Master’s Degree in International Relations - Concentration in Arab or Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Studies

Over the past decade the demand for individuals with Arab language skills and a background in MENA studies has skyrocketed, leading to higher pay and more job opportunities.

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Just think about the most recent week in world news. Which regions appeared most often? With challenges and opportunities that are immense and constantly changing, very often the Middle East and Northern Africa take up more headlines than most other global regions.

Just a few of the ongoing challenges here include:

  • The refugee crisis
  • Nuclear proliferation concerns
  • The Israel/Palestine conflict
  • Instability during times of leadership change
  • Terrorist groups
  • Gender Crises
  • Human Rights Violations

In spite of these major challenges, new opportunities for partnership continue to appear:

  • New business opportunities with an increase in grassroots start-ups
  • Increased focus on research and development in technology
  • Ongoing economic reforms
  • A growing number of female leaders and activists working towards change
  • Increased access to technology is providing forums for discussion on politics and humans rights that was previously unheard of

If you’ve ever had friends from the Arab world you likely recognize just how complex and nuanced current issues in the MENA region are. It takes a willingness to dig past media bullet points and sink into the long and multi-faceted history of this region to be able to respond to the current challenges and opportunities.

If you’re willing to put in this hard work, a degree in International Relations with a Concentration in Mid-East and North African studies may be a good choice for you.

What Can I Do with a Degree in Middle Eastern Studies?

A degree in International Relations with a concentration in Middle East, North African, and/or Arab Studies combines the core curriculum of standard International Relations courses with courses that specifically address the history, culture, language, economy, and politics of the MENA region.

When you choose this degree you’ll be setting yourself up for a career in any number of related fields.

Common job titles associated with a MENA concentration include:

  • Account Executive
  • Analyst (Policy, Business, Finance, etc.)
  • Asylum Case Officer
  • Attorney
  • Author
  • Case Manager
  • Clandestine Agent
  • Consultant
  • Defense Contractor
  • Diplomat
  • Foreign Service Officer
  • Fund Development Coordinator (For non-profits)
  • Intelligence Agent
  • International Banking Employee
  • International Business Staff
  • Journalist
  • Lobbyist
  • Marketing Manager
  • Military Officer or Advisor
  • Museum Director
  • NGO Development Staff or Director
  • Peace Monitor
  • Researcher
  • Social Worker
  • Translator
  • University Professor
  • USAID Staff Member
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Areas of MENA student can chose to focus on include:

  • Business
  • Culture and History
  • Development
  • Economics
  • Education
  • Environmental Issues
  • Gender Issues
  • Human Rights and Social Justice
  • Immigration
  • Intelligence
  • International Banking
  • Law
  • Media
  • Mediation
  • Refugee Policies
  • Security Issues
  • Tourism
  • Trade
  • Transportation
  • Water Management

How Do I Know Which Graduate Program Will Be Best for Me?

This is such an important question! Sometimes students take the path of least resistance, focusing on applying to graduate programs within their alma mater or those closest to home. But if you’re considering an online program, out-of-state or even international options, here’s some things to consider when making your selection:

1. Research Potential Careers and Narrow Down Your Field of Interest

Knowing you want to work in the Arab world is a great starting point, but it’s also good to clarify the type of work you are most drawn to. This doesn’t mean that you need to know exactly what you will do when you graduate, but it will help you select programs that better align with your natural talents and preferences. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Do you prefer people-oriented work or research-heavy work?
  • What issues are you most passionate about? The environment? Social justice? Finance?
  • If for some reason you couldn’t enter one of your top two career choices, which other options might be a fit for you?

Taking time to research and learn a little about each career can help you narrow your focus. For example, some individuals feel passionate about human rights so they plan to enter the world of international law…only to discover they don’t have the stomach to manage the volumes of tedious reading and detail-oriented paper-work involved. Others might discover that their passion for development work actually dovetails well with certain environmental groups and projects.

By learning a bit more about the many options you should be able to come up with a list of your top 3-5 career directions.

2. Examine Course Offerings

Just because a school offers an “Arab World Focus” in their IR program doesn’t mean the program is a fit for you. Some programs focus on arts and culture, others on diplomacy and security issues. Some bigger programs have a huge number of options, but can be cost prohibitive.

