What You Can Do With a Degree in International Relations?
Do you have an international relations degree and are wondering what career options are available to you? Or did you just join an IR program or considering enrolling in one?
You might also be a current IR student and are wondering what you can do with this qualification.
If any of the above applies to you, you are in in luck, because today I want to take you on an in-depth journey into the core of International Relations and the multiple career paths that you can follow towards a meaningful and impactful career life.
WHAT IS INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS?
International Relations, which is also sometimes called Global Studies, International Affairs, International Studies, or Global Affairs, is the study of the relationships between states, international organizations, multinational corporations and other subnational bodies.
It is concerned with the global-level interconnectedness of economics, law and politics.
As a quite wide field, IR negotiates the intricacies of global governance, social movements, terror, international security, national-ethnic identities, environment, foreign policy analyses, international political economy international media, social movements, and cross-cultural relations among many others.
It is closely related to many other disciplines such as philosophy, law, economics, political science, history, sociology, geography and psychology.
Depending on the higher learning institution, it can be studied as a branch of political science, or as an independent academic and or public policy discipline with emphasis on globally focused humanities and social science courses.
In all cases, it is essentially an interdisciplinary field that rarely limits students to a single approach and blends discourse analysis, comparative analysis, statistics and other methods.
Its practice transcends political science and history to examine prevailing debates in global poverty, environment, globalization, human rights and global ethics among others.
International Relations dates back to the age of Athenian historian Thucydides (460-395BC), dubbed the father of political realism – which regards the political behavior of people and the results of interstate relations as being based on fear and self-interests of the actors.
He also authored the Melian Dialogue, a seminal text in international relations theory.
The signing and negotiation of treaties is one of the clearest examples of the earliest manifestations of international relations at work.
IR occupies an important position in the contemporary world characterized by never-seen-before economic integration, heightened threats to security and peace, a global focus on human rights and environmental action.
Part of its broad purpose seeks to comprehend:
- The geneses of war and the upholding of peace.
- The make-up and application of power in today’s global system
- The evolving disposition of state and non-state participants in international policymaking.
For instance, research could be focused on the psychological underpinnings behind the decisions of foreign decision-makers or also on the institutional factors and approaches that guide the goals and actions of states.
WHAT IS IR’S VALUE IN A GLOBALISED WORLD?
International Relations has over the years increased in its relevance as the world gradually gets globalized through trade and commerce interconnections, unprecedented migration rates, global media, the Internet as well as a gradual adoption of cosmopolitan ethics that has seen the rallying behind common causes such as climate change mitigation.
To solve today’s challenges through policy interventions, we need professionals well equipped to comprehend and navigate the complex interactions of a globalized world.
International Relations provides an adaptable and broad handbook to be deployed in a rapidly evolving world.
The practice of and research in International Relations is important for the contemporary world in many ways, including:
- IR encourages effective trade policies between countries and trading blocs.
- It advances human culture in the form of cultural exchanges, policy adoption and development, and diplomacy.
- It promotes travel and migration associated with business or tourism expanding the opportunities for people to improve the quality of their lives.
- International Relations makes it possible for countries to cooperate – pool resources and share intelligence and knowledge to combat global challenges that transcend national and regional boundaries. These include terror, pandemics and environmental issues.
WHY STUDY INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS
In general, an International Relations degree will acquaint you with the world of politics as well as the social-historical influence of global development.
You will be familiarized with the various political systems of the world and the wide array of governing policies in use across the globe together with an understanding of how they interact with the numerous international issues.
Other than the obvious benefit of being able to impress at the pub with your broad conversance with world events, an IR degree can actually help you lead a great career.
It is important to note that like other qualifications in the liberal arts, an IR degree will not give you a direct route into a specific occupation like an accounting or engineering degree will.
It will, instead, equip you with a diverse knowledge base to enable you thrive in several career fields.
IR will give you a deep understanding of key issues in the contemporary world: international security, foreign interventionism, organized crime, ecological sustainability, global finance, nuclear sustainability, globalization, diplomatic relations, sovereignty, and nationalism among many others.
You graduate having gained highly transferrable skills including clarity in writing and speech, quantitative and qualitative research, analytical skills and project planning.
Besides working in foreign affairs or other government work, your IR degree can be utilized to enter into the world of journalism, business, NGOs, social research, economics and even advertising.
This versatile degree, coupled up with the acquisition of world languages like many universities require, will be a necessary inclusion in your career treasure trove.
You will also benefit massively from networking with globally drawn student populations that characterize IR departments.
Most IR courses also require you to study abroad as part of the degree’s fulfilment, all adding crucial soft skills that boost longer-term career progression.
Here’s a brief summary of inherent advantages of pursuing a degree in this field.
- Multiple career options – Apart from working in government, there are numerous opportunities across the disciplines that IR interacts with.
