How to Get a PhD in International Relations

When you study international relations at the doctoral level, the world can be your oyster. As the highest academic distinction in the field, the international relations PhD prepares you for a wide variety of roles in the public, private, and non-profit sectors.

Also known as international affairs, international relations emerged as a distinct field of study in the first half of the twentieth century. It focuses on how countries, governments, leaders, and international organizations interact with one another, along with how their interactions shape our global system. Some international relations specialists work in academia, while others play important roles in the public, private, and non-profit sectors.

The first step on the path to a successful experience as a PhD candidate in international relations is weighing your options and understanding the application process. This guide is designed to help you do just that.

Step 1: Know Your Options

Career Paths in International Relations

What do you want to do with your PhD in international relations? It's not essential to know the exact answer before you start your doctorate program, but you should begin thinking about it as early in the game as possible. That way, you can take your career goals and areas of interest into account while evaluating potential schools.

A PhD in international relations or a similar discipline is essentially a prerequisite for teaching courses in these subjects at the undergraduate and graduate levels. In addition to academia, a doctorate degree in international relations offers numerous job opportunities for graduates.

Careers in the U.S. government:

  • The U.S. Foreign Service
  • The U.S. State Department
  • Intelligence
  • The Agency for International Development and other government agencies

Careers in the public sector:

  • The United Nations
  • Other intergovernmental organizations (IGOs)
  • Trade policy

Careers in the private sector:

  • Multinational corporations
  • Consulting firms
  • Lobbying and political analysis

Careers in the non-profit sector:

  • Humanitarian relief
  • Conflict resolution
  • Public health
  • International development

Ways to Complete Your Degree

Some universities, whether online or on-campus, have a distinct school of international relations and diplomacy that offers a PhD degree in international relations. At other institutions, the government or political science department confers doctoral degrees in international relations. Another category of schools only offers a master's degree in international relations. Graduates of these programs who wish to pursue a PhD must apply elsewhere in order to continue; typically, they can advance to the PhD phase more quickly than students entering without a master's degree.

Another category of graduate degrees in international relations has taken shape in recent years. Some online education programs, also known as distance learning programs, now grant degrees in the field, including an online PhD in international relations. Many other schools offer an online master's program in international relations. As a result, you may choose to complete all or part of your coursework online. For example, some students obtain an online master's degree in international relations, expediting the PhD process.

These questions may come in handy as you consider the various possibilities:

  • Would you be willing to relocate for your PhD in international relations? If the answer is no, you're limited to schools within commuting distance. Online PhD programs can widen your range of options, and you can always use those credits toward a degree at another institution if moving becomes possible down the line.
  • How much time can you devote to your degree? Some campus programs require a year or more of full-time study. With an online PhD in international relations, you can study on your own time, arranging your schedule around any existing work or family responsibilities.
  • What kind of learner are you? The freedom to learn on your own time and from the comfort of your own home is convenient, but it doesn't work for everyone. If you enjoy working independently and don't need a classroom to stay focused, you'll thrive in an online learning environment. If you enjoy interacting with faculty and students face-to-face, an on campus doctoral program may be a good fit.

Step 2: Research Potential Doctorate Programs

The Internet can be overwhelming, especially when it comes to researching doctoral degree programs. Avoid information overload by starting with some basic resources, including the following.

Online Directories

Web sites such as WorldWideLearn.com feature searchable listings of programs offering a campus-based or online PhD in international relations. You can find accredited programs by location or subject, and you can also request information from specific schools quickly and easily by filling out a convenient form. The site is packed with tips and advice to guide you through your search and the application process.

Scholarly and Professional Organizations

  • The International Studies Association (ISA) promotes research and education in international affairs. It holds conventions and conferences throughout the year, publishes five professional journals, and has nongovernmental consultative status with the United Nations. Its membership consists of students, educators, researchers, professionals, and institutions.
  • The Foreign Policy Association is a U.S.-based non-profit organization that aims to raise public awareness of international relations and foreign policy issues. Its Web site features job postings and a list of the top-ranked international relations and public policy graduate programs.
  • The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) is the professional association of the United States Foreign Service and represents active and retired Foreign Service employees.

School Web Sites

The Web site of each school's international relations, political science, or government department can be your first stop for learning about course offerings, degree requirements, admissions criteria, and much more. Take the time to browse around, and you may unearth a treasure trove of useful information. For example, try visiting the individual Web pages of each faculty member and current PhD candidate; many contain biographies, contact information, and links to published articles or books. Some courses have their own pages as well, featuring materials such as reading lists, syllabi, discussion forums, and lecture notes.

Your School or Alma Mater

Whether you are finishing up a master's program or have completed your bachelor's degree several years ago, investigate the resources your current or former school has to offer. Most colleges and universities provide counseling to students and alumni on professional development and graduate studies. Many have resource centers crammed with graduate school guides, brochures from specific programs, and networking databases.

