International relations professionals shake hands with a world map in the background.

International Studies vs. International Relations

International Relations

While similar in origin, international studies and international relations are two distinct fields. International relations emphasizes global affairs related to politics, economics, and law on an international basis, while international studies explores the social and cultural aspects of countries.

More specifically, international studies programs provide an exploration of the cultural, social, political, and economic issues that affect the people of different countries and regions. International relations, on the other hand, started as a subject within political science. It looks at nations through the lens of their place within the community of nations.

Both international studies and international relations offer an understanding of the many countries and cultures of the world and how they interact with one another.

After the early 1920s, immediately after the end of World War I and with the establishment of organizations such as the League of Nations (the forerunner to the current United Nations), international relations was established as a field. University programs formerly classified international relations as part of the field of international studies; but now, the field demands its own specialized area of study.

Professionals who are interested in pursuing a career in international studies or international relations should consider earning an advanced degree, such as a Master of Arts in International Relations.

Differences Between International Studies and International Relations

The rise and fall of political beliefs, systems, and rulers around the world result from a confluence of events that are connected to, and influenced by each other in myriad ways. International relations and international studies are two different fields that focus on these types of events and their impact on history.

The field of international studies examines the cause and effect of one system or institution on another. For example, an international studies scientist may work to uncover how a country’s economic performance, international trade agreements, and the global food supply impact people at a global level. Through this analysis, global studies scientists look for patterns and trends.

While international studies experts analyze political systems and powers and their impact on the globe, international relations professionals take a different approach. They further explore the relationships between sovereign states, political parties, large interest groups, and international organizations, using behavioral theories to interpret those relationships. Studying these international relationships provides a greater understanding of how political decisions are made, who makes them, and how they impact the global system. Knowing these relationship elements, policymakers can create successful foreign and national policies and avoid potential conflict.

Even as international studies and international relations overlap, each framework offers a unique perspective to help a country’s leaders, business owners, and other interested parties create and navigate relationships with other nations.

Essential Skills for International Studies and International Relations

Professionals who are pursuing a degree in international studies or international relations require a specific set of skills to be successful.

Negotiation Skills              

During a negotiation, each involved party works to advance their own interests. Professionals must determine these interests by actively listening to each party and communicating intended actions. Negotiations often are emotionally charged, particularly if previous agreements haven’t worked or the relationship between the parties is tense. Successful negotiators must remain level headed to move the negotiation to a positive outcome for both parties.

Analytical Competence

Analytical skills are essential in many international relations and global studies fields. Professionals must use various research methods to collect data on economic output, human rights violations, cybersecurity breaches, and other relevant issues. After the data collection and analysis periods, solutions are developed and implemented to mitigate found risks.

Cross-Cultural Management

The increase in people working overseas, the expansion of technologies across borders, and workforce diversity have elevated the importance of cross-cultural competence. This makes it one of the top skills to excel in the future workforce, according to a report by the Institute for the Future. In international relations, professionals must quickly identify what connects people—shared values, priorities, and goals—to build effective relationships.


The people and issues that surround foreign and national affairs are never constant. Tensions ebb and flow as political and business leaders change. Professionals in international relations and global studies must adapt to changing conditions to achieve a broader goal.

Interpersonal Skills

Finally, superior communication skills are essential to listen actively and express positions succinctly. Professionals in international affairs interact with many different people, such as political leaders, diplomats, business leaders, lobbyists, and nonprofit groups. Some of these groups and people may speak different languages and have different belief systems. Presenting ideas in an effective manner is paramount. This enables the majority of stakeholders to understand viewpoints and positions, and enables professionals to overcome communication obstacles to develop practical solutions to foreign and national issues.

Career Options in International Relations

After completing an advanced degree in international relations or international studies, graduates can choose different career paths. The goal is to leverage their newly acquired knowledge of global relations and international law to benefit their country or an international organization. Some available career options include the following.

Intelligence Analyst               

Intelligence analysts work to gather information from multiple sources, including international criminal databases, intelligence networks, and geographic information systems. Then they carefully compile this information into forms that field agents can use. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes the median annual salary for professional information security analysts is $99,370 and projects 31% growth in this position between 2019 and 2029.

State Government Advisor               

State government advisors apply their expertise in international relations to inform decision-making at the level of state government. The compensation website PayScale reports a government advisor earns a median annual salary of around $80,800 and projects average job growth in the field.

Foreign Ambassador               

Ambassadors are representatives sent by a government on a diplomatic mission to cultivate good ties with the host country. They do this by encouraging economic, cultural, and social exchange between the nations. According to the United States Department of State, the average salary of a U.S. foreign ambassador ranges from $109,000 to $142,000 per year, but job growth is limited to available postings.

Career Options in International Studies

Graduates of international studies often pursue career paths that apply their knowledge of the different social, cultural, political, and economic issues of other nations. Available career options include those listed here.

Research Analyst               

Research analysts apply their expertise in international relations to areas such as domestic security and international trade. The BLS reports research analysts can earn an annual median salary of $63,790 and projects 18% growth for these positions.

Policy Advisor               

Policy advisors can work in either the national or international sector, aiding governments or organizations in crafting beneficial policy measures. PayScale states a policy advisor earns a median salary of around $74,400 per year and projects the number of jobs will grow significantly in the future.


A journalist with a focus on foreign relations deals with news from other countries that could potentially impact both the country and the world. Reporters and correspondents—including journalists reporting from the field—earn a median annual salary of $46,270 according to the BLS.

Concentrations in Foreign Studies

Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in International Relations offers concentrations that enable students to earn critical skills in their pursuit of international relations or international studies careers. These skills include the following.

  • Cyber Diplomacy—How cyberspace applies to international relations and policy
  • International Security—Security through the lens of foreign policy and world politics
  • Regions of the World—Different world locales and their cultural identities
  • International Development—Globalization and economies and how these interact with a nation's development
  • National Security—How countries protect themselves and how world politics influences policy measures for the security of a nation

Why Pursue a Degree in International Relations?

Those who are focused on having a career on the world stage need advanced skills and competencies to effectively perform their jobs. The Norwich University online Master of Arts in International Relations helps develop a highly well-rounded world view, teaching skills such as how to untangle intricate international relations problems and apply a leadership mindset to dealing with international affairs.

International relations is a varied and nuanced field. The need always exists for clear-thinking, sharp-minded professionals in both governmental and nongovernmental services. As more companies seek to expand into international markets, international relations professionals will become ever more critical.

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

If you are considering a career in international studies vs. international relations, learn more about how the Norwich University program can help you advance your career. 


Recommended Readings

Becoming a Global Leader: 6 International Relations Careers
Is There a Difference Between International Relations and International Politics
Political Science vs. International Relations: What’s the Difference?


Essential Skills for a Career in International Relations, Norwich University
What Jobs Can I Get With an International Relations Major?, Houston Chronicle
Master of Arts in International Relations, Norwich University
What International Relations Skills Will Be Essential in 2019, Get Smarter
Information Security Analysts, Bureau of Labor Statistics
Average Legal Advisor Salary, PayScale 
What Are the General Duties of an Ambassador? Houston Chronicle
Foreign Services Pay Tables, United States Department of State
Reporters, Correspondents, and Broadcast News Analysts, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Market Research Analysts, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 
Average Policy Advisor Salary, PayScale

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