How to Become a Foreign Service Officer

Jan 07, 2021

Learn how to become a foreign service officer. Research the job descriptions and education requirements, and find out how to start a career in the U.S. foreign service.

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Do I Want to Be a Foreign Service Officer?

What does a foreign service officer do? Foreign service officers are employed by the U.S. Department of State to safeguard American interests around the globe. They work as consular officers, economic specialists, management officers, political analysts and public diplomacy experts. They must accept whatever assignments they're given worldwide. They can expect some postings, which normally last 1-3 years, to be at locations that lack modern amenities and may even be dangerous. Whatever their assignment, foreign service officers have to be culturally adaptable and creative problem-solvers who can remain unflappable in the face of challenges and crises. Read on to learn more about how to work in an embassy or how to perform other foreign service tasks.

Learn how to work in an embassy by researching the foreign service

Foreign Service Officer Requirements

Degree Level None officially specified, but the skills and knowledge sought are commensurate with education to at least the level of a bachelor's degree; a graduate degree should improve a candidate's competitiveness
Degree Fields None specified
Experience Strongest candidates will have related skills and knowledge gained in other roles, such as negotiation skills, leadership, sound judgment, and sharp analytical abilities
Key Skills The U.S. Department of State has developed a list of essential qualities for the foreign service that it calls the 13 dimensions, some of which include poise under stress, cultural adaptability, initiative and leadership potential, honesty, objectivity, adeptness at analyzing various kinds of information, excellent written and oral communications skills, and the capacity to plan and organize effectively
Additional Requirements U.S. citizenship; age must be between 20 and 59 at time of application; availability to work worldwide and in Washington, D.C.

Although a bachelor's degree is not required, most people in foreign service role do obtain a bachelor's degree. The U.S. Department of State does not maintain specific degree, experience or language requirements for foreign service officers, the extremely competitive selection process of exams and assessments makes education, foreign language proficiency and experience vital routes to success. A graduate degree should improve a candidate's competitiveness.

Though there are no particular requirements, the strongest candidates will have related skills and knowledge gained in other roles, such as negotiation skills, leadership, sound judgment and sharp analytical abilities. The U.S. Department of State has developed a list of essential qualities for the foreign service that it calls the 13 dimensions, some of which include poise under stress, cultural adaptability, initiative and leadership potential, honesty, objectivity, adeptness at analyzing various kinds of information, excellent written and oral communications skills and capacity to plan and organize effectively. You must also be a U.S. citizenship between the ages of 20 and 59 at the time of application and be able to work worldwide and in Washington, D.C.

Foreign Service Degree Options

Undergraduate Degrees

A solid, all-around college education is the best start to becoming qualified for the foreign service. There's no single preferred field of study, and no specific foreign service degree. The U.S. Department of State wants a diverse corps of diplomats with all kinds of educational backgrounds. Nonetheless, some fields are more relevant than others. Since work in the foreign service requires knowledge of America's culture, government and economy, plus the capacity to become an expert on other societies, majoring in political science, history, economics, sociology, anthropology, foreign languages and literatures or international relations could prove especially useful.

Success Tips

  • Consider studying abroad in a non-English-speaking country. Studying abroad is a valuable early test of one's cultural adaptability and a way to acquire a foreign language. A college term abroad may be a good introduction to what it means to live far from home and deal with a foreign culture and language.
  • Seek out extracurricular activities that help develop the U.S. Department of State's 13 desired qualifications. Leadership potential, initiative and writing skills, among others, can all be honed in extracurricular activities. The choice of club or organization can vary, but producing a newsletter, organizing an event or serving as an officer could all be excellent skill-building activities.
  • Read regularly about foreign affairs and current affairs in the U.S. Becoming a regular reader of quality general-interest newspapers, magazines and books is a good way to build the kind of general knowledge required to succeed in the foreign service.

Graduate Degrees

Some graduate degrees offer an advanced education of strong potential relevance to foreign service officers. Graduate programs in foreign affairs provide training precisely geared to careers in international relations. These 2-year programs, which are generally highly competitive, prepare students for diplomatic roles as well as international business and work with non-governmental organizations. Such programs may be particularly helpful in offering internship opportunities and other career-related resources in foreign relations. Consider obtaining a masters degree in foreign service or a related field if you feel it will help you improve your career prospects.

