American University Online PhD International Relations

Last Updated on January 18, 2023

The American University offers an accredited Online PhD International Relations program. All programs are created and taught by leaders in their respective fields.  The degree is fully distance-based, offering maximum flexibility for students who wish to pursue this doctoral degree from a fully accredited university.  The program is available for full time enrollment and/or part time enrollment, and consists of 42 credit hours of coursework.

American University offers a PhD in International Relations, with concentrations in energy and climate change, international economics and finance, post-conflict reconstruction, development studies, applied research methods, or regional politics. To fully understand the impacts of large-scale international developments, you’ll be trained in rigorous inquiry and analysis of your specialized field. These skills are crucial to understanding the role of globalized systems in the past, present and future. Understanding the drivers behind these systems allows you to predict likely outcomes while anticipating alternative developments. A PhD degree is the highest level of academic study offered. It is a prestigious designation that will put you into an elite community of academics and professionals while intensifying knowledge in your field.

phd in international relations and diplomacy

A degree in International Studies can prepare you for a career as an international relations analyst, political scientist, historian, journalist, government official or potentially a number of other professions. This degree program is rigorous and challenging in order to produce graduates who are knowledgeable about conflict and resolutions, international law, global history and culture as well as the US foreign policy process and American leadership in today’s world.

Every year about 14,000 students and recent graduates enroll in a master’s or doctoral program with the hope that it will increase their marketability as professionals. They soon realize that their hard earned educational credential is not adequately preparing them for the job market.

American University, Washington, D.C.

best universities for phd in international relations

The challenges currently facing our world are numerous and varied. Successfully handling these issues requires the brightest and best-trained minds. The School of International Service’s (SIS) PhD in International Relations provides qualified and dedicated students with the training, knowledge, and experience necessary to pursue careers in the scholarly and policy worlds and to contribute game-changing solutions in international affairs as emerging thought leaders.

With its large and diverse faculty, SIS offers a broad, interdisciplinary, and policy-relevant approach to the study of international affairs. We value theoretical diversity, intellectual breadth, analytical rigor, and scholarly excellence. SIS is committed to maintaining, both among its faculty and within its doctoral program, the expertise needed for the rigorous analysis of critical issues in international affairs.


The PhD program requires 39 credit hours of approved graduate coursework, plus the successful defense of a dissertation. The first year is devoted to core courses and methods training. In the second year, students complete one of the concentrations offered by SIS, or construct one of their own.

Students must also successfully complete two comprehensive exams – a qualifying exam at the end of their first year and a concentration comp at the end of the second year. Students are also asked to demonstrate competency in a modern foreign language.

The dissertation must advance knowledge in the field of international relations, broadly defined. Students select and design their own research project in consultation with a committee of at least three experts in their chosen field of study. Students advance to candidacy upon the successful defense of a dissertation prospectus, usually in their third year. A public defense of the dissertation is required for graduation.


To pursue a PhD at SIS, you will identify a field concentration, take comprehensive examinations, and write and defend both a dissertation prospectus and a dissertation. You’ll emerge ready to take your place among international relations scholars and contribute to the body of knowledge in this exciting field.

Year One

During their first year, students take six required courses. In the fall semester students take SIS-801 Schools of Thought in International Relations, SIS-802 Comparative and Regional Studies, and SIS-806 Quantitative Methods in International Relations. During the spring semester, students take SIS-803 Advanced Seminar in International Relations, SIS-804 Social Theory in Comparative and International Perspective, and SIS-807 Qualitative Methods in International Relations.

Students will also join more advanced PhD students in regularly scheduled research colloquia as well as events to help mentor students in grant writing, conference presentations, publications, and professional skills for the job market.

At the end of their first year, students take a written and oral qualifying comprehensive exam that requires them to demonstrate competency in theoretical, epistemological and methodological literature and issues in international relations, comparative politics, and social theory.

Year Two

Field Concentrations

During their second year, students will identify a field of concentration from among those offered by SIS, or in consultation with the Director of Doctoral Studies, construct one of their own. Each concentration comprises 3 required courses plus a comprehensive exam. The exam is based upon a reading list for each concentration and has both a written and oral component.

