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Political Science, International Relations, Public Affairs -- What's the Difference?


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I feel like this is an obvious question but I can't make sense of all the program descriptions I've read online. If you had to explain the different between this grouping of graduate degrees, how would you do it? Feel free to add in descriptions of other similar degrees. I'm trying to get a sense for what they all lead to, and why there's just so many different program types for similar areas of study. 


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Political science is academic and non-interdisciplinary (at least, in the sense that it is a stand alone discipline) while international relations or 'global studies' and public affairs are less academic and more geared towards policy while also being much more interdisciplinary. 

Political science degrees, particularly Ph.D.s, are geared towards research and academia. The others are more geared (but not necessarily exclusively) towards policy analysis and vocational pursuits. 

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political science focuses on institution's influence on peoples' behavior(how to act under certain institutional arrangement). For example, the policy coming from an independent central bank would be different from a dependent one, because the people under this institutional arrangement have different best strategic behavior course. So political science observes and finds out the laws of the relationship between the intuition and individual behaviors/economic performance(political economy)/……

IR as a subfield of political science view the international world as a regime, or supernational institution arrangement, and try to find out the laws of peoples’(governments’) behaviors through strategic choice under different internal(parliament, court)/external(international court, un, treaties) institutional arrangement.

I don’t know about public affairs. Maybe someone else who is familiar with this field can give a skeletal view of the field for you.










Edited by constantbo
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At the PhD level, International Relations is one of the main subfields of Political Science (the others being Theory, Comparative Politics, and American politics). IR focuses on the interaction between states (and non state actors, and more...).  Political Science is a mainstream branch of academia filed under social sciences (along with Economics and Sociology etc). People get a PhD in PS typically to become professors.


Not to be confused with graduate schools of International Relations/Affairs/Diplomacy/whatever such as those offered by SAIS/Georgetown/Columbia SIPA/Tufts Fletcher, etc. Usually offering an MA or MS degree. Those are professional degrees for people who want to work in government, international organizations, NGOs etc. I would liken them to an MBA.  To the best of my understanding, they don't have to write theses, often do internships or even work full time while taking coursework part time. Emphasis more on networking and gaining some practical skills.


Public affairs seems to be often used for MA degrees similar to the professional degrees, but I believe at some schools you can get a PhD in Political Science focusing on Public Administration. Is that what you're thinking of? Either way I'd say Public Affairs tends to focus more on the actual workings of government, like figuring out how to provide better public education or regulate businesses etc.

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This is probably the wrong forum for this question at the MA level, but I'll give it a stab.  First off, these are not standardized labels.  Programs can choose what to call themselves, which is substantially a marketing decision.  Many of the pre-eminent programs even go so far as to use labels entirely of their own creation.  That said:

-Political science indicates an academic discipline, generally housed in a "Department of Political Science" or similar.  At the MA level, an MA in political science is usually intended as a credential for someone hoping to gain admission to a PhD program in political science in the future (that's where this forum is best positioned to advise you)

-International Relations*: This is the name of a subfield within political science that studies international politics (e.g., issues about war, international trade, global governance, etc.); however, the term can also be used to indicate the interdisciplinary field of study described in my next category.  A stand-alone "MA in International Relations" or similar is likely to refer to this interdisciplinary field.

-International Affairs/Foreign Affairs/Global Studies/etc.: These and similar labels refer to an interdisciplinary field of study focused on, well, international affairs.  Masters degrees at this level are generally designed as terminal degrees that prepare a student for a career in the field (e.g., in US foreign policy community, in international business, in NGOs, etc.).  These programs typically feature a curriculum that draws on political science, economics, history, geography, sociology, anthropology and perhaps even a broader net.  Precise requirements and emphases vary considerably across programs.  It's possible to draw some generalizations about programs that call themselves International Affairs vs. Global Studies, but I'd advise you to just look into the details of the programs that interest you.

-Public Administration/Public Affairs/Public Policy: Again, this refers to an interdisciplinary field drawing on many of the disciplines listed in the previous entry.  The difference is that these degrees do not tend to (inherently) focus on international issues.  Many of these programs also focus more on issues of management/public finance/etc. that you might associate with an MBA.  Once again, these are professional degrees intended for people aiming for a career in public policy/administration/etc. (e.g., working at a government agency, large non-profit, think-tank, etc.).  I'm assuming your interests are on the IR-side as you asked about those degrees specifically, though.  Some public policy programs (e.g., Harvard or Princeton) allow you to pursue an IR-focused public policy degree that is substantially similar to the specifically-IR degree you would receive at, say, Georgetown or Tufts.  Others do not.  Again, you'll just have to look into the specifics of the programs that interest you.

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Different schools of public affairs have different specialties within public affairs - management, finance, social policy, science and technology, planning, policy analysis, implimentation research.  For the most part Public Affairs is an interdisciplinary field focusing on public value, democracy in practice, safety nets, governance, public management and administration, finance, policy process and implementation, public and private partnerships, government structures and change etc.  How government works, how nonprofits work, how policy works, how levels of government interact, etc.  It pulls from sociology, political science, organization studies, social psychology, business management, anthropology, its own normative works, and more.  Public Affairs is Western European and US-centric at this time, but there are many students and academics from Asia who are changing this and confronting Western assumptions right now, very exciting. 



Edited by WhatAmIDoingNow
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On 1/8/2016 at 10:11 PM, mrs12 said:

I should specify that I'm curious about it at the Master's level. 

As far as masters level, Public Affairs schools have different degrees within them and different schools have different emphasis. They can focus on fianance, city managagment, local to federal level government, international development, etc. 

hese are professional masters programs with intent of working in a public or nonprofit organization upon graduation. 

MPA- Master of Public Administration.  This is governmental administrative practice. City management, public budgeting, your public administrative roles, public management, contracting, etc. Translates nicely into nonprofit too. 

MPP - Master of Public Policy. Auditing, public policy analysis, policy centers, policy development, etc. Works will with advocacy, nonprofit, or government jobs.

There are also masters of development, nonprofit, international relations, etc, that can be housed in these schools. 

You will learn about public value, management, finance, policy process and implementation, governance, accountability, structure and institutions, etc. 


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