Is a master's degree in international affairs for you?

Photo by: Tracy Thomas on Unsplash

A master’s degree in international relations or affairs provides a big picture view of what is going on in the world — from politics to public policies, economic trends, social issues, and international laws. The broad nature of the program makes it a popular choice for professionals who want to have the flexibility to pursue different roles, projects, and sectors within global development.

Earlier this year Devex spoke to global development professionals to find out what they thought about their postgraduate studies. Of those who had obtained a master’s in international relations or affairs, 89 percent said that their degree had been worth the investment in time and money. Asked how important it was for their career to pursue a more advanced degree, 67 percent said very important.

Career opportunities

Positions in governance, law, nongovernmental organizations, and research are fairly obvious career options for someone with a master’s in international relations or affairs, which often has a strong focus on analytical skills. According to Devex’s survey, 74 percent of international relations graduates felt “satisfied” or “strongly satisfied” with their employment opportunities immediately after graduation, and 86 percent with their long-term career advancement options.

Janelle Deniset graduated with a master’s in global affairs from the University of Toronto and says she had the good fortune of finding a job straight away, which is, of course, not always the case. Since graduating, Deniset, who specialized in global civil society, global markets, and global institutions during her postgraduate studies, has served as the sustainability development fellow with the International Youth Fellow Program under the Aga Khan Foundation Canada. She thinks that “having a master’s from a reputable school and a reputable program does give you a competitive edge.”

Of those with a master’s in international relations or affairs, 89 percent said their degree is worth the investment in time and money. 

Salary expectations

Immediately after graduation, 59 percent of those with a master’s in international relations were “satisfied” or “strongly satisfied” with their compensation levels, and 86 percent of these respondents felt this way when asked about the long-term compensation levels of their degree.

68 percent of international relations graduates felt strong satisfaction with the opportunities to make a contribution to society in their careers.


Job happiness

Overall, these professionals were happy with their work-life balance — 83 percent of these degree holders were “satisfied” or “strongly satisfied” with this.

Graduates of international relations also felt their degree allowed for opportunities to make a positive contribution to society; 92 percent expressed satisfaction or strong satisfaction in this area of their work.

Want to see how different degree programs stack up against each other? Use this interactive chart to compare 10 top degree programs for a global development career and see how graduates rate them on everything from compensation to work-life balance.

Where can this degree lead you?

William Turner studied a master’s in international affairs and governance at St. Gallen University in Switzerland. Primarily a business and economics school, Turner said the master’s program draws a lot on this background and includes compulsory courses in accounting and business management.

While these might not have been courses he would have picked given the choice, Turner feels like that gave him a “real grounding” in political economy. “I really feel the benefit from that,” says Turner. He is now based in Tanzania where he works at the U.K. Department for International Development and says that at organizations like DFID — where the biggest two groups of employees are governance advisers or economists — “I’m able to speak to both, so I think that was a big plus.”*

“The interdisciplinary nature of the program is perhaps the most valuable strength.”

— Janelle Deniset, master’s in global affairs from the University of Toronto

Deniset says that her program in global affairs provided several courses geared toward people with an interest in the fields of human rights, development, and humanitarian affairs, such as global civil society, justice advocacy, global challenges, humanitarian practice, and justice reform. “These courses provide the combined benefit of laying the theoretical groundwork necessary to understand complex issues at hand, while providing practical knowledge that prepares students for the workforce,” says Deniset.

Speaking specifically about the program she graduated from at the University of Toronto, Deniset says that the courses were focused on providing students with both the foundational and practical knowledge they can later leverage to succeed. “The interdisciplinary nature of the program is perhaps the most valuable strength,” she says, noting the wide variety of courses for students, including financial management, global policy analysis, macroeconomics, and innovation. More broadly speaking, Deniset says this interdisciplinary approach to studying global affairs gives students interested in development an edge as “they have concrete knowledge combined with a different perspective on how development can be successfully carried out.”

*Update, Dec. 20, 2017: This article has been updated to clarify that DFID’s biggest two groups of employees are governance advisers or economists.

You know you need a postgraduate degree to advance in a global development career, but deciding on a program, degree, and specialization can be overwhelming. In partnership with the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA), Duke Center for International Development (DCID) at Duke University, Duke Kunshan University, the Online Master of Public Health (MPH) at George Washington University, and the MPA/ID Program at Harvard Kennedy School, we are digging into all things graduate school and global development in a weeklong series called Grad School Week. Join online events and read more advice on pursuing a postgraduate education here.

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.

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