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Foreign Service Officer Job Description

The most common career option for individuals who are looking to enter the field of U.S. international diplomacy is to pursue a position as a foreign service officer through the United States Department of State. Foreign service officers can have a wide array of responsibilities, such as addressing human rights violations and facilitating international communications. Their role makes them a key part of the U.S. government’s international relationship-building efforts, as they work to establish and maintain collaboration between nations and protect the overseas interests of the nation.

Given the ever-changing and often complex global political landscape, the need for international diplomats, such as foreign service officers, is expected to increase. Individuals who are interested in a career with the Foreign Service can benefit from developing specialized skills and knowledge of diplomacy by earning an advanced degree, such as a Master of Arts in Diplomacy

Foreign Service Officer Key Skills and Job Description

Officials with the Department of State represent the U.S. government abroad. Their actions have a significant impact on the nation’s international reputation, which in turn, may influence diplomatic relations and foreign initiatives. Therefore, it is imperative that candidates for diplomatic careers develop a core skill set centered on effective leadership skills, analytical thinking, strong negotiation prowess, diligent research practices, an eye for detail, and a disposition for tactful communication.

While previous experience in the military is not necessary to pursue a career in the Foreign Service, it can be useful for developing leadership skills and communicating with military personnel. Foreign service officers often work closely with the U.S. Armed Forces. Having an understanding of the inner workings of the military can help a foreign service officer develop a close rapport with military officials.

Foreign service assignments often require extensive, ongoing collaboration and close correspondence with members of foreign governments and representatives of foreign businesses. Officials with the Foreign Service must exercise sound judgment in developing practical and effective solutions that promote U.S. interests as well as benefit foreign constituents. This is no small task. Entrenched social, political, and economic differences among various regions can present huge logistical obstacles to negotiation.

Success in the Foreign Service also demands sensitivity to the needs of foreign populations and a genuine desire to improve their lives and social conditions. A respect for foreign cultures, belief systems, and local political intricacies is essential for establishing successful relationships and promoting productive communications between the U.S. and foreign entities. To this end, officials should be prepared to develop extensive practical knowledge of foreign cultures, customs and political systems, while demonstrating commitment to integrity and remaining sympathetic to those in need.

Foreign Service Officer Requirements

Candidates for this position should understand that pursuing a career as a foreign service officer is a long-term commitment. The position requires extensive travel. Overseas tours for new foreign service officers typically span two years per assignment, with a probationary period of up to five years. Operatives will likely be stationed in a volatile region at some point during the first few years of their careers.

Every day, these professionals work in stressful environments and must correspond with individuals from a range of different cultures, belief systems, and economic situations. Foreign service officers build working relationships with individuals, governments, and organizations around the world. As the face of the U.S. in foreign regions, they strive to maintain these relationships to protect and promote U.S. interests.

Foreign Service Officer Education

Technically, the U.S. Department of State does not list specific degree requirements for a foreign service officer role. However, because of the battery of exams and assessments associated with applying for the role, earning a minimum of a bachelor’s degree is essentially a required element. Earning at least an undergraduate degree cultivates the knowledge and skills to pass the required exams and assessments.

Furthermore, earning an advanced degree, such as a Master of Arts in Diplomacy, can deepen the skills to excel in a foreign service officer role and help an individual stand out amid an often competitive field.

Foreign Service Officer Opportunities

Foreign service officers have the option to pursue one of five different career-tracks, which must be listed on their application for the Foreign Service Officer Test. Each career track offers lucrative compensation and incentives. Additionally, benefits include paid leave; paid housing when traveling overseas; federal health, medical, and retirement benefits; and even compensation for their children’s education.

Before being placed, candidates must complete a written and oral examination. They must also submit to a thorough background and medical check performed by the Department of State to determine their eligibility for top security clearance and suitability for working in high stress environments. Once cleared, candidates are reviewed by a panel of foreign service members and assigned to an embassy or consulate. Here, they will fill one of the following roles.

