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What educational background do you need to become an FSO?

Updated: Sep 5

I love answering questions from readers, so I’ll dedicate this post to one I got recently: what type of educational background do you need to pursue a career in diplomacy?

I hung out on social media platforms a bit recently and noticed this question is discussed frequently. Much of the advice handed out by people claiming to be Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) and others is very similar, so it probably bears repeating. It goes something like this: don’t pick your major in college based on your plan/dream to join the Foreign Service, because it may never happen.


Likewise, many recommend against getting a Master’s degree at all if you’d mainly be doing it to gain a competitive edge, because the money and effort involved might not pay off; first of all because it’s not an entry requirement and second of all because it’s no guarantee for ever “getting in” since only a small percentage of applicants (anywhere between 8,000 and 20,000 people) get hired every year.


Then again, there’s something else a lot of people say—sometimes the very same people. They say that inside the Foreign Service, the vast majority of officers do have a Master's degree and that many if not most of them have education relevant to the field they work in (political, economics, public affairs, etc.).


So what is it? Should aspiring FSOs stop worrying about education and simply focus on preparing for their adult lives as if the Foreign Service didn’t exist? Or should they take their education—both the level they achieve and the field they specialize in—seriously because of the stiff competition they’re likely to face upon applying for the Foreign Service?


I already wrote a post with general foreign service exam advice for college students, so in this post I want to focus on the arguments in favor and against worrying about your education if you want to join the Foreign Service.


REASONS NOT TO OBSESS OVER EDUCATION


1. You’re only 18. Or 21. Either way, if you’re asking about education you’re probably young, which means you’ve got your whole professional life ahead of you and tailoring your education specifically to one job—a job that’s very hard to get, no less—just isn’t a good idea. If you want to work in international relations, study international relations. But don’t study anything for the sole purpose of one day making it into the Foreign Service because only 2% of applicants do.


Just follow your heart, do what feels right, and live a little. It’s a good idea to finish college—and generally finish any significant project you start—but don’t discount experience, self-study, and acquiring general skills like writing and managing projects. Formal education is only part of what will make you a competitive candidate in the future.


2. Do what you’re good at. There’s no specific path that leads into the Foreign Service. New officers are recruited from a broad talent pool, varied in cultural and educational background, work experience, age, etc.—so the best way to stand out and impress the Board of Examiners (BEX) is probably by being good at what you do and selling it well.


You won’t be successful at convincing BEX you’re going to be a great diplomat if you’re just showing them you’ve checked the boxes, like “studied international relations” or “speaks German/Japanese/Swahili.” So don’t worry about which courses you should be taking or which languages you should be learning. There’s no mold for you to fit into, and no resume that’s going to lift your application to the top of the pile. Study and learn what you need to in order to become a well-rounded person/professional and try to be happy and successful whether you become a diplomat or not!


3. The Foreign Service needs variety. There are different jobs and career tracks in the Foreign Service. Everyone is a generalist and should have more or less the same skill set (the ones outlined in the 13 dimensions), but you apply for a specific area of expertise, so showing your interest/skill in this area matters. When you start the application process you have to pick a career track right away: public affairs, economic, political, management, or consular.


It wouldn’t make sense if all of the people in those career tracks had studied international relations, because their jobs are very different. If you’re interested in being a political officer, political science or anything related to international affairs makes sense; but for future management officers, human resources or facility management is probably more useful; for aspiring public diplomacy officers, degrees in public relations and journalism come in handy; and consular officers benefit from having a legal background, because they have to look up a lot of rules and statutes in manuals and laws.


So look at it this way: there’s a good chance that whatever you’re studying now—agriculture, anthropology, business, education—or whatever you most want to study in the future, is somehow related to and useful for a potential future in the Foreign Service!