Required Coursework

Also required during the second year, normally during the fall semester, is SIS-808 Politics and Policy Making in International Relations. Students will also select two electives to develop an additional area of concentration, further explore a potential dissertation topic, or for additional methods training. These electives can be chosen from graduate courses at the School of International Service, as well as graduate courses in other programs at American University or at other universities in the National Capital area that are members of the Washington Metropolitan Consortium of Universities.

Year Three


In the fall semester of the third year, students take SIS-809 Seminar on Advanced Research Design, plus an additional six credits of either course work or independent study. In consultation with the Director of Doctoral Studies, students will determine the program of study that is best suited to help them complete and successfully defend their dissertation prospectus by the end of their third year.

Dissertation Prospectus

Before advancing to candidacy, all PhD students must write and defend a dissertation prospectus that reviews the relevant literature, identifies relevant theoretical, epistemological, and methodological issues, and provides a detailed research design that includes a timetable for the completion of the work. Students are expected to successfully defend their prospectus no later than the end of their third year. For information about the process leading up to and including the prospectus defense, please see the SIS PhD Handbook.Doctoral Dissertation

Each student must complete and successfully defend a dissertation that contributes to knowledge that is relevant to international relations. This dissertation is defended orally before the student’s dissertation committee and members of the academic community. The required processes for assembling a dissertation committee and writing and defending the dissertation are laid out in specific detail in the SIS PhD Handbook.


View a detailed admission and degree requirements listing for your degree of interest

.Entrance SemesterFallApplication DeadlineDecember 15

Additional RequirementsUndergraduate degree

GRE scoreTOEFL/IELTS score if non-native English speaker

Three letters of recommendation

Statement of Purpose

ResumeApplicationCompletion of online application


Entrance SemesterFallApplication DeadlineDecember 15Additional RequirementsUndergraduate degreeGRE scoreTOEFL/IELTS score if non-native English speakerThree letters of recommendationStatement of PurposeResumeApplicationCompletion of online application

International Relations (PhD)

Admission to the Program

Applicants for the PhD degree program must hold an accredited bachelor’s or master’s degree, or its equivalent, in a field related to international relations. Applicants must have a prior cumulative grade point average that is substantially above B (3.00 or higher on a 4.00 scale) for coursework relevant to international relations.

The program is designed for study on a full-time basis. Applicants for the PhD degree are considered and admitted only for the fall semester each year. The school does not permit students to begin their doctoral work in the spring. Deferral of matriculation in the PhD program is not permitted. In order to be considered for fall admission, applications and all supporting materials must reach the SIS Graduate Admissions Office no later than December 15.

All applicants are required to submit results of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Non-native English speakers are required to submit results of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) unless they hold a degree from a US-accredited institution before enrollment at SIS. The minimum TOEFL score for full admissions consideration is 100 on the Internet-based test (iBT) or 600 on the paper-based test (PBT). The minimum IELTS score is 7.0. Applicants should plan to take the appropriate test well in advance of the December 15 deadline.

All applicants must submit at least three letters of reference which evaluate their suitability for undertaking doctoral study in international relations. At least one of those letters must assess their academic performance. Cultural factors are considered in making admissions decisions and in evaluating transcripts and examination results.

Doctoral students may transfer up to 6 credit hours of previous graduate coursework earned at accredited institutions with a minimum grade of B in each course. Such credits must have been earned within five years of admission and must be relevant to a student’s program of study. Requests for transfer of graduate credit are considered during the student’s first term.

