Navigating the turmoil and uncertainty that dominate current international relations requires analyzing accurate, up-to-date intelligence in developing a strategic response. Professionals trained in research and analysis provide political decision-makers with accurate assessments of international conditions.

Degree programs such as an online Master of Arts in International Relations prepare graduates to dive deep into research areas that determine the course of political, social, and economic interactions among nations. The tumultuous state of the world creates tremendous opportunities for people who pursue careers as international research specialists.

How International Research Specialists Establish Policy

The journal Foreign Policy explains that international research specialists are especially well suited to help decision-makers in the public and private sectors devise strategic plans for solving the complex, dynamic, and unpredictable problems that exist among nations. Through advanced education and extensive training, international research specialists become uniquely qualified to provide leaders in government and business with insight into global political and economic conditions.

International research specialists analyze and interpret data from diverse sources and in many different forms to identify patterns and trends in international criminal activity and potential security issues. The researchers interpret the data to spot weaknesses in current government policies and provide insights to various government and international agencies that support the creation of new, efficient policies that support smoother relationships with other countries.

Where Do International Research Specialists Work?

The government agencies that employ  international research specialists  are among the most critical to the safety and security of people in the U.S. and around the world. However, the unique needs of each government department require that the researchers take a singular approach to each position. They must understand the primary responsibilities for each role and the required analysis and forecasting skills.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)             

Intelligence research specialists working for the DEA are primarily responsible for supporting drug investigations activities in the U.S. and overseas. They analyze and organize intelligence data; identify patterns and trends in the data; and communicate findings to DEA agents, investigators, and other decision-makers. Intelligence research specialists are increasingly active in cyber investigations that cross international borders and require advanced data analytics skills.

DEA intelligence research specialists must hold U.S. citizenship and sign a mobility agreement that allows the agency to assign them to areas to meet the goals of the Intelligence Program. All new intelligence research specialists must complete the Basic Intelligence Research Specialist Training Course at the DEA Training Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Candidates for the position also must finish the Intelligence Research Specialist Mentoring Program.

U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)              

ATF is engaged in a range of national and international investigations that encompass multi-defendant crimes committed by organized crime families, terrorists, and other criminal conspirators. ATF intelligence research specialists combine their knowledge and experience of various geographic locations along with the principles of inductive and deductive reasoning to create intelligence reports that offer advice specific in addressing pertinent subject matters.

ATF intelligence research specialists work in a field division office or an intelligence field office to study and report on specific topics relevant to ongoing criminal investigations. Among the intelligence-gathering techniques applied are link analysis, visual investigative analysis, and telephone call record analysis. In addition to preparing detailed analytical reports, ATF researchers report findings directly to investigation team members. They also participate in working groups, task forces, and committees to exchange information and coordinate technology used in multidivisional projects.

U.S. Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN)               

The Treasury Department’s FinCEN protects the U.S. financial system from criminals looking to perpetrate financial crimes and hide their illegal activities. The department’s intelligence research specialists participate in domestic and international investigations to thwart money laundering and other misuses of the financial network.

In their work for the department, intelligence research specialists analyze and interpret data from a range of databases and other sources that comprise one of the largest collections of law enforcement information in the U.S. Researchers use the data repositories to create detailed reports relating to financial criminal investigations conducted at all levels of government. They focus on providing investigators with a clear overview of illegal financial practices to identify broad trends and patterns. Because a growing number of financial crimes cross international borders, the department’s researchers work closely with law enforcement agencies around the world to formulate anti-crime strategies, policies, and programs.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)  

Requirements for a CBP intelligence research specialist also apply to the same positions in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the DHS Intelligence Enterprise (IE). Researchers collect, analyze, evaluate, coordinate, and disseminate intelligence related to enforcement operations within the departments. They also assess new and potential threats to border security and maintain classified information and requirements relating to national security.

CBP intelligence research specialists help determine the implications of the data under analysis for specific operations of the department by visualizing and communicating meaningful trends. They also identify gaps in intelligence data-gathering activities and anticipate and resolve communication breakdowns and other problems.

International Research Specialist Skills

As countries become more interdependent, the roles of international research specialists expand to help policymakers and business leaders address current needs and prepare for future requirements. Along with the increase in cross-border data transfers, advances in data collection and analysis techniques mandate that international research specialists possess strong technical skills and experience.

Foreign Policy highlights the critical role of university programs in preparing the next generation of international research specialists for the challenges of the future. Universities also lead the way in promoting “civic health, technological prowess, effective statecraft, and economic growth” in the U.S. Schools such as Norwich University possess the “intellectual diversity [and] institutional flexibility” to respond effectively to fast-changing global environments.  These universities emphasize instruction in advanced research and analytical skills, critical thinking competencies, proficiency in computers and related software, and strong communication skills.

Education, Experience, and Salary

Students considering a career as an international research specialist can benefit by earning an advanced degree such as Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in International Relations, which features a curriculum that covers the many skills required for an international research position. The program offers students a choice of five concentrations: Cyber Diplomacy, International Security, Regions of the World, International Development, and National Security. All the concentrations focus on teaching data analysis skills, international relations theories, and advanced research techniques.

Advancing in a career as an international research specialist requires gaining experience in the role. For example, intelligence research specialists hired by the DEA who hold a master’s degree, Ph.D., or JD start at the GS-9 pay level, which is currently $44,471 annually at Step 1 and increases to the maximum base pay of $57,809 annually at Step 10, according to the DEA website.

Explore the Benefits of a Master of Arts in International Relations

Those hoping to develop the skills needed to serve as international research specialists can develop their understanding of the field by pursuing a graduate degree focused on international relations. Learn how Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in International Relations degree program can help students prepare for a career as an international research specialist.

Recommended Readings

Interested in International Relations Jobs? Definition, Courses and Salaries
An Intriguing Career: How to Become an Intelligence Analyst
How Does a Background in National Security Help You Gain a Government Position?


It’s Never Been a Better Time to Study IR, Foreign Policy
Intelligence Research Specialists Careers, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration
Intelligence Research, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
Intelligence Research Specialist, Financial Crimes Enforcement Network
Intelligence Research Specialist, U.S. Customs and Border Protection
International Research Analyst Salaries, Glassdoor
GS-9 Pay Scale,
International Affairs, Rand Corporation


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