Pros and Cons of Becoming a Foreign Service Officer
Foreign service officers work for the U.S. Department of State. Get real job duties, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a foreign service officer is right for you.
|Pros of a Foreign Service Officer Career|
|Salaries for hardship posts are increased by the rate of a hardship differential, for example, in 2016, officers based Rwanda had a 15% hardship differential increase in their pay*|
|Act as a representative of the United States*|
|Financial support provided for family to travel with you while in service*|
|Worldwide travel possibilities*|
|Government-paid housing provided*|
|Cons of a Foreign Service Officer Career|
|Officers do not get to choose their relocation areas*|
|Family members may not always be able to join you*|
|Can be assigned to hardship posts and war zones*|
|Can be challenging and dangerous*|
Source: *U.S. Department of State.
Job Description and Duties
According to the U.S. Department of State, foreign service officers can choose from five separate career tracks: public diplomacy, politics, management, economics or consular (www.careers.state.gov). These career tracks are all international, and each requires service in a hardship post to advocate U.S. policies and interests. In fact, while the U.S. Department of State is based in Washington, D.C., foreign service officers can work in any of the 265 diplomatic missions, consulates and embassies located around the world.
Foreign service officers on the consular track help fight against human trafficking, facilitate adoptions and work to evacuate American citizens abroad when necessary. Officers in the economic track collaborate with foreign governments on domestic and international issues related to trade, economics, energy and environmental issues. Management officers oversee embassy operations, while political officers negotiate with foreign government officials and attend political events. Finally, public diplomacy officers help influence foreign leaders to support U.S. policy objectives. You select your career track when sitting for the first exam required in the process of pursuing a career as a foreign service officer.
Salaries for foreign service officers are based on the officer's level of education and experience. Rules regarding the amount of experience and education are used to identify the officer's federal pay grade, which determines how much they can earn. For instance, an officer with a bachelor's degree but no professional experience is considered to have the equivalent levels of experience and education as an officer having roughly six years of professional experience but no college degree. Similarly, a master's or law degree is considered the equivalent of having a bachelor's degree and six years of professional experience or twelve years of experience without a degree.
According to the 2016 Foreign Service Salary Table, the lowest salary paid to a foreign service officer that year was roughly $28,000 (www.state.gov). The highest annual salary available that year was about $133,000. Furthermore, a senior foreign service officer could earn a minimum wage of about $123,000 or a maximum wage of roughly $185,000.
What Are the Requirements?
There is no specific education level, academic major or foreign language proficiency required to work as a foreign service officer. To apply for a job, you must be a U.S. citizen, healthy, between the ages of 20 and 59 at the time of registration, between age 21 and 60 on the day of appointment and available to work anywhere in world. In addition, you must successfully pass the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT), which measures your ability to perform the tasks required of a foreign service officer. This test is offered three times a year at national and international locations. If you successfully pass the FSOT, you are then required to sit for a day-long oral assessment exam.
Afterwards, you need to pass various medical and obtain security clearances. A final review panel determines your employment potential, and, if you are deemed suitable for this career, your name is placed on the Register, which is a list of candidates sorted by rank and career track. When your name is at the top of list, you are sent to a post somewhere in the world.
Top Skills for a Foreign Service Officer
Necessary skills in this field include having sound judgement, fortitude and leadership skills, being flexible and being able to work well under stress. In addition, the department only hires candidates who demonstrate 13 dimensions of skills, abilities and qualities deemed essential for the profession. These qualities are: composure, cultural adaptability, experience and motivation, information integration and analysis, initiative and leadership, judgement, objectivity and integrity, oral communication, planning and organizing, quantitative analysis, resourcefulness, working with others and written communication. Applicants who excel in all dimensions are considered able to successfully work as foreign service officers. The State Department does not post job listings, but operates based on the rankings of candidates on the Register.
How to Get an Edge in the Field
You are not required to be fluent in a foreign language; however, according to the U.S. Department of State, proficiency in at least one language other than English can help your prospects of being chosen for a position as a foreign service officer (www.state.gov). Additionally, the State Department offers student programs for high school, college and graduate students to explore this career field and work in support of U.S. foreign policy. Most opportunities for students in these programs are based in Washington, D.C., but some students are able to work in overseas embassies. These internships, fellowships and experience programs can help you gain a foothold in the door towards becoming a foreign service officer.
Alternative Career Paths
Interpreter and Translator
If you happen to speak multiple languages and decide that working as a foreign service officer is not for you, you may wish to consider working as an interpreter or translator. The main task of these jobs is to convert written and spoken information from one language to another. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment in this field is expected to grow 42% during the 2010-2020 decade (www.bls.gov). The BLS reports that, in May 2010, the mean annual wage for an interpreter and translator was around $51,000.
If you are interested in studying the origin, development and operation of international political systems, or analyzing government structures and operations, you might consider a career as a political scientist. Roughly 53% of political scientists work for the federal government. The BLS expects opportunities in this field to grow 8% during the 2010-2020 decade. In May 2011, according to the BLS, political scientists earned a mean annual wage of approximately $105,000.
If you are interested in traveling and seeing events around the world first hand, but are not interested in working for the government, you might want to consider a career as a reporter or journalist. For an entry-level position in either of these fields, you would need at least a bachelor's degree in journalism or a related field. While in this career, you could specialize in political or international news. In May 2011, according to the BLS, reporters and correspondents earned a mean annual wage of about $44,000.