How to Become a Diplomat: Steps to Take from High School
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If you’re passionate about public service and love working with people from different cultures, diplomacy might be the path for you. Aspiring diplomats in the U.S. generally begin their careers as generalist Foreign Service Officers (FSOs), undergoing a rigorous selection process that attracts ~20,000 applicants annually. About 2% ultimately become FSOs, entering an up-or-out system that mandates strong performance and consistent improvement. In this post, we’ll cover what diplomats do and how to become one.
What Does a Diplomat Do?
FSOs handle diplomatic relations with foreign countries on a daily basis, representing U.S. policies abroad and collecting information about host countries to strengthen international relationships. Five career tracks exist:
1. Consular officers work primarily in embassies and consulates abroad, protecting U.S. citizens and adjudicating visas. They also assist with adoptions, manage evacuations, and defend against fraud and human trafficking.
2. Economic officers manage trade relations, working with foreign officials and business communities to understand local conditions and advocate for American interests. Their scope also covers environmental issues, technology, labor, health, and other related areas.
3. Management officers lead embassies. They are responsible for day-to-day operations, budgeting, and personnel. They oversee use of mission resources, negotiate with local governments, and work directly with embassy staff and their families.
4. Political officers monitor and report on the political climate in host countries, developing networks of contacts and interpreting local events to advise policymakers back in Washington. They also present U.S. policies to host governments and manage the visits of U.S. officials and delegations.
5. Public diplomacy officers handle public relations and outreach, working with media and local communities to promote and understand U.S. policies. They organize events and programs that facilitate culture and information exchange like the Fulbright program.
You will be asked to pick your career track at the very beginning of the selection process, but keep in mind that many FSOs will do tours outside of their career tracks. All FSOs will do at least one consular tour in their first four years.
How Much Does a Diplomat Make?
According to the 2020 Foreign Service salary schedule, entering FSOs make a base salary of between $50,714 to $102,811 depending on education level, years of qualifying experience, and salary matching. Tenured FSOs (3-27 years of service) may move up salary grades to a cap of $170,800, and career diplomats who rise to the Senior Foreign Service earn between $131,239 and $197,300. The government also pays for housing and provides a cost-of-living adjustment for certain posts, along with additional hardship and danger allowances that range up to 35% of base pay.
How to Become a Diplomat: Steps to Take from High School
There are technically no requirements for becoming an FSO besides achieving a high score on the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) and being a U.S. citizen between 20 to 59 years old. However, the selection process is mysterious and competitive. It’s common for many candidates to repeat the process before landing their first tour. Before we dive into specific steps, keep in mind the following 13 dimensions that the State Department uses to evaluate applicants:
- Cultural Adaptability
- Experience & Motivation
- Information Integration & Analysis
- Initiative & Leadership
- Objectivity & Integrity
- Oral Communication
- Planning & Organizing
- Working with Others
- Written Communication
- Quantitative Analysis
Be a well-rounded student. No high school or college degree is required to become an FSO, but it’s difficult to self-study for all content areas on the FSOT without any formal schooling. Taking a balanced course load is not only beneficial for college admissions but will also lay the groundwork for general knowledge you’ll need as an FSO. In particular, focus on developing your skills in reading, writing, and speaking, along with studying American and world history, government, geography, politics, and economics if available.
Begin learning a foreign language. Proficiency in a foreign language provides a point bump if you qualify for the final selection stage (Oral Assessment), so it’s best to start early. As you can only receive bonus points for one foreign language, being highly proficient in one is better than knowing pieces of multiple languages. Advanced language studies also lead to more cultural exposure and knowledge, serving you well in any career.
Get involved in extracurriculars. Skills like collaboration, leadership, communication, organization, and general sociability are critical for success as an FSO, but they’re hard to develop in the classroom. Extracurriculars are a great way to start preparing for teamwork and projects in the real world.
