Woods attended Rangitoto College in Mairangi Bay, Auckland, where she was Head Girl in 1980. She then attended the University of Auckland where she graduated with a Bachelor in economics and an Bachelor of Laws (Honours) in law. She studied at Balliol College, Oxford as a New Zealand Rhodes Scholar, completing an The Master of Philosophy in International Relations and a Doctorate.Phil.
From 1990 to 1992, she was a Junior Research Fellow at New College, Oxford and subsequently taught at the Government Department at Harvard University before taking up her Fellowship at University College, Oxford.
Woods was named inaugural Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government in 2011. Her research focuses on global economic governance, the challenges of globalization, global development, and the role of international institutions. Ngaire Woods has served as an Advisor to the International Monetary Fund Board, to the United Nations Development Programme Human Development Report, and to the Commonwealth Heads of Government.
She was a regular presenter of the Analysis Program for British Broadcasting Corporation Radio 4, and in 1998 presented her own British Broadcasting Corporation television series on public policy.
She is a governor of the Ditchley Foundation, and in 2009 she became a Trustee of the Rhodes Trust.
She has also served as a member of the International Monetary Fund European Regional Advisory Group, and Chair of a World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council. She is currently a Rhodes Trustee, a Non-Executive Director of Arup, a member of the Advisory Group of the Center for Global Development (Washington District of Columbia), a member of the Board of the Center for International Governance Innovation (Waterloo), a member of the Academic and Policy Board of Oxonia, and a Trustee of the Europeaum.