Step 3: Narrow Down Your PhD Program List

After you've surveyed the field, try to pinpoint the international relations PhD programs that best suit your academic interests and career goals. Keep the following factors foremost in your mind as you methodically pare down your list.

Faculty

Strong relationships between PhD students and their instructors are essential, far more than at the undergraduate level. As a candidate for a PhD in international relations, you can expect to spend a substantial amount of time with your advisor or team of advisors, particularly once you reach the dissertation phase. Before you commit several years of your life to a school and its faculty, get a preview of what you're signing up for. Most international relations schools and departments let prospective students sit in on a graduate seminar or lecture. You should also feel free to contact potential advisors via e-mail before and during the application process.

Funding

Graduate students in international relations PhD programs receive funding from a range of sources, including stipends, federal loans, teaching fellowships, and scholarships. Departments put together funding packages for each prospective student, but you won't know the details until you get accepted. However, you can ask the admissions office for basic information, such as how many years each program usually guarantees funding for PhD candidates in international relations. WorldWideLearn.com has extensive information about scholarships, loans, and other forms of financial aid. These links to funding for international relations study are also worth checking out:

Rankings

You should be aware of how the schools on your short list stack up, but keep in mind that the individual fit is often more important than prestige. Take a look at U.S. News & World Report, which has a category for top international politics programs at the graduate level. Foreign Policy magazine also regularly surveys international relations faculty at U.S. colleges and universities, publishing its own rankings of programs offering undergraduate, master's, and PhD degrees in international relations.

Other Considerations

The bottom line is that you should be vocal about what you're looking for. Don't be too shy to reach out to current graduate students at each program that interests you; you can often find their contact information online. You may also want to consider these questions:

  • What classes are offered that count toward the PhD in international relations?
  • How long do students usually take to complete the PhD program?
  • How many students are enrolled in the program?
  • Where do recent graduates find jobs?
  • Are experts in your sub-field on hand to serve as advisors?
  • How many PhD students does each advisor work with?
  • What's special about the program?
  • Will you be required to teach undergraduate courses?
  • Is the department known for taking a particular political stance, and what is it?
  • Does the school offer night classes, online courses, or online PhD programs?

Step 4: Apply to Become a Doctoral Student

When you're down to a handful of universities, the time has come to start applying. Though the process and requirements vary from school to school, the following steps are the bare minimum.

Get the Right Credentials

If you don't already have a master's degree in international relations from a campus-based or online program, you need a bachelor's degree from an accredited four-year college in order to apply for a PhD in international relations. While it doesn't have to be in international relations, your college major should be relevant to the field.

Make Contacts

Get in touch with potential advisors at each school before you submit your application. E-mail professors who share your interests and area of specialization to let them know you plan to apply. Avoid the form letter trap by mentioning how much you enjoyed the professor's latest article in a scholarly journal such as the Journal of International Affairs or the International Studies Quarterly, or the paper he or she presented at an academic conference you attended.

Take Standardized Tests

To apply to get your PhD in international relations, you need to take the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) and submit your scores. International students must demonstrate their proficiency in the English language by passing the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language).

Ask for Recommendation Letters

Most schools require three letters of recommendation from former or current teachers who know you and your work. Ideally, your recommenders should teach courses on international relations or be members of the government or political science faculty. It's always smart to provide each one with a copy of your academic resume and one or two papers you're particularly proud of, not necessarily from that professor's course.

Submit a Stellar Writing Sample

If you already have a master's degree in international relations, you can submit a writing sample of several chapters from your master's thesis or a paper you submitted to an academic journal. Otherwise, choose one substantial essay or several smaller papers you wrote for a course in or related to your desired area of specialization. Take some time to reread your sample, and make any necessary edits or updates.

Get Some Real-World Experience

The strongest applicants to PhD programs in international relations have experience working in the field, either as full-time professionals or as interns. If you don't have a bona fide job or internship under your belt, highlight past study abroad and travel in your application. If you're interested in getting your feet wet, here are some places to look for internships and other opportunities:

No matter where you get your PhD in international relations, it could pave the way for a long, rewarding, and influential career. In an increasingly global world, our future depends on forging connections that transcend borders, ideologies, industries, and systems. With a PhD in international relations, you could be a major part of these vital efforts.

Sources

  • Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs, "Career Opportunities in International Affairs"
  • Center for International Development at Harvard University, Thinking Global: A Guide to Studying International Development at Harvard and Beyond, 2004-2005
  • Foreign Policy Association, "Top International Relations and Public Policy Graduate Programs"
  • Foreign Policy, "Inside the Ivory Tower," March/April 2009
  • Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations at the College of William & Mary, "2008 TRIP Survey of International Relations Faculty in Ten Countries"
  • Lehigh University Department of International Relations, "Careers in International Affairs"
  • Lehigh University Department of International Relations, "The Field of International Relations"
  • U.S. News & World Report, "Rankings of Graduate Programs: International Politics"