Careers in International Affairs

We are often asked about the employment prospects of student who major in International Relations. We take their questions regarding career planning very seriously.

While a degree in International Relations does not lead to a specific career in the way that, accounting or engineering does, a major in International Relations, by emphasizing clarity in speech and writing, analytical skills and a detailed knowledge of world politics prepares students for careers in government, journalism, law, non-governmental organizations, international business, and teaching and research. Recent IR graduates currently work in all of these fields.  Some have gone directly into careers upon graduating; others have enrolled in graduate school prior to employment. 

This web page describes some of  these positions, how best to prepare for them, and the special opportunities available to do so at Lehigh. For further career guidance, do not be afraid to ask questions of the faculty and other professionals such as the people at Career Services. The International Relations Commons Room (Maginnes Hall 203) has many additional sources of information.

Foreign Service

The best-known international career is undoubtedly diplomacy. The lead institution here is the Foreign Service of the United States. This group of approximately 8,000 people staffs American embassies abroad and the State Department and the United States Information Agency in Washington. The Foreign Service offers an attractive career, but the selection process is extremely rigorous. Of the approximately 12,000 people who took the exam a few years ago, only about 200 were selected. The examination is interesting and free, so anyone interested should certainly take it, but realistically your chances of being selected are very slim indeed. The Foreign Service has been concerned about minority recruitment over the past few years, and such applications are particularly encouraged.

Entrance is by examination; there are no formal educational requirements. The first stage is a written exam given once a year which takes all day and uses the format of the SATs and other exams from the Educational Testing Service. Those who receive the required minimum grade are invited to participate in the second stage, which is a series of simulations and exercises with other candidates. The whole process takes about a year so you need to plan to get a job or go to school in the meantime.

The first stage stresses knowledge of American history and culture as well as International Relations or foreign countries. Many people think this is odd, but Foreign Service officers represent the United States and will often work with foreigners who have spent a lot of time studying this country; they must know their own history and culture very well indeed. If you are particularly interested in the Foreign Service, make sure you are knowledgeable about American history, literature, government, and economics. Environmental and scientific expertise are increasingly useful as well. Foreign language competence is required, although not necessarily at entry; nonetheless it makes sense to achieve competency before the exams.

Other Government Agencies

The bulk of people working in international affairs in Washington work for agencies other than the State Department. Unfortunately there is no single recruiting device such as the Foreign Service exam for these organizations. The larges employment opportunities are the Defense Department (both military and civilian) and the intelligence organizations, particularly the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. Information about military careers can be obtained from the ROTC groups on campus. Civilians hired by the Defense Department tend to be people with particular specialties; advanced degrees are usually required. Given the informal hiring process, actual job experience, which in practice means internships, is very important.

Intelligence careers can be divided into analysts (people who work with secret material trying to decide its significance) and clandestine operators. Anyone interested in such positions should look at the book Careers in Secret Intelligence by David Atlee Phillips, a former CIA officer; David Wise's "Campus Recruiting and the CIA," New York Times Magazine, June 8, 1986 is also useful. The Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency both hire junior-level career people on the basis of exams.  Contact each agency separately to see what their current needs and procedures are. They also hire many people with particular skills for analysis, usually with advanced degrees. They seem to be particularly interested in exotic languages, geographic area specializations, economics, political science, international relations, mathematics, computer science, engineering, and physical science. Again internships are particularly useful here.

The Agency for International Development (AID) administers American foreign aid and has a fairly large staff. In general it seems to recruit people with technical training in areas like economics or agriculture. Their relationship with the State Department changes with each reorganization; if you are interested, contact them directly. Smaller organizations include the Export-Import Bank and the Office of the Special Trade Representative.

Many "domestic" executive agencies have international activities or offices; these are often small, but sometimes they offer interesting opportunities. Commerce, for example, is concerned with foreign trade, Agriculture with farm exports, Justice with international legal issues, etc.

The number of people on Congressional staffs concerned with international affairs has greatly increased in the past few years. There is no single recruiting process for such jobs; people are selected on the basis of contacts, past experience, and educational qualifications, roughly in that order. Internships are crucial for anyone interested in these sorts of positions.

United Nations

The United Nations, located in New York City, is a fascinating place to work, and it has lots of employees. Jobs on its permanent staff are allocated on the basis of national quotas, since it is clearly inappropriate to have most jobs held by citizens of one of its members, and therefore it is difficult for American citizens to get hired.

Private Sector: Washington

There are a large number of private research groups (often known as the Beltway Bandits, from their location on the Beltway highway around Washington and their dependence on government contracts) and pressure groups of every political stripe in Washington with interests in foreign affairs. Hiring is informal, so internships are important for anyone interested.

