Choosing & changing career tracks
Updated: Apr 14, 2021
Once you’ve decided to (try to) become a diplomat—a generalist Foreign Service Officer for the US Department of State—the first thing you need to do is pick a specialization. That’s right; before you take the entry exam, you already need to decide what kind of diplomat you want to become.
The online registration form at the Pearson Vue website requires you to pick one of five “career tracks” and won’t let you change it afterward. The five career tracks are: consular, economic, management, political, and public diplomacy.
The most important thing about picking a career track is that it will more or less determine the types of jobs you’ll have during your 20+ year career. Also (and this is what many candidates worry about) your chosen career track may influence your chances of getting hired.
Making the right choice for you
Picking the right career track for you means you have to know yourself and decide what you want to do in the future.
For some, the choice may seem obvious; if you have a background in economics, the economic career track makes sense, right? If you’re a political science major, the political career track is probably the way to go. But what should you do if, for example, you’re a social worker? Or military? It’s important to realize that your background does not limit you from choosing any career track you want.
Candidates are free to sign up for any career track. If you’re not sure what’s right for you, there are a couple of different ways to find out. The State Department website has resources to help you decide, including online videos and job description overviews. AFSA has a nice article about it, and there are some blogs talking about the various tracks.
You can also read about the different career tracks right here on my blog!
DIPLOMACY 101: Economic Affairs
DIPLOMACY 101: Political Affairs
DIPLOMACY 101: Consular Affairs
DIPLOMACY 101: Management Affairs
There's also an online test, but the questions seem to come straight out of a job description and don’t seem overly helpful. For example, the question about how interested you are in “Advising the Mission, Ambassador, country team, or other members of the U.S. Government on public diplomacy issues” is clearly a question that, if you answer “very interested”, will point you towards the public diplomacy career track.
Chances of getting hired
Besides the issue of what interests you, there are other questions that come to mind when deciding on a career track, like: are the tests different for each career track (no), do you have a better chance at passing the test with a background in your chosen career track (not necessarily), or do you have better career opportunities in certain tracks (difficult question, since everyone defines good opportunities differently).
Still, the career track you choose may influence your chance of getting hired; for example, some career tracks have consistently required getting higher exam scores than others—mainly political and public diplomacy. Also, some career tracks have hired fewer officers than others—mainly economic.
Then again, it’s not necessarily “harder” to get into certain career tracks than others, because if your exam score is high enough you are competitive for any track. Also, the needs of the Foreign Service change constantly, which means it’s almost impossible to predict who and what is going to most competitive at any given time.
Changing career tracks
What happens if, a few years into the job, you realize you chose the wrong career track? Well, you have a problem. Diplomats rarely work in jobs outside their career track (except for the first two tours when all diplomats have to do at least one consular tour) and those who do are fighting an uphill battle.
That said, it’s certainly possible to work in other tracks and sometimes even to do a formal “skill code change.” The problem is that you may not be competitive for jobs in another career track, and it may hurt your chances for promotion down the line. In general, it only really makes sense for diplomats who need to broaden their experience in the FS in order to be promoted to the Senior Foreign Service.
Still, I know several diplomats who work outside their career tracks. For example, I’ve seen a few diplomats switching from management to political, mainly because they wanted a more “substantive” job. I’ve also seen economic officers turn into consular officers because they loved the work and the camaraderie.
So if you’re really set on changing your career track in the Foreign Service, and you're a generalist, you can apply for jobs in your preferred track and, if HR allows it, request a formal conversion. The State Department doesn’t make it particularly easy though, probably because they want to avoid a situation where people are getting into the FS in one track because it was easier, and then change to a more competitive track immediately after joining. That would be unfair to other candidates, and it would mean that the State Department couldn’t control the number of diplomats in each career track.
I also wrote a post on what I consider the best and worst of each career track.
Security Clearance: Why It Takes So Long For Foreign Service Officers
What you should REALLY read to pass the Foreign Service Exams
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