International Business

What Can You Do with an International Business Degree?

What Can You Do with an International Business Degree?
Doing business in other countries and doing business across borders can be extremely profitable. It is not, however, without its potential pitfalls. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry May 29, 2020

A bachelor's degree in international business can open many doors, but if your goal is to climb as high up on the global corporate ladder as possible, you'll need a master's or MBA.

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Thanks to the evolution of technology, an increasingly twisty network of global supply chains, and a loosening of international trade restrictions, businesses today are not bound by national borders. Corporations like Johnson and Johnson and General Electric are headquartered in the US, yet dominate in the global marketplace. And it’s not just the big players—even small-scale manufacturers and retailers court customers abroad.

Doing business in other countries and doing business across borders can be extremely profitable. It is not, however, without its potential pitfalls.

That’s why international business exists as a field of study. The rules that govern cross-border business activities can be a lot more complicated and confusing than the rules governing domestic commerce. With economic barriers rapidly disappearing and opportunities increasing, “studying business from an international perspective is vital for graduates who are ambitious to work across international boundaries and cultures,” according to Dr. Robert Webb, associate dean for international engagement at Nottingham University Business School.

In other words, you can’t just get any old business degree or MBA and hope to land a role in global accounting, global marketing, global finance, or international relations. You need a deep understanding of how companies, markets, capital, human resources, and information flow across borders and how culture affects how business gets done. That’s precisely what international business degree programs are designed to teach students.

In this article, we answer the question what can you do with an international business degree? by exploring:

  • What types of students study international business?
  • Why are there international business degrees?
  • Are there different types of international business degrees?
  • What schools have the best international business degree programs?
  • Do international business majors need to speak other languages?
  • Is it worth going abroad to study international business?
  • What types of jobs do international business degree holders have?
  • Do international business majors out-earn business majors?
  • What will my prospects look like with an international business degree?
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What types of students study international business?

International business degrees at both the undergraduate and graduate levels are for students who want to work in international divisions of American companies, multinational corporations, national or international government agencies concerned with international trade, or foreign banking and economics. Students in master’s-level international business programs gain the skills and knowledge they need to step into administrative and leadership positions at firms that operate globally.

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Why are there international business degrees?

There are two main reasons that B-school students who aspire to succeed in the global marketplace don’t enroll in traditional business programs. The first is that doing business across borders requires an in-depth understanding of the product safety laws, advertising regulations, import and export rules, and tax and tariff systems in other countries. It’s surprisingly easy to run afoul of standards when you aren’t aware of them, which is why international business is its own specialty.

The second is that selling in international markets isn’t as simple as getting products onto store shelves. Assuming that consumer needs and desires, corporate cultures, and social mores are roughly the same from country to country is how you end up with gaffes of all kinds, from improperly translated advertising campaigns that imply an everyday product will kill users to business meetings that blow up because the format was inadvertently offensive.

Are there different types of international business degrees?

There are different kinds of international business degrees, but the most common one at the undergraduate level is the Bachelor of Science in International Business. This is an interdisciplinary degree that’s usually administered through a university’s business school.

Coursework in these programs covers business fundamentals, as well as topics like politics and sociology. Some colleges and universities require students to learn one or more foreign languages as part of earning this degree. Courses in BS in International Business programs include a mix of core bachelor’s-level classes plus general and global business courses like:

Business Analytics

This course showcases the growlingly crucial role of data analysis in commerce. Students study the key indicators of growth, marketing, and research and how to interpret the data to a team of colleagues.

Business Law

Explore the legal details of topics such as transactions, taxes, acquisitions, and international trade. Students pursuing an international business degree may take higher-level courses with a focus on global relations as well.

Cross-Cultural Management

Consider management styles and tactics from around the globe. A foundational course will focus on the history of major corporations from different countries as well as management and communication approaches across borders.