- You will gain transferrable skills – the IR degree is much more important than for working in international relations. You leave with foreign language skills, solid grounding on global market forces and analytical skills useful in virtually any industry.
- You could just save the future – Internationalism has been touted as the last best hope for the future of the world. At a time when nations are regenerating to populism, authoritarianism, extreme nationalism and racism, you could be in the lead of changing this course by coordinating international actions to this effect.
- You will see (travel) the world – Most colleges provide opportunities for abroad study or travel for IR students. You will probably find yourself in parts of the world outside the cliché tourist agenda.
- IR is more relevant than ever before – Major disruptions are happening in the world stage than ever experienced before. IR operations are being restructured by nations, and they will require highly skilled graduates like you.
CAREER PATHS IN IR
Foreign Service (Diplomacy)
This is undoubtedly the most well-known career in International Relations.
The United States’ Foreign Service employs approximately 8,000 staff in embassies abroad, at the State Department and at the US Information Agency in Washington.
While the Foreign Service career is definitely alluring, the recruitment process is extremely tough. For instance, of the thousands who take the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) each year, only less than 3 percent succeed in joining the service.
The entry examination is free and as such anyone interested in joining the service can give it a try although you need to be realistic about the slimness of the chances of being selected. Applications from minority groups are, however, quite encouraged.
There are no formal educational requirements with the first stage being a once-a-year exam SATs-style that takes all day.
It mostly tests the knowledge of US history and culture coupled with knowledge of IR and foreign countries.
As such, you must be thoroughly knowledgeable of US history, government, literature and economics.
Competence in a foreign language as well as environmental and scientific skills can set a candidate apart.
Once you pass the first stage, you are invited to the second stage which constitutes a number of simulations and other exercises against other candidates.
This process typically takes about one year so you had better make sure you are either enrolled on a program or have a job as you wait.
The entry process is similar in the United Kingdom’s Diplomatic Service under the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with near-similar success rates for the thousands of applicants who try their luck every year.
As a diplomat, you are primarily tasked with representing and protecting your country’s political and trade interests abroad as well as offering consular services.
You will usually spend about three years at a foreign station. Some of your responsibilities would include:
- Acting as link between your country and the country of your duty station.
- Collating, analysing and reporting all information that intersects with your nation’s interests.
- Negotiating, mediating and discussing with your host country’s local government on an array of issues ranging from trade, economics, peace and war, and also socio-cultural engagements.
Other Government Agencies
Apart from working in the Foreign Service, the majority of IR professionals in Washington work for many other government agencies which do not have singular recruitment tool as the FSOT.
The largest employers here include the Defense department (military & civilian) and intelligence agencies, especially the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA).
Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) groups in colleges can provide you with valuable information on military careers.
You will need specific specialties to be hired as a civilian chief, among them being advanced college degrees and working experience.
There are two career paths in intelligence – analysts and clandestine operators. David Phillips’ book How to Be a Federal Intelligence Officer and Campus Recruiting and the C.I.A by David Wise are important resources to get a head start into both these positions.
The CIA and NSA also administer exams to prospective hires – you would need to contact them or browse their website to assess their current personnel needs and the procedures.
People with advanced analysis-focused degrees particularly have a good chance with these agencies.
Skills in exotic languages, IR training, political science majors, mathematics, economics, engineering and computer science graduates are well sought.
One important thing to note is that work experience is crucial for these positions.
This requirement can be fulfilled through internships.
Remember that the so-called ‘domestic’ agencies do have international activities and/or offices and could offer exciting opportunities for an IR major.
This need not necessarily be a government job like the two above. IR graduates will typically be well versed with the knowledge about origins, development and operations of political systems.
You will have an understanding of political decision-making, ideology and public opinion.
As a political analyst, an IR graduate could be employed by a media company to provide an analysis of government operations and other political entities or at a research institute to design public opinion surveys, dissect election results, public documents, and so on.
Whether working for a media publisher, a political party, a think-tank or the government, your tasks might include the following:
- Predicting political/social trends and results of elections
- Advising government agencies, political outfits or media executives
- Putting events into their relevant historical context
- Analysing public policy, law and government actions
- Draft legislative proposals and prepare speeches
- Provide commentary on broadcast/print/online channels on political issues and events
- Identify issues for further research and analysis
- Disseminate results of research through public presentations
- Maintaining a repository of knowledge on policy decisions by government.
Also referred to as interest representation or plainly as persuasion, lobbying is the attempt to influence actions or decisions of typically legislative authorities or regulatory agencies.
It is often misunderstood and sometimes spoken about with contempt due to the bad rap it has gathered over the years as a corrupting mechanism.
But far from the negative connotation, an IR graduate can contribute to a better world as a lobbyist for organizations championing ideas to those who can bring them to life.
