MPA vs. Master of International Relations: Which Degree Is Better?

For students interested in a career in government and public service, a Master of Public Administration (MPA) and a Master of International Relations (MIR) are two popular degree paths. Deciding between an MPA and an MIR may be difficult for some students because there is not a clear-cut answer as to which degree is better. The graduate program you choose is a personal and subjective decision. In this guide, we’ll discuss some of the requirements and opportunities of an MPA vs. MIR.

Policy Issues to Consider: Local, National or International

The fundamental difference between an MPA vs. Master of International Relations is which public policy issues you might study throughout your degree program. An MPA generally prepares students for positions in the domestic public sector by having them study public institutions and business management, as well as relevant laws and regulations. An MIR degree is usually focused on international policy issues involving other countries, and students prepare by studying topics such as international law, economics and foreign affairs.

Both degrees are likely to be good options for students who are interested in working in government agencies, nonprofit organizations and other public and private sector occupations. Those with an MA in international relations tend to gravitate toward positions involving international relations and business. MPA graduates may also work in organizations with some international connections, but careers for MPA graduates tend to focus more on national and regional issues.

Determining whether an MPA or IR degree is right for you may require some introspection and research, so be sure to consider your interests and experience before making a decision. 

Compare Master’s Degrees in Public Administration and International Relations

As you weigh your options, it’s important to compare the differences between an MPA and MIR. This ensures that you are choosing the degree path that aligns more closely with your career goals and personal interests. 

MPA programs prepare you to influence the ​political, socio-economic or educational landscape through the development and implementation of policies. An MPA may be a popular degree path for public affairs professionals who want to take their careers to the next level. With an online MPA program, students have the flexibility of completing coursework from home. A Master of Public Policy (MPP) is another option for those interested in shaping public policy decisions, but it varies slightly from a Master of Public Administration in that it has a more quantitative focus.

With an online Master of International Relations program, you’ll study factors that influence foreign policy, including topics such as history, economics and security. Through your coursework, you can develop and strengthen your leadership and public speaking skills. This may be a good degree option for you if you are more interested in international affairs than domestic issues. 

MPA vs. Master of International Relations Prerequisites

The prerequisites for an MPA and the prerequisites for a master’s in international relations tend to be similar—however, specific requirements vary from school to school. For that reason, it’s a good idea to thoroughly research the admissions criteria for each program you’re considering. Some general requirements for these degree programs include:

  • Bachelor’s degree from an accredited university or college: A degree in a specific field is usually not required although relevant degrees such as a bachelor’s in political science may help set you up for success. 
  • Letters of recommendation: The number of letters of recommendation needed depends on the program.
  • Personal statement: Some schools may require a short essay that explains your career goals and why you wish to study public administration or international relations.
  • Resume or CV: Many graduate programs are geared toward working professionals. It’s common for schools to request a resume or CV to determine if you are a good fit for the degree program.
  • Test scores: Some programs may require GRE test scores as part of the admissions process. However, this is optional for many schools. 
  • Prerequisite courses: Some universities require you to have completed certain types of courses, such as American Government, before enrolling in the program.

MPA vs. Master of International Relations Courses

As you consider different degree programs, look closely at each program’s curriculum to see if the MPA and international relations courses align with your interests. Both MPA and MIR programs generally include a mix of required courses and electives that allow you to specialize in specific topic areas that may interest you. 

MPA courses may focus on areas such as public administration, public budgeting, administrative law and program planning. Coursework for MPA programs is generally intended to help students learn the skills necessary to serve in the public sector, especially in leadership positions. Common electives may include courses on federal policy, nonprofit management or grant writing. 

While there is some overlap between MPA courses and MIR courses, international relations courses focus more on world affairs. These topics are approached through a variety of lenses, including political, social, economic, historical and geographic perspectives. Some international affairs students may choose to concentrate their studies on specific parts of the world or specialize in certain topics like humanitarian assistance or peace and security.

Depending on the school you attend, field experience or an internship may be required as part of your degree program. Some master’s degree programs also require students to complete a capstone project before graduation. This intensive project puts the knowledge and skills you’ve learned throughout your program into action. The completed capstone can then be used as a portfolio piece after you receive your degree. 

