Graduate School in International Affairs, Political Science, Policy, etc

For Law School, see here.

For general resources for thinking about and applying to graduate school, visit the Handshake Graduate School resources.



Roughly 80% of Wellesley students eventually pursue a graduate degree. Nationwide, 60% of undergraduates in the social sciences and 57% in the humanities go on to graduate school.1 In the policy and international relations sectors, young workers will find that the majority of mid- and high-level leaders will have a graduate degree. To become a practicing lawyer, one must earn a JD and pass the bar. In non-law positions, however, there is no written requirement to earn a graduate degree or acquire a certain licensure. Graduate degrees provide two advantages that make them appealing: 1) the ability to move up the GS ladder in government positions, and 2) specialization that provides a competitive advantage. Because so many young people earn graduates degrees in these fields, it has become the norm, and because jobs are still quite competitive, earning a graduate degree can make one equally or more competitive.

I highly recommend taking a few years (at least one) to work before applying to graduate school in these fields. Graduate degrees in this industry are time-consuming, expensive, and diverse so it’s important to know the best fit for you before embarking on further education. By working for a few years and learning more about your specialized interests and future career goals, you’ll be able to make the best use of your graduate school years. In addition, keep in mind that years of experience can be just as valuable as a higher degree, and it is possible to succeed in a government, private sector, or nonprofit career without a graduate degree.

Wellesley can also help you find fellowships and scholarships for graduate study. Please read through the resources.

Finally, one of the best ways to learn and talk to admissions reps from a wide range of graduate schools in these fields is the Idealist Graduate School Fair. This happens in Boston (and other cities) every September.

The Association of Professional Schools in International Affairs (APSIA) also has great resources and webinars. 

Interested in fellowships and scholarships for graduate study? Look through Career Education resources as well as this APSIA resource

In the below section, I’ll preview a range of graduate school programs and their foci. In the final section, I discuss PhD programs.

1 Baum, S., Steel, P., Who Goes to Graduate School and Who Succeeds?, Urban Institute, January 2017, 20

Master Degrees

Master in Public Policy (MPP)

  • Designed for students focusing on a career in public service (broadly defined) with a policy focus.
  • Does not require a specific major but often requires some government and economic prerequisite coursework
  • They are typically two years of full-time study.
  • The curriculum usually requires coursework in economics, organizational management, politics, and quantitative analysis.
  • Most programs require students to choose a concentration (e.g., urban policy, health policy, international governance, national security).
  • Graduates go on to work for government as well as nonprofits and international organizations.
  • Public policy degrees largely have a practical focus rather than a theoretical one, and the goal is for graduates to be able to solve real policy problems in their future roles.
  • 2016  rankings of MPP programs (US News)

Master of Public Administration (MPA)

  • The MPA degree is typically geared toward students who have significant (3+ years) working experience or a previous graduate degree.
  • Like the MPP, does not require a specific major but often require some government and economic coursework
  • They are typically two years of full-time study.
  • It is designed as a management degree in public policy.
  • It often includes similar coursework to the MPP with a focus on quantitative and analytical skills. Most MPA programs are two years of full-time study.
  • Like the MPP, it is geared toward solving real-work problems and is less theoretical. Students are expected to know what area of policy they are interested in, as you choose to specialize in domestic policy or international development, for example.
  • 2016 rankings of MPA programs (US News)

Master of International Affairs/Relations/Foreign Policy/Foreign Service

  • This degree obviously focuses on the international and is a good fit for a student who knows she wants to work internationally or focus on a specific issue in international relations (e.g., international trade, transnational terrorism) or on a specific region.
  • These programs typically accept young professionals (average of 3-5 years out of undergrad). They vary in the prerequisite requirements, but if you have work experience, you do need to have majored in political science or economics.
  • Some of more theoretical than the MPP or MPA and include coursework in IR theories. Coursework also includes economics, statistics, and some management.
  • Many programs do have a language requirement.
  • Schools may also break out these programs into specific areas. For example, Georgetown has the MA in Arab Studies, MA in Asian Studies as well as the more general Master of Foreign Service
  • Graduates go on to work in government, international organizations, private business, and nonprofits
  • From 2012, best masters programs in International Affairs (Foreign Policy Magazine)
  • Information and resources at the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs

Master of Security Studies/National Security

  • Degree for students specifically interested in national and international security (e.g., terrorism).
  • Accept young and mid-career professionals; sometimes drawn from retired military/law enforcement
  • Graduates go on to work for government, law enforcement, or nonprofits/think tanks
  • Coursework in economics and statistics as well as military history and current topics in international security studies
  • See Georgetown’s MSS as an example

Master of Political Science

  • Degree that is concurrent with or precursor to a PhD in Political Science
  • Coursework is theoretical and academic; research and analysis focus
  • Students typically choose a concentration from international relations, comparative politics, american politics, political theory, political methodologies, and political economy (these will vary slightly by school)
  • May require a thesis
  • Graduates may go on to a PhD or get work in industry
  • Rankings of Political Science Programs (US News)


Joint Degrees


  • Large universities that have both a JD and a Public Policy degree often offer a combination degree in which a student completes academic requirements for both degrees and receives both diplomas
  • Students must take all courses and complete all requirements; a JD/MPP takes 4-5 years of full-time study
  • Students must be accepted to both programs at the time of admission
  • This degree combination is geared toward a career in public service in which knowledge of the law and a specific policy area is essential
  • See the Harvard Law School - Harvard Kennedy School degree as an example


  • Large universities that have both an MBA and Public Policy degree may offer a dual degree
  • Usually 3-4 years
  • Designed for students interested in leadership at the intersection of policy and business, as the coursework provides a policy background as well as managerial and finance
  • See the Harvard Kennedy School - Harvard Business School degree as an example


PhD in Political Science/Government/Politics or PhD in Public Policy

  • PhD programs take students straight from undergrad and with years of working experience
  • Typically 2-3 years of coursework, comprehensive exams/paper requirements, defense of prospectus, defense of dissertation (7 years average in social sciences)
  • Some require a MA in Political Science to apply, then length of coursework during PhD is less
  • Designed for students wanting to pursue an academic career at a university or other research organization (e.g., library, think tank, government research body)
  • The PhD is a long and arduous undertaking and is the best fit for students who are driven to research a specialized topic for a long time
  • Concentration fields include American Politics, International Relations, Comparative Politics, Political Theory, Political Methodology, and Political Economy
  • To note: the job market for tenure-track faculty has shrunk since the recession and gaining an assistant professor position is very competitive; many PhD are taking one or most post-docs and going on the job market two or more years running
  • Rankings of Political Science Graduate Programs (US News)