How to Choose a Graduate Degree Program for Your International Career
By Zahara Heckscher
When I graduated college in 1986 and sought advice about pursuing an international career, I heard a constant refrain, “Get a Master’s degree.” But I didn’t know how to choose the right degree program. I ended up starting (and dropping out of) two graduate programs before I found the course of study that was right for me.
I finally tossed my graduate cap in the air in 2001.
You can learn from my mistakes and find a degree program that is a good fit for you. I’ll share what I did wrong, top tips for getting it right, and specific programs that might be a good fit for you.
What NOT To Do When Selecting a Graduate Program
DO NOT choose based on rankings. I was interested in African Studies and Political Science and learned that the University of Wisconsin ranked among top schools in both areas. What I didn’t figure out in advance was that the Political Science program was a conservative, male-dominated bastion at a progressive university, and the department was not a match for my values. The strength of the African studies program was based more on History and Sociology that Political Science. The rankings really meant nothing once I was there.
DO NOT choose based on your undergraduate experience. At Wesleyan, where I studied as an undergraduate, Political Science classes focused on social justice, policy, and international development. At Madison, Political Science was considered to be a “values-free” science—based on removed observation and certainly not engaged practice. Lesson: Graduate programs can be VERY different from undergraduate, even in the same department.
DO NOT ignore geography and weather. I hate cold weather. Short, dark days make me depressed. All my friends and family are on the coasts. So why did I decide to attend graduate school in Wisconsin? Somehow I thought that geography was a side issue. I learned it the hard way—location, location, location!
DO NOT rush. Graduate school is a huge investment of time and money. Get plenty of experience before starting graduate school; let life give you some clarity on your path. If you want to study international affairs, get as much international experience as you can in advance—not just travel, but study, volunteering, and work abroad. You’ll also be a better student if you have some experience.
BEWARE of money making programs. I entered a Masters of Liberal studies program at Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs. I expected the kind of high level humanities and social science classes I had missed as an undergraduate science major, and an MA that would give me a broad background to help me pursue my international career interests. I soon discovered the program is not the same as an MA from the affiliated but distinct “real” Johns Hopkins in Baltimore (or the School for Advanced International Studies in DC) but a watered down degree with much lower standards for both quality of instruction and academic qualifications of the students enrolled. The program seemed to be a money making program for JHU rather than a respected academic program. Extension programs and for-profit universities may be perfectly fine for your needs, but you should conduct extra due diligence to verify the standards of programs before enrolling.
I finally found a perfect program for me in the International Development program at American University. The progressive values of the faculty matched my own values and most professors had real world experience with the nonprofit organizations I respected. The required classes explored topics I cared about and I had enough electives to explore my side interests. My fellow students, like me, mostly had several years of international experience to bring to the classroom. Finally, I had the opportunity to do research, teach, and even write an article for my professor’s book, Global Backlash: Citizen Initiatives for a Just World Economy.
How did I find this program? I was supervising interns for an international nonprofit organization, and found that my best interns seemed to all attend American University. I got to know their advisors, and through these faculty members learned about events on campus. By the time I applied, I had visited campus several times, sat in on classes, and attended multiple events at AU’s School for International Service. So rather than guessing, I knew the program was a match for me.
Finding the Match for You
A graduate school is a good fit for you if can you stay up until midnight with friends to finish your group project, eat ramen noodles three days a week because you are so broke, fall hopelessly behind on your email because you have so much reading and writing to do—and still feel like you are having fun, at least some of the time.
Here are my suggested steps to help you identify a graduate program that will be a fit with your career goals.
- Ask professionals in your dream jobs to help you make a list of possible schools. I’d suggest talking to at least three people who have jobs you would love and getting their advice. What degrees do they have? MA, PhD, JD, MPH? Which schools did they attend? What schools do they recommend? Where did their best interns study? When they are hiring, what schools get their attention and why? You should also look up bios for 5-10 additional people who do work you think you would find engaging and rewarding. From these sources, make your initial list of schools for further research.
- Narrow your list using practical considerations. Check requirements online. Are the required classes such a burden you won’t have time to explore your special interests? Is the minimum GRE or GPA too high for you to qualify? What is the tuition? What kind of scholarships are available? I also urge you to find a graduate school in a place you would absolutely love to be. Graduate school is difficult. Enjoying the location of your school will help you avoid misery. Like the big city? Research Columbia. Need the ocean? UCLA or Santa Cruz would put you right there. Snow make you happy? Harvard and other New England or Midwest schools await you.