Private Sector: International Business

Multinational corporations play a prominent role in current international affairs. Most Americans tend to think in terms of working abroad for an American corporation, but in fact there may well be better opportunities working in the U. S., either for an American or perhaps even a foreign firm (of course, that may not be what you think of as an international job).

American corporations used to send significant numbers of Americans abroad, where they were often something of a trial. They were expensive, had a high failure rate (sometimes as high as 50%), did not want to stay long, did not know the language, and often alienated foreigners. Moreover, the corporations did not know how to use the people with international experience when they got back and often essentially punished them for going abroad. Thus most corporations moved to develop indigenous managers (Norwegians to run Exxon Norway, Nigerians for the Coca Cola branch in Nigeria, etc.) and to reduce the role of Americans abroad.

Recently there has been something of a reaction against this trend, although different corporations have different policies. The number of Americans being sent abroad is certainly smaller than it used to be; better selection and training has reduced the failure rate. People with particular technical skills are often sent abroad. In addition, many companies are re-developing international assignments for their fast-track managers because of the importance of foreign markets. It is unlikely that an employee will be sent abroad by a large American company unless they fall into one of these two categories.

The other side of the coin, of course, is that foreign companies doing business in the U. S. hire many Americans. Moreover, an increasing percentage of American corporations do business abroad, so much "normal business" in the U. S. involves international issues. In general, if students want to go into business, they need a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) degree from the best business school they can get into; this degree and some alternatives are discussed later. If interested in working for a foreign company, knowledge of its language and culture can be invaluable, but it is no substitute for business training. Nobody is going to hire an individual just because they know the appropriate language; they have to also think the candidate will raise their profits.

Among businesses, international banks have been the most willing to hire people without business degrees; they expect to have to train employees regardless of their background. Another alternative is analyzing the political risks of investments in particular countries. There are some jobs here within corporations and at consulting firms; however, relatively few people have been hired, and it is not clear that they will be able to move up to other jobs within the organization.

Private Sector: Non-Profit

There are literally hundreds of private, volunteer organizations which work in international affairs; they are so important that they have been awarded the ultimate distinction of their own acronym, PVOs. Some of the PVOs are religious in origin; others are entirely secular. Some are quite large, others are minuscule. They share a lack of direct government control and general concern for humanitarian issues. Prominent examples include Crossroads Africa, Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services, and Maryknoll. The American government administers some foreign aid through some of these agencies, and they have been prominent in such issues as famine relief in Africa. The PVOs overlap somewhat with private advocacy organizations such as Amnesty International. Many of these organizations employ small permanent staffs; recruitment is often based on previous performance as a volunteer. Salaries are low, but many people find the work extremely rewarding.

University Teaching and Research

American universities serve, among other things, as repositories for international expertise. Faculty work within departments, usually organized around the major disciplines such as economics, political science, and history. Their job consists of teaching (communicating skills and knowledge to students) and research (creating new knowledge and communicating it to others). University faculty usually have a great deal of freedom in selecting what they will research and teach, enabling them to develop specialized knowledge in a wide variety of areas.

For the past fifteen years or so, university teaching jobs have been quite scarce, making it hard to encourage undergraduates to aim toward such careers; however, there may be increased demand for college teachers as the next baby boom reaches college age and a large number of current college faculty retire. (Some recent research suggests that there will be less change in political science than in other disciplines.) Therefore, college teaching has become a more reasonable career choice for current undergraduates. The only relevant degree for college teaching is the Ph.D.  In this.cas2., students should attend the best university they can get accepted to.  (See also the discussion of political science graduate programs below).


Internships are a critical supplement to any sort of educational background to get interesting jobs in international affairs. Because of the informal hiring processes, personal contacts are indispensable. Most students do not have close relatives high up in these organizations; internships are the next best thing. Internships give students direct experience in job situations. Students learn for themselves whether they like this sort of work and what is required to make a career in it. Often they get direct job offers. If not, they make personal contacts and get recommendations from job supervisors; if nothing else, they have something on their record which distinguishes them from the thousands of other people who will graduate with B.A. degrees from state universities at the same time.

Two general rules of internships: anything is better than nothing, and the longer the better. Summer internships are the most common, and if that is what is available, take it; however, students should be aware of some limitations of summer internships. Summer internships are limited to summer months, which are short in time frame. Moreover, summer interns are so common that they are often used by offices as clerical labor, people to run xerox machines, address envelopes, etc. Many students use the experience for socializing, which is fine but detracts from the image of those with more serious interests. Lastly, so many students take summer internships now that employers are less impressed than previously.

International Experience: Study, Work, and the Peace Corps

Internships in Washington are extremely useful, but they are not the same as experience abroad, and such experience can be very valuable in getting jobs; however, there are several options to consider. Students can spend a semester abroad studying in practically any country they choose. It is also possible to work abroad, although this is sometimes difficult because of local laws: volunteer service is often a better bet. Information on these options is available at the Office of International Education, Career Services, and the Study Abroad Office.

