Working in international relations (IR), also sometimes known as international affairs, can offer diverse, exciting and rewarding professional experiences. IR is considered both a political and academic field of study and work and generally involves the formulation of, study or, and/or participation in the international policies of a country or group.
You can study IR through focusing on learning about political science, global studies, and social science. The track of your studies can be exploratory within these fields in undergrad and should gradually focus on your area of highest interest, such as diplomacy, business or nonprofit affairs. Regardless of which area of IR you are most drawn to, the relating of groups including states, non-governmental organizations, empires, corporations, inter-governmental organizations and others will be a central focus of your work.
After earning a BA, you will likely need to pursue further education and/or related work experience to earn a position such as an ambassador or an international representative for a corporation. If a career in IR appeals to you, keep in mind that this field offers both adventure and responsibility; depending on your role, your work and decisions may have a significant effect on communities and individuals around the globe. Here are a few potential career tracks that are typically grouped into the IR category or associated with IR:
Working with the Foreign Service of the United States is one of the most sought-after positions in IR. Several thousand diplomats work in the U.S. State Department and in American embassies throughout the globe. The U.S. Department of State says, “If you’re passionate about public service and want to represent the U.S. around the world, a challenging and rewarding career is waiting for you. The opportunity to work and experience cultures, customs and people of different nations is truly a career unlike any other.”
To become a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) can be a difficult and time-consuming process. The entry test consists of two stages; a written exam and an oral exam that is carried out later in person for chosen applicants. While there are no formal education requirements to participate in this free application process, it is known to be rigorous. Also, once you are accepted, your full admission and integration into the State Department can take several months and sometimes even a full year to complete.
So, it’s a good idea to set aside time and money in order to go through with this career route. Also, as mentioned above, you should start working on a specialty in undergrad. For example, diplomatic careers are generally separated into specialties, including management, political, public information economic and consular. Selecting a track and gearing your studies and work experience toward it early on will boost your chance of being successful.
Being an FSO can allow for international exploration and the experience of diverse cultures but also requires great flexibility. You will have to live wherever you are assigned and will likely be moved every few years. This can be a wonderful lifestyle for those with the right temperament but can make relationships and community building challenging. So, take some time to consider if this way of life appeals to you and also whether you are prepared and inclined to learn new languages. If the answer is yes, becoming an FSO may be the job of your dreams. There are many other types of IR jobs to consider as well—several are below.
If you become a civil servant of the State Department, you will support diplomacy without being an FSO and may work in D.C or other locations around the country. The State Department’s civil service site explains, “Working in Washington, D.C., or other cities throughout the United States, you’ll work on everything from improving trade opportunities for U.S. businesses, to helping American couples adopt children from overseas, to monitoring human rights issues.” Visit this U.S. government page for a detailed list of civil service job categories.
Teaching at a College or University
Teaching at the collegiate level can allow for international study, work and travel. Full-time faculty members are often empowered to pursue their own studies and may also teach abroad or take students on educational trips. It’s worth noting that these positions are difficult to acquire and that more and more universities and colleges are hiring adjunct professors who receive less benefits and support from the institutions. An academic’s best bet (though there are no guarantees) for becoming a professor is to pursue a terminal degree, such as a Ph.D., in their field of choice. If international teaching is your passion, working at the K-12 level at an international school or with an international nonprofit is also a possibility.
Joining the military often provides direct engagement with American foreign policy. Also, ex-servicemen and women sometimes transfer into IR after their military service. While military service can strain family life and be dangerous, ex-servicemen and women’s experiences abroad and familiarity with intense responsibilities and workloads can make them very valued and versatile employees. If you are considering a career in the military, consider speaking with a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) campus representative and/or the military veterans in your local community.
International or Transnational Business
If you are drawn to international, transnational or multinational business affairs, you may pursue working with a U.S. business that conducts business internationally or with a corporation that is centered abroad. While many corporations choose to use indigenous staff and outsource work to other countries, having specific technical skills, highly specialized work experience, or advanced management ability may land you a business job overseas. Foreign businesses in the U.S. may also be interested in hiring you. Regardless, you should plan to pursue a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) is this vein of IR appeals to you.
Practically anywhere you travel, you will find nonprofit organizations that are involved in IR. Their size, funding, purpose (research, aid, etc.), and philosophy (secular, religious, conservative, radical, etc.) varies widely. What they have in common is that they are not controlled or run by any government, though they may collaborate and work in tandem with them. Groups providing education, refugee service, and medical aid are just a few of the types of non-profits around the world. While they typically have less funding than corporations and rely heavily on volunteers, international nonprofits do need committed staff as well. If, as with many careers in IR, you are prepared to travel and encounter new and unfamiliar cultures and challenges, this might be a rewarding path for you to pursue. Idealist.org is an excellent resource for those seeking nonprofit work.
There are many other career options in IR as well–if International Relations calls to you, the roads you can explore and the work you can undertake are numerous and diverse, much like the many cultures and peoples of the world.
Written by Julia Travers
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