“So, you wanna get an M.A. in International Affairs?”

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. …

  1. 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 …
  1. 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 … )

  1. 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.*
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

Philip Martin

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12 thoughts on ““So, you wanna get an M.A. in International Affairs?”

  1. Pingback: “So, you wanna get an M.A. in International Affairs?” | NPSIA Students' Association

  2. I was worried about #2. Skills like statistical analysis and policy brief writing are not complex enough to warrant an advanced degree. I hope schools like NPSIA devote enough time to “big ideas” and “big questions”, rather than function just as bureaucratic training institutions. I personally have a hopeful view of APSIA institutions as places where objective, humanistic and relevant social science can be pursued, while avoiding the methodological fetishism and ideological propaganda that have so thoroughly corroded traditional social science departments. However, international affairs still faces the temptation of transforming from a science to an instrument.

    • Hi Shelley. In my experience, the devotion to ‘big ideas’ is very dependent on the personal interests of the student. If you are into thinking, talking and writing about the sticky foundational problems of international politics, you will naturally gravitate towards peers and faculty who share this style. It also does spend some time on bureaucratic training, but not really that much.

      Oh, and for me, statistical analytical skills are most definitely complex enough to warrant an advanced degree, but that’s from a liberal arts dummy who did an undergrad in poli sci:)

  3. Pingback: On doing a graduate degree in international affairs |

  4. Good post- I’d say you hit on the main points- couple of supplementary points- 1) capital city is an advantage important if you are interested in the field. Big cities like Toronto or Montreal can somewhat balance that out, but a capital is still a capital 2) Agreed NPSIA isn’t the best for a not for profit but I’m not sure an MBA or MPA is much better, another post. 3) love- you’ve got to love the stuff you are studying. Taking a degree that you think is more applied, or is a stepping stone to law school is pretty ridiculous, especially if you don’t enjoy the subject. You’ll do fine at NPSIA, but you won’t get as much as you could out of it 4) Debt, I probably wouldn’t discourage most people who were passionate about what they are doing, had a genuine aptitude for the subject and was willing to hustle a bit from applying to an MA, but they need to be serious. There is good debt and there is bad debt, $20 grand in student loans is better than $20 grand on a car. Depending on the person, a bit of a leveraged bet isn’t such a bad thing- you’ve invested in yourself, treat it like a business you just have to make sure you work really really hard and take all the opportunities you can. 5) Work & Study: some people can do it, but if at all possible I’d suggest that if it comes down to choice between working a menial job somewhere (ie: not an RA or TAship) and taking out a few more loans, that you take out the loans and spend the time hustling, interning networking, building connections and doing well in classes. No point busting your ass at a coffee shop, running yourself ragged if you don’t make the most of your classes, networking opportunities and MA. I understand there are situations where people need to, or can get straight A’s washing dishes but doing so for fear of a few thousand dollars in ‘good’ debt isn’t worth the opportunity cost (my opinion, your millage may vary). Worst come to worst OSAP and federal loans have relatively generous repayment terms. None of this applies if you have to take on credit card debt.

    As someone with a fair amount of debt, yeah it sucks and it takes a long time to pay off the debts, and it limits your post graduation options, but I got a lot more utility from this than a car or a mortgage.

    People ought to do their own utility calculations though.

  5. Thanks for this post! I’ve been looking long and hard for some advice on this, but it’s not easy to come by.

    One question that I can’t seem to find any kind of answer to is, what are the benefits of a two-year MA in International Affairs or an MPP in North America as opposed to their counterpart degrees in Europe, which tend to be one year programs and often are MScs?

  6. Not sure if it is legit for me to send a reply in here, but one of our Ph.D. students suggested that I should. Just a couple of quick points. (1) Advice on graduate programs is available from the schools themselves. Obviously they will try and skew things to make themselves look good, so take what they say with a grain of salt I suppose, but for the most part it’s pretty honest and at the grad level we’re more interested in making sure the students have a good fit between their interests and what the program has to offer. The grad supervisors or grad admin staff are the best places to start. (2) There are some “remedial” learning that has to take place at a good interdisciplinary school to make sure that students have the basics and are starting off with a reasonably broad foundation, and able to understand the policy world. There is scope to expand on these basic courses, however, to take students to a fairly high level of sophistication in areas such as statistics (right Phil?), research design, policy analysis, international law, or in field topics. (3) NPSIA is definitely policy oriented, but a lot of the faculty carry with them the “big question” problems that they were exposed to in their university years. Some of these bigger questions are part of the theoretical foundations of disciplines and fields, so they are critical. However at NPSIA we do push students to focus on problems that have a real world dimension to them, so we’re not as keen on debates that ultimately will never leave the academic world. But most “big question” problems do have a practical manifestation that can be examined, and we think there is both a lot of professional but also intellectual satisfaction from looking at big problems from a practical or policy perspective. (4) In terms of finding the best program when you have a really strong sense of what you want to study, it is probably more important to check to see who amongst the actual teaching faculty at a school (as opposed to the inflated list of non-teaching people or professors from other departments on many departmental websites) is actually working on those problems; you want to make sure there are likely to be faculty members available in your areas of interest.

  7. Hi, i am an international student who wants to apply for the international affairs program at NPSIA. However, i am also interested in getting professional experience in the field of international affairs and development. Which job websites could you guys recommend me? Thanks in advance

  8. Should you get an MA? Short answer is no. NPSIA is one of the biggest frauds around in the post-secondary education bubble. It doesn’t actually teach you any real skills and if you don’t have the brownnosing skills to get an empty suit, bureaucratic job at GAC, it leaves you about as employable as any liberal arts major. My advice: If you are passionate about development, conflict resolution, int’l trade, etc., get a real degree offering real skills that employers beyond GAC will value.

  9. Pingback: “So, you wanna get an M.A. in Int’l Affairs?” | Student Life at NPSIA

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