After college, the Peace Corps is an option worth seriously considering. The Peace Corps is an agency of the U.S. government which sends Americans abroad, usually for two years to Third World countries, to help the people of other countries toward economic and social development. Volunteers often work on their own in rigorous physical conditions. Aside from living abroad, Peace Corps people get independent management experience at a very early age. As a result, Peace Corps experience is highly valued by employers hiring for international jobs.

Alternate Educational Tracks

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

Law School

Many very senior people in international affairs are lawyers, but 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 difficult 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 is true that students may be able to get an interesting non-legal job with a law degree, since employers figure they must be reasonably intelligent if they have survived law school, but there are other alternatives. If students want to be a lawyer, go to law school. If they do not, they should 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 studetns take two international law courses in three years, they will be doing well. (The University of Iowa seems to be an exception; it is advertising a more extensive program in international and comparative law.)

Law school is the best alternative for anyone who wants to practice private international law, but students must remember that they must be a lawyer first and an international lawyer second. If they want to study public international law, students 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; their 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 students regardless of their major if their 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 students do not take law courses before they get to law school, arguing (probably correctly) that other institutions will just teach them incorrectly and that they will have to undo all the damage others have caused. However, anyone interested in law school should take one course which requires intensive reading of.cas2.s, just to see if they can tolerate it for three years, since that is what they will do in law school.

Graduate Business Schools

Law school is often attractive to students who want to get an "interesting" job but do not 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 are not 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 students must get hired by the corporation for their substantive skills and later 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.  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. 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 is not 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 does not 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.

Political Science Graduate Programs

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.  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 students 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; students can concentrate in international relations, but 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 is not clear that it is worth the extra effort and money unless you are 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 is the desire, try for graduate business school.

A major in political science is not required for admission to graduate programs in the discipline, but students should take at least enough courses to decide if they want to do this full-time for a long time; the biggest difference between graduate and undergraduate work is that they must 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 students want more specific guidance, talk to international relations 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.

International Affairs Schools

As noted above, every major American university awards the Ph.D. degree in political science. 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. 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 considering this educational route, students should 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 interested in working for the government in international affairs, one of these schools may be the 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. 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., are somewhat easier to gain admission into. 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.

Public Policy Schools

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 students should read their catalogs carefully. Like the international affairs schools, the Master's programs at these schools are typically two years long with an internship in the intervening summer. These schools, too, tend to take placement very seriously. If interested in a career in government and interested in domestic policy issues as well as international ones, this may be the right educational track.

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.

Preparing for Careers while at Lehigh

Unlike medical school, none of these different types of schools has a very specific set of undergraduate requirements. In fact students can quite reasonably apply to all of them at the same time with the same set of undergraduate courses, although they will wind up taking many of different standardized tests. This in turn means that students do not have to make any drastic choices until their senior year. For any of these tracks, a general liberal arts background is an adequate preparation. A pre-professional degree such as business may make a students somewhat less attractive but will not be a major obstacle if they do well on their standardized tests.

Within liberal arts, majors are not really very important.  Students should major in the subject they like the most because they will do better in it and learn more. 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 that require paper writing; (2) mathematical skills, preferably through calculus; (3) introductory and advanced history courses; (4) relevant courses in international relations and 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.

The point of a major is to provide an intellectual focus for a number of courses. At most universities, students interested in international relations find that difficult to achieve.  They must piece together the courses they want by majoring in one discipline and minoring in a related one; political science-history and economics-political science are common combinations.  Or they may choose a program that provides an in-depth knowledge of a particular geographic area, such as Russian, Asian, or Latin American Studies.  In general a diverse curriculum is more likely to be useful in the future than narrow specialization; students can specialize later if they so choose, but at the undergraduate level it is very difficult to get any single topic in great depth.  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.

Lehigh students have an option available to students at few other universities, a separate Department of International Relations.  This offers several advantages over a program of study that combines a major in one department with a variety of other courses pulled together from different departments. First, students are not required to take courses outside of international relations to fulfill major requirements, such as those in American politics that usually comprise half the curriculum in political science.  Second, all the courses relate to one another better than when courses are taken from different departments, each of which is principally oriented toward its program.  Third, the depth and range of courses in international relations offerred by Lehigh's Department of International Relations are considerably greater than in most universities.

For further career guidance, do not be afraid to ask questions of the faculty and other professionals such as the people at Career Services.  The International Relations Commons Room (Maginnes Hall 203) has many additional sources of information.

 Suggestions For Further Reading

  • 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)

* Courtesy of the Political Science Department, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.  Edited and adapted by the Department of International Relations, Lehigh University.