Keep an eye out for so-called “feeder schools.” Politico published a report in 2020 that lists the top 25 feeder schools into the Foreign Service. Top schools included Georgetown, American University, George Washington University, the UC schools, and Johns Hopkins. While it’s certainly unnecessary to attend one for the sole purpose of becoming an FSO, it might be helpful to study their program offerings and curricula so that you know what to look for in your future college. Use CollegeVine’s free Admissions Calculator to create a school list that fits your preferences and determine your chances of admission.
Maintain and build on your record from high school. Continue developing a broad academic background, studying foreign languages, and participating in student organizations. The State Department offers coursework suggestions (see pg. 9). There is no need to major in International Relations unless you’d like to — FSOs need diversity in their ranks! — but you might want to consider a major relevant to your preferred career track. For instance, aspiring management officers may benefit from a business background, while public diplomacy officers might consider journalism or media relations.
Do an internship with an international focus. The State Department offers internships, as do organizations like the UN, the Council on Foreign Relations, Médecins Sans Frontières, PEN International, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and so on. Whether you work for a local or wide-reaching nonprofit, NGO, or government organization, there are tons of opportunities to experience and engage on a variety of international issues.
Study abroad. FSOs do a lot of traveling, so study abroad will give you first-hand experience of what it’s like to live in a different country. It’s also a great way to practice your language skills and immerse yourself in a new culture, making connections and working with people of different backgrounds.
Fill in gaps. Nervous about public speaking? Sign up for a class or join the debate team! College offers an incredible array of resources and opportunities that you might never have again, so now is the time to work on any weak points and turn them into strengths. You can also get started on the FSOT suggested reading list.
Graduate School/Work Experience
Graduate school and work experience may be optional, but many FSOs do report having an advanced degree and/or work experience prior to joining the Foreign Service. It’s likely that you’ll be able to further develop your knowledge base and skill set by starting a career or pursuing graduate studies. Also, both will qualify you for higher entry salaries if you become an FSO.
FSO Selection Process
Keep in mind that only 2% of applicants succeed, so nothing will guarantee any advantage in the selection process. It’s best to just do what feels right for you. Apply when you feel ready, and remember that many have repeated the process multiple times before landing an assignment.
Further details are available on the State Department website, but we provide an overview below:
Prepare your application. The FSO application asks for personal information like your level of education, past military service, language proficiency, work experience, and FSO career track. You will also be asked to submit Personal Narratives (PN), which are six responses (1,300 characters each) on the following topics: substantive knowledge, intellectual skills, interpersonal skills, communication skills, management skills, and leadership skills. You can find the prompts on the State Department website (see pg. 4).
Submit your application and take the FSOT. Submitting your FSO application and registering for the FSOT happen together. The FSOT is offered three times a year and requires no registration fee, though you must wait 12 months before re-taking. We recommend taking a practice FSOT.
Attend Oral Assessment if invited. Your application and FSOT results will be evaluated by the Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP), who advance only a few hundred applicants to Oral Assessment. This is a day-long assessment with three parts: Group Exercise, Structure Interview, and a Case Management Exercise. Assessors will evaluate you based on the 13 dimensions and score your performance on a scale of one to seven, with the hiring cutoff at 5.25.
Obtain medical and security clearances; pass suitability review. If you pass Oral Assessment, you’ll receive a conditional offer requiring you to obtain medical and security clearances. Once cleared, a Suitability Review Panel will determine whether you qualify for the Register, a rank-ordered list based on your career track and Oral Assessment score. The State Department will then go down the Register and extend offers as vacancies arise. Your candidacy will expire after 18 months on the Register, at which point you’ll need to repeat the selection process from the beginning.
Additional Training/Later Career
FSOs first attend A-100 training, a 6-week orientation class prior to their first tour. They will then serve two directed tours overseas (4 years total), qualifying for tenure review after 3 years of service. Tenured FSOs are considered mid-level and will then bid for new positions every two or three years, gaining additional responsibilities and ascending pay grades via promotions. Additional training and classes are also provided by the Foreign Service Institute. FSOs have 27 years after tenure to join the Senior Foreign Service, at which point they may serve until turning 65. Some FSOs do become ambassadors, though a third of ambassadors have been political appointees.
The path to becoming a diplomat is a long one, but you’ll be sure to have an exciting and fulfilling career!