5 Things You Need to Know Before Applying for a Graduate Degree in International Affairs

by Leigh Morris Sloane

In a recent FPA article titled  "5 Things You Need to Know About Working Around the World," Nina Segal noted that a graduate degree is a ‘must’ in international affairs and public policy. To be competitive for any non-entry-level job in the international affairs arena, whether domestic based or international, a graduate degree is indeed an absolute requirement.  In order to optimize your chances of success, here are five things you should know before you apply to graduate school.  It’s best to begin this process at least a year before applications are due.


We've established that a graduate degree is a must for any career in international affairs.  However, going to graduate school just because you know you want to work in international affairs is not enough, and admissions directors can usually tell if your main motive is that broad.  One of the biggest returns on your investment in graduate school is the networks you will develop that will, most likely, lead you to your next job.  Take the time to ask yourself  how graduate school fits into your overall career trajectory.  How will you use your investment in graduate school to achieve those goals?  What steps will you need to take before applying to increase your chances of being accepted?  To be a strong candidate for the most competitive professional graduate programs in international affairs, for example, you will need to have some full-time work experience before applying.  These are questions you should have a firm grasp on before even downloading an application.  


A good place to start is by narrowing down the type of degree you want to obtain, based on the specific field of employment you will eventually pursue.  There are two main types of graduate degrees – professional degrees and academic degrees.  If you are looking to build a career in the international affairs arena, then you most likely want to look at the professional Masters degrees in international affairs and public policy.  Unlike academic graduate degrees (Masters or PhD) which are based in university departments and focused primarily on a specific discipline (political science, history, economics, etc), a professional graduate degree (Masters) in international affairs or public policy is interdisciplinary and found within a school of international affairs and/or public policy with its own dedicated faculty and courses or a university center/institute that pulls its curriculum from several departments.  Professional degree programs offer several advantages.  Not only do they  prepare students for the workplace with relevant career development programs and coursework, they often are home to some of the best faculty and practitioners who can help you land your first job.


It can't be said enough.  Applying to a graduate program without a clear post-degree objective is like flushing your hard earned dollars (or future income) down the toilet.  Before applying, you should have a clear idea of the region and/or a specific discipline you'd like to study, as this will greatly dictate which program is best for you.  International affairs programs generally offer both the option to focus on a particular region of the world as well as develop a specialty in a functional topic (such as international security, international development, human rights, or international finance).  However, not all programs offer the same depth of study in all the regions of the world or all the functional topics.  Thus, taking the time to research each program is critical.  This will help you to answer questions like:

  • What core courses are required and which specialties are offered?
  • How many courses are taught in your areas of interest?
  • Are there faculty members who have an expertise in your area of interest?
  • Will you need to pass a language proficiency exam in order to graduate?
  • Does the program have a critical mass of alumni working in your field of interest?
  • What kind of career services and networking opportunities are available?

Applications are time consuming and cost money -- you don’t want to waste either your time or money applying to a program that ultimately won’t be a good fit.  You need to do serious homework first to make sure you are applying to programs that will help you achieve your long-range career goals.


Graduate school is an investment in your future, not just in what you are paying but also in what you are not earning by being out of the workforce.  Like any investment, you need to make sure it is a sound one that will offer the return you are looking for.  With this in mind make sure to explore all the ways in which you plan to pay for your graduate education.  The world of loans and scholarships is a confusing process and takes time to research and navigate.  You should be exploring this piece of the puzzle as early as possible.  You would be surprised how many people think they will just ‘figure it out’ once they get accepted (or worse, once they enroll and start!) – by that point, it’s too late and you may find yourself having to take on far more debt than is reasonable or even having to drop out.  

There are many sources available to help you learn about options for funding, but you will have to invest the time in researching.  Also, each program has its own unique funding streams to offer, so you will also have to invest the time to contact each school separately to learn what opportunities might exist and how their funding process works.  


Each piece of your application should add something new to the picture of yourself that you are creating for the admissions committee.  Most programs will require at least one academic recommendation, for example, a former professor, but others might come from work or a past internship supervisor.  You have total control over all the pieces of your application except what your recommenders write about you.  You will want to do your best to ensure that your recommenders are able to portray you in the best light possible and add something unique to the mix.  

The last thing you want is for a recommender to regurgitate your resume.  You also should not assume that getting a ‘big name’ to write a recommendation will add value to your application simply based on their name or that all faculty members know how to write a recommendation letter.  You want to choose your recommenders carefully and find people who know you well and can speak to your abilities and qualities, explain why you would be a good fit for the program you are applying to, and how your knowledge and abilities compare to your peers (think letter of ‘evaluation’).  

Be sure to give your recommenders plenty of time to write your recommendation and work them  so that they are clear about your career objectives and reasons for choosing the school you have.  Don’t just give them a copy of your resume and think that will do it!  Some experts even recommend applicants go so far as to interview a potential recommender: are they familiar with the knowledge and skills someone would need to be a competitive candidate for this particular graduate program; do they believe you have the skills and knowledge to be successful in graduate school; can they confidently compare you to your academic or professional peers?  

Leigh Morris Sloane serves as the Executive Director of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA), and is an instructor at FPA U.