Foreign Service: how to pick your next post
Updated: Apr 14
Diplomats change countries as frequently as others change iPhones – but it doesn’t always come with a quality upgrade. Junior diplomats can expect to move every two years, and after that postings last between one and three years (which is shorter than most other countries post their diplomats abroad).
There are approximately 275 US diplomatic missions around the world. How do you choose which one is right for you? I heard that there are some diplomats who don’t care, who simply accept whatever job is available. But most diplomats use bidding strategies.
For junior diplomats, postings are “directed”. Essentially, new recruits have little influence over where they go. They get the opportunity to rank their preferred places, and that’s about it.
But even at the entry-level there are some bidding strategies. For example, if you select a country that is unpopular with others, your chances of going there increase. Also, if you serve in a difficult country, there is a pretty big chance of getting a nice(r) posting next.
Once diplomats reach the mid-level (typically after two postings), they get a pretty big say in where they get posted. Basically, they have to apply for their next job by doing interviews like normal people. There is nobody telling them where they can or can’t go – it is only limited by what’s available at the time when bids (applications) are due.
Unfortunately, diplomats do not always end up with their top choices. In fact, few people get their first choice all the time. On the bright side, diplomats have the right to refuse postings they really don’t want. Like, some people hate the idea of living in a megacity (like Jakarta), or try to avoid the need to learn a hard language (like Chinese). On the other hand, mastering a hard language or having connections in a certain region can help immensely with getting the job you want.
But how do diplomats select their preferred posts, exactly? Nobody knows everything about each and every country. And you can’t just apply for dreamy countries like France or Italy every time, because there are a lot more countries and embassies that need diplomats! In the past, that’s how we ended up lobbying for places like Paramaribo (Surinam), and ultimately convincing ourselves that Yerevan (Armenia) would be the perfect posting for us.
Personally, I love researching countries. But when it’s decision time, it’s still hard. To structure my research, I always ask myself the following question: which factors will be crucial for my (and my family’s) happiness? Obviously, diplomats should be attracted to the job itself. But there are a lot of other factors to take into consideration, and they change overtime as your personal circumstances change.
One of the main things to look at, when choosing your next assignment, is feasibility and logistics. You can be the perfect match for a job, but if the timing doesn’t work out there is not much you can do. Timing plays a major role in getting an assignment.
Still, there are options to make things work even if the timing is somewhat off. For example, you may get a waiver that allows you to leave your current posting earlier than planned. Or – as my husband has done – brushing up on language skills helps to avoid a lengthy language-training period between postings.
Diplomats’ ranks are attached to their person, not their job. However, every job is designated for a certain rank. This means that you can only bid on jobs that are the same rank as your rank – but not always.
See, if you’re really ambitious, you can try to get a job above your rank, which is called a “stretch” job. Or, if you’re adamant about a certain job that is actually below your rank, you may find yourself “stretching down”.
Obviously, stretching up can be a great career move, while stretching down may limit your chances for promotion down the line. And promotion is very important in a system that can best be described as “up or out” – meaning that if you fail to make promotions, you might lose your job altogether.
Local labor market
Believe it or not, most diplomats have highly educated spouses who want to do more than running the household. It's smart for diplomats to look at the desirability of their next job from the viewpoint of their spouse and ask themselves a few questions like: are Americans allowed to work in that country? What is the labor market like? Are there job openings in the embassy for which they need Americans?
Health and safety
It seems obvious that diplomats consider health and safety before going someplace – but to what extent? After all, all jobs need to be filled so everyone has to consider a risky place at some point their career. In this case, I believe that timing is important. For example, serving in a dangerous place before having kids (or after they’ve moved out) can be a good idea. Or avoiding places with major air pollution when you have a newborn, for example.
The US is far away from almost all other countries in the world. That’s why American diplomats tend to get really excited when they are posted in Mexico, simply because it’s relatively close to home. If distance-from-home is important to you – and when Mexico and Canada are not realistic options – consider some of the following questions: how expensive is it to fly there? How good are the flight connections with other countries and continents? Which time zone do I want to be in? This might sound silly, but there are locations where you only get to talk to your family back home in the middle of the night (and you’ll have a major jetlag after each trip).
US diplomats are often expected to learn the language of the country they are posted in. Once they have mastered a particular foreign language they may find themselves attracted to the countries where that language is spoken. Some languages that are truly multi-purpose include French (29 countries), Spanish (20 countries), and Russian (13 countries).
If you don’t have the language that is required for the job you want, you may be at a disadvantage when applying for the job. Still, you may be able to convince the State Department to give you language training or – as we’ve done before – study the language in your own time.
Especially before I had kids, I found that ‘hobbies’ was also an important factor. My husband and I each picked something we wanted to be able to do at our next post. For me, it was running. This means that I was less willing to go to places where I couldn’t be outside by myself, or where I had to cover up a lot. My husband chose golf – so he obviously preferred places with a golf course.
Of course, deciding factors are different for each person. This is just a summary of things lots of diplomats consider when applying for a post. Other important things may be: schools, pet-friendliness, access to healthcare, and climate.
Still, as a diplomat you also have to accept that you can’t know it all. I’ve found myself pleasantly surprised a number of times by things I didn’t know before! Like, the fact that I consider Armenia (our current posting) just about the most child-friendly country in the world!
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:
Other posts on international careers on this blog: