5 Reasons to Major in International Relations

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Katy Pattison smiles at a bench on the UC Davis campus.
Academic advisor and alumna Katy Pattison. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Are your passions as wide as the world? Consider a major global enough to encompass them all — and a major that will take you where you want to go, whether near or far.

I majored in international relations when I was a UC Davis student. Now, as an undergraduate advisor in the Department of Political Science, I help students decide if international relations is the right major for them.

There are many reasons to pursue an IR major. Here are five.

1. Make the major your major

A mother and daughter smile in front of a mural.
Naglea Castro and her daughter Amanda Castro stand together at the Student Community Center. They both majored in international relations. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

International relations is a multidisciplinary major that consists of four tracks for students to choose from, each looking at issues of trade, development, conflict, environment, health, race and culture on a global scale. Courses come from over 40 campus departments and programs and overlap for a deeply nuanced curriculum that gives each student the opportunity to shape their major to their educational and professional interests. As an alumna, I can say that this appealed to me enormously. I bounced from comparative literature to political science to environmental policy analysis and planning. When I found the international relations major, I was so excited to see that I could choose just about every component of my requirements. And I advise students to pay attention to their interest in their courses when choosing a major. If you find yourself deeply compelled by your courses, you are going to be more open to research, internships and service opportunities that arise and that lay the groundwork for your professional development and networking.

2. Career flexibility

Students sit in a town hall with a podium at the State Capitol Building.
UC Davis students Hannah Poploskie, political science major; MaryAnn McNamara, international relations major; TerrvyahYura Raju, international agriculture development major and Preeti Naidu, computer science major, ask questions and listen to what its like to lobby and work at the government during UCAN Ambassadors Sacramento Advocacy at the State Capitol Building on April 29, 2019. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Regardless of their major, all students are familiar with the experience of a well-intentioned friend, family member or workplace proximity associate asking, “What can you do with that degree?” These inquirers often have a linear career path in mind (political science = politician, psychology = psychologist, etc.), which is understandable! But with a social science degree in international relations, students are given broad skill sets with universal applications. International relations majors are trained to think analytically, communicate effectively, speak a second language, and research extensively. These are desirable skills for employers across many fields. While I was completing my IR degree at UC Davis, one of my best friends (whom I met through the UC Davis Quarter Abroad program in Mendoza, Argentina) was also an IR student. I went on to get a master’s degree in higher education leadership and policy studies, while she went on to get a medical degree (also from UC Davis!). I use this information to demonstrate the wide range of professional applications for an IR degree and to encourage students to devote time to personal and professional exploration so that they are familiar with the myriad of career options available.

3. Groundbreaking faculty

Students talk in a full lecture hall at UC Davis.
Corey Ching, international relations major, talks about public perceptions of a UC Davis athletics contract during the Business Innovation and Leadership Development class in the Malcolm Hall main lounge. The class is part of Graduate School of Management in partnership with Student Housing. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

With a choice of courses campus-wide, IR students benefit from learning with distinguished faculty from departments ranging from political science to environmental science, religious studies and economics. IR students study under faculty like Professor Keith Watenpaugh, founding director of the UC Davis Human Rights Studies program and Article 26 Backpack; Distinguished Professor Zeev Maoz, director of the Correlates of War Project and recipient of the Social Science Research Innovation Award; and Distinguished Research Professor Suad Joseph, who founded the Middle East/South Asia Studies program at UC Davis. The IR program director and staff frequently update curriculum to include new courses that faculty create in order to capture the most current issues being examined across campus.

4. International relations will take you places!

A group of students poses in front of a brick cityscape.
A group photo of a study abroad class in the newly constructed urban district of Hagastaden, Sweden. (Photo courtesy: Christine DeLong)

International relations sends more students abroad than any other major at UC Davis. Here at UC Davis, we benefit from UC Davis-specific and UC-wide study abroad programs in more than 40 countries. Our program’s variety gives students incredible access to unique course offerings from other institutions all over the world. This, plus international relations being multidisciplinary with both global and regional emphasis, allows our students the ability to complete a substantial amount of major coursework while abroad. Because of this, many IR students pursue multiple study abroad programs during their time as undergraduate students. Some have even gone abroad for a year or longer! As I mentioned above, I was fortunate enough to participate in the UC Davis Quarter Abroad Program to Mendoza, Argentina. This experience proved to be one of the most formative of my undergraduate experience. I completed several major requirements while abroad, traveled throughout South America, met amazing people, and made connections that benefited me educationally and professionally in years to come. I recommend all my students look into fitting study abroad in their academic plan if at all possible.

5. Connect with the international campus community

Katy Pattison smiles beside an egghead statue at UC Davis.
Academic advisor and alumna Katy Pattison. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

While the international relations major encourages all students to explore a study abroad experience if at all possible, our students do not have to leave campus to be part of a vibrant international community. Members of the International Relations Student Association meet to discuss international affairs and host events, such as talks by visiting scholars and alumni panels. Many of our students hold student employee or internship positions with the International Center in various capacities. During COVID-19, a number of our students have participated in virtual internships with organizations all over the world. The International House is a social gathering space where people from around the globe come together. The PAL Program partners domestic and international students to promote cross-cultural engagement. The international relations program prides itself on connecting students to international resources available to help bring classroom learning into real-world applications.


Katy Pattison (B.A., international relations, ’04, M.A  higher education leadership and policy, ’10) is an undergraduate advisor for the Department of Political Science (international relations, political science – public service). She views it as a privilege to guide her students not just on degree requirements but also on achieving their personal, educational and professional goals. You can make an appointment with Katy at appointments.ucdavis.edu or contact her through poladvising@ucdavis.edu.

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