There is no single educational path to international jobs; in fact, it's quite common for people in the same position to have very different sorts of educational backgrounds. Moreover, there are a lot of people in interesting jobs with only B.A. degrees (and sometimes without them). However, either graduate education or experience (preferably both) is usually essential to get access to these positions.


A lot of very senior people in international affairs are lawyers, but on balance law school is probably not the most efficient way to start a career in international affairs. Law school is three years of a curriculum which is mostly irrelevant to international relations. It is hard to get into good law schools, and there is usually no financial aid except for loans. The current surplus of lawyers means that law school graduates are now having serious trouble getting jobs. It's true that you may be able to get an interesting non-legal job with a law degree, since employers figure you must be reasonably intelligent if you have survived law school, but there are other alternatives. If you want to be a lawyer, go to law school. If you don't, think seriously about the alternatives.

There is a good deal of confusion about international law as a career. It is convenient to divide international law into public and private. Public international law is concerned with whether or not the behavior of governments corresponds with international law, whether the American invasion of Panama was legal, for example. This is what the term international law means to most people, but there are very few institutions which will pay people to do such analysis. The State Department keeps about eighty lawyers on staff for this purpose, but most of the other people in the field teach in universities (probably as many in Political Science Departments as in law schools).

Most international lawyers are concerned with private international law, how individuals and corporations can carry on transactions within different and sometimes conflicting legal systems. If a tanker registered in Liberia and owned by a company in the Bahamas carrying a load of oil owned by an American corporation hits a Russian submarine and dumps its oil onto Belgian beaches, who pays what to whom? Private international law is popular because people and organizations will pay money to get answers to these sorts of questions. This kind of work in turn sometimes leads to other things; international lawyers often serve as representatives for multinational corporations to the public and governments, a kind of business diplomatic corps. Nonetheless, international law is a fairly minor branch of law, and this is reflected in law school curricula; if you get two international law courses in three years, you'll be doing well. (The University of Iowa seems to be an exception; it is advertising a more extensive program in international and comparative law.)

On balance, then, law school is the best alternative for anyone who wants to practice private international law, but you must remember that you have to be a lawyer first and an international lawyer second. If you want to study public international law, you may actually do better in a Ph.D. program in Political Science specializing in international law, although there are very few places in the U.S. where this is a serious alternative; your career will presumably involve working in a university as a teacher-researcher, either in Political Science or, less likely, in law school.

There is no pre-law curriculum in the United States; essentially law schools will take you regardless of your major if your grade point average and law board scores are high enough. Inasmuch as curriculum makes a difference, they prefer students with broad interests in the liberal arts and tend to frown on pre-professional degrees. In particular they recommend that you do not take law courses before you get to law school, arguing (probably correctly) that we will just teach you incorrectly and that they will have to undo all the damage we have caused. However, anyone interested in law school should take one course which requires intensive reading of cases, just to see if you can tolerate it for three years, since that is what you do in law school. Such courses can be found in the Political Science Department at the 300 and 400 level.


Law school is often attractive to students who want to get an "interesting" job but don't want to be lawyers. For such students business school is often a better bet. It takes two rather than three years, it is a little easier to get into a good one (being female helps in business school admissions; law schools admissions are mostly sex-blind), and there are still jobs for new MBA graduates (although for several years there have been rumblings that this market also will be saturated). The jobs aren't limited to corporations either; American business schools claim to teach management, the coordination of people and resources to accomplish a given goal, which is what all large organizations try to do. As a result, government and even non-profit institutions are hiring business school graduates for jobs which, twenty years ago, would probably have gone to lawyers. Most people now assume that MBA graduates, like lawyers, are intelligent, and as a bonus they may even have some useful skills.

Unlike law schools, most business schools have a separate department called International Business. However, these departments are not usually highly regarded within their own schools, in part because they do not rely heavily on econometrics and are therefore thought to be "soft." Moreover, there are very few jobs for new MBAs with International Business majors. As explained above very few young Americans are now sent abroad by corporations. Therefore you have to get hired by the corporation for your substantive skills; later you can try to develop a special interest in the international side of things. The recommended strategy is to take a double major in a substantive area (marketing, finance, management, etc.) and International Business.

