by George Sibley
The editors of the American Diplomacy Journal have asked me to answer two questions about careers with the U.S. Department of State that resulted from their October 2021 webinar entitled “How Does U.S. Diplomacy Benefit Americans?” Before doing so, let me introduce myself. My name is George Sibley, and I am a senior Foreign Service Officer currently serving as the Diplomat in Residence (DIR) for the Mid-Atlantic Region, covering North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. In this position, I provide information and assistance to persons interested in student and career opportunities with the Department.
We offer a variety of student programs, including internships, fellowships, and study programs. For careers, we offer a plethora of options. You can choose to work in the Civil Service, which would have you based in the U.S.; or in the Foreign Service, which would have you working abroad, rotating among our more than 270 different U.S. embassies and consulates.
Within the Foreign Service, we have careers as “Generalists” and as “Specialists.” Specialists focus within a specific field throughout their careers. These include information management specialists, who manage and operate our global information technology infrastructure; construction engineers, who monitor and report on our diplomatic construction projects to ensure they are completed properly; and medical providers, who provide primary, acute, and emergency care to U.S. government employees and their families abroad. There are actually 19 different specialist careers—check them out at: https://careers.state.gov/work/foreign-service/specialist/.
Generalists work across five career tracks: consular, economic, management, political, and public diplomacy. You can learn more here: https://careers.state.gov/work/foreign-service/officer/. If you are a U.S. citizen and have any interest in these opportunities, I have three suggestions:
First, explore our website: https://careers.state.gov. We have a wealth of information there, including this welcome video from Secretary of State Blinken: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhi5JK2CVuk.
Second, if you still have some questions, I recommend you reach out to a Diplomat in Residence, whom you can identify and contact at https://careers.state.gov/connect/dir/. If you are currently in the Mid-Atlantic region, I can make it easier—just write to me at DIRMidAtlantic@state.gov.
Third, to receive updated information about these opportunities, you can sign up at the following site: https://tinyurl.com/144yo5x8. Now to the questions.
Is working in governmental diplomacy a beneficial and stable career for the future?
Referring to work with the U.S. Department of State as a “career” and not a “job” is definitely the right way to look at it. Newly hired Foreign Service employees will have a series of jobs throughout their careers in a number of countries overseas and also back in the States. All new Foreign Service employees must be available for worldwide assignment. In fact, Foreign Service employees join the Department not knowing where they will go on their first tour. Rather, midway through their introductory training, they will experience “Flag Day.” On that day, everyone is nervous and excited as they get called up to learn where they will first go as a U.S. diplomat.
I remember my own Flag Day vividly, because they did not tell us where we were going, they only gave us a flag. As I walked back from the podium, I was wondering whether I was going to Poland or Indonesia! (Look at those two flags for yourself to understand my confusion.) Ultimately, I figured it out and was delighted to be headed to Jakarta. Before going, however, my first “job” was learning Bahasa Indonesia. For over six months, I was tasked with learning the language at the Foreign Service Institute so that I could perform my job effectively on behalf of the American people.
This brings me to the question about whether the career is beneficial. If you are interested in lifelong learning and making a difference, it is. In the Foreign Service, every time you take a new assignment you are learning a new portfolio, meeting new contacts and colleagues, understanding a new political and economic system, exploring a new geography, eating new foods, and—in some cases—even learning a new language. Even from your first tour as an entry-level officer, you will have important responsibilities that will only grow as you progress within the career and reach more senior positions. Perhaps someday you might lend assistance in defusing a coup, as I did in the faraway archipelago of the Comoros over a dozen years ago. (The coup leader escaped in a motorboat dressed as a woman!)
Is it a “stable” career? That’s a tricky question. In the Foreign Service you need to be resilient and adaptable, as you will be moving every three years or so and you will face new challenges constantly. There may be times when, even before your regular tour is to end, an unexpected challenge arises—political upheaval perhaps, or a natural disaster, such as a pandemic—and it forces you to leave post suddenly, often bringing you back to DC. The stability of this career comes from the commitment from the Department to help you grow as an employee, to support you during challenging times, and to provide benefits—such as health care, student loan repayments, a 401(k), and the logistics for overseas moves. But ultimately the stability comes from your commitment to represent your country. For the right person, a Foreign Service career is not only “beneficial and stable,” it is fascinating and meaningful.
What are the best steps we, as students, can take to prepare for a career in diplomacy or international relations?
