What Does a Foreign Service Officer Do?

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U.S. State Department Flickr

The unfortunate and untimely death of a young Foreign Service Officer in a suicide bombing on April 6 in Afghanistan’s Zabul province has drawn attention to the careers of U.S. diplomats, a topic already on the consciousness of much of the U.S. population following the success of the critically acclaimed foreign service flick Argo.

Twenty-five year old U.S. diplomat Anne Smedinghoff was on assignment at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan since July, a post for which she had volunteered following a tour in Caracas, Venezuela. When her convoy was attacked, she was en route to deliver books to a school. "I wish everyone in our country could see first-hand the devotion, loyalty and amazingly hard and hazardous work our diplomats do on the front lines in the world's most dangerous places," said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a statement following the attack.

The work of U.S. diplomats, a term interchangeable with Foreign Service Officers (FSOs), can range from an assignment like Smedinghoff’s—promoting literacy—to issuing new passports to U.S. citizens living or traveling abroad. FSOs are stationed at any one of 265 embassies, consulates, and mission stations around the world, and are living and working in both hostile, war-torn nations and amicable, peaceful countries. Broadly defined, all of the work falls under a mission statement that the official Department of State literature defines thusly: “The mission of a U.S. diplomat in the Foreign Service is to promote peace, support prosperity, and protect American citizens while advancing the interests of the U.S. abroad.”

Diplomats select one of five different career paths—consular affairs, economic affairs, management affairs, political affairs, and political diplomacy—that inform their day-to-day work. Consular work includes facilitating adoptions; economic officers tackle subjects like environmental issues; management officers head up real estate and budget, for example; political affairs focuses on the host country; and political diplomacy officers interact with locals, particularly leaders and officials, to promote U.S. policies. More information on each is available here. New FSOs are Junior Officers, and their first couple assignments are considered entry-level. In other words, Junior Officers are likely to be the ones interviewing hopeful travelers planning a trip to New York City for their visas.

While diplomats place preferences for their career tracks and bid for location assignments, they must be willing to work wherever they are placed regarding both job role and destination. Posts vary in length, from about 6 months in certain places, such as war zones, to up to a few years in other places. The Department of State arranges for FSO's housing and coordinates transitions with the goal of making moves as seamless and comfortable as possible. Still, prospective officers are warned that the standard of living in different posts varies widely, and based on the country, can be cushier or rougher than what they are accustomed to in the U.S.

Certain agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), United States Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service and Commercial Service, individually hire and employ FSOs, as well. The careers, assignments, and work are specific to those agencies. The vast majority of FSOs, however, work for the Department of State.

Foreign Service Officers, also referred to as diplomat “generalists,” are one professional pillar of the U.S. Foreign Service. Ambassadors, Foreign Service Specialists—such as doctors and human resource specialists—and Foreign Service Nationals that include citizens of the country where the embassy or consulate is located, are among the others.

The application process to become a Foreign Service Officer is exhaustive, and as is to be expected for a government position, includes an extensive background check. The first hurdle in the process is sitting for the Foreign Service Officer Test. Test results determine whether candidates advance to the following rounds, which include submitting a personal narrative and taking an oral assessment. More information about the application process is available here.

For those considering a career as a Foreign Service Officer, there’s also an app for that, official and provided by the U.S Department of State, where candidates can tap around to, for example, review general information about the Foreign Service, try practice test questions, and locate diplomats.

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April 15, 2013 - 9:30am
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