By Sarah Fister Gale

The Committee on International Relations (CIR) turns 90 years old this year, making it the oldest and one of the most respected programs of its kind. Over nine decades, its master’s program has evolved into a nationally celebrated program that reflects the University’s enduring legacy of providing rigorous academics for people of all backgrounds.

Paul StanilandSince its founding, the University of Chicago has been committed to international relations as a field of study, and the eminence of CIR reflects that commitment, said Paul Staniland, assistant professor of political science and faculty director of CIR. “UChicago helped define this field.” 

He points to Quincy Wright, one of the co-founders of CIR in 1928, who was a key innovator in the quantitative study of international relations; Hans Morgenthau, who taught at University from 1943-1973, and is considered one of the major IR theory scholars in the 20th century; and Morton Kaplan, the Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, for whom CIR's annual thesis prize is named. “They have been followed by several generations of prominent researchers in the field,” Staniland said.

Looking back

CIR was conceived expand opportunities in international relations and to provide graduate students with a unique environment in which to explore the field. What began as a professor-sponsored project quickly expanded into a full committee with a rotating roster of lecturers from across multiple disciplines. “Committees at the University generally start when faculty want to broaden the impact of their work,” said Matthias Staisch, senior lecturer in CIR.

RudolphsThe program reaches across a number of departments, including history, sociology and political science, and has been chaired by faculty from all of these departments over the years, including political science professors Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph. “It leaves us open to draw on the broader talent of the university,” said Staniland.

CIR’s long legacy of graduates are now shaping industries and driving research around the world, and many of them say the program gave them the foundation upon which to build a successful career. “It had an immensely important and useful impact on my life,” said Edward N. Krapels, who completed the CIR program in 1974.

KrapelsHe recalled taking courses led by Kaplan, David Easton, Akira Iriye, and other reknowned university faculty who challenged him to become a more mature thinker. “It prepared me for the career I have since had, which required me to be confident in my ability to integrate insights from economics, philosophy, political science, and sociology,” he said. “I feel like I became a secular scholar.”

After earning his degree, Krapels worked for the United States government for a few years and was assigned the International Institute for Strategic Studies. There, he published an Adelphi Paper on the impact of the emerging chaos in energy markets on international security affairs and received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to write the first book about Oil Crisis Management, which was published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 1980.

Krapels went on to earn his PhD in international relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in 1992. “I wasn’t aiming for an academic career,” he said. He worked in consulting until about 2000, then went on to found Anbaric, an early stage offshore wind project developer in Andover Mass, so that he could “incubate projects that make meaningful contributions to combating climate change.”

YuLike Krapels, Sean Yu, MA’01, recognizes how the program shaped their career path. Yu entered the program expecting continue on for a doctoral program and become a professor. But in the course of his studies, he realized that there were other opportunities he wanted to explore.

Yu, who is now a managing director with Morgan Stanley Private Wealth Management in California, credits CIR with building his critical and analytical thinking skills as well as providing a strong cohort with whom he further developed social skills. “In my role, the ability to see and understand the varied aspects of an issue is essential,” Yu said. “I know that my experience in CIR was instrumental in my capacities to do so, even now.”

Yu took out student loans to attend UChicago, and because of the value he gained through the CIR program, he started a scholarship fund for students. “It’s important to me to give back to where I came from.”

CIR today

Prior to 2008, the program fluctuated between 20-40 students, but in the last decade enrollment has expanded, with 70 or more students each year. The majority complete the program in one year, though a few return for a second year to write a more research-intensive MA theses and to take more advanced courses that were not possible in a one-year program, Staniland says. “They also act as guides and mentors to the new first year cohort, and have the opportunity to present their work in special seminars.”

The committee’s growth and popularity is largely due to a unique format and structure. As a one-year master’s degree program, it combines intellectual diversity and analytical rigor to allow students the freedom and guidance to complete an individualized course of study in international relations.

The goal is for students to a more sophisticated understanding of the complicated interaction between international politics and global morality, while creating a space where they can sample different topics and research areas, Staisch said. “Unlike most master’s programs, we give students the freedom to build their own curriculum and to be a part of the academic conversation. Each student is required to take nine credit-bearing courses but only two are required: a core class in International Security and another in International Political Economy, Staisch explained. Students select the remaining seven from a long course list that curates relevant classes from departments across the social sciences, area studies centers, subject concentrations, and the professional schools, and “no two students enroll in exactly the same course of study.”

Students also complete two thesis workshops, and are advised on an individual or small-group basis by preceptors who help them nail down thesis topics, and complete their work in the intensive year-long program. “Writing a master’s thesis provides them with an excellent opportunity to build their research skills,” Staniland noted.

As Yu found, despite its broad reach and access to more than 200 faculty members, CIR is a close-knit community, which ensures students with differing perspectives can challenge each other and expand their world view, Staisch adds.

Reja Younis Reja Younis, who graduated from CIR in 2018, chose the program after completing her bachelor’s degree at the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi, Pakistan. She was considering multiple masters programs at different universities, but was drawn to CIR’s concise one-year format and its diverse areas of study.

“It was a good transition for me straight out of my undergraduate work,” said Younis, who wrote her thesis on the effect of presidential rhetoric on the refugee narrative in the US. During the year-long program, she also worked as a research analyst studying South Asia for Staniland, which she helped her hone her critical thinking skills. “He gave us a lot of creative leeway with our research, which was a great experience.”

The program left her well-prepared for the junior fellowship position she landed at the Stimson Center, a non-partisan policy research center in D.C. Younis is now doing policy research on nuclear weapons in South Asia, including Pakistan, where she completed her bachelor’s degree. “CIR grounded me in the paradigm of international relations theory, and now I am translating that into practice,” she said. “It left me very well prepared.”

Younis is an example of the trajectory of current students. Today, approximately one-fourth of graduates continue on to doctoral programs in pursuit of academic careers while others pursue further degrees in law and public policy or move directly into jobs in politics, consulting, and think tanks.

Staniland notes that recent CIR graduates have been awarded Presidential Management Fellowships, Boren Fellowships, State Department Internships, and Fulbright Fellowships across the globe. “These are very prestigious positions,” he said.

Younis credits the CIR faculty with helping her broaden her perspective on what career paths she can follow. Before she began the program she assumed that she would pursue a PhD and become a professor, but since graduating and landing the fellowship, she’s not sure what she will do next. “It opened doors that I didn’t see coming,” she said.

Like Krapels and Yu, she encourages any students interested in international relations -- and who want to be challenged -- to consider CIR. “It was a very important part of my journey, and a huge milestone that will shape the rest of my career.”