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

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What kind of job can you get with a graduate degree in international relations? Find out degree requirements, online options and info on courses and international relations programs.
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Studying International Relations: Degrees at a Glance

International relations (IR), or international affairs, is an interdisciplinary program that acts as a springboard to many different careers, particularly careers with the government. IR jobs often require candidates that speak several languages, are willing to work overseas and understand international politics and economics. Government entities, like the U.S. Department of State, Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Defense, commonly hire graduates with degrees in the field. If you plan to work for a news agency or international corporation, you may also earn a dual degree, combining an IR master's with a Master of Business Administration, a master's degree in journalism or Juris Doctor. Possessing a doctoral degree in the field can lead to a career as a university professor. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expected that federal government employment to decline 13% from 2010 to 2020, but expects employment opportunities for college professors to grow 17% during that same time.

Master's Doctorate
Who is this degree for? People who want to work as government diplomats, embassy workers, political or intelligence analysts or clandestine operatives People who want to work in academia as professors or researchers
Common Career Paths (median salary or salary range noted in parentheses) - Entry-level foreign service officer, State Department ($53,000 with additional bonus based on location)*
- CIA clandestine service trainee (salary range, $53,000 - $81,000)**
- Intelligence analyst, Department of Defense (salary, 10th - 90th percentile range, $20,000 - $108,000)***
- University professor (median salary, $62,000)****
- Political scientist (median salary, $107,000)****
Time to Completion 1-2 years full-time 3-5 years after the master's, full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Roughly 12-16 graduate level courses
- Master's thesis/research paper
- Master's exams
- Foreign language requirement(s)
- A summer internship or academic study between the first and second years
- Most of the master's degree requirements, plus:
- Roughly 18-20 graduate level courses
- PhD qualifier exams
- Dissertation proposal
- Dissertation
- Teaching requirement
Prerequisites Bachelor's or master's degree in international relations or related field Foreign language requirement(s)
Online Availability Yes Rare

Sources: *U.S. Department of State (2012), **U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (2012), *** (2012), **** U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (March 2012).

Master's Degree in International Relations

As an IR student, you develop a keen understanding of international politics, culture, and economics. Coursework is focuses on aspects of IR, such as international economic systems, or a particular region, such as Asia or South America. You usually must also write a thesis or complete a research project prior to graduation.

Pros and Cons


  • Is a versatile degree that may qualify you for multiple government and private sector job positions
  • IR work can be exciting and highly compensated
  • Some IR work, particularly non-governmental organization work, can have a positive effect on foreign nationals
  • Overseas work allows you to experience new places and cultures


  • Some jobs may require you to work in unpleasant or remote places
  • You and your family may have to spend a good part of your career outside of the U.S., and may have to move frequently
  • Some IR work can have a negative effect on foreign nationals
  • Some IR work can be as dangerous as military service

Courses and Requirements

As an IR student, you take courses that teach how diverse factors such as economics, health, politics, culture and religion intersect to shape world events. You learn analytical skills to interpret the significance of world events as they relate to national security and interests, business prospects, or humanitarian concerns. Core courses for an IR master's program may include subjects like:

  • Theories of international relations
  • Statistics
  • Micro/macroeconomics
  • Modern American foreign policy
  • Comparative politics
  • Public international law
  • War and terrorism

Many programs require that you speak multiple languages and, to that end, offer multiple courses in foreign languages. Additionally, many programs require that you complete a research project or summer internship during the summer between your first and second years of study. Prior to graduation, you will likely also need to write a thesis or conduct research.

Online Degree Options

Fully and partially online IR master's degree programs are available. These online programs offer the same courses and have the same requirements as onsite programs. In an online program, lectures and coursework are transmitted via the Internet rather than in a classroom.

Stand Out With This Degree

Competition for some IR jobs is so heavy that, in addition to a graduate degree, you also need previous internships or overseas work to be competitive in the market. Because of this, consider completing as many IR-related internships as possible.

Because proficiency in multiple languages is often required, you might also become proficient, if not fluent, in multiple languages. Fluency in Arabic or other difficult languages many make you more attractive to employers.

Degree Alternatives

Many employers consider IR a branch of political science. The curriculum of a political science degree program covers much of the same subjects, but does not focus so narrowly on the international arena. Typically, these programs investigate U.S. law, politics, governmental policy along with some international issues. A degree in the field can lead to a career as an attorney, lobbyist, political pollster or commentator, congressional staffer, campaign operative, foreign service worker or policy analyst. The BLS expected 10% job growth for attorneys during the 2010-2020 decade.

Doctor of Philosophy in International Relations

A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in International Relations program is designed for individuals interested in a career in academia. However, the degree can also lead to a career as an analyst or political scientist for a government agency or lobbying group. In these programs, you select a concentration for your studies, conduct research and write a dissertation.

Pros and Cons


  • Financial aid, such as tuition waivers and stipends, are available to help you defray the costs of the program
  • Many IR programs are proactive about placement of graduates, which may increase your chances of finding employment after graduation
  • A teaching career can be pursued within the U.S., eliminating the need for you to live or work abroad


  • Degree programs may take 5 years or longer for you to complete
  • Financial aid may not cover all of the program's costs
  • IR is a complex and difficult subject and academic research standards are high, thereby placing large pressure to research and publish in the field
  • Competition can be tough for tenure-track positions at prestigious universities

Courses and Requirements

As an IR PhD student, you take courses that train you to conduct in-depth research and data analysis, and also learn teaching methodologies. Usually, you can tailor your studies to focus on one or two areas of specialization, such as 21st-century international terrorism. Core topics may include:

  • Research methodology
  • International relations theory
  • Quantitative analysis
  • International conflict
  • International political economy
  • Environment and world health

You are also required to demonstrate mastery of at least one foreign language. Finally, you must research and write a dissertation.

Online Degree Options

Online IR PhD programs are rare. Attending an on-campus program allows you to interact with professors while learning multiple languages and writing your dissertation.

However, online programs focusing on public policy and administration, international development, or conflict resolution are available. Although the majority of these programs are delivered over the Internet, you may have to attend on-campus seminars at some point during your studies. Course material is the same as in onsite classes, with the main difference being that lectures and coursework are transmitted online rather than in a classroom.

Stand Out With This Degree

To stand out with this degree, consider joining a professional organization such as the International Studies Association. Comprised of IR researchers and educators, membership in this organization may provide you with networking and other career-development opportunities.

Additionally, consider completing coursework in international economics and statistics. Being able to compare and analyze international economies allows you to discuss how a foreign country's financial and other markets may impact world behaviors. This ability may make you more attractive to employers.

Degree Alternatives

Because it is a larger field with more related teaching positions, a PhD in political science may increase your potential academic employment opportunities. Some university websites also advise that a graduate degree in political science is more oriented to teaching than an IR degree.

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