Looking at the actual course offerings will help you develop a list of schools that best line up with your goals and natural gifts.

Common courses you might be able to pick from include:

  • Arabic
  • Comparative and Global Inequality
  • Comparative Politics in the Middle East
  • Development in the Arab World
  • Environment and Security
  • Geographical Perspectives on the Middle East
  • Hebrew
  • Illicit Trade in Art and Antiquities
  • International Business
  • International Energy Policy
  • International Law
  • International Trade Theory
  • Interpretation of the Quran
  • Intro to the Arab World
  • Islamic in International Relations
  • Jewish Mystical texts
  • Jews and Christians: Conflict and Coexistence
  • Jews and Muslims in the Middles Ages
  • Kurdish
  • Microeconomics
  • Migration and Refugees
  • Muslim Concepts of War
  • Persian
  • Politics in Modern Iran
  • Religion in the Contemporary World
  • Religion, Culture and Politics in the Middle East
  • Religious Fundamentalism
  • Risk Analysis and Modeling
  • Sephardic and Oriental Jewry
  • Silk Road: Then and Now
  • Statistical Methods for Business and Economics
  • Technology and Policy
  • The Origins of Anti-Semitism
  • Turkish
  • S. Relations in Iran
  • Women and Gender in the Arab World

3. Examine Program Types

Most IR-MENA studies programs fall into one of five categories. These programs vary in length, depth, focus, and intent. Understanding the program type will also help you narrow down your school options. The most common types of programs include:

  • Certificate Add-OnThis 12-18 month graduate level program allows you to add a certificate in International Relations or Middle East and North African studies to any pre-existing degrees you already have.
  • Single Degree with MENA ConcentrationThis 2-2.5 year program is a traditional International Relations degree, but you take a certain number of credits that are MENA-specific, usually from within the IR department.
  • Dual DegreeThis 2-3 year program gives you what is known as a dual degree – essentially you’re studying the core classes from two separate degree programs: International Relations and MENA (or similar) Studies. Dual degree programs usually take less time than completing two separate graduate degrees.
  • Two Degree OptionThis option generally takes 2.5-4 years, depending on the program and how well you can manage taking a heavy course load. In this situation you apply separately to both the International relations and the Arabic or MENA Studies departments and complete two separate degrees.
  • Combination Degree OptionThis is the most comprehensive option and takes anywhere from 5-9 years to complete. With this option you will take your master’s degree in one area, say International Relations, and then go on to pursue a doctorate in the other area while focusing your research towards a combination of the two areas. So, for example, your research might focus on Iranian history and how it has influenced Iran’s current relationship with the US.

There’s nothing more disappointing than putting all of your eggs in one basket and losing them. Most students apply to 3-8 graduate schools, and we recommend applying to a minimum of your top 5.

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It’s true that this takes extra work, but it’s an important safe-guard in the event that your top choices don’t work out.

Becoming A Stand-Out Career Candidate

When potential employers examine your resume the reality is that they’ll care less about your GPA or the school you attended and more about the type of growth and experience you demonstrate. Throughout your educational career you’ll want to take advantage of opportunities to get hands-on learning that help you stand out. Some things to consider include:

  • Internships: While they may not be paid they often pay off in the long run due the experience gained and potential connections made.
  • Study Abroad: These experiences give you a first hand understanding of working cross-culturally that you can never truly replicate in your home country.
  • Advanced Language Skills: Most programs require a certain level of language proficiency, but by going above and beyond the standard you position yourself for certain highly specialized positions, including those in intelligence and national security.
  • Graduate Fellowships: Graduate fellowships may extend your time in school but they will increase your hands-on experience.
  • National Associations: Joining one of the many International Relations – related national associations puts you in a position to gain a broader understanding of your field and keep on top of new developments.

One of the biggest benefits from all of the above is connections. Most jobs in international relations today are founds not through job search sites but through connections. A semester spent interning without pay at USAID or a think tank may open the door for a much higher-paying or exclusive position.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that the amount of time, energy, and focus you put into your degree is what you will get out of it. Potential employers want to see evidence that you took your studies seriously and made the most of opportunities to grow during your career as a student.