Among the "regular" business schools, the best by reputation are Harvard and Stanford; New York University has been cited as the best in international business, and Yale's School of Organization and Management is an interesting attempt to combine training in business and public affairs. The Rutgers Graduate School of Management in Newark is a good, although not outstanding, business school at the national level. There are also a couple of programs especially geared to students interested in international business. The American Graduate School of International Business, just outside of Phoenix, more familiarly known as Thunderbird, is the only major business school in the country not affiliated with a university, and it has developed an impressive reputation for training high quality personnel in international business. The University of South Carolina business school has developed a program which requires a foreign business internship. Both of these programs stress language competence. Their reputation also attracts recruiters looking for people with these sorts of interests. However, they offer a Masters degree which is not an MBA, which is usually a drawback. Outside of these programs, an advanced business degree that is not an MBA isn't worth much.

For many undergraduates the major drawback of graduate business school is its heavy reliance on economics and mathematics. Anyone interested in business school should take microeconomics and macroeconomics (the order doesn't matter) and several advanced economics courses to see how well they do and whether or not they are comfortable with that mode of analysis. An economics major is not necessary for graduate business school, and an undergraduate business degree is usually not recommended. Note that graduate business schools have their own standardized test, the Graduate Management Admissions Test.


Every major American university has a Political Science graduate program awarding a Ph.D. degree, and international relations is a field within almost all these departments. (For historical reasons, there are relatively few international relations faculty in the Rutgers Political Science Department.) The departments also award a Masters of Arts degree, but this is not particularly useful. The Ph.D. requires two to three years of coursework, followed by comprehensive examinations and a thesis, which usually takes another year or two full-time; obviously the time will be longer if you have to go part-time because of limited resources.

The Ph.D. degree is basically a research degree. It is essential for anyone who wants to teach at a college or university, and it is often found among researchers and analysts working for the government as well. On the other hand, the degree is given in Political Science; you can concentrate in international relations, but you are required to take courses and examinations in other fields such as American government and political theory as well. Moreover, it takes longer to get than any other option discussed here, and it's not clear that it's worth the extra effort and money unless you're going into college teaching. One group of Foreign Service examiners, when asked how useful graduate school would be, said that the two to three years of coursework would be useful, but that the candidate would do better spending a couple of years in the Foreign Service than working on a doctoral dissertation. Several programs retraining people with Ph.D. degrees to go into business have been fairly successful, but this is a pretty roundabout way to get into business; if that's what you want, try for graduate business school.

A major in Political Science is not required for admission to graduate programs in the discipline, but you should take at least enough courses to decide if you want to do this full-time for a long time; the biggest difference between graduate and undergraduate work is that you have to live one subject twenty-four hours a day. Admission is usually based on grade point average, Graduate Record Examination (yet another standardized test) scores, and faculty recommendations. In general the best departments are found in the leading universities. If you want more specific guidance, talk to Political Science faculty; this is one subject they know something about, and they will be current on the varying reputations of Political Science programs around the country.


As noted above, every major American university awards the Ph.D. degree in Political Science. However, a few universities also have schools or programs offering a two-year interdisciplinary Masters degree in international affairs or (discussed in the next section) in public policy or public management. The distinction between a graduate program in Political Science on the one hand and a school of international affairs (or public policy or management) on the other hand is sharp. Graduate programs in Political Science are designed to provide academic training: the required coursework and research are aimed at preparing students to become professors of Political Science. International affairs schools, by contrast, provide professional training. Much as law schools teach their students the practical knowledge needed for a career in law, and business schools teach their students the practical knowledge required for a career in business, schools of international affairs aim to teach the management, communications, economics, statistics, and foreign language skills needed in a professional career involving international affairs. The precise name of the degree offered by these schools varies from place to place: Master's of Public Policy, Master's of Public Affairs, Master's of Public and International Affairs, Master's of International Affairs, and so forth.

Originally, some of these schools were designed to produce candidates for the Foreign Service. However, since so few applicants are accepted into the Foreign Service and since admission is now by examination, these schools have altered their focus and now try to prepare students to work for other government agencies and for international businesses as well. 

