In terms of being more competitive for jobs in international affairs, how useful is a degree in international relations, really?
My take: a lot less than most people think.
The idea for this post came to me while I was on an airplane, listening to someone talk a little too loudly a few rows up.
This is a pretty common occurrence — I fly a hell of a lot — but these loud-talkers usually irritate me and force me to try and tune out the conversation.
Feels kind of like this.
In this case, however, I felt obliged to eavesdrop. (But is it really eavesdropping when someone is talking loud enough to be overheared 10 feet away?)
The loud talker was a guy about 19 or 20 years old who was attending a U.S. college whose name they never did mention once I started listening in. He was majoring in international relations, and chattered excitedly about how he wanted to start working overseas, and was taking as many international relations courses as he could. (I have no idea whether the person listening to him was interested in this story or not, but I can probably guess.)
As he continued, I started reflecting on my own job interviews, both the ones I participated in as a candidate, and the ones where I was sitting on the more pleasant side of the desk conducting the interviews.
Slowly but surely, I started feeling a little bad for this enthusiastic person that, honestly, reminded me a little of myself two decades ago–and started getting this feeling that I needed to write about this.
Why did I start feeling bad?
Because as far as I remember, no one that has offered me a job has ever mentioned my international relations studies as a reason for choosing me over someone else.
And similarly, an international relations degree has never been a factor, positive or negative, in any hiring decisions I have made.
Like, literally never.
Those facts seemed pretty odd to me when I initially thought about them.
I mean, most people looking to get into international affairs as a profession seek out, well, degrees in international relations.
And that makes sense, at least at a superficial level. Want to be a doctor? Get a medical degree. Lawyer? Law degree. Mechanical engineer? Engineering degree. And so on.
So why not do the same thing with an international relations degree? Want to work in international relations? Well, go get a degree in that.
But once you stop and think a little harder about it, international relations isn’t quite like medicine, law, engineering, and the like.
Before I tell you why I think that, let me be perfectly transparent.
In college, I had the totally opposite opinion.I wanted to work in international relations, so I took a lot of courses on it, and thought that they would propel me into a great international job.
And although my degree wasn’t in “international relations” per se, it was pretty close. I took a bunch of international relations-related classes, too, which involved reading a lot of books on international relations theory.
So I understand the reasoning behind the conventional wisdom of studying international relations on a visceral level..
All of this was certainly intellectually engaging, and I thought that it was giving me an edge. I was also obnoxiously enthusiastic about it.
Still, in retrospect, all of those studies haven’t been of much use over the course of my career.
When I think of what my international relations studies have been useful for, here’s what I come up with:
- They signaled my interest in internships with an international bent during college and maybe immediately thereafter — although I’m not sure how much people paid attention to that signaling.
- It probably introduced me to histories of certain parts of the world that have helped me understand people overseas a little bit better.
- They allow me to bullsh*t my way through conversations with academics that study international relations.
- I’m really struggling to think of anything else.
The bottom line: Maybe my international relations studies helped me in some small way with my career, but I can’t point to any evidence of that.
What I do know, as I said earlier, is that no one who has offered me a job ever told me that my international relations background was a factor.
And I do know that when I think about hiring people now, the fact that someone is studying or has studied international relations makes no difference to me. It is literally irrelevant to my hiring thought process.
Here’s my take on why:
[TRIGGER WARNING FOR THOSE AVERSE TO REAL TALK HAHA]
Unlike a medicine, law, or engineering, international relations is not a special skill on its own.
You don’t “do” or “practice” international relations. You may have a job in the area of international relations, but your job is “doing” something else, whether its analyis and reporting, project management, lobbying, and so on.
Seen that way, “international relations” really is an area of interest in which you apply skills that include writing, rhetoric/persuasive speaking, listening, data modeling, statistical analysis, project management, public speaking…to name a few.
The skills that are important depend on the sort of job you have. A foreign affairs or intelligence analyst job will rely far more on statistical and data modeling skills than someone working as a spokesperson.
It’s like saying you want to work in “international business.”
You don’t “do” international business.
That’s literally why this scene from Bojack Horseman is funny.
“International business” itself isn’t a trade or skill, but rather an area of interest that depends on applying other skills, like finance, managing people, cross-cultural communication, and writing, just to name a few.
(It’s amazing how valuable being a good writer is, btw. There are few jobs where being a good writer isn’t a significant value-add. Become a good writer and reap the benefits.)
And if that doesn’t convince you, look at the phrase “international relations” itself, and compare it to “international law.” The first word in both, “international,” is just contextual. It just means doing whatever it is that you’re doing across national borders.
The second word is the noun that “international” modifies.
So remove “international” from the phrase and whatever is left is the core activity:
“International law” becomes “law.” You study how to be a lawyer, and place it in an international context. The skill is law, and you do it internationally.
But “international relations” becomes simply, “relations.”
I’m not sure how you can “do” relations. The word literally means “human interactions” in this context.
And that’s he underlying issue here. “Relations” isn’t a particular skill or trade, but rather a very broad reference to human relationships. “International relations” is just a subset of those relationships. It describes human relationships across national borders: trade, military issues, diplomacy, and so forth.
People who “work in international relations” therefore don’t magically have some kind of special skill set that you acquire through a degree.
What makes you attractive in the “international relations” field is, depending on your job, a number of skills or trades that you apply in an international context — for example, as I noted earlier, writing, rhetoric/persuasive speaking, listening, data modeling, statistical analysis, project management, and public speaking, among others.
I see a few takeaways from this.
First, international relations students shouldn’t despair — your major isn’t a waste of time if you find the subject intersting and engaging — but you should be real with yourself about the degree’s immediate usefulness to a career in international affairs.
That usefulness is directly proportional to how well you learn all of those other skills I just mentioned above, and not on getting the degree itself.
That means using your international relations classes as a launchpad to get those skills. Improve your writing until you are an excellent writer. Take courses that will teach you how to use Excel and statistics software to analyze and understand large data sets. Use presentations as a way to sharpen your public speaking skills. Get good.
Second, as a corrolary to #1, international relations majors absolutely, positively should not think — under any circumstances — that the major itself will magically transform someone with no related skillset into a qualified candidate for jobs in international relations.
Real talk: It won’t.
Almost nobody cares about your degree title in this world. Instead, when we are looking to hire someone, we want to know: Can you produce a report that won’t require me to spend hours correcting your writing? Can I send you to do a presentation to important clients or contacts, and expect that you will present well and with precision? Can I ask you to look at a bunch of raw data, and expect that you will come up with useful takeaways that don’t make unjustified assumptions? Can you be trusted not to talk about sensitive information?
In other words, forget that degree title. Major in international relations if it interests you and gets you to go to class and engage with your schoolwork. But make sure you are getting those useful, real-world skills while you do it.
Pro tip: you’re asking the wrong question.
Third and finally, if you want to have a career in international relations and haven’t majored in the subject, you’re in luck. Just make sure you are out getting those skills you need. Read constantly. (I prefer history to any international relations theory, but that’s fodder for another article.) Become an excellent writer. (Possibly the best thing you can do to make yourself marketable.) Network in the fields that interest you.
Just don’t sweat your your degree. With solid networking, persistence, and the right tool set, you can break into the area even with a degree in biology.
Let me know what you think in the comments!