So, you’ve decided that the Foreign Service is for you. You’re going to be a Foreign Service Officer (FSO), serve your country, and see the world: what could be better? By this time two years hence you might be working on policy in Dubai, speaking with New Zealander reporters, or saving drunk college-aged Americans in Argentina from jail. Sounds like the life. But wait, how exactly does one go about becoming an FSO? Let’s dive into the first step.
First and foremost, you need to figure out what career track you’re interested in. For FSO’s there are five possibilities: Consular, Management, Economic, Political, and Public Diplomacy. Some are certainly more popular than others and that’s important to consider when looking to join the Foreign Service. You don’t need to be interested in the Economic track to understand supply and demand. If every grad student with an M.S. of International Relations wants to be in the political track, there is going to be stiff competition. However, if you’re interested in helping foreign nationals visit the U.S. and helping American expats, then perhaps Consular is more your jam. Let’s break down the five tracks.
The Consular track is often the most overlooked of the five tracks, though it may be the one most Americans and foreigners will ever actually deal with on a person-to-person basis. “Consular Officers facilitate adoptions, help evacuate Americans and combat fraud to help protect our borders and fight human trafficking” (State.gov). The Consular Officers are the front line of outward facing diplomats for embassies and consulates. They handle a wide range of issues that affect people on the day-to-day and are, ironically considering Public Affairs, often what creates a lasting impression on local populations.
Management Officers are the ones who make the whole show run. They are the “‘go-to leaders’ responsible for all embassy operations from real estate to personnel to budgets” (State.gov). If you want to have a job that requires you to constantly have your hand in every cookie jar, making sure the massive diplomatic machine works, then Management may be the way to go. My personal connection to the world of Foreign Service was a Management Officer and he had nothing but great things to say. It is the most logistic of the five and if you enjoy that sort of nitty-gritty work/making sure people get paid and have a roof over their head while serving, then Management may be your way to go.
Economic Officers, for me as a not numbers guy, sound pretty scary and über serious, but they, like their Political and Public Affairs counterparts work with foreign governments directly to advance U.S. agendas and foreign policy to best benefit both the U.S. and the host nation through collaborative works. Economic officers typically work within the realms of economics, obviously, but also trade, energy, and environmental issues, among others. Entry-level officers can expect to work under high level officers, prepare economic analyses, even supervise local staff.
Political Officers are the ones most people likely think about when pondering what it is diplomats actually do. “Political Officers analyze host country political events and must be able to negotiate and communicate effectively with all levels of foreign government officials” (State.gov). These are the diplomats of the cliché old boys club, the ones who help to analyze foreign governments and make recommendations to the Ambassador and U.S. government on how to best proceed in relations with the nation in question. In each A-100 class, the entry course for recruits who’ve passed all exams, political is often the most difficult to enter due simply to the great volume of interested candidates. If you want to be in this track, go for it, but know you’ll face the stiffest competition.
Finally, we have the Public Diplomacy Officers. Odds are if you’ve been on this website for more than just this specific post, you know that this is my area of interest and often the second or third most competitive after political and, sometimes, economic. Public Diplomacy Officers are the media-faced representatives of the embassy that deal with local leaders, including governmental, NGO, academics, young leaders, etc. The Public Diplomat’s job is to promote collaborative goals, mutual trust, and support for U.S. policy. We will probably discuss this particular branch more in depth in later posts, but examples of expectations and projects include building cultural diplomacy and exchange programs, overseeing website and social media for the embassy, and acting as a contact for local media. Public Diplomacy Officers must engender trust and practice the highest level of permitted transparency. An embassy with poorly run public diplomacy, even if they represent the U.S., will find itself struggling to complete even the most straight forward of objectives.
There you have it, a very brief rundown of the five tracks. Determining which track is right for you is not only a requirement of signing up for the Foreign Service Officers Test (FSOT), but key in deciding whether or not the Foreign Service is right for you as a career. If you’re curious, and love a good quiz, I encourage you to check out State’s, “Which Career Track is Right for You?” quiz. Post in the comments what you got!