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MPA vs. International Relations

The Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree shares some common academic ground with the Master of International Relations. Both degrees attract students who are prepared to make a commitment to a career in public service, and the coursework for both degrees emphasizes public policy and public management. When deciding whether to earn an MPA or a Master of International Relations, students should evaluate the breadth and scope of each program against their own individual career goals.

Master of International Relations Course Work

Master of International Relations programs (also referred to as Master of International Affairs and Master of Foreign Service) are designed to develop professionals who have a deep understanding of issues that cross national borders. These degrees prepare students for globally oriented careers and usually require students to be proficient in a second language. The coursework for the Master of International Relations is often interdisciplinary, covering topics in social science as well as public affairs. Class topics include:

  • Foreign policy
  • International law
  • Diplomacy
  • Economics
  • Statistics

Many programs allow students to choose either a functional or a regional area of concentration.

Master of Public Administration Course Work

MPA programs teach students how to apply analytic tools to real world issues in the United States and abroad. The core curriculum and elective courses address the political, economic and organizational aspects of complex policy issues. Unlike the Master of International Relations and related degrees, which are focused exclusively on international policy issues, MPA degrees prepare graduates to work in the full range of public arenas, from local to international. Although many MPA programs chiefly cover local and national issues, the context for analysis is frequently global. Many schools also provide international areas of concentration for students who have an interest in international policy.

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Career Opportunities

Besides differences in academic orientation between MPA and international relations programs, there are also differences in the variety of post-graduation career opportunities. An MPA degree opens the door to a wide variety of career options. Graduates are prepared to fill leadership positions in government agencies and public service organizations in both the nonprofit and private sectors. It is quite common for MPA degree holders to move between jobs in government, business and private organizations in the course of their career. In most cases, they are qualified to both international and domestic careers. In contrast, the career scope for an International Relations degree is narrower. Graduates are qualified for careers in diplomacy and for some positions within the U.S. State Department, United Nations, World Bank and a handful of other global organizations. Some holders of a Master of International Relations degree spend the majority of their career in the private sector as employees of transnational corporations.

Choosing an MPA or International Relations Degree Programs

In the United States, the faculty and students in both MPA and International Relations programs are typically drawn from around the world. Many professors in these programs are experienced public policy practitioners, as well as experts in their field. When choosing either an MPA or International Relations program, students should look for faculty with experience in city management, banking, community health, international development and other areas that involve the administration of public policy.

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