In response to the article ‘General IR, a Disadvantaged Concentration?’ in Issue 6, Volume 16:
Your recent article on General IR highlighted many of the potential downsides to the concentration. I write to challenge some of Prof. Doran’s explanations and to offer another perspective to this debate.
Like many students you described, I chose General IR because of its flexibility – I wanted the freedom to decide which classes best suit my personal interests and career goals.
However, I quickly learned it is not as flexible as the self-designed programs nearly all SAIS peer institutions offer (see Fletcher and Georgetown MSFS, for example). Prof. Doran claims that, “Each program, including the General IR concentration, focuses on a particular set of issues with particular questions that are specific to that area.” I would like to hear a thoughtful argument for why ERE is considered international relations but International Development and American Foreign Policy are not. This distinction seems arbitrary.
Furthermore, given the flexibility that is allowed, students in General IR can have little in common, such that it would be difficult to define “that area” that Prof. Doran mentioned. Someone who takes six classes between Strategic Studies, Conflict Management, and International Law and Organizations is likely to gain a very different set of expertise than one who splits classes between Global Theory and History, ERE, and Conflict Management.
Finally, why should there be any constraints on the classes you can take? Many of the issues within the field of international affairs are highly interdisciplinary and students have unique interests and unique backgrounds. Opening up choices can enable students to focus more, to develop the type of specific expertise that many employers desire – the energy sector in Latin America, or humanitarian response in Africa, for example. Let us take advantage of all the interesting focus areas SAIS offers.
If General IR is SAIS’s form of the self-designed program, why not let it be just that? Students could be required to demonstrate that they have a well-thought out program with a precise goal in mind. This would result in a concentration with greater integrity, not less. It is enough that we must choose between independence and access to the resources offered by other concentrations. Reward students who forgo these additional benefits with the confidence that they are the best placed to select classes that suit their needs.
Second-year M.A. candidate at SAIS Washington