Cultural Diversity in Organizations

The curriculum will explore the importance of encouraging a diverse range of backgrounds and viewpoints at each organization, both from a business and ethical standpoint.

Ethics in Business

Business ethics goes beyond the basic legal requirements of trade and taps into the more abstract moral responsibilities when buying and selling goods.

Financial Accounting

Each business major, no matter their focus, should have a baseline of finance and accounting education, from reporting methods to setting budgetary goals.

Intercultural Communication

Similar to international management, a course in communication among cultures helps these future business leaders negotiate and build strong relationships with other leaders around the world.

International Economics

Students will explore the major economic factors that shape each country’s financial state. They may explore laws, major imports and exports, and tactics for building alliances.

International Finance

International finance studies the relations between two or more countries and the effects of currency differences, trade habits, and legal restrictions.

International Marketing

Advertising laws vary from country to country, as do cultural norms around presenting a service or a product. Students in and out of the marketing field will study several major players around the world and their varying advertising, packaging, and customer interaction tactics.

Introduction to Information Systems

The concept of information systems guides a business to link their customers, business data, technology, and sales goals. A streamlined information systems structure will help companies manage their overall operations.

Macroeconomics

Explore the basic concepts of economics on a worldwide scale. Often taken after microeconomics, students move onto more complex ideas such as unemployment rates, inflation, and other major forms of economic analysis.

Microeconomics

As one of the most important intro courses for business and finance majors, microeconomics explains the role of supply and demand. The course may also explore the relationship between businesses, individuals, and government, as well as how each affects profit, company growth, and regulations.

Organizational Behavior and Management

Topics may include project management, communication tactics, and team building for a successful workplace. Students also may research various companies across the world and their structures for a better understanding of different managerial tactics.

At the master’s level, you might earn a Master of Science in International Business (MSIB) or a Master of Science in International Management (MSIM). These degrees are designed for students who want to advance into leadership positions at international or multinational firms or domestic companies that do business abroad. Examples of courses you might find in master’s-level international business degrees are:

Becoming a Global Leader

A master’s-level course in this area explores communication, managerial, and marketing topics in more depth from different cultures and areas of the world.

Global Managerial Economics

Research covers how major leaders around the world make decisions based on economic differences and managerial styles. The course will incorporate both micro and macro topics as well as how they apply to specific business goals.

Global Supply Chain Management

Many aspiring business leaders will work with companies that manage several pieces of a larger supply chain. The course explores negotiations, communication, and management of materials and services that cross international borders.

International Accounting and Finance

Understand the unique management of sales, profits, and taxation around the globe. Students at a graduate level also may complete internships and case studies to better understand a specific country’s accounting structure.

International Finance Management

This course dives into making the best decisions for international shareholders, particularly across different currencies, market trends, and shareholder preferences.

International Marketing

Much like in the undergraduate degrees, a master’s program will incorporate international marketing laws, tactics, and cultural preferences for selling products and building a public-facing brand.

Managing Global Enterprises

The curriculum may touch on topics that affect the direction of a company, such as international political relations, economic fluctuations, or supply chain issues.

There are also MBA in International Business programs, which can be quite similar to other international business master’s degree programs. The biggest difference between MSIB or MSIM programs and international MBA programs is that the former are more specialized, while the latter tend to have a broader focus. MBAs are often the better choice for students who aren’t sure they want to spend their entire careers in global business.

Many undergraduate and graduate international business degree programs include overseas experiences and business internships. These can last anywhere from a month to a year. Internships typically involve students working in positions at multinational organizations (which may be paid or unpaid), so they can apply what they’ve learned in the classroom in real-world business environments.

Some programs don’t require students to complete formal internships, but include international immersion experiences in the curriculum. At the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, for instance, the Global MBA program begins with month-long immersions in Korea and Japan. Other programs culminate with an applied, semester-long capstone project that involves teams of students consulting with real-world companies abroad or creating international business plans for domestic companies.

