PREPARING FOR THESE CAREERS AT RUTGERS
Unlike medical school, none of different types of schools has a very specific set of undergraduate requirements. In fact you can quite reasonably apply to all these of them at the same time with the same set of undergraduate courses, although you will wind up taking a lot of different standardized tests. This in turn means that you don't have to make any drastic choices until your senior year.
For any of these tracks, a general liberal arts background is probably the best preparation. A pre-professional degree such as business may make you somewhat less attractive but will not be a major obstacle if you do well on your standardized tests. Within liberal arts, your major is probably irrelevant, which is unfortunate since it's one of the few things you can control. You should major in the subject you like the most; you will do better in it, and you'll learn more.
There is no formal international relations major at Rutgers. Our view is that it makes sense to study international politics within the larger context of political science as a whole – that to understand in international politics it is useful also to have a solid grounding in political thought and in American politics. Most students find they can get the courses they want by majoring in one discipline and minoring in another, related one; Political Science-History and Economics-Political Science are common combinations. There is also a combined History-Political Science major. Double majors in related areas are usually not worth the trouble because students with such programs have no room for anything else, which is silly in a liberal arts institution. It is not unusual for students interested in international affairs who know what particular region of the world most interests them to double major in Political Science and a language. (Perhaps counter-intuitively, a double major makes most sense in areas with very little intellectual connection; several years ago a student double majored in Political Science and dance, for example, and Political Science and Biology is an unusual but occasional – and quite sensible -- combination.)
The point of a major is to provide an intellectual focus for a number of courses. An interesting alternative to the usual disciplinary major is the individual major, in which students select their own central topic, choose courses from a number of disciplines related to it, get a faculty member to supervise it, and get it approved by the appropriate committee. This is often useful, although it tends to be a little cumbersome bureaucratically, since you have to list all your courses for the rest of your college career, and then every semester some of them aren't offered or you change your mind, so you have to fill out a substitute form and get it approved. The approval is routine, but it all takes time and effort. The pattern of the Latin American studies major in the catalog is a useful guide for anyone who wants to construct an individual major in international affairs.
However, majors are not really very important; the critical thing is to get experience in a number of different areas and be able to read, write, and think well. A student seriously interested in international relations should develop a curriculum which includes the following as a minimum:
- Proficiency in writing English by consistently taking courses, regardless of discipline, which require paper writing;
- Mathematical skills, preferably through calculus;
- Introductory and advanced history courses;
- Relevant courses in Political Science;
- Economics at least through international economics (which will include micro and macro), preferably through international trade and finance; and
- Mastery of at least one foreign language, through 300 level language and literature courses.
In addition, there are a number of options which individual students may also wish to consider. One is an in-depth knowledge of a particular geographic area; the Rutgers catalog describes majors or minors in Latin American, Middle Eastern, East Asian, South Asian, African, and Russian and Eastern European studies. Cook College has a number of courses about the international environment. The language houses offer an excellent way to develop a working knowledge of a foreign language, a rather unusual ability in the United States. Disciplines like sociology, geography, comparative literature, classics, art history, philosophy, religion, and the various foreign language and literatures should not be overlooked, and people who are competent in science and international affairs are also at a premium. In general a diverse curriculum is more likely to be useful in the future than narrow specialization; you can specialize later if you choose, but at the undergraduate level it is very difficult to get any single topic in great depth.
This said, it is useful to think about your curriculum as an entirety, and to think about the package of skills, knowledge, and experiences you will be able to offer to a prospective employer or graduate school. Not everything has to be – or should be! -- connected. But you will be better prepared if there are some clear themes in your education and experiences, and if some of your preparation builds on itself to get you past a beginner’s level. (For example, it probably makes sense to take two-to-four years of one language, rather than one year of two-to-four languages.)
In many cases, it is also useful to be able to present an unusual package of skills, knowledge, and experiences. This doesn’t (necessarily) mean weird combinations, like pre-Columbian art and rocket propulsion. But a combination of fluency in Arabic and coursework on international security; or a knowledge of Chinese or Korean and a solid grounding in economics; or the study of Portuguese and some coursework on tropical deforestation and environmentally sustainable economic development – particularly if coupled with appropriate study abroad or internships – might jump-start a career. Extracurricular activities, like study abroad and internships, should also be viewed as part of this entire package of preparation. (Again, not everything needs to be done for a career reason: if you are interested in Shakespeare or Baroque Art or Buddhist philosophy, for goodness sakes take the course! And if you love playing the violin or field hockey, or collecting stamps or butterflies, don’t give it up simply because it doesn’t seem related to the career in Arctic conflict resolution you are dreaming about. It is the whole person – yourself! – that you are creating.)
Don’t be hesitant about taking advantage of the special skills, knowledge, or experiences you already have, or those that, by chance, luck, or fate are easily open to you. Many Rutgers students are blessed by being exposed to multiple languages or cultures in their families. This is wonderful, and students should realize the very special possibilities this may open up for them. (A few years ago, there was a young woman studying Political Science at Rutgers, with a 4.0 average. When asked if she had any special skills, her response was “no.” In fact, however, her family spoke Burmese at home, and she was fluent, in both spoken and written Burmese. That’s pretty special.) One doesn’t need to feel constrained or limited by the special skills, knowledge, or experiences one already has: just because one is fluent in Kyrgyz doesn’t mean one has to study Central Asia, and just because one already has a pilot’s license doesn’t mean one has to use it. But it makes sense to be aware of the special capacities one has, and to think carefully about keeping these skills up to date or polishing them.
As you think about possible careers in international relations, remember that just about any career – so long as it is legal! – is possible and open to you. You may find it interesting to browse the Political Science Department’s website and read about the careers in international affairs of some recent Rutgers alums.
Lastly, don't be afraid to ask questions of the faculty and other professionals such as the people at Career Counseling. We may appear distant, grumpy, and unfriendly. But if we really didn't like students, we probably would be in different jobs.