The U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service is an organization that seeks to improve understanding of American interests and culture abroad. Wherever an American embassy or consulate exists, it is the Foreign Service that provides the bulk of its staff. Foreign Service Officers are drawn from a pool of Americans from all walks of life, with opportunities existing for intelligent, motivated individuals, regardless of previous careers.

This is a demanding career path, but one that may be uniquely rewarding for those with a strong interest in working directly in international politics.

Job Duties

When you apply to work for the Foreign Service, you are asked to choose one of five career tracks, each of which focuses on a specific need of the State Department. It is important to research these different tracks thoroughly, as your career track dictates the path of your entire Foreign Service career, and it is not easy to switch tracks after being hired.

The five career tracks and their respective duties are as follows:

  • Consular: Consular Officers focus on facilitating consulate services for U.S. citizens abroad, including passport reissue and any required assistance with local authorities.
  • Economic: Economic Officers focus on economic and trade relations with the countries to which they are assigned. Whether working with local business groups to facilitate business deals or briefing leaders on changing economic situations, these officers work to ensure open and free trade with local governments and organizations where possible.
  • Management: Management Officers oversee the day-to-day operations of the consulate or embassy to which they are assigned. Often an appealing track for those with a business background, a Management Officer works to optimize the running of a Foreign Service posting using available resources.
  • Political: Political Officers research and report on the political situation of their host country and how it might impact U.S. security and interests. This position requires considerable knowledge of the host country and experience analyzing events.
  • Public Diplomacy: Public Diplomacy Officers educate local groups and individuals on U.S. goals and interests. This is a cross-cultural track designed to improve local opinions of American culture, values and goals.

While tracks are designed to provide a specific focus, there are many job duties in common between each track. Regardless of the track you choose, you will be responsible for interacting with foreign citizens and leaders and promoting the interests of the U.S. abroad. All officers are required to serve in a “hardship post” at some point in their careers, as well. These postings are so named because they may be in countries where it is difficult to get basic amenities, or where the political situation makes it difficult to ensure individual safety outside of embassy grounds.

All Foreign Service Officers are also responsible for writing reports and briefing managers and leaders. All prospective Foreign Service Officers are required to develop strong communication skills, as reading and writing forms a core of what a Foreign Service Officer does on a daily basis.

Foreign Service Officers serve at postings abroad for periods of two to four years, at which point officers are recalled for a brief period of time in the U.S. before being sent abroad again. While you are encouraged to indicate preference, the choice of posting, as well as the time you will spend there, is ultimately the choice of the State Department and can change at any time.

Salary Potential

The Foreign Service operates on a standard pay scale that takes into account qualifications, experience and responsibilities. For recent graduates with a bachelor’s degree, starting salaries on the 2012 pay scale are listed at $43,213. Those holding a master’s or law degree can expect a starting salary of $48,338.

For career Foreign Service Officers, salaries can rise as high as $129,517, depending on individual skills and accomplishments within the service. As a federal government position, the Foreign Service has a mandatory retirement age of 65, with an early retirement option available for those as young as 50 provided they have served at least 20 years.

Education and Training

The Foreign Service is designed to be an option for American citizens between the ages of 20 and 59 regardless of educational background. While one could technically be admitted with as little as a high school diploma, in practice the vast majority of applicants hold a bachelor’s degree at the very least.

There is no specific major required to join the Foreign Service. Given the nature of the work, however, any coursework in English, foreign languages, politics, history, finance or economics would certainly be helpful.

A successful application requires a passing score on the annual Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) and Oral Assessment, a physical exam, a background check and a favorable assessment of a candidate’s ability to respond to stressful situations. The Foreign Service gives extra consideration to those able to speak certain languages at a professional level. Details on current language needs can be found on the State Department’s website.

Is a career in the Foreign Service right for you?

The Foreign Service offers a career unlike any other. This is not to say that life in the Foreign Service is for everyone, as Foreign Service Officers are required to travel a great deal and sometimes work at postings where daily life can be difficult. To those interested in a life abroad with the flexibility to respond to the diverse and ever changing needs of the State Department, the Foreign Service can be a very interesting choice. With a reported career retention rate of 90%, there is certainly something very compelling about this lifestyle for those who are drawn to it. 

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