- Once you have your short list, get to know the faculty. Check the faculty bios and current courses in your field online. Explore syllabi. Visit campus at a time when you can sit in on some relevant classes. (Of course, email the department or professor in advance for permission.) Do you like the teaching styles? Respect the professor’s opinions? Like them as people? If possible, pop in for office hours with several professors. (Find office hours in the syllabus for the current semester, usually online). Daniel Holmberg, who is pursuing a Master of Arts in Humanitarian Assistance at Tufts, suggests scrutinizing professors’ international experiences—did they work in an expat State Department bubble; are they armchair scholars; or do they have extensive, on-the-ground overseas experience in your field? Some departments have regular lectures that most faculty and graduate students attend; see if you can time your visit to attend such an event and hang around afterwards to chat and observe. If you don’t have time to visit, email specific questions to several faculty members. If you wish to study with specific professors, contact them to make sure they won’t be on sabbatical or moving to another school the semester you will start.
- Get to know students. Visit the student lounge and eavesdrop. Chat with a few – most will welcome a study break. Are students generally happy or complaining? Intellectual in a way that attracts you, or intellectual snobs with their heads in the clouds? Are most of them right out of college or do they have real world experience? Do they talk in class and have interesting things to say? Consider demographics as well: Would you be the only woman in most of your classes, and if so, would you relish the challenge or miss the support of your sisters? If you cannot visit campus, ask the department to connect you with some recent alum in your town.
- Start the application process very early. Researching schools takes months. The GRE is quick but preparation is time consuming. It’s hard to write a good graduate school admission essay. Give yourself time to edit and re-edit your drafts.
- Once you get in, be assertive about seeking financial aid. If your second choice school offers you more financial aid, tell your first choice school and see if they can match the offer. Share your willingness to be a TA or RA. See if any faculty members you met would put in a good word for you to be considered for any fellowships that open up.
Do you need an advanced degree to have a successful international career? Absolutely not! Quite a few people have paid their dues in other ways—lots of volunteering, internships, and hard work. But an MA (or another advanced degree) in a subject you love can be a huge asset in any international career—not just because of the credentials but also the network you create with students, faculty and other allies on campus.
Below are a few of my favorite graduate programs, which I present as food for thought—a starting point for your research. Make sure to create your own list based on your own interests, values, geographical constraints—as well as advice from your own mentors.
This list is admittedly U.S. and East Coast focused, based on my experiences, so please do make use of the comment field to add other suggestions, questions, and tips for choosing well.
| Type of Degree
|| Recommended for the Following International Careers
|| Recommended Programs
| MA in International Development
|| Nonprofit work overseas,
Government (Agency for International Development).
International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership,
School for International Training,
| MA in Public Policy
|| Advocacy on Foreign Policy,
Work with Congress or Executive Branch.
| Harvard’s Kennedy School,
University of Maryland,
Tufts’ Fletcher School (no MPP but related degrees),
London School of Economics.
| MS in Organizational Development
| School for International Training (Intercultural Service, Leadership, and Management), The New School.
|| Fair Trade,
| Yale (nonprofit management),
Thunderbird MBA in Global Management,
| MA in International Education
|| Training and Education.
|| School for International Training.
| JD (law degree)
|| International Human Rights,
| American University Law School,
DC School of Law (has public interest scholarship),
University of Virginia.
| MA in Public Health (MPH)
|| Health Education,
UN health agencies.
| Boston University School of Public Health,
Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine,
Brandeis (MS in International Health Policy and Management).
| MA in Peace and Conflict Studies
Community Conflict Resolution,
| George Mason University.
| MA in History, Regional Studies, Economics
Foreign Service (Note: The Foreign Service also accepts candidates with the other degrees listed here. While a graduate degree is not required, most successful candidates do have one. See the U.S. Department of State website and talk to a recruiter for details.)
| Georgetown School of Foreign Service,
Duke University (see Duke Engage),
University of Texas-Austin,
or another state school in a state you love.
University of London,
School of Oriental and African Studies,
London School of Economics.
|| Professor in U.S. or overseas,
| Ask experts in your field, since PhD programs vary so widely by subject.
ZAHARA HECKSCHER is the co-author of the book How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas, which includes evaluations of over 80 volunteer programs and suggestions for preparing to volunteer. Zahara co-authored a follow-up book which is an instant immediate classic titled "Learning Service: The Essential Guide for Volunteering Abroad."