The Best IR Schools in the World:

It’s Never Been a Better Time to Study IR

(Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration)

Donald Trump has changed the world — and some people will understand it better than others.

International affairs education finds itself in an uncertain time. On the one hand, it is easy to be pessimistic. It would be understandable if the extraordinary divisiveness of this present moment of American politics, and the scorn poured upon public servants and members of the so-called “blob” or “swamp” — including by the president of the United States — chilled young people’s interest in pursuing studies that might lead to a career in government or diplomacy. This effect is much worse for students coming from abroad, an increasingly large pool of potential candidates for American schools of international affairs. Moving from your home country to study for a year or two in the United States involves sacrifice, and no doubt young people from Beijing to Bogota to Berlin must wonder how they will be welcomed in the United States in this current political environment.

All of this comes at a time when institutions of higher education of all kinds find themselves under increased public scrutiny, when everything from their cost model to their purported ideological predispositions to their purpose and role in society is being questioned. Some might reasonably question the intellectual insight of international relations scholars, who for the most part failed to anticipate the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union, the 9/11 attacks on the United States and their consequences, and the emergence and failure of the Arab Spring, to say nothing of the political forces that led to Brexit in the United Kingdom and the surprising outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

But the troubling trends for international affairs schools go beyond politics. Like most professional programs, graduate schools in international affairs depend upon tuition, which is driven by student interest and demand. Application numbers for graduate programs can be volatile and shaped by forces outside of the control of a university, such as the state of the economy or visa laws. How appealing is it to take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt when the economy is performing well and there are good jobs in the private sector? And unlike other professional programs, you don’t graduate from schools of global affairs into a specific profession or trade, such as becoming a lawyer, accountant, or a doctor.

Top U.S. Undergraduate Institutions to Study International Relations

  • 1.Harvard University51.10%
  • 2.Princeton University49.14%
  • 3.Stanford University41.67%
  • 4.Georgetown University39.46%
  • 5.Columbia University32.97%
  • 6.Yale University21.08%
  • 7.University of Chicago20.96%
  • 8.George Washington University17.40%
  • 9.American University15.20%
  • 10.University of California—Berkeley11.64%

These challenges are real. But they overlook the ways it has actually never been a better time to study international affairs. This is a time of exciting opportunity, innovation, and future growth for at least three reasons. First, international affairs programs are better situated than other disciplines and professional programs to help us understand and develop solutions to the complex, vexing, and ever-changing array of global challenges and opportunities. Second, global policy schools can be engines of much-needed change and reform within higher education writ large, enlarging and innovating on what, to whom, and how international affairs is researched and taught. Third, these programs are attracting new audiences to the world of international affairs, acting as bridges between the worlds of thought and action, among different generations and communities, and among the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.

We should start by acknowledging that globalization has profoundly altered political, socio-economic, and cultural forces around the world and, despite the efforts of populists, is unlikely to abate or reverse in years to come. The world is, for better or worse, interdependent. This deepening interdependence is happening at a time of shifting players, both in terms of rising and declining states and the increased importance of various nonstate actors. It is impossible to understand our most pressing problems or opportunities through only a local or even national frame. Rapid advances in technology will continue to have profound if unknown consequences that will defy borders, shaping our political, intellectual, socio-economic, and military environment in ways we can hardly imagine.

We desperately need not only answers but new ways of thinking about, framing, and analyzing the most important global questions. And this applies not only to government but also employers in the private and nonprofit sector. As Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other large technology companies no doubt now recognize, no amount of training in computer science or marketing can fully prepare a global corporation for the challenges of operating in a deeply politicized, complex, and often counterintuitive international environment. Other industries, old and new, for profit and nonprofit, will join tech companies, if they haven’t already, in requiring that employees have a richer, deeper understanding of international affairs.

America’s crown jewel universities, however, are not as well-adapted to mediating such knowledge as they could be. To be sure, institutions of higher education have been critical factors in the civic health, technological prowess, effective statecraft, and economic growth of the United States while forging lasting ties with much of the rest of the world. Their record of achievement is extraordinary, and they remain amazing repositories of deep knowledge, research, and education. In many ways, however — and as ironic as this may strike outsiders — it could be argued that America’s higher education institutions are small-c conservative entities, often slower to adapt to a changing world than other institutions in society. Various norms and practices — from tenure to how and when and in what manner education is offered and research is pursued — have followed along the same lines for decades. While many of these academic practices are well worth preserving, few would contend that higher education would not benefit from some reform and updating.

