Become a thought leader in international affairs.

Pursuing a PhD is a unique experience. Focused scholarship combines with the need to meet exacting requirements, all in the interest of satisfying a desire to make the pursuit of knowledge one’s life’s work. At SIS, our interdisciplinary faculty research and write on a variety of geographic and intellectual areas; many have extensive experience in the public and private sectors, both in the United States and internationally. They work to ensure that PhD students at SIS attain training in international relations that is both multi-disciplinary and policy-relevant.

Our program was created to prepare outstanding scholars for careers in research and teaching at academic institutions, government, and non-governmental organizations throughout the world. If you're prepared for a focused, challenging, and meaningful experience, we invite you to explore our PhD program. 

Degree Progression

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.

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.

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 and SIS-810 Research Design. 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.


In the fall semester of the third year, students take SIS-811 Dissertation Development Workshop, 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.

Each student must complete and successfully defend a dissertation (or three scholarly papers) that contributes to knowledge that is relevant to international affairs. 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.

For full detailed information on courses and requirements, explore the SIS PhD handbook.

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. Students will take three courses (9 credits) as required by their chosen concentration and will take the field’s comprehensive exam at the end of their second year.

Required Courses

  • SIS-637 International Development
  • SIS-636 Micropolitics of Development
  • An additional course selected in consultation with the concentration chair

Meet the core faculty for Development Studies

Required Courses

  • SIS-619 Foundations of Global Governance
  • Two of the following electives
    • SIS-619 International Law and the Global Order
    • SIS-619 Complex Interventions and Peacekeeping
    • SIS-619 Regional Organizations: Security and Governance
    • SIS-620 Water Governance
    • SIS-666 International Financial Relations*
    • SIS-752 Global Economic Governance*
    • SIS-753 Global Financial Governance*

*SIS-616 International Economics is a prerequisite

Meet the core faculty for Global Governance & International Organizations

Required Courses

  • SIS-610 Theories of Violence and Conflict
  • SIS-619 Security and Insecurity: Conflict and Politics in a Global Era
  • An additional course selected in consultation with the concentration chair

Meet the core faculty for Security & Political Violence

Required Courses

  • SIS-689 Foreign Policy: Theories of Decision Making
  • SIS-653 President, Congress and Foreign Policy
  • SIS-653 Continuity and Change in USFP

Meet the core faculty for US Foreign Policy

Required Courses

  • SIS-660 Environment and Politics
  • One of the following SIS-620 Core Competence courses:
    • Political Ecology of Food & Agriculture
    • Water Governance
    • Global Climate Change
    • Urban Political Ecology
  • One of the following Big Ideas courses:
    • SIS-620 The Future of Environmentalism
    • SIS-620 Transitioning to Post-Carbon Energy
    • SIS-619 Environmental Peacebuilding

Meet the core faculty for Global Environment

Required Courses

  • SIS-619 IPCR Seminar I
  • SIS-619 IPCR Seminar II
  • An additional course selected in consultation with the concentration chair

Meet the core faculty for Peace & Conflict Resolution

Required Courses

Select three of the below listed courses:

  • SIS-628 Advanced Topics in International Communication: Big Data and Text Mining in International Affairs Research
  • SIS-642 Intercultural Relations
  • SIS-644 Communication and Social and Economic Development
  • SIS-645 International Communication and Cultural Policy
  • 3 credit independent study with approval of the concentration chair

Meet the core faculty for Technology, Culture & Social Change

Application At a Glance

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

Entrance Semester
Application Deadline
December 15
Additional Requirements
Undergraduate degree
GRE score
TOEFL/IELTS score if international applicant
Three letters of recommendation
Statement of Purpose
Completion of online application