What schools have the best international business degree programs?

In some fields, school choice won’t necessarily have a significant impact on your career. That’s not the case in the business world, where who you know is often more important than what you know. The best international business degree programs offer students plenty of opportunities to make valuable professional connections before and after graduation. They have notable faculty, active alumni networks, high-profile corporate partners domestically and abroad, and international internship programs that can lead to opportunities later on.

Some of the top undergraduate international business degree programs are found at:

Florida International University

Ranking as the second-best international business school in the country by US News and World Report, FIU offers a range of programs online and in person. Students can choose to pursue a series of dual-degree programs with over 30 international schools around the world.

New York University

NYU offers several concentration options in its BS in Leadership and Management studies. The Stern School of Business notes that it is one of the first management education institutes with international reach.

George Washington University

Ranked as the top international business school in the country by the Financial Times, students can concentrate on the topic while earning their BBA—the Bachelor’s of Business Administration.

Georgetown University

Georgetown offers ample research and internship opportunities to its undergrad students on an international level. In addition to studying abroad, the school encourages students to apply for fellowships, develop research in the university’s summer program, and complete a senior honors thesis.

University of California – Berkeley

The Berkeley Haas School of Business offers a flexible range of options for students seeking an international business degree. Undergraduate students access a business-focused study abroad program to connect with global leaders and hone their area of focus before choosing a career or further study.

University of Pennsylvania

Known as the Huntsman Program, this dual-degree international path offers a BA in international studies in tandem with a BS in economics from Wharton. The international studies program additionally required advanced language skills for completion.

University of South Carolina – Columbia

At the University of South Carolina, students can take BS in Business Administration and International Business by double majoring in business. Within this structure, they can hone their focus further by choosing one of five international areas such as Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, North Africa, or China.

The top globally focused graduate business degree programs can be found at:

Columbia University

Columbia’s MBA, EMBA, MS, and PhD programs offer concentrations, courses, or majors in international and global relations depending on your chosen specialty. Columbia tops many related US News and World Report lists included top business schools, Executive MBA programs, and international degrees.

Georgetown University

While Georgetown’s School of Business offers a wide range of internationally focused degrees, it uniquely offers one program specifically geared toward a career in the foreign service. The MA-IBP program takes one year and is offered in both an on-campus and international model.

Harvard University

In addition to its highly respected status in education, Harvard also offers unique partnerships for its MBA students. For example, choose a dual MBA/MPA-ID degree with the Harvard Kennedy school over the course of three years.

New York University

When you choose global business as a concentration at the NYU Stern School of Business, specialized courses include International Impact and Strategies, Operations in Panama, and Advanced Global Perspectives on Enterprise Systems.

University of Michigan

The University of Michigan offers an impressive number of program structures both in-person and online. Their Global MBA can be completed at an accelerated pace of 15 months while taking on a real global business challenge in a seven-week project.

University of Pennsylvania

UPenn offers MBA concentrations in areas like global business and international management. Students can opt for a range of dual-degree programs and study abroad opportunities and additional EMBAs structured for the working professional.

University of South Carolina – Columbia

Quite uniquely, the University of South Carolina allows its graduate students to pair their MBA with a dual-degree in law. Students can also choose from an IMBA to focus on business administration or traditional MIB.

Do international business majors need to speak other languages?

While an English speaker can pursue an international business degree without being multilingual, it’s generally a good idea to be comfortable in a second language (or plan to get comfortable) when your goal is to work in a global business environment. Some universities require international business students to be proficient in a second language and to pass higher-level language classes to graduate. Others incorporate language instruction into the international business curriculum. The University of Tulsa, for example, offers a Bachelor of Science in International Business and Language (BSIBL) program that combines international business fundamentals with coursework designed to lead to proficiency in Chinese, French, German, Russian, or Spanish.

If you’re not already bilingual, choosing a program like the BSIBL can open up a world of opportunities after graduation that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to take advantage of.