They can be hired by corporations, associations, not-for-profit organizations, and so on to convince government actors to make decisions or enact laws that benefit the groups they represent.
This could be anyone, from colleges, labor unions, environmental groups, charities and churches to foreign governments.
Open Secrets ranks pharmaceutical, insurance and oil & gas industries as some of the biggest spenders on lobbying.
In Washington D.C. there are nearly 10,000 registered lobbyists with major firms situated along K Street in Downtown area of the city.
If this interests you, consider getting yourself an internship at one of the advocacy groups located there.
Some tasks of a lobbyist include:
- Monitoring, researching and analysing legislations.
- Leveraging the array of available communication tools to promote an idea to the public.
- Attending congress hearings.
- Regularly contacting and engaging policymakers, legislators and regulators.
Non-Profit Communications Specialist
An IR degree can lead you to various careers in the non-profit world, first among them being in communications.
The options are quite broad and if you are so inclined you could angle yourself to landing a communications position in organization that has international operations.
You could find yourself as a communications specialist spearheading the operations of a local branch with an international reach.
The Red Cross Society and the World Vision are good examples of NGOs with a global reach and can prove to be a fertile Launchpad for your IR communications career.
Some of your regular tasks would be:
- Creating content for publication in national/international media networks and social media channels.
- Leading internal communications
- Designing and implementing communication campaigns
- Representing the NGO in public conferences and giving speeches
- Coming up with an organisational-wide communication strategy or project-specific communication strategies
- Writing speeches for the management and overseeing the production of publicity material.
Worldwide enterprises are increasingly playing important roles in contemporary international affairs.
While the most natural aspiration would be work for an international corporation owned by your country abroad, there are numerous (probably even better) opportunities in multinationals at home whether foreign or not.
For a long time US corporations would send Americans to run abroad operations after expanding with lackluster results.
The failure rates reached the highs of 50 percent and as such there was a movement towards offshoring staffing.
Staff who moved abroad could would come back after a short stint and in addition face a sort-of punishment for their expensive stay abroad. Progressively the roles of Americans abroad has been significantly reduced.
Nevertheless corporations still send a modest number of Americans abroad.
These do need to have a particular set of technical skills after being carefully selected or/and trained.
Because of the importance of foreign markets, international assignments are re-designed for fast-track managers.
Foreign companies operating in America, however, hire a majority of their staff from within.
But one major selling point for the IR graduate is knowledge the foreign company’s language.
This will only get you a foot at the door, so you will need to either have combined your degree with a minor in the company’s interest are or acquired additional business training.
International banks in particular are a good place to land yourself job since they are among the most willing employers to hire candidates without business degrees.
You particularly have a great advantage in roles that require political risk analysis.
As an International Relations graduate, you have earned skills in analyzing the causes of war and the multifariousness of systemic oppression.
A career in conflict resolution is by and large a journey towards enhancing access to justice while decreasing violence.
By studying the psychological motivations of political actors in conflict-prone areas, IR graduates are well equipped to lead or participate in peace-making programs.
Organizations involved in conflict resolution such as the US Institute of Peace and Peace Brigades International seek out staff trained in research, campaigning, program design and intercultural diplomacy among other qualifications.
To break into this career path it is advisable that you start seeking work experience through avenues such as international fellowships, such as fellowships by Rotary International and Peace Revolution.
You should ideally focus on opportunities in post-conflict countries such as Rwanda, but as well look at local non-violent initiatives.
The university’s mediation office could also be a valuable start.
Journalism, Public Relations and Media Consultancy
With your wide knowledge of the structural interplay between local, national and international affairs, you can easily get into a media career as an expert.
An IR graduate’s understanding of the mechanics of global governance can earn them elite roles in journalism as subject matter reporters, a role which regular journalists might take longer to master if they haven’t specialized.
You could leverage on your extensive training to consult for NGOs, government press offices or even act as the face of specialized organizations, pressure groups, and so on by invoking the important speech, analytical and writing skills imparted during your IR training.
These are some of the career paths you can take with an IR degree, but they are in no way exhaustive. As we have already observed, the degree is broad and with the ability to customize your courses, you could carve out several other career directions.
You could consider a career in politics such as campaign management or political research, or even head to sales.
The important thing to remember is that what you graduate with is education and not job training.
You therefore must actively seek opportunities that propel you towards your preferred career path with internships coming top of the list.
Another option you have is advancing your studies into a Masters which is much more specialized than an undergraduate degree (for example you could focus on international peace).
If you are considering a PhD, you must think long and hard about the value that it is going to add to the journey to your dream career unless you are passionate about being an academic.
All in all, with an IR degree the world is literally yours to conquer.
Begin by fleshing out what interests you most and fashion your degree and experiences towards that goal.
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