Schools of international affairs — through their intellectual diversity, intimate ties to the nonacademic world, and institutional flexibility — are ideal instruments to help universities evolve, innovate, and reform to better understand and respond to the challenges of a changing global environment.

Top Master’s Programs for Policy Career in International Relations

  • 1.Georgetown University60.53%
  • 2.Harvard University49.43%
  • 3.Johns Hopkins University48.30%
  • 4.Princeton University37.58%
  • 5.Columbia University37.45%
  • 6.Tufts University30.90%
  • 7.George Washington University29.38%
  • 8.American University21.06%
  • 9.London School of Economics18.16%
  • 10.University of Chicago13.75%

How? To give one example: To an extent often not recognized by those outside of higher education, universities are largely structured by academic disciplines. Teaching, researching, and engagement with the outside world are organized by self-contained, self-regulating fields of study. At the most prestigious colleges, the decisions that matter most — what scholars are hired and tenured, how the next generation of scholars is trained and prepared, what is taught to young people and how — are not determined by university administrators or market demands but by disciplinary gatekeepers. Sharply defined but diffusely located, fields maintain their discipline and norms largely through reputation, which is shaped by insider networks and publication outlets such as academic journals and book presses. These vehicles carry an outsized weight in how universities pursue their core missions, research, and teaching.

This way of organizing universities emerged in the United States in the late 19th century was driven by exciting new players including Johns Hopkins University, Carnegie Mellon University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Chicago, and helped make American universities global leaders in high-end research and education. There are reasons to wonder, however, whether the discipline-centric model works best in 2018, especially for teaching and researching the issues of greatest interest to students of international affairs.

Academic disciplines and fields, when they are healthy and vibrant, balance between rigor and accessibility, cumulative knowledge and innovation, basic research and applied knowledge, scholarly insights and real-world answers. Too much of a focus on internal disciplinary concerns over problem-driven knowledge, however, can lead to research and scholarship that obsess over methods, focus on the insular concerns of the field, or are presented in ways that make them impenetrable to smart people outside the mandarins of a particular discipline. In many physical sciences and engineering, new fields and disciplines have emerged as new problems and puzzles have appeared in the world. Older disciplines including physics, chemistry, and biology have spawned new fields such as biochemistry and neurophysiology as old approaches and problems gave way to new.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, the disciplines most closely associated with global affairs — political science and history primarily, with a smattering of economics and sociology — have been far more static and less adaptable in the face of a dramatically changing world. Political science, for example, has become increasingly focused on disciplinary methods, and the history profession has largely abandoned the study of war, peace, and diplomacy. While there are exceptions, perusing the last few years of either the American Political Science Review or the American Historical Review would be unlikely to provide great excitement, usable knowledge, or efforts to bridge gaps desired by the aspiring student and practitioner of international affairs.

The most interesting questions of international relations do not fit neatly into the confines of academic disciplines as currently defined. Issues including resource scarcity, environmental degradation, the promise and threats of new technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence, and even traditional concerns such as the effect of nuclear weapons on world politics and statecraft require insight from a variety of academic disciplines and a range of experiences and backgrounds. The re-emergence of populism and nationalism could be better understood by more effectively mining insights from historians, comparativists, and sociologists who have studied similar episodes in the past. Schools of international affairs are free to hire scholars and teachers from a range of disciplines to incorporate legal, scientific, ethical, comparative, engineering, area studies, and historical insights into their teaching and to value insights gained through hands-on experiences. Their efforts can be multi-, trans-, or nondisciplinary and, in addition to identifying new problems, can develop new tools and methods. Scholars can be assessed on metrics that go beyond the narrow concerns of a social science discipline and field.

Perhaps it is unfair to traditional disciplines such as political science and history to adapt to the needs of public policy and international affairs students. Their primary pedagogical role, after all, is to teach critical thinking, research, and writing skills to young people, all of which are necessary to thrive in the world of international affairs (and all of which should be part of their curriculum). It is fair to say, however, that much of this teaching and research, naturally, reflects the world the teachers and scholars know well, which is academic life, especially in graduate school.

