Is a master’s degree in international relations worth it? Do the math before you open your wallet.

Something I read in the Wall Street Journal recently made me put my cup of overpriced coffee down and do a double-take.

The average debt for graduates of master’s programs in international relations is US$65,468.

What’s more, the average debt for international relations master’s grads was higher than for any other subject the article surveyed, more than grads from from master’s programs in education, in journalism…even in social work.


More debt than social workers? Who knew?

Look, sixty-five grand is a lot of $dough$.

You can buy a brand-new BMW M3 for that kind of coin.


Sweet ride.  Still wish you had that master’s degree?

Now, I’m just sort of being mean by showing you that awesome piece of German engineering. Maybe the degree is worth it.

But you really should run the numbers before you sell your soul to the bank.

First, let’s look at some info floating around about average salaries in the field.

An industry site surveys at some D.C. area universities like Johns Hopkins SAIS and George Washington Univeristy and found that the median salaries in this area ran from around US$61,600 to US$77,000, in 2019 dollars. (I can only assume these are pre-tax wages.)

Again, that’s the median salary, so it’s right in the mid-range, not an entry-level job.

In other words, the average person working in the international relations area is making about as much in a year, pre-tax, as they owe in debt.

At first you may think:  You idiot, that’s not very much, just a year’s wages.

Except that you aren’t left with anywhere near your pre-tax income to pay off your loans.


Even if you are putting a solid 20 percent of your after-tax income towards these loans, you’re still probably looking at a decade of payments.

Second, what’s the added earning power of a master’s degree?

Surveys abound showing that advanced degrees can enhance earning power. This one piece by a newspaper from Maine, using data, implies that a master’s in international relations can lead to a 96 percent pay bump

Until you read the fine print, where you learn that the 96 percent increase is the jump between the median entry-level and mid-level salaries, and that the figures do not differentiate between what degree people had.

Again:  maybe the master’s degree holders made substantially more. But it’s hard to know for sure.

Moreover, few people factor in the two big opportunity costs of the master’s program:

  • Little to no earnings for two (usually) years; and
  • No real-world work experience for that same period.

On the flippity-flip, you often meet a lot of people in your future field in your master’s program, so there is a networking upside to study. Plus, many people find the study in and of itself to be tremendously rewarding. Life’s not all about money, after all.

Instead, what I’m saying is, do the math and think carefully before you owe a bank US$65,000.

Maybe a master’s in international relations is right for you.

But maybe you’d do just as well working those two years in the international relations field, building up experience, making money, and networking.

I’m concluding this post with the real-world experience that prompted me to pay so much attention to the Wall Street Journal article.

I meet a LOT of people with master’s degrees in international relations in my work.


Many of them are struggling to find work. There are a lot more fish in that pond than they — and I — ever thought.

There are so many of them, in fact, that in many D.C.-area jobs searches, the degree doesn’t really call any attention to itself.

And many of them are disappointed when they make this startling (to me, at least) discovery.

This is all to say — these degrees are the right fit for some people, but they are not talismans that guarantee jobs. In the wrong circumstances, they could even represent a serious financial setback.

So do the math before you take the plunge, that’s all!



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