Is IR Graduate School Worth It?

There is no absolute yes or no answer. It depends on your academic and work experience, what you're looking to get from graduate school, what kind of career you're interested in pursuing, and scholarship opportunities. Everyone's circumstances are unique.

By IR graduate school, I'm referring to programs like Johns Hopkins SAIS and Georgetown SSP. These are two-year, terminal MA programs that prioritize practitioner over academic perspectives.

This post reviews some good, okay, and bad reasons to go to IR graduate school, the main pros and cons in attending, and some general advice.

Good Reasons to Go to Graduate School

  1. You plan to apply to U.S. government fellowships. There are a lot of great opportunities here, such as the Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) and McCain Strategic Defense Fellowship.
  2. You got a full-ride scholarship. Money matters, and funding should be a primary consideration unless you're independently wealthy. If you get a full or near-full scholarship, you can ignore most of the advice here. Take advantage and have fun.

Okay Reasons to Go to Graduate School

  1. You need the MA credential. This seems to be the primary factor for most IR graduate students. I fall under this category—as a think tanker, I need a master's degree to rise up the research or NGO corporate ladder. It shows that I'm committed to the field and have some (minimal) level of competence. The same requirement may exist for some U.S. government roles. More broadly, the MA has become a norm for those working across the public policy community. It is deeply unfortunate, but an acceptable reason for pursuing more school.
  2. You want to pivot to a new career. I know a few people who used graduate school for this reason. They wanted to shift from consulting and PR outfits to a policymaking position at the U.S. Defense Department or similar. This is a smart reason to go back to school, but it's a bit dangerous if you don't have any experience in the policy field beforehand. Are you sure this is what you want to do?

Bad Reasons to Go to Graduate School

  1. You don't know what you want to do. It's a bad idea to spend $80k-plus and two years on a degree that might not support your career. Relatedly, do not pursue an MA just because it's a socially acceptable way to delay or avoid working.
  2. You think you'll make more money, improve your job prospects, or impress your family and friends. Sorry, you picked the wrong graduate degree. There is no IR license. It's not like law or medical school, with formal exams at the end leading to some established entry or residency program. Instead, you're coming out of IR school competing with very smart people for fun, fulfilling, but limited opportunities. Furthermore, as MA inflation continues to rise, the ROI from these degrees is decreasing. I've seen think tanks post unpaid internships for MA students. And those positions were still competitive!
A good, depressing meme from my sister-in-law that applies to the IR field. If you're looking for money, why not go for an MBA and enjoy a $150k+ starting salary with a fair work-life balance?

IR graduate school can help you...

  1. Connect with brilliant professors and students. Unlike college, your professors will likely be a mix of academics and practitioners. It's a fun mix of perspectives and pedagogy. And the networking opportunities are pretty good. To date (Oct 14), I've had 15 professors:
    - Five traditional academics
    - Three think tankers from CSBA and RAND
    - An Arabic language instructor
    - A defense industry wonk from Northrop Grumman
    - A former Senate defense policy staffer
    - A former bank president and a business professor
    - A former Undersecretary of Defense and a former acting Secretary of the Treasury
  2. Learn new research methods and tools. Graduate school is a great opportunity to build up your quantitative skills, with most programs offering classes on data analytics, Python, and R. I wanted to learn more about how the U.S. Congress works beyond the Schoolhouse Rock-level. SAIS happens to offer a class taught by a former Senate staffer of 20+ years who has written multiple books about the Congress. In general, you can improve your research skills while hitting your core interest areas in defense, economics, regional studies, or otherwise.
  3. Hit the books and think big. In the security world, this could mean thinking about grand strategy issues like how U.S. policymakers should manage the U.S.-China competition. In economics, it might mean studying the history of the U.S. Federal Reserve and its ability to combat inflation. Graduate school gives you time to think through these big-picture issues.

But there are significant drawbacks...

  1. It's expensive. The full sticker prices are absurd. I received a 55% tuition scholarship from SAIS but still chose to work full-time at CSIS to avoid falling into debt. If you don't have a flexible job and boss like I do, you'll be out of the workforce for two years—a critical opportunity cost that prospective students often neglect.
  2. You're back to student life. For some, maybe that's a welcome change. But if you, like me, have worked for several years and are already socially satisfied, you probably don't care to return to student life. Depending on your program, you may also be in classes with students straight from college. And as smart as undergraduates may be, they lack real world experience, and it shows in the questions they ask and their obsession with grades. That can get annoying.
  3. The mandatory curriculum can be silly. I studied "Theories of IR" and "International Trade" at Tufts, but was forced to spend thousands of dollars to retake them at SAIS. Fortunately SAIS's other core requirements like statistics and research methods were classes that I already planned to take. Our distribution requirements were also very easy to satisfy. But I definitely recommend prospective students examine their school's mandatory curriculum, elective offerings, and class evaluations before signing up.

General Advice

  1. Work before going to IR graduate school. It doesn't matter whether you work at a think tank, in government, or otherwise—just a few years of experience will make you a stronger applicant and smarter student. I think the optimal amount of work experience is 2-4 years. Less than two, and you won't fully realize the benefits of work. More than four, you'll find it tough going back to school.
  2. Develop a clear mission statement. As you consider potential career paths, make a mission statement that explains how school will support your goals. For example, one SAIS student wrote "I hope to better understand the history of U.S.-Latin America relations and current U.S. policy towards the region. Additionally, I hope to learn from my colleagues that have worked or currently work in the U.S. government and my professors, many of which are also practitioners. This program will best prepare me for future assignments as an Army Foreign Area Officer in Latin America." I wrote my own list of goals.
  3. Plan out your classes. Many professors and alumni recommend taking classes outside of your concentration. I strongly disagree with this recommendation. College was the time for academic exploration. Graduate school, on the other hand, should be focused on developing skills that will support your future career. You should plan your class schedule with that in mind, in addition to class/professor reviews.