The study and practice of international relations matters because it affects trade, security, politics, human rights, and other meaningful global issues. How much does a career pay? This article explains what factors affect an international relations professional’s salary, what they earn, where they work, and how someone starts their career.
International relations professionals can earn as little as $21,000 and as much as $150,000+, but most estimates put the median average salary around $60,000. Salaries vary based on factors like education and experience, as well as what specific job you have and what sector you work in.
What are the factors impacting an international relations professional’s earning potential?
International relations is a broad field with a wide salary range. At least five factors affect salary: education, experience, what their responsibilities are, where they work, and where their job is based. These factors are not listed in order of importance.
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In general, the more educated you are, the more money you can make. This is especially true if you’re working for a government. According to Career Trend, the US government’s General Service salary schedule factors in education for international relations jobs. Someone with a master’s degree can start at a higher GS level – which gets them a higher starting salary – than someone with a bachelor’s degree.
As you gain more experience in international relations, your earning potential increases. By how much? In 2019, Career Trend looked at data from the Wall Street Journal, which reported that on average, international relations majors had mid-career salaries of $80,900. This is higher than majors in the humanities and social science fields, but lower than economics and engineering.
International relations isn’t one job, it’s a field populated by many types of jobs. You can work as a political consultant, program coordinator, translator, international policy analyst, and so on. Some jobs pay higher than others while others have room for significant growth in responsibilities and salary. The specific career you go into and what you’re tasked to do plays a big role in how much money you make.
Most organizations have salary structures based on factors like a candidate’s experience and education. An organization’s budget plays a big role, as well, which means large entities like the federal government, corporations, and well-funded international NGOs typically pay more. Teach.com gave more insight into the 2019 job outlook for political scientists (a career within international relations), explaining that professional, scientific, and technical services paid median annual wages of $133,200. State, local, and private educational services paid the least at $79,640. When looking for jobs, international relations professionals should know what to expect from certain types of organizations.
#5. Job location
When organizations establish wages, they consider things like an area’s cost of living, exchange rates (most common for international organizations), and so on. In areas with a low cost of living, salaries are often lower than in an area with a high cost of living, though some places offer the best of both worlds with low living costs and high-paying jobs. Organizations also look at market survey data to learn what similar organizations/industries in the area offer for similar jobs. Job availability within an area affects a salary, too.
What do international relations professionals earn?
Because international relations is such a big field, it’s impractical to list every salary for every job, but we can provide a summary of what major jobs in the field offer, as well as what majors in the field can expect to earn.
International relations specialist
In 2022, an international relations specialist in the US is earning around $61,862 a year. ZipRecruiter finds a wide salary range between $21,000-$92,500. Most earn $39,000-$80,000. The wide range implies there’s a lot of room for professional growth.
International relations officer
According to Glassdoor, international relations officers in the US earn an average of $52,949 a year. The website found that the top paying industries for this job were Aerospace & Defense ($107,265), Government & Public Administration ($103,144), Management & Consulting ($75,978), and Nonprofit and NGO ($62,090).
International relations majors
Those who get international relations majors make an average of $60,634 a year, according to Zippia. Professionals in the top 10% make a generous $115,000 while those in the bottom 10% make less than $31,000. The website finds that finance companies, professional companies, and technology companies offer the highest-paying job opportunities, while states like New York, Washington, and California have some of the highest starting salaries. Keep in mind that the cost of living plays a big role; jobs in these areas pay more money, but you’re also paying more for rent, food, and everything else.
Source: U.S. News & World Report
Political science is technically different from international relations, but there’s enough overlap to include this job. In 2020, political scientists made a median salary of $125,350, while the top 25% made $157,710. The lowest 25% made $90,780, which makes a political scientist one of the best-paid roles in international relations.
Elliott School of International Affairs graduates
Source: Graduate employment survey
The Elliott School of International Affairs, which is part of George Washington University, publishes a graduate employment survey every year. It gives us a good idea of what international relations professionals earn. In the class of 2021, most graduates were making $50,000-$59,999. The next biggest slice made $60,000-$69,999. Smaller percentages made $40,000-$49,999 and $20,000-$29,999.
Where do international relations professionals work?
International relations professionals can work in just about any sector. According to Top Universities, careers in this field are based in three main areas: public, private, and non-profit. Looking at the Elliott School’s graduate surveys gives us a more broken-down look at where many professionals work.
The 2021 graduate employment survey showed that 37.9% of graduates worked in the public sector. Most worked in the U.S. government, followed by the U.S. military, multilateral organizations, foreign governments, state/local governments, and development assistance/advocacy groups. Working in the public sector earns a professional a good salary and opportunities for major projects, but the systems can be slow-moving and bureaucratic.
Elliott’s survey showed 27.7% of graduates found jobs in the private sector. Most were in consulting/government contracting, while others were self-employed or temporarily employed; working in finance/trade; or working in aerospace/technology/telecommunications. A small percentage worked in media/PR and law. Employees of private businesses are often tasked with managing commerce across borders, though those working in media/PR (which includes journalism) are responsible for reporting stories. Based on Elliott’s survey, professionals in the private sector make up the majority of those earning the highest salaries.
28.6% of Elliott’s 2021 graduates worked in the non-profit/NGO sector. Most found jobs at public interest/research/think tanks, while the next slice worked in the university/education field. Development assistance/public health and “other” came next, while a smaller portion worked in conflict resolution/human rights and foundations/professional/trade associations. In line with earlier reports and our wider research, non/profit/NGO work typically pays the smallest salaries. Non-profit work can be more flexible and hands-on than other fields, but because the non-profit/NGO world is so diverse, it’s hard to make blanket statements.
How do you become an international relations professional?
International relations is a diverse field with many opportunities for growth, travel, and interesting projects, but how do you become an international relations professional? Top Universities provides a great guide (“How To Start a Career In International Relations” by Laura Bridgestock) that walks readers through the steps needed to start. We’ll summarize the guide here:
Get the right education
If you want to access the best job opportunities in international relations, you’ll want at least a master’s degree. Master’s degrees provide students with interdisciplinary knowledge on topics like politics, economics, history, sociology, languages, and more. Many schools offer joint degrees in business or law, which can be very useful if those are the fields you want to enter.
Here’s an article on deciding between a master’s in international relations or human rights.
Many employers look for candidates with some experience, so you’ll want to commit to internships or volunteer work. Organizations like NGOs, multilateral corporations, and local government offices tend to offer internships, so compile a list of anything that could be a good fit and start applying.
Learn another language
Even if you aren’t planning on going into interpretation or translation, it’s a good idea to study at least one other language. Many international relations jobs require travel or even living abroad, so if you want as many opportunities as possible, learn another language. Consider starting with any of the six official UN languages: English, French, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, and Spanish.
Hone your communication skills
International relations is the study of how nations interact, which is just another way of saying how nations communicate. To succeed in this field, you want excellent communication skills. No matter what sector you work in, you’ll most likely be communicating constantly with government officers, business leaders, the public, and many others. You’ll want good speaking and writing skills, as well as strong emotional intelligence and keen observation. Organizations also look for people with strong cross-cultural communication skills, so you want to understand how communication works in different cultural environments.