Foreign Policy Blogs

Interested in Becoming a Diplomat?

The Washington Post's job section ran a story this Sunday on tips for getting a job with the US Foreign Service. The author dispelled a few common myths about the FS. Here is an excerpt:

“Myth: The Foreign Service — the nation's diplomatic corps — is made up exclusively of State Department staff.

Fact: The biggest branch of the Foreign Service indeed consists of State Department staff, said Marianne Myles, director of the State Department's Office of Recruitment, Examination and Employment. But the Foreign Service also has branches with employees of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the departments of Agriculture and Commerce.

Myth: You must have previous overseas experience to become a Foreign Service officer with the State Department. These workers advance U.S. interests abroad and manage embassies.

Fact: The State Department's screening process for Foreign Service officers has long included a knowledge test called the Foreign Service Officer Test and a day-long Foreign Service Oral Assessment. But a third hurdle was recently added, Myles said: an in-depth review of professional, academic and extracurricular credentials.

This process considers all aspects of applicants’ backgrounds without requiring specific skills or types of experience, such as languages or overseas experience. Why? “Because someone with a totally different skill set can still make a successful diplomat,” Myles said. “The world is a complicated place; State needs multifaceted individuals with a wide range of skill sets.”

The process favors “generalists who are adaptable enough to go wide and deep,” and who represent all walks of life — including recent graduates and stay-at-home parents returning to work, Myles said.

Other agencies have their own processes.

Myth: All federal international jobs are filled by current feds — never by outsiders.

Fact: Federal recruiters say that outsiders regularly fill mid-level jobs as well as contract positions that may lead to permanent overseas work. In addition, outsiders fill recruitment programs for young professionals, including the Presidential Management Fellows Program, which places recent grads in two-year government assignments.

“A [fellow] may conduct a temporary duty assignment overseas at USAID as part of their training plans,” said Tom Davis, chief of outreach and marketing in USAID's human resources office. “If they finish their fellowship satisfactorily, we will hire them into a permanent job.”

Myth: You must be a language virtuoso to work overseas.

Fact:Foreign language fluency is a plus but not a necessity. English is spoken in many countries, and many jobs provide language training, said James Ham, the country director for Cameroon. With 12 years of experience working in 11 French-speaking countries, Ham's career has not been slowed by his accented French, despite his admitted tendency to elicit the response, “Votre Francais est tres American, monsieur.””

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Melinda Brouwer

Melinda Brower holds a Masters degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She received her bachelor's degree in Political Science and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a graduate diploma in International Relations from the University of Chile during her tenure as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has worked on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, for Foreign Policy magazine and the American Academy of Diplomacy. She presently works for an internationally focused non-profit research organization in Washington, DC.