Suppose you’re entering your final year of undergrad in political science, you think that studying international war crimes tribunals or electoral reform in Pakistan is pretty cool, and now you want to take things to the next level by applying for graduate school in international affairs. Or maybe you’ve been out of school for a few years working in the NGO or private sector world, have become frustrated by the glass ceiling imposed on your career opportunities because you only had a BA, and are now thinking about going back for a professional Master’s degree. It’s a big decision that will shape your future in enormous ways. It also involves some serious costs and trade-offs to consider. So, is it worth it?
Naturally, the political science / international relations blogosphere has a lot to say on the subject, although most of it pertains to doing a Ph.D rather than a terminal Master’s degree. Leigh Morris Sloane, executive director of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA), takes a pretty good crack at it, and so does Chris Blattman and Liz Elfman. My comments here overlap with all three of them, though I can speak only to an M.A. in international affairs and not public administration, international development, or political science.
So, a few things to keep in mind when deciding to M.A. or not to M.A. …
- Degree inflation is here to stay, and its sink or swim. Yes, it seems ridiculous to have to spend six years in post-secondary education before you are qualified to launch your career proper. But the hard reality is that most entry-level positions in international affairs will require a graduate degree. Even if they don’t, you’re likely to be competing against a pool of applicants who do have one – or even two or three. Hence degree inflation. So, unless you’ve got some really impressive work experience under your belt already, or you happen to be personally connected to Kofi Annan, as far as I can see there’s not much choice but to bite the bullet and get that Master’s. Which leads me to my next point …
- Make sure this is the degree for you. If you’re totally delusional aiming to work in the Canadian Foreign Service, want to climb the career ladder in Ottawa’s foreign policy/international development bureaucracy, or do research or programming for an international non-profit or NGO, then an M.A. in International Affairs is probably a good fit. If, however, you want to be an international business consultant, or work in the management of an international non-profit or NGO, then you might be better off with an MBA, an MEcon, or even an MPA. Don’t end up becoming embittered in your last semester when you realize you are going to have to go back again for another degree to break into your desired field. It happens.
Moreover, if you’re hell-bent on writing a major treatise for your M.A. Thesis on a somewhat esoteric subject – say, a social constructivist analysis of 16th century Sino-Russian relations – you may want to reconsider coming to a professionally-oriented graduate program like NPSIA. You might find yourself frustrated by the lack of enthusiasm among some faculty members in your topic, and you’ll definitely feel like a lone-wolf among many of your student peers. Don’t get me wrong – I happen to think NPSIA strikes about as good of a balance between theory and policy as you’re likely to get anywhere, and the highly driven student can probably grind out the degree no matter how arcane their project. But you might be less miserable doing a traditional academic degree in a political science or history department.
(*Sidebar: If you’re thinking about doing an M.A. in international affairs as a stepping stone to a doctorate, the picture becomes somewhat more complicated. I’ve heard it said that some doctoral admissions committees will look down on a “professional” rather than a traditional disciplinary degree, but I’m not quite sure how much I buy that. For myself, I never had the sense that my M.A. from NPSIA put me at any disadvantage, and in-fact I think my experience in a problem-oriented, policy-focused grad school has made me way better prepared to start a Ph.D. But more on that in a future post … )
- Networking/Internship opportunities. This can be the most important element of your degree in terms of short-to-medium term career opportunities. Studying at NPSIA will give you an instant foothold into many professional networks in Ottawa, home of Canada’s international affairs oriented think-tanks, professional associations, and of course the federal government. All of these can be tapped into for internships, co-op jobs, and contacts for future employment. Myself, I came to NPSIA with next-to-zero relevant work experience, and left with two interesting and career-relevant internships, a semester working in DFAIT, and a sizable social network of intelligent, ambitious peers working in all kinds of interesting sectors. To be sure, there are other ways of gaining this kind of experience, but being in a professional graduate program does make it easier.*
- Flexibility. This rolls into point #2. Consider the kind of work-life schedule you want to have, your non-academic obligations, how much time you have before you want to return to the working world, and whether this program fits into that picture. The good news here is that unlike some terminal master’s degrees, the path to graduation at NPSIA is fairly wide-open. There are a relatively small number of required courses, and you can get credit for taking courses in other departments and universities. Moreover, the ability to finish via course-work only, a traditional MA Thesis, or the in-between Research Essay allows you to find the curricula that suits your own strengths and interests. Let’s face it, not every student of international affairs is gonna love writing an 80 page paper, and the faculty sure wouldn’t want to have to read them all. If you’re really rushing things it is possible to finish the M.A. in 12 months, although due to the importance of point #3, I would not necessarily recommend it.
- Finances. If you’re already carrying upwards of $40,000 in student loans before starting grad school, you should think long and hard about this. True, the cost of a Master’s degree in Canada is still a relative bargain compared to one from the US or the UK, but unless you’re offered a good funding package, landed an OGS or SSHRC award, or have lots of family wealth to throw around, this is two years of tuition costs and foregone income. And even if you DO get generous funding or work hard to earn money through a co-op job or something else, you’ll still be lucky just to break even. That said, the long term benefits can be well worth the investment, but you need to be clear-headed about how you will pay for everything. Don’t just bank on figuring it all out later, or assume that after graduating you will immediately start making a big salary. Odds are you will spend at least 6 months to a year working unpaid or underpaid internships/contract jobs before landing something stable, and it could be much longer. Being saddled with boatloads of debt also means that you can’t afford to gain relevant work experience in an unpaid position, making it even harder to break into the field.
These are just a few factors you probably want to consider before plunging into grad school in international affairs. Of course, I haven’t talked about how personally rewarding it can be to be a grad student at NPSIA – the large social networks, the stimulation of interesting course-work, the proximity to Canada’s intellectual and professional hub for foreign-policy, as well as the general sense that your life is moving forward. Just ask somebody who’s been out for a few years, they will probably recollect fondly about their time in grad school.
For me, my experience at NPSIA was a pretty clear success story. I went from having practically no work experience in the sector to having several relevant resume lines, gained a lot of great friends and connections, and got an academic training which I believe has made me a much better writer and (I hope) a slightly less cloudy thinker. These things set me up for a number of opportunities after graduation that I never would have had otherwise. So yes, I believe it was worth it.
What do others think?
* To my mind, this is probably the number-one reason for studying international affairs at NPSIA specifically rather than, say, at Toronto or the Balsillie School in Waterloo.