If you intend to pursue a Foreign Service specialist career, carefully read the job description and the required qualifications and make sure your career path is moving you toward completing those requirements. For example, if you are a nurse practitioner and want to become a medical provider, you need a minimum of five years of full-time clinical experience with at least 75% of the time involved in direct primary care. Our security engineering officers must complete a specialized degree, while our construction engineers can earn a degree in a variety of subjects and must have several years of specialized experience. There are fascinating career paths as a Foreign Service specialist and knowing the requirements ahead of time will ensure you are ready to apply.
For Foreign Service generalists it is easier, in terms of formal educational qualifications, because there are none. You read that correctly! To apply for the Foreign Service, you are not even required to have a high school diploma, although, in practice, a slight majority of candidates have graduate degrees. What is important is that you have an insatiable hunger for learning. Some successful applicants have degrees in political science or international relations. Yet there are many variants: I had an odd double major in biology and religious philosophy.
The Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT) covers a wide range of topics, and you will be more successful if you have some knowledge of fields outside your primary area of study. For instance, consider learning something about management principles and economic fundamentals, even if you do not plan to pursue a management or economic career track This is why I cite “curiosity” as a key component to success in diplomacy: How can you be successful in an international negotiation if you do not have a sense for what the other side is seeking and why? How can you learn that without studying the historical and cultural context they bring to the negotiating table? Delving into these issues is exhilarating to a person with a natural curiosity. Along with that curiosity should come an understanding of how to leverage your abilities. This is why we seek to attract talent with a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences, including persons with disabilities.
For Civil Service opportunities, you apply for individual jobs through USAJobs.gov. The easiest way to access the available openings is at https://careers.state.gov/work/civil-service/. On that page there is a heading for “Current Openings” that will take you to the USAJobs link. As with the specialist jobs, it is essential that you demonstrate the minimum qualifications in your application if you are even to be considered. You can also consider programs that lead to Civil Service careers, such as the Pathways Recent Graduate Program and the Presidential Management Fellowship.
In addition to classroom learning, it will be important to develop other skills, such as leadership for both the Civil Service and the Foreign Service. Being a member of a club or an organization shows a passion for the issues it espouses and playing a leadership role in that organization demonstrates a higher level of commitment. Dealing with the joys and frustrations of a leadership position will teach you skills that cannot be learned any other way. Another important ability is communication. You should be able to write clearly, and a diplomat must be able to speak clearly as well. Learning to be comfortable in front of a crowd takes practice; I recommend a Toastmaster’s Club or even the theater as a way to develop that capacity.
Other skills you can develop through some of the Department’s student programs, such as internships and fellowships. These will also give you an insider’s view into what the life at the Department and the work of a diplomat can be like. As you think about what other qualities you might need, I suggest you look at the 13 dimensions that define what we are seeking in our diplomats. You can find them here: https://careers.state.gov/work/foreign-service/officer/13-dimensions/.
Finally, I will advocate for persistence and resilience. Every person’s life will entail challenges and how you face these will define who you are. You may already have what it takes to pass the Foreign Service Officer Test. The hard part for many young people is making it through the next step, which is the Qualifications Evaluation Panel, or QEP. That is where a great many of the younger prospects have difficulty demonstrating their readiness to enter the Foreign Service. When I joined the State Department at 31, I thought I would be an old-timer in my class; instead, I learned that the median age of an entry-level Foreign Service Office is in the early-to-mid thirties. That said, some applicants with broad experience do make it through straight out of college, so give it a try. After all, in recent classes of new Foreign Service officers, usually less than a quarter have made it through the whole process the first time they tried while the majority have taken the test three or four times before succeeding. This is where persistence and resilience come into play.
For undergraduate students, I advise exploring a different path for a few years before trying again. This might be the Peace Corps, or working as a staffer on the Hill, or joining a non-governmental organization or a corporation. Whatever you choose, make sure it engages your intellect and your passion. That way, whether you join the Department of State or not, you will never regret your choice. (And yes, these kinds of experiences will absolutely improve your chances.)
In conclusion, if you have borne with me this long, you probably have more than a passing interest in this career. I encourage you now to learn more about what this entails and then… apply!
George Sibley joined the Foreign Service in 1988; in addition to domestic assignments, he has served in Rangoon, New Delhi, Kirkuk, Mosul, Antananarivo, and Kolkata.