Laying the Foundation for a Career in International Relations with an Associate’s in International Studies

It wasn’t too long ago that interactions between nations were relegated to the echelon of corporate executive positions or high level diplomacy, but the internet and inroads made in global commerce have changed all that. Today, even a low-level HR generalist would be expected to be knowledgeable of multicultural considerations in the workplace. A junior staffer at a non-profit might be responsible for managing an outreach program for an entire African country.

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Knowing the ins and outs of international relations is the grounding that an associate’s degree in international studies can offer.

Once an obscure and highly specialized field, international studies graduates have found themselves in greater and greater demand. An associate’s degree in the niche area of international studies opens up doors to entry-level professional experiences that a lot of people with more advanced degrees couldn’t qualify for. Travel, learning languages, experiences with foreign cultures and foods are all part of the draw for jobs that involve international relations.

An associate’s degree is just a stepping stone in the field of international studies, however. In most cases you’ll need a more advanced degree to get a higher-level job in diplomacy or the nonprofit sector. Your selection of a two-year degree should be viewed primarily in terms of preparing you to go on to a four-year program at a minimum.

Selecting an Associate’s Degree Program in International Studies

You are not going to be spoiled for choices when you are looking for international studies associate’s degrees. Because there are few job options for international studies majors at the associate’s level, there are relatively few programs out there at the associate’s level. Most are explicitly designed to serve as the first two years of a longer four-year bachelor’s program.

It’s a good idea to evaluate your choices in this perspective. Look at the associate’s program as just the first two years of a longer education and consider how it will fit together with your ultimate international relations career plan.

You can find international studies degrees offered as either associate’s of arts or associate’s of science degrees. Traditionally, AS degrees have been more tightly focused on the career field being studies and involve fewer required liberal arts courses. However, since international studies is almost by a definition a humanities-oriented field, there is in practice almost no distinction between AA and AS programs in this area.

You will find similar programs under other titles, such as:

  • Associates in International Relations
  • Associates in Global Studies
  • Associate of Arts with a Concentration in International Studies

Language Skills

You should consider the availability and strength of the school’s languages program, since language foundations can be among the most important aspect of international relations. If you plan to go on to a more advanced degree such as a bachelor’s or master’s, having your language skills down solid will be a tremendous asset.

Because language requirements in bachelor’s programs are often one component that cannot be taken online, you may choose to get them out of the way at the associate’s level as a way to ensure you can complete your bachelor’s degree entirely online.


The transferability of your associate’s degree credits to a four-year program will be a key consideration. Associate’s degree are sometimes known as transfer degrees because they are used to fulfill some of the basic requirements of a four-year degree at a lower cost and often with more relaxed entrance requirements. It’s also easier to find a nearby community college than to find a four-year school that’s convenient to attend.

It’s most common for schools that are located within the same state or in the same region to have established transfer agreements with one another. This type of agreement means that associate’s program credits are accepted with no questions asked by the senior institution. Check to see if the schools you are considering have a transfer agreement in effect.

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Without a transfer agreement in place, the four-year school will evaluate the credits you were granted in your associate’s program on a course-by-course basis. The curriculum will be compared to that offered at the four-year school to make sure the education is comparable. Ensuring that your associate’s school is properly accredited will go a long way to smoothing out this process, but there are no guarantees.

International Studies Associate’s Degree Core Curriculum and Electives

You will have to take the college’s core requirements for any associate’s degree, which will usually include courses in:

  • Mathematics or economics
  • English, communications, or composition
  • Physical or biological sciences
  • Other social science or humanities studies

Those requirements are usually completely discharged in the first year of the program. After that, you’ll be into the core requirements for the international studies degree itself.

Foreign Languages

Although not every associate’s graduate in international relations is expected to have completely fluent command of another language, you’ll need to at least make a start at studying one or more languages. In addition to helping you communicate with foreign nationals, language studies can help you understand how they express themselves and tell you quite a lot about their culture. Additionally, if you hope to move on to more advanced degrees in international relations, you will need to have complete fluency in at least one language. The earlier you start, the better.

History and Geography

It’s hard to understand the way things are in the international system unless you have some perspective on how they got that way. The impacts of geography have helped shape how nations have interacted and still do. You won’t get very far in international relations if you can’t look at a map and tell Zambia from Zimbabwe. Classes in geography will lay out the lines on the globe for you; history courses will explain when and why they were drawn that way.

Anthropology and Cultural Studies

When you get right down to it, international relations happen between people, not countries. Although people are the same everywhere, they often show that sameness in very different ways. Cultural and anthropological studies courses will help you figure out this often confusing mix of universality and disparity and help you understand why those cultures are the way they are and what stabilizes those systems.

Politics and Comparative Political Analysis

Courses in politics form a core component of any international studies degree, since international relations are typically mediated by governments. These courses help you understand the effects of culture, citizen participation, and government structure on those relationships. You’ll learn how to perform comparative analyses between different systems and look at the current issues that effect different governance processes. An expanded study of the American system of government may also be part of this coursework.


Unlike many associate’s degree programs, international relations degrees often provide the freedom to take a large number of electives. These are typically expected to be in one of the above core studies areas or in other arts and humanities courses. They can include classes in:

  • Anthropology and History
  • Politics
  • Art
  • Business and Economics
  • Biology and Health
  • Philosophy

All of those can have aspects that impact international relations work. Many of the electives may be language dependent, such as literature studies in various languages, or history or anthropology courses that focus on specific parts of the globe.

Studying Abroad

Some associate’s programs also include a component that is more common in bachelor’s programs: a semester of study abroad, or an organized summer trip overseas. Since interactions with foreign nationals on their own turf is often a part of jobs in international relations, having some real-world exposure to these conditions is considered vital by most employers. It may be possible to fulfill this aspect of a full bachelor’s degree by taking care of it as part of your associate’s studies, but the experience will be considered valuable by employers either way.

Accreditation Standards for Associate’s Degree Programs in International Studies

Looking at the accreditation status of the school you plan to attend is an important part of evaluating an associate’s program. Since almost all associate’s graduates in international studies plan to eventually go on to a four-year school to obtain their bachelor’s degree in the field, transferability is a key feature of the program.

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If no formal transfer agreement exists, then the accreditation status of your school will come into play as the four-year school decides what courses you can receive credit for in their system.

Accreditation in the United States is typically offered by one of six regional accrediting bodies:

These bodies are recognized by either the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) or the Department of Education (DOE) as performing in-depth, standards-based evaluations of college programs that can be relied on for assessments of quality and completeness. It’s highly recommended that you ensure your chosen school hold an accreditation from one of those bodies.