International Relations Degrees: Graduate
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.
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Studying international relations
- 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.
Specializations in international relations
According to Thirkell-White, international relations has evolved as a discipline, meaning that a greater variety of specializations are available today than ever before. “Originally, IR was mostly concerned with security relationships between governments: war, peace, alliances, military capabilities and diplomatic relations.
"Nowadays international relations scholars have become interested in a wider range of issues including economic relationships, international environmental and health policy and philosophical questions about human rights and global justice.”
However, the specializations available at graduate level to do not differ overmuch from those at undergraduate level, though the level of depth does. “International relations study is not progressive in the way that a science degree might be. You don’t cover radically new topics at graduate level. The main difference is you study in greater depth.
"So issues that you might have dealt with in one session at undergraduate level can take up a whole course at graduate level, with exploration of more cases, a deeper understanding of theory and more challenging exploration of the evidence underpinning broad debates.”
Some specializations you might think about are comparative politics, international law or environmental policy. Or you could choose to focus on a particular geographic region, political movement or a particular type of organization. You might look at war or other types of negative relations between countries or the diplomacy that aims to avert these occurrences. Or you could approach the subject thought the lens of another discipline, such as economics or history.
Basically, international relations is a massive subject area – anything that involves decisions or actions which have consequences across national borders is fair game for study.
Careers in international relations
There are several career paths which an international relations graduate might choose to follow. Many seek a career in exactly the kind of organization they have been studying; a governmental or a civil service role, or a position with an NGO or think thank. Others choose to remain on the analytical side of things, with careers in journalism or within the academy.
“Our students”, says Dr Ian Hall of ANU, “have been successful in a number of fields, from public service to academia, journalism to commerce. We have alumni in diplomatic services across the Asia-Pacific region as well as other government departments, from defense to treasury, in major research and teaching universities, and in many other related professions. We have extensive links to governments, NGOs, think tanks and businesses across our region which allow us to direct our students towards the careers they seek.”
Victoria University of Wellington’s Dr Ben Thirkell-White gives a similar list. It is the university careers service which is largely responsible for helpings student get on the career ladder he says, “However, we do offer a parliamentary internship option for some students and the best of those can also apply to take up a similar role in the US Congress after their studies. We provide extensive advice for students looking to pursue further academic study, since that is what we are best qualified to help with.”
Professor Kim Hutchings, program director of the MSc in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), sums up the wide breadth of what is learnt when studying IR at graduate level.
“In depth, theoretically informed knowledge and understanding of contemporary world politics and foreign policy, including the chance to specialize in knowledge of particular regions, for example Asia-Pacific, Europe, Middle East, Russia; issues such as war, conflict resolution, humanitarian intervention, human rights, terrorism; and organizations like the UN, EU, NATO, WTO,” she says.
Professor Hutchings states that the skills learnt on an IR course at LSE are very wide-ranging. “In addition to substantive knowledge of particular areas and issues, the Masters in international relations provides a range of skills in research, analysis, communication (written and oral) and team-working, all of which are being looked for by employers.”
As with many social sciences or humanities subjects, analytical research skills and writing skills are the key areas which are strengthened by graduate-level international relations, according to Thirkell-White.
“International relations is a controversial topic. You will learn to analyze arguments and evidence in a rigorous way that helps you to know when you are being fed well-informed, careful information and when you are being fed ill-informed prejudice. You will also learn to find your way through long documents quickly: reading what you need to and ignoring what you don’t; finding your way to the heart of the issues.
"Equally importantly you will learn how to present a persuasive argument in a way that is easy to follow and convincing. That kind of good writing is vital in all spheres of life from business negotiations or management strategies to public sector policy briefs.”