Is it worth going abroad to study international business?

Students in international business degree programs are often encouraged to study abroad, even when there are no official international learning experiences in the curriculum. In some cases, students are awarded variable credit based on how their first-hand experiences in other countries supplement their classwork. That’s because studying international business abroad exposes students to novel cultures, ways of doing business, markets, and languages—which can go a long way toward preventing the kinds of costly business blunders mentioned above. Students return from these experiences—which often take place in powerful economic hot spots like Hong Kong, London, Tokyo, Paris, and Dubai—more open to cultural differences and better at spotting potential pitfalls related to those differences.

What types of jobs do international business degree holders have?

The quick answer is all kinds. With this degree, “you are well-positioned for a multitude of careers by being able to appreciate the dynamics of how to work cross-culturally… There are a number of different paths people can take,” according to Gail Marcus, an adjunct professor in Northeastern University’s Master of Science in Global Studies and International Relations program.

International business students work in consulting, marketing, organizational strategy, finance, and management. You can find them in roles like:

Global banking manager

A degree in international business can help you launch a career working in domestic banks that handle foreign accounts or at foreign-owned banks and financial firms that do business domestically.

Global financial analyst

In this role, you’ll look at financial risks and rewards of doing business in some parts of the world in the context of the socio-political and economic conditions of those countries. You’ll also identify business opportunities in new regions.

Global management analyst

International business degree graduates sometimes find their niche assessing corporate management structures, identifying inefficiencies, and developing plans to improve managerial operations and overall effectiveness. Doing this for global companies takes a keen awareness of how different cultures do business.

Global marketing manager

International marketing managers identify foreign market segments, analyze the needs of target demographics, and oversee the creation of culturally sensitive advertising campaigns. This involves a tremendous amount of cultural awareness, in addition to well-developed marketing chops.

Global supply chain manager

These professionals are responsible for figuring out how to streamline logistics and supply chain management sustainability and on a large scale, without going over budget—while also dealing with import and export laws, tariffs, and other complications related to doing business across borders.

Import/export compliance manager

This can be a government or private sector role. It involves analyzing and tracking all of a company’s import and export activities to ensure that it complies with domestic and international rules and regulations.

International accountant

Big firms that do business in multiple countries typically hire accountants who are experts in international tax law, regulatory systems, and currency exchange rules.

International HR manager

Hiring and firing across national borders can be exceedingly complicated, given how different international labor laws and employee expectations can be. Human resource managers who work for multinational firms are equipped to handle staffing challenges unique to each nation where their employers do business.

Do international business majors out-earn business majors?

It isn’t hard to find out how much business school graduates earn because so many B-schools publish the information on their websites. Aggregators like PayScale use that data and self-reported earnings info submitted by users to create salary guides by degree type. This makes it relatively easy to see that yes, international business majors do out-earn business majors—especially when students earn advanced degrees.

The average salary for international business bachelor’s degree holders is $89,000, while BSBA graduates earn $77,000. The average salary for international business master’s degree holders is $91,000—about $15,000 more than you’ll earn with an MS in Business Administration. And the average salary for international business MBA holders is $103,000, while traditional MBA holders earn closer to $97,000.

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What will my prospects look like with an international business degree?

Majoring in international business at the undergraduate level can open many doors, but be aware that many globally-focused roles in the business world require an advanced degree. If your goal is to climb as high up the corporate ladder as possible in international business, you will almost certainly need a master’s degree in international business or an MBA.

The good news is that with either of those degrees, you’ll be well-placed to compete successfully—both domestically and in the international arena. International business graduates work for large multinational corporations, government institutions, businesses of all sizes involved in import and export activities, tech firms, and NGOs worldwide. That makes an international business degree an ideal pathway for anyone interested in how money is made across international lines, wants to see more of the world, and hopes to earn more than the average business person.

(This article was updated on January 23, 2024)

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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