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Political Science vs. International Relations: What's the Difference?

International Relations

If you want to make an impact on society both at home and abroad, entering the political sphere may be the right career path for you. From an educational standpoint, enrolling in international relations or political science degree program could open the door to opportunities in diplomacy. At first glance, the two fields can seem similar, but if you compare political science programs with international relations programs, you can see that there are significant differences.

Comparing the Definitions: Political Science vs. International Relations

Both political science and international relations are social sciences that encompass political systems and philosophies that have a direct or indirect impact on how society functions. The surface-level difference between political science and international relations tends to be the focus of each field. Political science entails the collection and analysis of data to examine political theories, such as reviewing voter data to understand patterns and political trends. Whereas, the discipline of international relations typically focuses on understanding the nature of global political relationships, especially with regards to those in the private sector and academia.

Political scientists use information gathered through surveys and other sources to examine various systems and ideologies, from identifying shifts within a political party to evaluating the ramifications of policies and laws on government, businesses, and people. These data points can help political scientists forecast trends in politics, society, and the economy; in some cases, political scientists can use historical data to further shape these forecasts. The information built by political scientists can be shared with the public through articles and presentations. These published works aim to give people a fuller meaning on the current state of political policy, which could influence future political thought.

International relations professionals typically focus on issues foreign and political that have a direct impact on the world at large. For instance, international relations graduates often go on to pursue careers in the private sector, such as serving as industry liaisons for companies seeking to expand their business opportunities abroad. By developing a keen understanding of how political issues, such as human rights, trade agreements, and immigration shape relationships between nations, international relations professionals work to improve relations between governments.

However, those with an international relations degree do not always have to enter politics. For example, graduates can use the skills from an international relations program to make a positive impact on human rights causes, charitable or educational needs, the international private sector, and more. Alternatively, they may prefer academic work, such as research and instruction, or they might seek employment as authors or publishers.         

The Educational Pathways of Each Field

For many advanced international relations positions, a master’s degree is required, especially in those careers dealing with international affairs, academia, and intelligence work. It is common for students to select a concentrated geographic region upon which to focus their study; in some cases, schools may offer domestic and foreign internships. A Master of Arts in International Relations (MAIR) program typically builds upon fundamental elements honed in an undergraduate program in the same area of study, including understanding historical relationships between nations and analyzing the functionality of various agencies within countries, such as humanitarian organizations.

For aspiring political scientists who want to advance their careers, a Master of Arts in International Relations program can provide them career opportunity such as a policy advisor, a lobbyist, a teacher, or a campaign operative. Other possible graduate degree options for political scientists include Master of Public Administration (MPA), Master of Public Policy (MPP), or Master of Public Affairs. For this field, the MAIR degree can prepare students for the global workplace where intercultural skills and policy analysis are necessary, while the MPA degree appeals to those who want to focus on a career in government leadership and public policy. The MPP and MPA degrees are very similar, but the MPP degree can be for both international or domestic public policy work.

Salary and Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for a political science professional is approximately $115,000 per year. The BLS has projected this field to grow by 3 percent between 2016 and 2026.

Because the field of international relations covers such a wide spectrum of careers, the average salary for jobs in this area is broad—roughly between $82,000 and $113,000, depending on the discipline. The job market is also expected to grow at a rate of 3 percent over the next decade.

Whether future professionals are considering a degree in political science or international relations, it is important that they understand both disciplines can have a substantial impact by raising awareness of pressing societal issues and encouraging action. However, political science and international relations professionals seek to impact policy in very different ways, and having a firm understanding of the differences between the two can play a vital role in helping prospective students determine which degree is best aligned with their career goals.

Learn More

As the nation’s oldest private military college, Norwich University has been a leader in innovative education since 1819. Through its online programs, Norwich delivers relevant and applicable curricula that allow its students to make a positive impact on their places of work and their communities.

Our online Master of Arts in International Relations program offers a curriculum that evolves with current events to help you face the future of international affairs. Norwich University’s master’s degree in international relations covers many subjects to give you a look at the internal workings of international players, examine the role of state and non-state actors on the global stage, and explore different schools of thought. You can further strengthen your knowledge by choosing one of five concentrations in International Security, National Security, International Development, Cyber Diplomacy, or Regions of the World.

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Executive Director - Non Profit Salaries, Glassdoor.com

Foreign Service Officer, U.S. Department of State

Transnational Issues, U.S. Diplomacy


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