So You're Considering Going to Grad School...

Dear Students Considering Graduate Work in International Relations,

Chances are you’ve really enjoyed your political science, economics, and/or international relations classes. These classes have challenged you and at times, have completely altered your understanding of certain parts of the world on which you previously thought you had a solid grasp. You probably read the news multiple times a day from multiple news outlets.  You have a favorite analyst whose articles you read religiously. You most likely interned in the international relations field and have a strong desire to travel. Some of you may have already had the privilege to see different parts of the world.

As you plot out your path for the years following your undergraduate studies, many of you may envision yourself in a career in the international relations field—either in business, non-governmental organizations, think-tanks, lobby groups, or government agencies. In many cases, you’ll find that entry-level positions actually require three to five years of work experience in the field or an advanced degree. This will be extremely frustrating. You may also find that there are a lot of post-graduate internships that give you excellent hands-on experience; however, these internships are often unpaid. You may find that you want better job prospects.

For these reasons, or simply because you have a desire to advance yourself academically, you consider pursuing a Master's or PhD in a related field. There are a lot of important questions that arise when considering graduate school. What are the top-ranked programs? How competitive is the application process? What tests do I have to take and what materials do I have to produce? Should I work before applying to graduate school? What scholarships or financial aid plans are available to me?

Regarding rankings: It’s always important to remember that different schools have different strengths in their programs. For example, certain schools boast a curriculum that is based both in theory and practice while others focus more on one of these elements. Some schools place emphasis on language study and others are geared more towards the study of economics.  It’s important to consider these options when examining a program and that no two are the same.

In conjunction with findings from the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) survey, Foreign Policy produced a list of the top ten Master’s programs in the international relations field based on responses of 1,582 faculty members, representing more than 40 percent of IR scholars in the United States, collected between August and November 2011. Practitioners also surveyed 244 current and former policymakers who served from 1989 to 2008 in national security decision-making roles across the U.S. Government.

While there are obvious benefits of attending one of these top schools, don’t let rankings deter you from applying to a program that seems suitable for you.

Competitiveness: Most of the programs on Foreign Policy’s list are highly competitive. It’s important to remember that each program is very different and as a result, is looking for different kinds of students to fill their classes. Some admission officers prefer students with a background in extensive economic courses while others place priority on living in the region in which the applicant intends to specialize.

Application materials: Most programs require applicants to write a personal statement, provide at least two letters of recommendation, send official transcripts, and submit their Graduate Record Exams (GRE) scores. The GRE is made up of three sections: verbal, quantitative, and essays. Some students take a preparation course, however many books are available for self-study. Each school usually lists a profile of the previous incoming class, including grade point averages and GRE scores averages. Some counselors recommend setting a target score before you begin studying.

Straight to grad school vs. Getting real world experience:  If you decide to go straight into graduate school after finishing your undergraduate studies, all your previous coursework will be fresh. You’ll be able to get back into “school mode” much more easily than someone who has taken some time off. As mentioned previously, some of you might already have the research and internship/job experience that admission officers want in their students.

Some schools prefer that candidates work in the field for a few years prior to applying to a program. Even though this may seem like a catch-22 because many jobs also want their employees to have already obtained an advanced degree, there are ways to circumvent this issue. If you decide to work first, you can leverage your contacts at previous internships, speak with your professors, apply for fellowships, or even do something unrelated to your field such as travelling or teaching to make you stand out as a candidate when you do decide to apply.

Regarding scholarships: Many programs have both need and merit-based fellowships and scholarships for which applicants can apply. Students can also apply for financial aid through their schools. Additionally, there are outside organizations and websites that provide an extensive list of scholarships.

Perhaps the most important thing to consider is whether the cost and time of a graduate program will beneficial to you in the long run. You shouldn’t enter into graduate work if you “just to postpone your foray into the world of NGOs or wait out the recession.” You also probably shouldn’t go to graduate school in international relations if you’re still unsure about whether you like the field. In order to get relevant experience out of grad school, you should have a solid grip on your desired specialty before choosing a program.

However, if you know what you want, are passionate about the field and interested in research, want to boost your marketability and job prospects, graduate school can be an incredibly beneficial investment.

Best of luck to all,

Amanda Sass, incoming MA student at George Washington University, Elliott School of International Affairs ‘16