Other types of graduate degrees may be valuable, too. While three years in law school does not offer direct training in diplomacy, many diplomats hold law degrees. Two years spent earning an MBA in business school acquiring advanced management skills could also give one a competitive edge.

Success Tips

  • To be really successful, you may consider interning or volunteering at an agency or organization that works overseas. Graduate programs in international relations often provide internship opportunities for students. In some kinds of graduate programs, students need to seek out opportunities on their own, though career offices normally can provide information, advice and listings. There are many U.S. government agencies with international operations (including the State Department itself) and international non-governmental organizations that seek interns and/or volunteers.
  • Seek advice from a diplomat-in-residence. There are career foreign service officers stationed throughout the U.S. who're responsible for offering guidance to students and others interested in working for the State Department.

Becoming a Foreign Service Officer

To prepare for this career, take advantage of all the resources offered by the State Department. The Department's website offers detailed information about the application process, suggested additional reading and resources as well as contact information for its own career advisors (diplomats-in-residence). Here are some of the most important steps that you will take on your journey to becoming a foreign service officer.

  1. Select a career track
  2. Take and pass the FSOT
  3. Submit a personal statement
  4. Take the oral assessment
  5. Complete final requirements

Step 1: Select a Career Track

Time spent in a professional role that requires the kind of knowledge and experience that the State Department seeks will strengthen an applicant's resume for the foreign service. As with education, there is no one specific job or type of work experience that future foreign service officers must have. Jobs with similar features to the foreign service - working overseas for an aid organization or serving as an officer in the military, for example - are likely to afford more valuable experience than totally unrelated occupations. Whatever the work, the goal is a résumé that showcases one's potential in the 13 dimensions that the State Department considers essential to the foreign service.

Choose one of the five tracks in the foreign service as early as possible and pursue the most relevant work experience. The first step in applying to the foreign service is choosing an officer career track: consular, economic, management, political or public diplomacy. While the State Department's 13 basic qualifications cover all five specialties, the tracks emphasize different kinds of work and skills. Read the Department's own materials on the five tracks carefully and then ask a diplomat-in-residence about what preparation is most effective.

Step 2: Take and Pass the Foreign Officer Test (FSOT)

Screening for the foreign service is a multi-stage process that can take many months. To apply, one must first register online with the U.S. Department of State to take the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT). Registrants must specify an officer career track (consular, economic, management, political or public diplomacy) that cannot be changed later. The FSOT is given three times a year and consists of multiple choice and essay sections.

Step 3: Submit a Personal Statement

Those who pass the test submit a personal statement that highlights their experiences and what they've accomplished and learned. When composing your personal statement, be sure to highlight all that you've done to prepare for your job as a foreign service officer. If you have any past military service or if you speak any foreign languages, include that too. When the State Department composes the ranked list of potential hires that have successfully completed the application process for the foreign service, it gives bonus points to veterans and those with language skills.

Step 4: Take the Oral Assessment

A qualifications committee then chooses a few hundred of the strongest candidates (of the thousands who initially apply) for an oral assessment, in which they are scrutinized for the State Department's 13 key characteristics. Make sure that you approach the oral assessment with confidence and make sure you have extensive knowledge of the job for which you are applying.

Step 5: Complete Final Requirements

Those who pass the oral assessment proceed to medical and security clearances and a final review of their entire file. Approved candidates are then ranked by their various test and assessment scores and added to the hiring register for each career track. This means that you will need to be prepared for drug tests, medical tests, criminal background checks, and possibly even interviews with neighbors and family.

To review, with a postsecondary education, required training, and key skills in 13 dimensions, foreign service officers are employed in various positions by the U.S. Department of State to safeguard American interests around the globe.

Expert Contributor: Sean Harrington Sean has two master's degrees from the University of Arkansas in Operations Management and Engineering. He has ten years of teaching experience.

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