Graduate School Considerations
Thinking about Grad School in IR? A few things to consider:
WHAT YOU NEED BEFORE YOU APPLY
Most Master's and PhD programs build quantitative courses into their own programs with an understanding that undergraduates won't be prepared, but some programs will winnow on this basis or require students to take methods courses on their own time before matriculating. It makes sense to take these classes as an undergraduate if you’re planning to go to graduate school.
What else can you do as an undergraduate to pave the way? Attend academic conferences – look for opportunities to present papers or posters. Submit your work for publication (even if it’s rejected, the feedback can be useful and educational). Work as a research assistant in your field of choice. Network actively, calling and talking to professors and professionals about their work and the work you’re doing or hope to do. Be proactive about finding jobs and internships that will help you create a foundation of experience and knowledge as well as connections with people in your field. Be active on campus; demonstrate your interests, initiative, dedication, etc., through your extracurricular commitments.
Post-graduation work experience is always a plus when you’re applying. Two years is about right. Some CMC students have gone straight into very prestigious MA and PhD programs right out the gate; others have worked first. The benefits of the latter include having a better sense of what degree you want/need, more confidence, a break in your schooling, etc. Some programs simply will not bring in students without prior work experience (Harvard’s joint JFK School/MBA program, for example). It’s important to note that you don’t have to have worked in the field in which you intend to study. As with anything, whatever job you have, done well, yields experience, networks, recommenders, and knowledge, and demonstrates steadfastness and commitment.
MASTER’S OR PHD?
These are easier to get into, but harder to get money for. They may be one- or two-year programs; they may be more academic (University of Chicago, Princeton, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge), more professional (SAIS, Georgetown, GW, LSE), or somewhere between the two (Tufts, Korbel). More professional programs are basically credentialing; they are career prep for policy jobs, NGOs, private corporations, etc. They offer a good way to make connections, get your career degree, and begin to hone in on a specialty. They will open doors into think tanks and government work and corporate gigs. More academic programs often feed into PhD programs. But lots of people get MAs and any Master’s program will likely leave you in debt.
These are very (VERY!) competitive (often taking just a handful of students a year), but they are paid for. They tend to require 1-2 years of coursework capped by a Master’s thesis or an exam, and then a dissertation (another 1-5 years, depending on your topic, discipline, and reader). The PhD prepares you for teaching, research (at a university, college, or think tank), or higher level governmental positions (though it's not required). The PhD allows you to not only build on your undergraduate coursework, but to then to develop real expertise on an issue of your choice. The PhD is a much more solitary exercise after the first two years of coursework.
Many PhD programs require their students to do that program’s coursework, so beware; if you have done a Master’s, and then choose to go for a PhD in the same field at a different university, you could well end up repeating classes.
The PhD takes a lot longer than a Master’s, and may end up opening only those same doors, but should not leave you in debt. If it’s not free, do not go. If you do the PhD intending to get a teaching position, you could well be disappointed; there are just very few and the system is evolving to further reduce tenure-track positions. But that doesn't mean don't get the PhD and try; it just means be flexible and willing to work outside academia, if necessary. If you do the PhD intending to get a teaching position, be sure to talk to one or more of your undergraduate faculty members first, to be sure that the programs in which you’re interested are worth applying to. Given how competitive the job market is, which program you do matters a great deal; which programs are most respected vary by field and subfield and can depend on the school, the specific program, and/or the faculty member(s).
CHOOSING YOUR FIELD
Public Policy, International Relations, and Comparative Studies are wholly different fields (and there are all kinds of permutations, like Peace & Conflict Studies, Development Studies, etc.). In choosing, you want to think about what interests you, what will give you the most flexibility, where you want to end up, and whether it matters to you where you are (geographically) while studying. Then you want to look at programs in each area...look for prominent professors (and professor who work on areas of interest to you), graduation rates, well-known graduates, placement rates, program requirements, types of courses offered and required, etc. You can think big here...worldwide. You also want to note that most universities have several different programs, so don't just compare universities, compare the programs themselves.
Comparative Politics makes you an area/regional expert. If you're focusing on an area in which people have interest, you're in good shape (right now, Pakistan, China, and the ME are hot; there’s a little interest in Africa; not too much in LATAM except in economic terms). Interest in regions waxes and wanes, so some people find themselves in high demand during crises, but recede into the background when their areas go quiet. Also, "hot" areas often get a massive influx of experts (i.e. ME right now), increasing competition. It's a balancing act to become an expert on a place that there's not a glut of experts on but that also will be of interest to other people. One way to do that is to develop a secondary functional expertise (IPE, security, etc.). That gives you the ability to compare and contrast other areas with your own in a very useful way.
International Relations is a different kind of expertise...it's good for foreign policy work and for academia, but you don't come out with the same kind of specific knowledge that comparative yields. It's really all about what drives relations between states, but as much as an IR person can refer to theories on this, there's no hard and fast knowledge. IR is great, but one could argue that it’s really only useful when it's combined with policy analysis.
Public Policy is very useful -- MA or PhD – and you can study IR or Comparative through these programs, too. These are great for work at NGOs, in the government or private sector, at think tanks, and in academia. These focus more on processes and institutions and a little about psychology and human behavior.
Interdisciplinary programs are also an option, as are joint programs. The first are exactly what they sound like. You might get a program that combines policy, science, and International Relations, for example. These programs often are PhD programs. These allow you to combine your interests and hone your expertise. Be aware, though, that if you are doing an interdisciplinary program that cuts across university departments, and you are not embedded in a single department, you may not be allocated resources and opportunities that go to the students who have matriculated with the department.
Joint programs allow you to pursue two degrees (usually an MA and an MBA, an MA and a JD, an MPP and a JD, or an MPP and an MBA) simultaneously. Famous among these are Harvard’s joint JFK School/JD and JFK School/MBA, but many schools offer these kinds of dual programs.
WHAT TO DO ONCE YOU HAVE DECIDED ON PROGRAMS
Once you know which programs work best with your preferences, take the time to visit and speak with professors, graduate students, and administrators. Meet the professors you’re hoping to work with – and their graduate students – to make sure their styles are consistent with your expectations. Talk to administrators about what support is available for graduate students, what kinds of jobs graduates move into, etc. See if the environment will be conducive to how you prefer to work and if the resources you need will be available.