Top Ph.D. Programs for Academic Career in International Relations

  • 1.Harvard University68.13%
  • 2.Princeton University60.78%
  • 3.Stanford University57.35%
  • 4.Columbia University39.45%
  • 5.University of Chicago27.61%
  • 6.Yale University25.83%
  • 7.University of California—San Diego21.45%
  • 8.Massachusetts Institute of Technology19.19%
  • 9.University of Michigan14.45%
  • 10.University of California—Berkeley14.34%

Very few students interested in international affairs seek knowledge and skills to become academics, however. A powerful case can be made that international affairs can and should be its own independent field, incorporating the best insights from grand strategy and statecraft, the humanities and social sciences, as well as other relevant influences including public health, information sciences, behavioral psychology, and the study of law. The popularity among students and the larger public, eager for real-world insights and understanding, could spur other professional programs and even social science disciplines in more innovative, responsive directions. While some of this already occurs — think of how programs of public health include perspectives from epidemiology, medicine, natural sciences, law, economics, and many other fields — efforts to organize at least some university research and knowledge around other pressing societal issues could be quite popular and consequential.

International programs are also addressing a certain staleness in the way universities organize their teaching. Most colleges still organize their classes over long, 10- to 15-week semesters, divided into either large lectures that might meet two or three times a week in a hall with scores of 19- to 21-year-olds or a smaller, once-a-week seminar where a seminal text is debated. While the diversity of students has improved remarkably (albeit with much room for continued improvement) in American universities in recent years, the way courses are organized and taught for the most looks little different than it did 100 years ago. A young person interested in global policy would be unlikely to find great inspiration listening to close textual readings of various debates over the “isms” in international relations or learning about genealogies of knowledge in a graduate history seminar. The advent of podcasts and TED Talks reveals that a university is not required to host a dynamic lecture.

This is where schools of international affairs have an opportunity, one that many listed in the accompanying rankings have already embraced. As different and more diverse audiences become interested in learning international affairs, these programs have evolved in how they instruct new students. From team-taught classes to battlefield staff rides to crisis simulations and scenarios to group projects undertaken on behalf of paying clients seeking solutions to real problems, the pedagogy of global policy programs goes well beyond the traditional lecture and seminar format and is continuing to evolve. Courses can be taught in compressed or flexible ways that go beyond the traditional semester, such as immersion programs that meet over a weekend or week.

Technology is also being incorporated in exciting ways. International affairs programs foster global partnerships, bringing together diverse students and divergent perspectives into one classroom, both real, virtual, and sometimes both. International affairs programs actively promote dual degree programs with area studies programs and programs in law and business, encouraging intellectual cross-fertilization. And given a rapidly changing world, the curriculum for global policy can be adapted for a variety of levels and competencies, from the 19-year-old international studies major to the 40-something C-suite executive to the future flag officer in the military.

Given the who, what, and how international affairs schools teach and research, it is clear that they can go even further to design and tailor research and teaching opportunities in exciting ways. If done right, the skills and knowledge acquired in such programs will be as if not more valuable and prized than the pedagogy learned from law or business schools, to say nothing of academic disciplinary programs. If successful, this will no doubt have a positive effect on how universities undertake their larger teaching and research. When global policy programs are offering exciting, rigorous, and useful training to master’s students, it will not be long before other audiences — curious undergraduates, returning adults and rising executives, even Ph.D. students — demand similar innovation and opportunities.

This last group, Ph.D. students, may seem the smallest and least important. It has, however, the opportunity to be the most transformative for international affairs programs. If schools of international affairs take their spirited, innovative approach to learning and research — as well as better balance between basic and applied research, rigor and accessibility, the ivory tower and the world of practice — they have an opportunity to break free from the iron discipline of social science fields and, much as the exciting new fields that have emerged in engineering and natural sciences have done, produce productive and ideas and understanding of the world.

While short-term trends are cloudy, the future of the international affairs programs is exciting. One can only hope that the rankings that appear in Foreign Policy five or 10 years from now will reflects these dynamic trends, rewarding those programs that most enthusiastically embrace and meet these challenges.

Francis J. Gavin is the Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor and the inaugural director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins SAIS.

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