REASONS TO USE YOUR EDUCATION TO INCREASE YOUR CHANCES


1. Maybe it’s your destiny. People are fond of saying that only 2% of all Foreign Service test takers get hired. Because the odds seem so impossibly low it makes it all the more mysterious and interesting for those who pass the exams and, reversely, totally acceptable and logical for those who failed them. But statistics are what they are. I worked with statistics a lot and if I learned one thing it’s that they rarely tell the whole story.


I believe that some people have a much bigger shot at passing the entry exams than 2%, like those who are well prepared, presentable, skilled, and motivated, for example. I mean, if you have an academic degree; lived or worked abroad; picked up a foreign language; and everyone around you believes you’re going to be successful no matter what you choose to do in life… I think your odds are higher than 2%—especially if you’re willing to take the test a few times in case you fail at first.


Even if you’re attending a university nobody ever heard of and never traveled further than Mexico—if you can make an honest assessment of yourself and conclude that you’re smart and highly motivated, there’s no need to believe your chance of ever becoming a diplomat is negligible. I know many couples who both got in, probably not because both happened to be among the most talented individuals ever taking the test, but because they had some experience and were willing to do the work it takes to get hired. So do what you can to use your education (and your work experience, and some of your free time) to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to become a diplomat.


2. Some universities specialize in diplomacy. There are “feeder” schools to the Foreign Service. Even if they’re not called that, there are certain universities on the east coast (and in Los Angeles) that supply the majority of Foreign Service recruits. I don’t know how they do it, but I can make some educated guesses. One reason might be that their courses prepare applicants well. Another is that these universities are plugged into the State Department, having former FSOs teach there and providing ample information on how to prepare for and take the test. Or perhaps going to these universities is so expensive and/or motivating that it strengthens students’ resolve to really land that job as a diplomat.


So it wouldn’t altogether be a terrible idea to go to one of these universities if you want to become a diplomat, or generally want to work in international relations. Alternatively, you could look at the types of courses, resources and activities they provide to their students, and try to get in on the action. Figure out how students there prepare for their “global careers” by reading their websites and newsletters, and attend conferences and information sessions if you can.


Also, check out their curricula and take similar courses at your own university like elements of statecraft (development, negotiation, public diplomacy, economic diplomacy), history, foreign policy, statistics, regional/area studies, global issues (crime, environment, peace and stability), multilateral organizations, or cultural/religious studies.


3. Acquire useful skills any way you can. If you want to be a diplomat, it doesn’t make sense not to focus your attention on obtaining and practicing necessary skills and competencies. So take a good look at the 13 dimensions, and read about the five career tracks, then figure out what you can do in the upcoming years to increase your chances to become an FSO.


This can be as general as picking up a book or taking a course and learn about history and international relations; playing jeopardy and trivial pursuit with your friends; embracing tasks like drafting reports and giving presentations with zeal and trying to get better at them; joining a planning committee and organizing an event; participating in debates and learning about new issues and how to look at them critically; and using every opportunity to work and communicate with people from different cultures and backgrounds than your own.


Also: try to get an internship at the State Department, an embassy abroad, or with some other organization overseas! This can make a huge difference in your life. It’s the best way to know if a life overseas is really for you, plus you get a lot of experience and information that will help you make it a reality, like what it’s like to work and live in an unfamiliar environment, travel abroad, deal with foreign cultures, learn foreign languages, and get in contact with people from all over the world.


Some people say they wish they’d used their time in college to study a “critical needs” language, like Chinese or Arabic, because of the bonus points (your exam score is raised if, upon testing, it turns out you’re very good at a foreign language). Considering how hard you’d have to study to go from zero to (semi) fluent Arabic/Chinese, however, I’m not sure this is good advice for everyone, especially if you’re not good at studying languages or don’t have much time. I know I couldn’t have learned a tough language like that while I also studied International Relations and worked a part-time job to pay my rent. On the other hand, I know an FSO who used the time between finishing his PdD and joining the Foreign Service to study Hindi and he got very good at it. Everyone’s different.


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