Foreign Service 101

6 Aug
The U.S. Embassy in Berlin

The U.S. Embassy in Berlin

You can’t swing a dead cat in D.C. without hitting someone who’s either in the foreign service or wants to be. Therefore, it would behoove you to know a thing or two about it so, ya know, you can sound smart. Here’s your crash course:

1. What’s a foreign service officer anyway?
A foreign service officer is a diplomat. If you’ve ever been to an embassy or a consulate, you were interacting with foreign service officers (unless they were national staff, which the State Department also employs). The U.S.  is unusual in that it takes people from all walks of life into the foreign service, not requiring any particular education background or work history.

2. What does a foreign service officer do?
For a generalist (I’m not going to get into specialists) there are 5 tracks: consular, economic, management, political and public diplomacy. The life of an FSO is an unusual one. Officers are required to move about every 2 years, and if they are in a hardship post, their family can’t come with them. Understandably, many marriages are strained by this lifestyle, particularly because employment for spouses can be difficult to get, unfulfilling or poorly paid.

3. So what’s the appeal of being in the foreign service?
Serving your country, seeing the world and having a hand in important diplomatic issues.

4. How do you get in?

  • Step #1: Complete an online exam.
    The first part is multiple choice and it tests your knowledge on everything from history to math to management. The second is an essay question, the topic of which is a surprise.
  • Step #2: Complete four narrative questions.
    You have to write brief examples showing that you possess the skills it takes to be an FSO. Reviewers look at your answers along with your application materials.
  • Step #3: A super intense, all-day oral exam.
    This is where they really separate the boys/girls from the men/women. First you have to figure out a hypothetical problem with the other people in your group while the evaluators watch you interact. Then you have a written exercise. Finally, there’s an interview with the assessors. Then you wait awkwardly with your group as your called in and told whether you pass go and collect $200 … or begin the entire process again.

5. Is it, like, competitive?
At lunch one time I overheard (okay, fine, I was eavesdropping) two young women discussing their dating lives. One had recently started dating a guy who was applying to be in the foreign service. She said, “I’m not too worried, he probably won’t get in.” While her new beau probably wouldn’t have appreciated her pessimism, she was, statistically speaking, correct.

Only 2-3% of the 20,000 people who take the foreign service written exam actually become a diplomat. In addition to the three steps previously discussed, applicants also need to pass health and security screenings (plus you can take a foreign language test to bag some bonus points). AND, as if that’s not enough hurdles, those who completed all those steps but don’t get offered a job within 18 months have to begin the ENTIRE process all over again. You can go through the process as many time as you like until you turn 59, and then you’re too old.

6. I want more!
If you think this sounds like the job for you, here are some helpful resources to get you started:

Image by Scott on flickr.

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