Is International Relations a Good Degree?

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Many universities offer international relations degrees for both undergrad and graduate students. Is this a good degree? In this article, we’ll explore what international relations is, what you learn while you’re getting the degree, and what international relations careers are available.

International relations is a versatile degree that provides career opportunities in law, trade, diplomacy, security, marketing, and much more. Students will study disciplines like political science, history, anthropology, sociology, and economics. If you’re interested in traveling, working, and living abroad, international relations is a good degree.

What is international relations?

International relations is the study of the relationships between states. That includes a huge range of subjects such as foreign policy, trade, diplomacy, and war. International relations also studies the many actors involved such as governments, intergovernmental organizations, corporations, and NGOs. Because the term (which is also called “international affairs”) is so broad, it includes disciplines as diverse as economics, sociology, religious studies, and more. While states have always interacted with each other, the field of international relations didn’t truly take off until after WWI. As people began studying the war’s causes more closely, the field developed. The first Department of International Politics was founded in 1919 at the University of Aberystwyth.

International relations continued to grow and expand through WWII. By the war’s end, IR was essential to foreign policy and political science. Through the next decades, IR became more than just a political field; it embraced disciplines like anthropology, economics, and history. Today, it’s a multi-disciplinary subject with programs around the world.

What do you study during an international relations degree program?

When you study for an international relations degree as an undergrad, you’ll take classes from a wide range of disciplines. As an example, when students choose the IR major at Stanford, they’ll take classes in international relations, political science, economics, anthropology, history, comparative literature, sociology, and more. All programs are a mix of required courses (usually on the theory and practice of international relations) and a range of electives. Students will need a certain number of elective credits to graduate. The first year’s core requirements often consist of specific required courses, so every student gets a solid foundation before choosing a focus. International relations students also need to study languages and may be required to spend a year abroad.

After graduation, many students continue their education and get a master’s degree in international relations. This opens up your job opportunities and eligibility for higher-level jobs. Most programs take around two years, although you may be able to finish earlier or take courses part-time while you work. Master’s programs don’t look too different from undergrad. You’ll take a mix of courses in history, international relations, anthropology, political science, and so on. You’ll also need to choose a specialization in a field like law, security, trade, business, and so on. Language proficiency is an important piece of a master’s degree; you’ll likely need to know at least one of the six official UN languages (French, English, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and Russian). During the first year, many programs focus on courses. The second year is often dedicated to the dissertation.

What transferable skills do you gain with an international relations degree?

As you complete an international relations degree, you’ll learn about a range of topics, but what skills are you gaining? Many of the skills are transferable, which is another reason why an international relations degree is a good choice. Here are three of the most useful:

Critical thinking

Critical thinking is the analysis of facts, arguments, and evidence. Using that analysis, critical thinkers then make a judgment. The goal of critical thinking is to be as objective as possible and aware of biases that could be clouding your judgment. Good critical thinkers aren’t frightened of new information even if it contradicts what they already believe. They’re able to set aside their own opinions and analyze whatever comes their way. There are many skills involved in critical thinking, such as the ability to sift through large amounts of information, identify weak evidence and misinformation, ask good questions, and pay attention to detail.

Because international relations programs deal with different theories, lots of information, multiple disciplines, and big questions about peace, war, diplomacy, and so on, students must sharpen their critical thinking skills to be successful. Even if you don’t go on to a career specifically in international relations, critical thinking skills are desirable in every career.

Good research skills

International relations degree programs involve a lot of research. It’s more than just looking at lots of information, however; the field works with many types of research methods. As a student, you’ll learn what these methods are, where they’re best applied, and their strengths and weaknesses. You’ll also learn how to identify good sources from books, academic journals, databases, government websites, and much more. Because you’re working with so many sources, you’ll develop techniques for productivity and efficiency. Good research skills are as much about managing your time and energy as they are about finding information.

Many jobs require (or at least benefit from) the skills associated with good research, such as goal-setting, data analysis, attention to detail, time management, and clear communication. As you study the histories of sovereign nations, theories of international relations, laws and policies, and much more, you’ll strengthen your research skills.

Good cross-cultural communication

“Culture” can be a vague term, but it’s formed when people share a set of basic assumptions, values, norms, and so on. The principles and norms are often unwritten, but they play a huge role in how someone interacts with the world and others around them. Culture is often talked about in contexts of geography, ethnicity, and religion. When people come from different cultures, it can cause misunderstandings and conflict. When communication is improved, diversity has significant benefits. Cross-cultural communication is a bedrock of international relations. IR professionals like diplomats, translators, and analysts need excellent cross-cultural communication skills or they’ll be ineffective.

In diverse workplaces (and workplaces that want to become more diverse) cross-cultural communication is one of the most desired skills. More and more organizations today want job candidates with cultural awareness and sensitivity, adaptability, patience, and a commitment to creating supportive, inclusive environments.

What can you do with an international relations degree and how much can you earn?

There are several career categories you can explore with an international relations degree. How much you earn depends on factors like how much education you have, how much experience, what the job entails, who employs you, and where the job is located. To give you a clearer idea of what your career could look like, here are seven job descriptions and their average salaries:

Political consultant

National average salary (USA): $35,023

Political consultants work with government officials, politicians, and other clients involved in politics. They’re often hired to work on campaigns and help the candidate get elected. Duties can include research, writing press releases, organizing events, and staying updated on current events.

International policy analyst

National average salary (USA): $76,994

International policy analysts study political systems, legislation, and policies around the world. They often focus on a specific area, such as trade, the environment, women’s rights, healthcare, and so on. Governments, corporations, and nonprofits employ international policy analysts, who are responsible for figuring out how policies will affect their employer. Analysts may also evaluate policies and make recommendations based on their research.

Diplomatic agent

National average salary (USA): $97,444/year

Diplomatic agents (also known as foreign service officers) represent their home country to the world. Their primary goals are to develop strong, friendly relationships with other nations and promote their home country’s culture and interests. The job can also entail helping traveling citizens during crises, negotiating treaties, and conducting research. There are different types of agents depending on their specialties. As an example, economic officers focus on issues related to the economy, such as technology, energy, environmental policies, and more.

International marketing manager

National average salary (USA): $99,600

Businesses wanting to expand internationally hire international marketing managers. These professionals need to understand the places the business is targeting, which includes how the international markets work, what marketing strategies are effective, what products will be popular, how to raise awareness, and so on. Getting an international relations degree, especially one focused on trade, would be very useful for this career.

International banking officer

National average salary (USA): $70,677

International banking officers, who can work for international banks, corporations, or government agencies, are experts in international finance. They analyze and develop financial strategies, track financial structures, and make financial forecasts. At the highest level, international banking officers work for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Language specialist

National average salary (USA): $51,682

Language specialists, which include interpreters and translators, specialize in languages. They’re more than just fluent in a language; they study its origins, cultural evolution, differences between regions, and more. Government agencies involved in foreign affairs work with language specialists.

International lawyer

National average salary: $85,153

International lawyers can work for law firms, governments, or private corporations. They’re experts on international laws, policies, and regulations between countries. They often have a specialty such as human rights, immigration, or international trade. Duties include conducting research, advising clients, drafting agreements and contracts, and keeping track of legal changes.