I distinctly remember the strange feeling I had when I put down international relations as my chosen major in the Common Application and clicked submit. It almost felt like I was signing away my life, yet I had no idea what I was even signing up for.
In recent years, international relations has become a popular and sought-after major. It attracts a curious mix of students with different academic interests and backgrounds: from well-travelled foreign students with a knack for languages to wannabe U.S. ambassadors who have never left their home state. But when you ask college freshmen proudly declaring themselves IR majors what international relations actually means, many will return blank stares.
After spending three years figuring out exactly what it is that I signed up for on that fateful day during my senior year of high school, I want to help any aspiring international relations majors out there to better understand the discipline with its mysterious allure.
Get Ready to Read
Before you start dreaming of a glamorous life spent flying business class to UN conventions across the globe (which may very well be your ultimate future), let’s start with a reality check of what studying international relations actually entails.
You read…a lot. I mean, a lot. To be sure any humanities major–from history to literature to sociology–will tell you that their discipline consists almost entirely of reading and writing. Nonetheless, it is crucial to understand the extent to which the next four years of your life will be structured around an endless supply of reading assignments. As a junior in college, I averaged 400-600 assigned pages of reading per week, spread out between 3-4 classes.
Even an avid reader habituated to devouring several 300-page novels weekly will at first be overwhelmed by the wall of dense academic text filled with obscure terminology. By no means am I trying to discourage you from pursuing your interests! However, it’s important to go into any discipline with your eyes open and realize what the work entails. And don’t forget to remind your STEM-oriented friends that international relations does not equal “just reading a lot of news.”
Moreover, you will likely be learning a foreign language (or two!) as part of your curriculum. As the international part of international relations indicates, this field will prepare you for careers that will involve extensive interactions with individuals from other countries. The best way to truly understand and appreciate any foreign culture is by taking the time to learn the language(s) in which that society expresses itself. What is more exciting is that your college will likely offer you a much wider pool of language options than were available in your high school (French or Spanish, anyone?). As an international relations major, you will be able to pick as popular or obscure a language as strikes your fancy and have a truly immersive linguistic experience.
Sadly, Math is Unavoidable
If you’re like me, one of the major upsides of choosing this field of study in your eyes may be the hope that you can pretty much forget about science, math, and all those pesky formulas that never made sense in high school. In fact, when people asked me what I would be studying in college, I always opened with: “I’ll never have to do math again!”
How wrong I was. First of all, any well-structured international relations program will require you to obtain some basic knowledge of economics, which unfortunately for the mathematically inept is a crucial part of politics involving many graphs and numbers. So, prepare to make some more flashcards with semi-incoherent formulas on them.
In addition, and with good reason, many programs are now beginning to integrate computer science and other technology-oriented coursework into their international relations curricula as technological innovation and cybersecurity are becoming increasingly important issues on the global stage. If you can’t run away from math, try to embrace it – at least the parts of it that tie into what you really want to be studying, interactions between countries!
Diverse Student Body
College is generally a place to meet new people who come from different backgrounds than you and to embrace alternative worldviews. And of course, there are plenty of international students studying every discipline imaginable in the U.S. But if you’re an international relations major, get ready to meet a lot of international kids, who will challenge the way you view the world on a whole new level.
Chances are, if you received a public education on the continental United States, you haven’t met too many people who hail directly from other countries. As you begin to debate ethical and political controversies in your courses, you will quickly realize just how diverse opinion on various hot-button issues can be and learn that what you thought people from other cultures believed may be utterly different from reality.
So, be prepared to meet incredible, interesting individuals from many corners of the globe and to spend four years learning about different cultures, beliefs, and social systems (and to practice whatever foreign language you’ll be learning as part of your coursework)!
You Can’t Really Intern at the UN
Not while you’re an undergraduate student anyway. Many high schoolers go into international relations with a limited understanding of the ways they can actually apply their knowledge in the professional world.
Certainly, when I first chose to study IR, I was imagining myself strolling into the General Assembly in four years’ time like I own the place. In reality, you can’t even intern at the UN until you obtain your bachelor’s degree…More broadly, you should be open to many different, unexpected possibilities as you consider the potential career paths an IR degree will afford you (and try to explain the degree’s utility to your parents).
As with any other major, it is difficult for an outsider to imagine the various opportunities available within the discipline. From public relations to consulting to research, international relations will offer you a broad range of career opportunities. Hopefully, the four years you spend learning about the field will guide you in a direction that most appeals to you. In fact, the beauty of this major is in its interdisciplinary approach and its flexibility. Soon, you’ll have so many cool options, you won’t know which to choose!
There is so much more to international relations than schmoozing with diplomats and debating UN resolutions, though you’ll certainly get a taste of the aforementioned activities as well. As you prepare to enter the enticing and bizarre world of college, be ready to be challenged, intellectually stimulated, and confronted with new ideas. Every major, from engineering to visual arts to international relations is much more than the vague stereotypes we have floating around outside each discipline. Keep an open mind and enjoy!
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