In general, the curricula at these schools stress international politics, history, and economics. There are, however, substantial differences in emphasis between various schools of international affairs. Some put relatively more stress on management skills and economic and statistical training, seeking to train generalists who can comfortably move into a variety of jobs or fields. Others put relatively more stress on language or area skills, or on specialized training in a particular policy problem (for example, international trade or arms control), in an effort to prepare students for a more narrowly-defined career track. In addition, different schools offer different geographic or policy specializations. If you are considering this educational route, you should, therefore, write to particular schools for their catalogs and compare the curricula offered.

These schools take placement seriously, an important point to consider. Typically they require (and help arrange) an appropriate internship in the summer between the two years of the program. The older and better established schools also have a considerable alumni network upon which to call. If you're interested in working for the government in international affairs, one of these schools may be your best bet. To varying degrees these schools also provide training that is useful (and is seen by potential employers as useful) in the business world, particularly in the world of international banking and finance. Certainly many graduates of international affairs schools get jobs with major corporations. It is less clear, however, whether this training is optimal for a business career and whether or not graduates of international affairs schools may have to go back to business school later on.

There are relatively few schools of international affairs. All of them are competitive for admission and the best are extremely competitive. Increasingly, the top schools strongly prefer admission candidates who have already had some relevant career experience -- for example, who have worked in Washington for a few years, have been in the Peace Corps, or have worked with an international charity or PVO. Financial aid varies substantially from school to school typically and is based on merit rather than need. Presently the most prestigious of these schools are the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard, both of which stress management and do not specialize exclusively in international affairs but consider domestic concerns as well. Other top, very competitive programs include the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University; the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University; the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University; the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University; the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, University of California at San Diego; and the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh. Somewhere in here is the International Relations Program at Yale, which is much smaller than the others and allows students essentially to custom tailor their educations. Somewhat easier to gain admission in are the international affairs schools at the University of Maryland, George Washington University, The University of Southern California, the University of Denver, the University of Kentucky, and American University, as well as a new program at Georgia Tech whose dean is a Douglass alumna. Many of these schools also offer combined international affairs/law degrees with selected law schools; admission to combined programs requires separate admission to both the school of international affairs and the law school.


In addition to the schools of international relations discussed immediately above, there are a number of other schools that are very similar except that they do not have a clear international relations focus. That is, they offer professional training in public policy or policy management designed to prepare students for a career in government or dealing with government but do not offer as much specialization in the particular problems of international affairs. As with the schools of international affairs discussed above, many of these are highly competitive and, again, there are curricular variations between schools so you should read their catalogs carefully. Again like the international affairs schools, the Master's programs at these schools are typically a two years long, with an internship in the intervening summer. These schools, too, tend to take placement very seriously. If you are interested in a career in government and are interested in domestic policy issues as well as international ones, this may be the right educational track for you.

Beyond the schools of international affairs discussed above, some of the most prestigious schools of public policy include: the Institute of Policy and Public Affairs, Duke University; the Institute of Public Policy Studies, University of Michigan; the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota; the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas.



Unlike medical school, none of these 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. 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. (A double major makes sense only in areas with very little intellectual connection; several years ago a student double majored in Political Science and dance, for example.)

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:

  1. Proficiency in writing English by consistently taking courses, regardless of discipline, which require paper writing;
  2. Mathematical skills, preferably through calculus;
  3. Introductory and advanced history courses;
  4. Relevant courses in Political Science;
  5. Economics at least through international economics (which will include micro and macro), preferably through international trade and finance; and
  6. 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, Oriental, African, Asian, and Soviet 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.

Lastly, don't be afraid to ask questions of the faculty and other professionals such as the people at Career Counseling. If they really didn't like students, they probably would be in different jobs.



  • Guide to Careers in World Affairs. Foreign Policy Association, New York.
  • Kocher, Eric, International Jobs: Where They Are and How to Get Them. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
  • Phillips, David Atlee, Careers in Secret Intelligence.
  • Rossman, Marlene L., The International Businesswoman. Greenwood Press.
  • Volunteer! The Comprehensive Guide to Voluntary Service Abroad. Council on International Educational Exchange, New York.
  • Win, David, International Careers. Williamson Publishing Company.
  • Wise, David, "Campus Recruiting and the CIA," New York Times Magazine, June 8, 1986.
  • Work, Study, Travel Abroad: The Whole World Handbook. Council on International Educational Exchange, New York