The Foreign Service represents the United States around the world. Members interact with local governments as emissaries of the United States, staff United States embassies and consulates, and provide resources for Americans traveling abroad. Divided into two clear lines of Foreign Service specialist and Foreign Service officer, applicants are afforded the opportunity to select a path best suited to their interests and talents. While Foreign Service specialists assume posts that are profession-specific such as Information Management specialists and Medical specialists, Foreign Service officers are regarded as generalists who begin by selecting one of five ‘career tracks’—Economic, Public Diplomacy, Consular, Management or Political—but may be called upon to serve on any track within the duration of their employment. More than 60 percent of a Foreign Service officer’s working hours are spent handling reports—assembling facts, writing, proofreading, and reading. “Reading is fundamental,” wrote one member of the diplomatic corps, “and if your writing isn’t up to snuff, you’ll be selected out—fired, that is.” Strong communication skills are absolutely essential for anyone thinking about entering the profession. Diplomats are posted to positions abroad for terms of two, three, or four years with stateside stints periodically, but they can be recalled at the discretion of the State Department at any time.
The Foreign Service assists Americans abroad to handle their problems, including negotiating with local governments for individual United States companies who wish to manufacture, produce, or do business abroad; providing information about the host country; and issuing replacements for lost passports. American consular offices also issue temporary visas and permanent residency visas to foreigners wishing to enter the United States. These tasks consume a minimum of 30 hours of the workweek: “My hourly wage in 1992 was $3.45. I calculated it, adding in all the unpaid overtime I put in,” wrote one diplomat. Since additional internal duties (including writing reports) and social functions (which are an important part of the job) can take up another 40 hours per week, people who are looking for a sinecure are ill-advised to enter the Foreign Service. Members who are satisfied with their profession enjoy the responsibility: the ability to look at a host country from the inside, write a considered opinion of the state of that country, and have it seriously regarded by officials making decisions about international relations, as well as shape and implement the foreign relations between the two countries.
Nota bene: The noted number of people in the profession in the Facts & Figures section refers solely to officers. There are an additional 4,680 specialists also serving in the Foreign Service.
Current starting salaries for Foreign Service officers range from $39,691 - $54,794 depending on education and experience. Further details can be found by visiting: http://www.careers.state.gov/officer/benefits/index.html#salary
To enter the Foreign Service, you must be an American citizen between the ages of 20 and 59 and, although there is no educational requirement to become a Foreign Service officer, the vast majority of applicants hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. Helpful college or graduate school courses include English, foreign language, government, geography, international history, economics, public speaking, and commerce. Applicants must pass the competitive Foreign Service written exam, offered once a year in most major urban centers and at embassies and consulates abroad. Individuals who pass the written exam take an all-day Oral Assessment. Passing this leads to: a comprehensive physical exam, a rigorous background security check leading to a Top Secret clearance, and a final review of the candidate’s entire file to ensure his/her suitability for the especially stressful and unusual conditions of a Foreign Service career. While candidates do not have to be familiar with another language, fluency can gain bonus points in the rankings and speed the time to receiving a job offer.
Individuals who pass all the tests are given a ranking and put on a list of eligible candidates for future posting. As positions become available, candidates are offered entry into a new class. Note that, at most, a few hundred slots open up each year. While many start their tenure with a nine-month stint in Washington, DC to learn the protocols of being a diplomat (termed the “pregnancy period” by one of our respondents), others begin in the field and learn and are trained on the fly. Be aware that if you are listed on the register of eligible candidates and no position opens up within 18 months, you will have to begin the procedure again. All names are removed from the list at that point.
Nearly 90% of Foreign Service officers find lifetime careers in the Foreign Service, particularly with the understanding that retirement is mandatory at age 65, and that one is eligible to retire at age 50 after serving for 20 years. Many people who leave the field use their unique perspective and their skills to work for other branches of the government, such as the Defense Department, the CIA, the INS, the Commerce Department, go into international business, or teach at the university level.