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A Day in the Life of a Diplomat/Foreign Service Officer/Specialist

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

Paying Your Dues

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.

Present and Future

The Constitution provided that a foreign service be developed, but one did not exist in practice in any reasonably funded form until the mid-1800s. Until 1924, the Foreign Service was the plum of patronage and affordable only by individuals in the upper class. The wages were so scandalously low that no one else could afford to take a position. The Rogers Act in 1924 provided reasonable wages and democratized the process of entering the Foreign Service. The process has become even more egalitarian with the current application process.

The Foreign Service is and will continue to be a vital service of the United States. As with any government office, it is subject to budget whims, but as it is currently thinly staffed and highly competitive, future funding cuts should not come in this area. Expect competition for limited positions to remain high—strong preparation for the Foreign Service exam is your best ally.


Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Halfway through their probationary period, which lasts roughly four years, new diplomats are expected to have made significant headway in learning a foreign language. Officers will not be tenured without proven competency in a language. Initial tours are in consular work, and at least one of the first two tours is in a hardship post.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Five-year veterans have established themselves as tenured officers, information specialists, or staff specialists. Each year, appointees receive ratings from their supervisors; recommendation for promotion through the six pay grades depends on the officer's perceived potential for greater responsibility along with the availability of positions at higher levels.

TEN YEARS OUT

Individuals who have survived 10 years in the diplomatic corps have typically been rotated back to Washington for at least one period of “familarization” with the American experience, been consistently rated well by superiors, and at least earned a classification of grade three. Diplomats who aspire to “career minister” (a high-level Senior Foreign Service office position) continue to accrue additional responsibilities and hours. Some diplomats are assigned to the Foreign Service Institute for training in professional development programs for a varied length of study during the course of their careers. While new employees may have little input in selecting their initial two assignments, they have a greater degree of control in determining subsequent projects. In fact, many employees ultimately choose to return to Washington DC for personal or career-related reasons. Diplomats may eventually become ambassadors, but nearly a third of ambassadorial appointments go to political appointees.