12 Ways to Work at the US Embassy
Updated: Nov 5, 2021
Jobs at the US embassy are not just reserved for diplomats (I mean FSO generalists) – the majority of employees in embassies are actually something else. So what types of hires are they? And how do you get a job like that? I don't claim to know everything but I've been hanging around in embassies for about a decade and this is what I observed so far.
1. FOREIGN SERVICE GENERALIST (FSO)
I refer to FSOs as “diplomats” because I think this is the position most people imagine when they hear the word. FSOs mainly work in embassies (in consular, economic, management, political and public diplomacy career tracks) and hold ranks comparable to diplomats in other foreign services; they work in almost all countries and are the main talent pool for ambassadorships. There are currently around 8,000 FSOs.
To get your application started you need to do a bit of research on the State Department’s website here, pick a test date here, and register for the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) at the Pearson Vue website here. In addition to these regular entry exams, there are a number of fellowships that can help you get into the Foreign Service listed here.
To get more information about the five career tracks check my blog posts under Diplomacy 101 and read more about how to become a diplomat here.
2. FOREIGN SERVICE SPECIALIST (FSS)
Foreign Service Specialists, like diplomats, spend most of their careers overseas working in embassies, but the hiring process is different and they only work in one of the following 19 categories: administration, construction engineering, English language programs, facility management, information technology, law enforcement and security, medical and health, and office management.
There are currently around 5,700 FSSs. To apply for one of these jobs, look for announcements on the State Department’s website here.
3. CONSULAR FELLOW (CF)
The Consular Fellow program is kind of a new thing (it started in 2012). CFs are only assigned to posts that need extra entry-level officers because there's too much consular work for generalist FSOs. CFs get contracts for up to five years and typically need language skills in Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, or Arabic.
There are probably hundreds of CFs by now (127 were hired in FY2017). CFs are hired via limited non-career appointments (LNAs) and can apply via the State Department’s website here.
4. USAID (FSO)
The US Agency for International Development (USAID) is an independent agency with its own corps of Foreign Service Officers who work in embassies on issues like democracy, disaster assistance, economic growth, education, environment, governance, health, monitoring and evaluation, contracting, and financial management.
USAID FSOs work in over 100 countries where the US provides development assistance. There are currently around 1,850 USAID FSOs. USAID hires entry level and mid-level officers, as well as short-term contractors, and posts vacancies online here.
5. PRESIDENTIAL MANAGEMENT FELLOW (PMF)
The Presidential Management Fellow (PMF) program is a two-year training program at various federal government agencies for recent graduates. PMFs can choose to work at the State Department or at an embassy for a short period of time. They can then be appointed to permanent positions, but if they want to become an FSO (through the Mustang Program), they still have to take the oral assessment (FSOA) like everybody else.
When the government is hiring PMFs vacancies are advertised at www.usajobs.gov.
6. CIVIL SERVICE
It is not unusual to see a State Department civil servant working at the embassy; they can apply for certain 2-year embassy positions when these positions can, for various reasons, not be filled with regular FSOs and have been designated hard-to-fill.
The annual list of hard-to-fill positions is announced by a State Department cable (here is the 2018 cable), along with detailed instructions on how to apply. This year, there were all kinds of FSO and FSS positions available in a total of 31 countries.
Internships at the embassy are popular and frequent. Interns often gain a tremendous amount of insight they can use later in life, especially if they want to become FSOs or work for the federal government in general. I don’t know the statistics, but it’s common for FSOs to have worked as an intern before joining the Foreign Service (or know about embassies through prior experience as a PMF, military officer or Peace Corps volunteer).
For students and recent (under)grads there is a paid internship program called the Internship Experience Program (IEP) and a volunteer Internship Temporary Program (ITP). Information can be found online here.
8. FOREIGN AGRICULTURAL SERVICE (FAS)
USDA sends their own FSOs to a number of embassies around the world to work on things like agricultural trade policy, food security, exports, and market development. The FAS is represented in 93 different posts. Vacancies are advertised on www.usajobs.gov.
9. FOREIGN COMMERCIAL SERVICE (FCS)
FCS officers work on a wide variety of business and trade-related issues and products, and provide fee-based services for US companies who need help breaking into foreign markets.
The FCS is represented in about 75 countries and embassies, but the Foreign Service corps is relatively small (around 300 officers). Job openings are somewhat rare and are posted on www.usajobs.gov.
10. LOCALLY EMPLOYED STAFF (LES)
The vast majority of people working at US embassies are LES. They can include Americans and Third Country Nationals (TCN), but most of them are citizens of the host country. LES work in all sections of the embassy and fill extremely important roles as local experts and interpreters. They are also the institutional memory of the embassy (since diplomats rotate every couple of years).
LES vacancies can be found online at the embassies’ websites. Often LES work for embassies for long periods of time, no matter the job – 10 or 20 years of service is common. I’ve met an embassy driver who worked at the embassy for 28 years (and counting) and a political assistant who worked there for 35 years before she retired.
11. SPOUSE (OR CHILD)
You can’t apply for a job as a “spouse”, but as a spouse you can certainly apply for a job at the embassy. Spouses are called Eligible Family Members (EFMs) and there are a certain number of jobs available for them at each embassy. This makes sense, because many diplomatic spouses want to work and are highly qualified (plus they provide relatively cheap American labor).
It’s hard to know how many EFM jobs are authorized and available at every post at any given time, but it’s not particularly hard to get one of these jobs because there are literally thousands of them and they change all the time. There are two categories: regular EFM jobs and associate positions.
Regular EFM jobs are typically clerical and administrative support jobs. They include assisting roles in different embassy sections, secretary jobs, security-related jobs, and community liaison jobs. Vacancies are advertised at embassies’ websites and internally and EFMs can apply for them when they are at post (or en-route to post).
Associate positions are divided between Expanded Professional Associate Positions (EPAP) and Consular Associate (CA) positions. These jobs are comparable to entry-level FSO jobs and the total number of positions continues to increase.
An overview of 2018 EPAP positions is online here. For the CA-AEFM program there is no list of positions because it always depends on current needs and where qualified EFMs are going (since they are following their spouse). Online information on how to qualify and apply is here.
Honestly, I have very little knowledge about how military (DoD) employees get posted to embassies, but the fact is that there is a whole bunch of them at each embassy I’ve seen. Typically there are a number of young marines in charge of protecting the inner perimeter of the embassy, who are hired through a special Marine Corps program. In addition, there can be military officers and enlisted personnel from the other military branches working on various issues like intelligence, sales, and military training.
Want to know more about a career with the State Department? Check out careers.state.gov or check it out on social media @DOSCareers
Read more! About my experience with the Foreign Service in the section How To Become a Diplomat; different Foreign Service career tracks in Diplomacy 101; my experience working as a FSO in What Diplomats Do.
For career advice from people with great international jobs check out:
Career advice with journalist Aisha Chowdhry
Career Advice with Entrepreneur Gertje Vanhoutte
Other posts on international careers on this blog:
17 Cool international affairs jobs I didn't even know existed
The art of networking in the field of IR — and why it always pays off
What resumes in international relations (should) look like: do’s and don’ts
How to go abroad, and then stay abroad, to start your international career
Internship Do's & Don'ts for Careers in International Relations