field often strive to apply their theories in real-life settings, as well—both to test the theories and to contribute meaningfully to the world outside the classroom. Most programs emphasize bridging the gap between theory and practice, and strive to prepare graduate students to relate disciplinary and cross-disciplinary theories of conflict resolution and peace to real-world problem solving.

Usual coursework and concentrations

Graduate degree programs in conflict resolution and peace studies place a strong emphasis on conflict analysis and understanding the root causes of conflict in order to resolve disputes and prevent violence.

Common core courses for conflict resolution programs cover the following topics:

  • Conflict in different settings: Grad programs offer specialized courses that focus on conflicts that occur in distinct settings, such as schools and organizations.
  • Conflict related to different issue areas: Other courses specialize in conflicts that arise in the context of issues such as the environment and human rights.
  • Intercultural conflict resolution: Coursework explores the impact of cultural views and norms on the conflict resolution process and helps grad students take culture into account during conflict resolution processes.
  • Negotiation and mediation skills and practice: Students learn how to play a neutral third party role, and work on skills involving conflict analysis, communication, creating a safe environment that enables disputing parties to trust the process and move away from their positions, and ensuring satisfaction in outcomes.
  • Philosophy, theories, and ethics of conflict and conflict resolution: Readings and discussions explore sources of conflict according to different schools of thought, as well as responsible ways to deal with conflict as a neutral third party.
  • Psychology of conflict resolution: Coursework examines how individuals experience and respond to conflict by taking a look at psychological research that undergirds conflict and conflict resolution theories and practices.
  • Self-care for practitioners: Depending on the grad school, courses may explore the intersection of maintaining mindfulness and renewing spiritual grounding for people training to resolve conflicts and create sustainable peace.
  • Theory and practice: Coursework introduces practices based on conflict and conflict resolution theories.

Graduation requirements

Similar to other professional masters programs, in order to complete your degree, you may be required to complete a capstone project, culminating field experience, and/or thesis.

A capstone project is a chance for you to apply skills and perspectives acquired in your courses to a current or developing problem in the community. Capstone projects often culminate in a written report and/or presentation and are sometimes team-based.

A culminating field experience may or may not be part of your degree requirements. While internships are common options in a conflict resolution degree program, some schools require that students spend a minimum amount of time (a semester or longer) engaged in conflict resolution in the field in order to graduate.

A Masters paper or thesis involves writing about the research that you’ve conducted on a topic relevant to conflict resolution and peace studies and your area of interest. A Masters paper may be a shorter piece of research, while a thesis is typically longer and worth more academic credit.

Career paths

Graduates of conflict resolution and peace programs may go on to work in settings where conflict resolution skills are useful such as:

  • Unions, as negotiators
  • Religious organizations, as community builders or individual and family counselors
  • Court systems, as facilitators of alternative dispute resolution
  • Schools, as counselors and teachers
  • Community centers, as organizers and mediators
  • International relief and development organizations, as diplomats and/or liaisons to host countries
  • Consulting firms, as experts in conflict resolution hired to tackle or advise on projects
  • Nonprofits, government agencies, and businesses as human resources staff, policy advocates, ombudsmen, and community relations leaders.

And they play roles such as:

  • Playing a neutral third-party in conflict resolution processes including mediating, arbitrating, and negotiating
  • Teaching people at all age and grade levels
  • Environmental consulting
  • Providing legal assistance for the poor
  • Serving as government diplomats and advisors
  • Running nonprofits and government agencies
  • Researching and writing policy recommendations for think-tanks
  • Community organizing for urban planning issues like economic development and affordable housing

Because conflict exists everywhere that humans do, one approach to thinking about careers in conflict resolution is to be entrepreneurial.

According to Rob Scott, a 1990 graduate of George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis & Resolution (ICAR),

“Conflict resolution is a great field with expanding opportunities every year. But it’s still a developing field and the advice I was given when I started at ICAR in 1984 still applies: You’ve got to have an entrepreneurial and creative approach to finding and creating post-graduate employment opportunities—you’ve got to be willing to create a new job, develop a new program to fill an unmet need, redefine your existing job to bring conflict resolution in as part of what your organization is already doing, get together with your classmates to build a new organization as well as networking with alumni and others to find ‘traditional’ conflict resolution jobs.”

Furthermore, for some conflict and peace studies grads, the next step after the Masters degree is the Ph.D. According to Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies:

“Approximately half of the Institute’s graduates continue their graduate education in doctoral or professional programs, either in their home countries or in the U.S. Some return to jobs they had before Notre Dame, bringing new perspectives, while others find or develop work opportunities in new areas.”

Here are a few sample job postings for conflict resolution positions at a nonprofit, a government organization, and a for-profit found at and on the web. A conflict resolution and peace studies graduate degree would help prepare you for the following responsibilities and duties:

Health-related Ombudsman

For-profit business

Under the direction of the Director, Consumer Affairs, identifies, evaluates and resolves patient grievances/problems in order to support and maintain the highest quality patient standards set by Authority X and ensure compliance to these standards. Role model for diplomacy and customer service. Provides ongoing training and support to Ombudsmen staff; participates regularly in agency-wide Ombudsman/patient representative initiatives. Provides support and training to agency departments and family health centers as requested. Collaborates with Office of General Counsel in program development. Represents the Ombudsman Department throughout the state and nationally.

Requirements: Bachelors Degree in communications, psychology, sociology or related field. Broad, general knowledge of Foundation, i.e. policies, procedures, personnel, organizational structure, etc. required. Understanding of administrative management to include analysis and assessment of systems, staffing, data management, and supervision. Role model for diplomacy. Ability to effectively develop programs to increase patient satisfaction and decrease litigation. Ability to develop assumptions about consumer dissatisfaction, forecast events pertaining to same and define courses of proactive action. Excellent oral and written communication skills. Excellent analytical and problem solving skills. Must have superior customer service skills. Minimum five years extensive public relations experience preferably in an Ombudsman capacity in an interdisciplinary patient care setting.

Assistant director with a conflict resolution program

International NGO

The X Center is guided by a fundamental commitment to human rights and the alleviation of human suffering; it seeks to prevent and resolve conflicts, enhance freedom and democracy, and improve health.

The Assistant Directors (2 open positions) will assist the Director of Conflict Resolution Program and the Vice President of Peace Programs in designing, implementing and evaluating the program’s mission and strategy.

Designs, implements and coordinates activities of the Conflict Resolution Program, including projects, conferences, field missions, and other daily activities. Tasks include project development, implementation, and management; grant development; budget planning; program promotion; report production; networking and negotiating. Incumbent provides staff support and/or leadership in short-term trips to countries of potential programmatic interest. Incumbents may supervise staff, interns, and volunteers.

The successful candidates will have a Postgraduate degree in conflict resolution, international relations, area studies, international law, or related fields and five years of experience in international conflict resolution, preferably in the field, including negotiation, mediation, facilitation, and program design.

Incumbent should be detail oriented and well organized, assertively following and bringing activities to closure. A high level of personal energy and positive attitude are essential. Strong writing and communication skills and competence with computer applications are musts. Experience working with conflicts in Africa and the Middle East is preferred. Familiarity with NGOs and project-based fundraising is advantageous. Foreign language skills are preferable.