Degree Requirements

  • 39 credit hours of approved graduate coursework
  • Minimum 3.00 cumulative GPA in all coursework is required to remain in good academic standing and to earn the degree
  • Proficiency in a modern foreign language: Research competence in English and another modern foreign language relevant to the student’s career objectives must be certified
  • Satisfactory completion of two comprehensive examinations, each of which has a written and oral component
    • The first or qualifying examination is normally taken at the end of the first year. The qualifying exam requires the demonstration of competency in theoretical, epistemological, and methodological literature and issues in international relations, comparative social theory, and comparative and regional studies. These areas are addressed in the core seminars that students normally complete during their first year of residence, although the scope of the examination is not limited to topics covered in the seminars
    • A second examination, the Field Comprehensive Examination, is in a student’s chosen field of specialization. This Comprehensive Field Examination is a scholarly paper in which students must demonstrate knowledge of the scholarly literature related to a research question approved by their Field Concentration Chair. With the permission of the SIS Director of Doctoral Studies and the advice of at least three qualified scholars, the student may also construct a special field
  • Pass an oral defense of a dissertation prospectus: A student must write and defend a dissertation prospectus that provides a justification for the dissertation research, reviews relevant literature, identifies relevant theoretical, epistemological, and methodological issues, and provides a detailed research design, including a timetable for completion of the work
    • The SIS Director of Doctoral Studies chairs the prospectus defense. The examiners also include the student’s dissertation committee, which is comprised of a minimum of three members, one of whom serves as chair and as the primary supervisor of the dissertation research. It is the responsibility of the student to secure the agreement of a full-time tenured member of the School of International Service faculty to serve as the chair of his or her dissertation committee. At least two members of the dissertation committee must be full-time, tenure-line members of the American University faculty. The members of the committee must be approved by the SIS Director of Doctoral Studies and the American University Doctoral Council
    • Students are normally expected to complete their prospectus defense no later than the end of the sixth semester after entering the program. For details on scheduling comprehensive examinations and examination procedures, consult the director of the PhD program or the SIS Graduate Office
  • Advancement to candidacy: To be advanced to candidacy, students must remedy any deficiencies specified at the time of admission, complete all coursework, be certified as proficient in a modern foreign language in addition to English, have passed their written and oral examinations, have submitted certification of completion of Responsible Conduct of Research training, and have successfully defended their dissertation prospectus
  • Completion and oral defense of dissertation: The dissertation must consist of high quality original research, directly relevant to the student’s doctoral program. This dissertation is defended orally before the student’s dissertation committee. At the time of the defense, one additional member will join the committee as an outside reader and for the purposes of providing a review of the dissertation to determine if it meets general standards in the field, but not necessarily to critique the work in detail. The entire American University community is also invited to the oral examination, customarily with two weeks prior notice
    • Students must present a completed draft of their dissertation for defense. They are responsible for ensuring that the final draft of their dissertation meet university style requirements. Dissertations must be approved by the dean of the School of International Service
    • Statute of limitations: American University’s academic regulations provide that all work for the doctorate must be completed in no more than nine years after the date of first enrollment as doctoral student. Prior to the expiration of that time limit, a student may petition for an extension of candidacy. Under compelling circumstances, students may apply for one-year extensions beyond the expected time to degree, with a maximum of three extensions. Students must petition the SIS Director of Doctoral Studies for each one-year extension; each extension must also be approved by the SIS Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Graduate Education and the Vice Provost for Graduate Studies and Research

Course Requirements

Core Theory (12 credit hours)

  • SIS-801 Schools of Thought in International Relations (3)
  • SIS-802 Comparative and Regional Studies (3)
  • SIS-803 Advanced Seminar in International Relations (3)
  • SIS-804 Social Theory in Comparative and International Perspective (3)

Social Science Research Methodology (15 credit hours)

  • SIS-806 Quantitative Methods in International Relations (3)
  • SIS-807 Qualitative Methods in International Relations (3)
  • SIS-809 Seminar on Advanced Research Design (3)
  • 3 credit hours in prospectus workshop
  • 3 credit hours in policy analysis for international affairs

Concentration (9 credit hours)

Note: Specific course requirements as well as additional preparation for the field examinations are determined by each field.

  • 9 credit hours in a major field of concentration from among those offered by SIS or approved by the SIS Director of Doctoral Studies. Students may also construct their own field of concentration, with the approval of the SIS Director of Doctoral Studies and the guidance of at least three faculty from the School of International Service. Fields of concentration include:
    • Development Studies
    • Global Environment
    • Global Governance and International Organizations
    • Peace and Conflict Resolution
    • Security and Political Violence
    • Technology, Security, and Social Change
    • United States Foreign Policy

Electives (3 credit hours)

  • 3 credit hours of coursework relevant to a student’s program of study and approved by the SIS Director of Doctoral Studies

Research and Writing Requirement

  • A student is required to maintain full-time status until they successfully defend a dissertation. Upon advance to candidacy, a student maintains enrollment status by registering for SIS-899 Doctoral Dissertation (9) . For each semester, up to 9 credit hours of SIS-899 is priced at the equivalent of one graduate credit hour

About the author

The Editorial Team at is dedicated to providing the best information on learning. From attaining a certificate in marketing to earning an MBA, we have all you need. If you feel lost, reach out to an admission officer.
Study on Scholarship Today -- Check your eligibility for up to 100% scholarship.

Leave a Comment