FAQ about diplomatic careers
What was an unexpected challenge when starting your career?
Before I graduated I thought that finding a job afterwards would simply be a matter of applying for the right position at the right time. But when I entered the labor market I began to realize that many of the jobs I was interested in, with the government, international organizations and companies, have long hiring processes with uncertain outcomes. It took much more time than I thought researching all of this and going through various tests, assessments, and traineeships. As a result I had several different jobs before I finally landed in my current position as a Foreign Service Officer. What have you learned from your career?
Working at embassies and consulates gives you a really good idea about how governments conduct business with each other; it's fascinating to see how the U.S. government works with other countries and who is involved in the big foreign policy decisions you hear about on the news. On a more personal level, moving around and living on different continents has given me multiple new perspectives on the world. Where people live, and the history and culture of that place, determines in large part how they view the rest of the world. I found seeing things from the perspective of West Africans, Central Asians and South Americans very enlightening.
Is it difficult to get work in this career?
It's difficult to become a Foreign Service Officer because you have to pass a series of competitive tests and assessments. Some people really want to become an FSO and have good credentials yet still don't make it, which is frustrating. On the other hand, the Foreign Service is open to people from all backgrounds, so it doesn't exclude people without degrees or certain work experience. Also, there are different types of scholarships that make it easier to get in, and there are opportunities to be an FSO besides being a generalist, like working as a specialist (office management, IT) or in the Foreign Commercial Service, for example.
Is this career compatible with having a family?
Absolutely! This might surprise people because they think moving a family around the world is stressful in terms of logistics and that it's hard on children because they don't grow roots anywhere. But the Foreign Service is very family friendly, with free access to the best international schools, large housing units, and lots of other perks that make it comfortable for families. Besides, it's an incredible experience for them and they learn a lot. For spouses of diplomats transitions can be harder, because for adults it's not so easy to find a new social circle or job every two or three years.
What has been your favorite place to work at?
The answer depends on what aspect of the place I look at. If I look at living standards, safety and ease of traveling around, my postings in Germany and especially the Netherlands were definitely the best. But I found postings in more challenging "hardship" places like Pakistan and Nigeria more special, because the work was more exciting, I had a lot of unexpected adventures and I made many new friends in and outside the office.
What has been your least favorite place to work at?
For me, and for many diplomats I know, Washington DC is the worst place to be. We're diplomats because we like living abroad and our salaries go a lot further in countries with lower living costs (DC is expensive!). I haven't done a full tour in DC yet, but I've studied language there twice for a year each and I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as working overseas. However, it's important for diplomats to serve "domestic" tours in order to understand how the federal bureaucracy works, so eventually we all do it at some point during our careers.
How long did it take you to get hired once you decided you wanted this career?
Between the day I registered for the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) and the day I started the job almost three years went by. The testing process took about six months and the rest of the time I was waiting for my security clearance, medical clearance, and the outcome of the suitability review.
What made you pick this career?
I really wanted a job that would allow me to see the world, so I studied international relations and learned as much as possible about international organizations like the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International. I worked on short-term projects as an international development consultant and researcher for a while, gaining international work experience and figuring out what I really wanted to do. Then I decided what I wanted most was some stability while continuing to live overseas and to focus on migration issues. The consular career track in the Foreign Service fit that bill!
Do you find it exciting?
Extremely exciting! When you live overseas and work with people with different cultural backgrounds you see and learn something new every day. There are always unexpected events that turn the work upside down, like pandemics, revolutions, natural disasters, political instability, and so on. I've experienced all of these things and most of it was pretty thrilling. What's also exciting is that it's a bit of a surprise where you get posted each time. You get to pick your favorite places from a list, but you're waiting for months before you finally get an email telling you where you're going to live next!
Who is the coolest person you have met?
I've met a lot of interesting people through this work that I otherwise probably wouldn't have met, like star athletes, foreign dignitaries, human rights activists, and billionaires. At one event I shook President Obama's hand. But the person I found "coolest" was a guy who had moved to the south of Nigeria where he basically lived in a tent in the jungle to protect the last remaining wild gorillas and chimpanzees in that area.
What is your advice for someone who is looking to get into this career? If you want to become a Foreign Service Officer I think it's a good idea to find out as much as you can about it so you can focus your efforts in the right place. Some people think they really need a master's degree or learn how to speak a foreign language, but those things are not actually required for getting hired. I also think practical experience helps a lot, so doing an internship with the State Department, and traveling and working overseas in general, helps a lot in understanding the work and the lifestyle, and gaining skills that are helpful in getting hired.
How has covid 19 impacted your job experiences?
In the beginning the pandemic caused a lot of problems due to travel restrictions and embassies temporarily closing down. Many diplomats were unable to go to the countries they were assigned to and the work we could do was limited and different from the usual diplomatic work. On the bright side, it suddenly became possible to work (partially) from home, which had never been possible before. The State Department can be bureaucratic and sometimes change is slow, but major events like this pave the way for bigger changes and I think we learned a lot from it as an organization.