International Studies Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Course Info

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Master's and PhD degrees in international studies can lead to careers in non-profit organizations and academia. Get the truth about the requirements, courses and online options, and find out what you can do with your degree.
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Studying International Studies: Master's and PhD Degrees at a Glance

International studies programs are interdisciplinary and flexible, with classes covering global finances, cultural traditions, human rights issues and environmental protection. With a graduate degree, you can pursue careers in nonprofit work, public service, diplomacy and private business. A PhD is usually necessary for academic teaching and research jobs.

National statistics regarding employment trends and salary for people working in international organizations were not readily available as of September 2012. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of postsecondary teachers is expected to increase by an average rate of 17% from 2010 to 2020. Practical skills and relevant work experience should lead to the best job prospects.

Master's PhD
Who Is This Degree For? People who want to work for international organizations, often non-profitIndividuals who want to pursue careers in research, policy or academia
Common Career Paths (with approximate media annual salary) -Non-profit program manager ($42,000)*
-Fundraiser ($46,000)*
-Foreign service officer ($58,000; small sample size)*
-International businessperson (salary unavailable)
-International policy analyst (salary unavailable)
Same as master's options, plus:
-Postsecondary teacher ($64,000)**
Time to Completion 2 years, full-time 3-5 years, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements -Foreign language proficiency
-Practical learning experience
-Thesis or research paper
-Foreign language proficiency
-Research experience
-Comprehensive exams
Prerequisites -Bachelor's degree in a relevant field
-International experience (recommended)
Bachelor's or master's degree in a relevant field
Online Availability YesRare

Sources: * (September 2012 figures), **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures).

Master's Degrees in International Studies

Due to the wide-ranging scope of international studies, you have a high level of liberty in customizing your program to prepare you for your personal career goals. Concentration areas, such as international law, natural resources or conflict management, may be available. You might even focus on a particular theme and region, like health care in Africa.

Foundational courses often cover public policy, international political issues, cross-cultural communications, ethics, statistics and project management. Then, you learn to apply that knowledge to more specific projects, like arranging humanitarian aid or analyzing environmental effects of construction. Hands-on, experiential learning projects teach you to apply what you've learned in the classroom to real-world dilemmas.

Pros and Cons


  • You can customize programs to meet your interests and career goals.
  • Internship opportunities can provide relevant job training and help you stand out.
  • Non-governmental organizations are becoming a strong force in resolving the world's problems.


  • Programs can be costly, and fellowships and other aid are competitive.
  • Professional experience may be more important than having a graduate degree.
  • This program doesn't lead to a certain career; you must shape your own career path.

Common Courses and Requirements

Students in international studies master's degree programs take a broad range of courses in humanities, social sciences, politics, economics, statistics and foreign relations. In addition to coursework, master's degree programs may require an experiential learning project. Researching and writing an original thesis is often a final project. Below is a sample of topics you may study:

  • Global cultures and religions
  • Governance and human rights
  • Political economies
  • Sustainable development
  • International trade
  • Population studies

Online Class Options

You can enroll in a fully online international studies master's degree program. Courses are typically similar to those offered on-campus, though not all classes are available via distance learning. You'll still need to meet language competency requirements and pass qualifying exams.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

Since professional experience is a key to getting a job, it's recommended that you obtain experience in your area of interest, whether that is project management or fundraising. Programs highly recommend participating in internships and study-abroad programs. Schools with international studies programs often have numerous student groups, focusing on issues like international finance, human trafficking and global education, to give you opportunities to network and get involved in current world issues.

PhD Degrees in International Studies

Doctoral programs in international studies are typically designed to prepare you for a scholarly career, teaching at the college level and conducting research to bring new knowledge to the field. You can focus on your areas of interest, whether those are international economics or political theory. At the PhD level, international studies programs may be offered jointly with a related field, like political science.

Pros and Cons


  • Opportunity to specialize in a topic of particular interest to you.
  • Many chances for real-world research experience.
  • Possibility of attaining job security through a tenure-track academic position.


  • Admission can be highly competitive.
  • Number of tenure-track jobs is limited, since schools often hire part-time or contract teachers instead.
  • International relations careers outside of academia may only require a bachelor's or master's degree.

Common Courses and Requirements

In addition to academic coursework you'll also need to attend professional workshops and seminars. Participating in research projects, completing field-based projects (like internships) and gaining competency in a foreign language are important program components. You'll also need to pass qualifying examinations. Writing and defending your dissertation are typically the last steps. Some of the courses you may take include:

  • International social movements
  • World law
  • International communication
  • Global economic relations
  • Genocide and war
  • Global peace and conflict resolution

Online Class Options

Online PhD programs in international studies are not likely to be found. Related programs, like a doctoral program in public policy, may offer specializations in international and non-governmental organizations. Keep in mind that such online PhD programs may be offered by private, for-profit schools.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

If you want to land an academic job, take full advantage of your school's research opportunities and submit your research articles to professional journals and conferences. Published work can impress potential employers. Additionally, participate in student teaching opportunities to get the necessary experience.

You may also join on-campus student organizations, where you can benefit from opportunities to connect with peers, professors and community groups, as well as chances to exercise leadership in international issues. Another way to get directly involved in global affairs is participating in a study-abroad program.

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