Human Rights Degrees: Master's, PhD & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in a master's degree or PhD program in human rights? Read about the program requirements, the pros and cons of master's and PhD degrees and potential careers.
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Human Rights Master's and PhD Degrees at a Glance

In a human rights graduate degree program, you learn about theory as well as practice using an interdisciplinary approach. Your curriculum will address human rights issues in areas such as education, the environment, health, and family. You may also have an opportunity to concentrate in a specialized area of human rights in which you may conduct research in. Graduates can find work at international non-profits, international aid agencies, international advocacy organizations, governmental organizations, and universities.

Who is this degree for? Individuals who want to work at the administrative-level of human rights organization or those holding a bachelor's degree in another field People who want to work in academia or research
Common Career Paths (with approximate median salary) - Chief executive *($167,000)
- Development director **($96,000)
- Program director **($68,000)
- Academic researcher **($68,000)
- Professor *($59,000)
Time to Completion1-2 years3-8 years
Common Graduation Requirements - Internship
- Master's thesis and/or project
- Doctoral dissertation
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree Bachelor's or master's degree
Online Availability No No

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

Human Rights Master's Degree

A human rights master's program prepares you to study a wide variety of human rights issues from a global and interdisciplinary perspective, such as theory, foreign policy, and economic development. You may have the opportunity to take related classes in other departments, including sociology, religion, and political science. Programs may allow you to participate in a variety of human rights research projects and attend guest lectures and conferences.

Pros and Cons


  • Learn research methodologies that can prove useful in certain careers or a PhD program
  • Interdisciplinary curriculum provides flexibility in your career paths
  • May be able to choose concentration or electives that develop expertise in a particular area


  • Working for an organization that helps people who are suffering can be emotionally stressful
  • You may need to complete an internship as well as a master's thesis to graduate
  • Career options may be limited to the non-profit and public sectors

Courses and Requirements

Master's programs typically include a number of core classes that all students must take. You can customize the remaining portion of your program by choosing a concentration or electives that are relevant to your career goals. Possible courses may include:

  • Introduction to human rights
  • International law and human rights
  • International organizations and human rights
  • Research methods
  • Global poverty and human rights

Additionally, you usually complete a thesis and/or a project that pertains to a particular human rights issue of your choosing. Some type of fieldwork may also be required in order to gain professional experience.

Online Course Info

Although no online master's programs in human rights are currently offered, some independent organizations offer relevant courses that may count toward continuing education credit. Some organizations may award certificates after completion of the classes, and some classes are free while others require payment.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

Acquiring fluency in at least 1 foreign language can help you get ahead, especially if you plan to work for an international non-profit organization. Additionally, because human rights is a versatile field, learning about related fields, such as journalism, education and grant writing, can make you more marketable. You can also become active in various human rights advocacy groups.

Alternative Degrees

If you're goal is to help people suffering from various mental or emotional problems, you may benefit from earning a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. Clinical social workers must have this degree in order to diagnose and treat clients with mental and emotional issues. In an MSW program, you typically spend 2 years studying a specific specialty and learning to evaluate patients, manage multiple clients and supervise staffs. You can expect to earn a significant amount clinical training hours throughout the course of the program. According to 2010-2020 BLS projections, employment for clinical social workers is expected to increase a rapid 25%.

Human Rights PhD Degree

In a PhD human rights program, you may study a variety of human rights issues and specialize in a certain area of human rights where you focus your research. Some PhD programs may be centralized in a specific human rights topic, such as education or cultural diversity. You may have the opportunity to take human rights courses in other departments as part of your interdisciplinary study. The courses you take in a master's degree program may count toward meeting the requirements of a PhD program. A PhD program in human rights can qualify you to teach at the university-level or work in other research or executive positions.

Pros and Cons


  • You will be able to specialize and develop expertise in an area of human rights
  • Programs are often interdisciplinary, providing a versatile foundation
  • Can often choose electives to customize your coursework


  • PhD programs in human rights scarce
  • Professors sometimes need to work on weekends or evenings to accommodate students' schedules
  • Acquiring a tenured professor position can be competitive

Courses and requirements

In a PhD program in human rights, you may focus on the social, gender, legal, political, and other aspects of human rights. In addition to your required coursework, you conduct research in a specific area of human rights and complete a dissertation in order to graduate. Some courses you might take include:

  • International human rights
  • International human rights law
  • Gender issues

Online Course Info

Although PhD programs are not available online, you can take a variety of human rights courses over the Internet. You can study different areas of international human rights.

Getting Ahead with this Degree

You can choose to conduct your research in one of the most pertinent areas of human rights. Additionally, you can seek employment that would provide you with first-hand experience in your research area. Submitting your dissertation for publication may also help validate your proficiency. You can also join professional organizations, such as the National Association of Human Rights Workers, in order to aid in the distribution of information, network with other human rights professionals and attend conferences.

Alternative Degrees

Rather than enrolling in a PhD program, you can enroll in a law degree program that concentrates on human rights. In these programs, you typically work toward earning a Juris Doctor (JD), which is required to practice law in the U.S., and a Master of Laws (LLM), which provides international credibility. Much of your coursework may focus on the laws of international human rights issues in various topics, such as women and children, immigration, the environment and health. As a whole, lawyers may see an average 10% growth in employment during the 2010-2020 decade, according to the BLS.

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