Our guide to graduate-level international relations looks at the history of the subject, the career paths it can open for you and what your options are if you choose to study it at graduate level.
The subject, according to Dr Ian Hall of Australian National University (ANU), is defined by the study of “a diverse set of political, economic, social and environmental interactions between sovereign states, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, multi-national corporations and civil society actors at a global, regional or inter-state level.”
The world’s first course in the subject was offered by Aberystwyth University in the UK in 1919. The purpose? To try and understand why the devastating World War which had taken place over the preceding four years had happened; and how such a brutal war could be avoided in the future.
Making sense of things
The goal of the subject, Hall explains, is still largely the same: “As field of study, international relations helps us to make sense of the political, economic, social and environmental dynamics changing our world. It addresses major global issues: the origins of war and the making of lasting peace; shifting patterns of power and wealth; ever-increasing transnational flows of people, ideas and resources.”
A greater level of specialization differentiates graduate from undergraduate-level international relations. “Students can specialize in a subfield of international relations; in theory, security, political economy or some other area, extending their knowledge of core debates and developing their capacity to make informed contributions to contemporary research or policy work in these areas,” says Hall.
The aim, it seems, is to make students into experts who can actively contribute to the field. Dr Ben Thirkell-White, of Victoria University of Wellington, confirms this: “Even if you take a master’s course designed for people without a degree in international relations (increasingly common in the UK and Australia) your course will be designed to get you to the point where you can engage with cutting-edge research in your discipline, including designing research projects of your own. Graduate courses are designed to give you the analytical tools to explore the particular issue areas that fascinate you."
No easy answers
“Like most arts and humanities subjects,” he continues, "students need to be self-motivated and willing to take responsibility for their own learning. Contact hours are fewer than in science subjects as more learning takes place through reading academic literature.”
Hall echoes this: “Our students are expected to develop their capacity to provide informed analysis of past and contemporary international relations, to apply and develop key theories, and to make well-grounded contributions to the areas of scholarly research and public policy”
Of course, scholarly research and policy making are divergent, and, indeed, Hall suggests students have a wide range of goals “We welcome any students interested in understanding the dynamics of contemporary global affairs, in academic questions like the changing nature of the modern state, to more practical challenges, like establishing lasting settlements in the aftermath of conflict.”
These are obviously large challenges to which there is often no clear answer. “You are unlikely to come away from your degree with easy answers,” concludes Thirkell-White, “and should not expect to be told what to think.
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