MPA vs. Master’s in International Relations Program Length

The program length for an MPA or a master’s in international relations varies depending on the individual program and how many prerequisites you have completed. Like most master’s programs, the general length of study is two to three years. Some programs may allow you to accelerate this time frame to complete the program in as little as 16 to 20 months.

Skills Learned in an MPA vs. MIR Degree

Both MPA and MIR programs aim to help students develop valuable leadership, collaboration and language skills. However, there are some key differences between the learning outcomes of the different programs. 

When you complete an MPA program, you may learn how to: 

  • Integrate public administration theories with leadership and management principles.
  • Participate in and contribute to the public policy process.
  • Develop skills in quantitative and qualitative analysis.
  • Apply the principles of democratic governance within various leadership roles.
  • Create and implement public policy within the context of public and nonprofit organizations.
  • Consider the role that ethical values play in the development of public programs.
  • Identify problems in public policy and formulate possible responses and solutions. 
  • Demonstrate communication proficiency. 

Some skills commonly found in master’s in international relations programs include the ability to: 

  • Analyze international interactions between governments, organizations, businesses and groups.
  • Understand the implications of global issues and challenges, such as poverty, armed conflicts, human rights and the environment.
  • Study the operations of regional and global governments, as well as nongovernmental organizations that deal with trade and international law. 
  • Apply statistics and economics concepts to international relations theory.
  • Develop research skills and analyze information from a variety of sources.
  • Learn to express your thoughts effectively through a variety of communication channels.

MPA and Master of International Relations Potential Careers

A degree in public administration or international relations may prepare students for various careers in public policy and public service.

If you earn an MPA or MPP, you may find a position at the national, state or local level in the public or private sector. Some possible careers for those majoring in public administration or public policy include:

  • City manager: Run the day-to-day operations of a city in cooperation with elected officials.
  • Urban and regional planner: Guide land use development and urban growth.
  • Economist: Analyze data and identify trends to help develop economic policy.
  • Human resources manager: Manage the relations between an organization and its employees by creating and implementing policies and programs.
  • Education administrator: Manage and coordinate the administrative activities of public school districts or private schools. 
  • Nonprofit administrator: Manage the activities of organizations that support charitable causes.

As an MIR student, studying government affairs from a global perspective could lead to a variety of exciting positions in foreign policy and international law. Moreover, the job outlook for international relations professionals may be promising. Some common careers for MIR graduates include: 

  • Diplomat: Serve overseas and represent the interests and policies of your home country. 
  • Intelligence analyst: Work for a government agency to collect and analyze data and report on foreign governments.
  • Political analyst: Study the political landscape and evaluate the impact of policies and trends on international relations and international business.
  • Policy advisor: Work with an agency or a think tank to deliver information to political office holders, guiding the development of policies. 
  • News reporter: Report on global events and interpret the significance of events for your audience.
  • Nonprofit manager: Manage a nongovernmental organization (NGO) involved in delivering services to the public.
  • Interpreter or translator: Encourage communication between people who don’t share a common language.

Dual MPA/IR Programs

A dual degree program combining both MPA coursework and MIR coursework prepares students for public service professions in government, NGOs and international organizations. Pairing these degrees gives students the opportunity to incorporate international perspectives into their public administration studies. 

When Do You Need an MPA, MIR or Both?

Is an MPA worth it? Whether or not an MPA or a degree in international relations is worth it depends on your career goals and your personal interests. If you want to pursue a career in foreign policy, for example, an MIR may be a better choice than an MPA. If you’re more interested in working at the local or state level, an MPA may be right for you. 

Combining an MPA and MIR with a dual degree program may be a good choice for students who want more flexibility in terms of career opportunities. A joint degree blends public management skills with global expertise, preparing students for work as international professionals. 

Another benefit of participating in an MPA/MIR dual program is the opportunity to complete your degrees in less time. When you take a dual degree program, you may be able to share some core classes to reduce the overall length of each program.

MPA or International Relations: You Decide

Earning an MPA or IR degree is a valuable way to prepare yourself for an exciting and challenging career in government or public policy. Ultimately, there is no definitive right answer as to which degree option is better. The choice is yours to make based on which aspects of government interest you the most. 

Last updated April 2022