Consular Officer           

There is often paperwork that must be completed and a review that must be conducted to clear a citizen to live or work abroad. Consular officers interact with United States citizens who are hoping to enter or leave a country. They perform tasks ranging from issuing visas to providing critical information about the nation to travelers. Relaying information regarding criminal cases that occur abroad to the families of the accused or the victims is another extremely sensitive responsibility given to consular officers.

Economic Officer

Economic officers in the Foreign Service are tasked with developing a comprehensive understanding of the region in which they are stationed, using that knowledge to aid the interests of the United States government and its citizens. The information studied includes current economic trends, valued commodities, and the current stability of the region’s market. Because the position requires a thorough understanding of the economics of the area, economic officers are often contacted by American companies to answer questions regarding legal fees and fines, and by individuals who are seeking to do business abroad.

Management Officer

These officers are responsible for making sure the activities of the consulate or embassy in which they are posted are carried out smoothly. They often set up events, oversee employees, and communicate key information between all levels of the consulate staff by preparing reports and participating in meetings. These diplomats will often interact with foreign ambassadors and officials to plan the best course of action when international issues or concerns—such as armed conflicts—arise.

Political Officer

When drastic political changes or unexpected political events occur abroad, it is the political officer’s job to communicate the effects of these events to the United States Department of State. Political officers also analyze current political climates and negotiate on behalf of the United States with local government officials to maintain the security of American interests.

Public Diplomacy Officer

As the most general of foreign service officer career tracks, the public diplomacy officer‘s role is to represent the United States in the best light to the host foreign country. The position requires frequent discussion of American culture, values, and history with the local community. Assignments may range from teaching the host country American songs to promote cultural exchange, to holding press conferences for United States ambassadors.

Limited Non-Career Appointments (LNAs)

As the need for foreign service officers grows, the U.S. Department of State has expanded foreign service assignments to include a number of short-term employment opportunities. These assignments can range in duration from fifteen months to a maximum of five years.

Potential assignments currently fall under three programs that provide opportunities for the following.

  • Registered Nurses
  • Licensed Clinical Social Workers
  • President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) Country Coordinators

These professionals provide crucial humanitarian services to foreign populations that are facing hardship. In many regions where registered nurses are assigned, there are shortages of medical and mental health services. Social workers are often assigned to troubled regions for the purpose of counseling individuals who are traumatized by war or severe economic hardship. PEPFAR coordinators help provide vital relief and resources to affected foreign populations around the world. While the work is often physically and emotionally taxing, these short-term opportunities offer many benefits similar to other positions in the Foreign Service.

Foreign Service Officer Salary

Salaries for all operatives in the Foreign Service are based on an individual’s years of experience and level of education. There are nine pay grades and fourteen steps per grade. Base schedule salaries range from $30,113 at entry levels to $142,180 for experienced professionals. Salaries for entry-level officer positions can range from $47,439 to $85,448, depending on qualifying experience, degrees earned, and salary history.

Additional compensation is also awarded to foreign operatives based on the perceived level of danger associated with the region to which they are assigned. Operatives who work in areas considered “hardship” zones receive additional pay anywhere up to 35% of their salary—depending on the level of hardship. Another component of compensation, called “danger” pay, is awarded to officers assigned to war zones.

Many professionals who work in foreign service, both domestically and internationally, are proud to serve the U.S. government, helping improve social conditions and impact positive change. Pursuing a career as a foreign service officer or specialist, or even embarking on a short-term assignment, is an excellent opportunity to gain valuable experience, travel the globe, and make a meaningful impact on the world. Choosing a career path in foreign service, and working to promote the ambitious goals of the U.S. Department of State, provides a chance to truly make a difference.

Make an Impact in Diplomacy

As the nation’s oldest private military college, Norwich University has been a leader in innovative education since 1819. Through its online programs, the university delivers relevant and applicable curricula that enable its students to make a positive impact on their places of work, in communities, and throughout the world.

Learn how the Norwich University online Master of Arts in Diplomacy program provides working professionals a broad understanding of global communications and a deep knowledge of the world issues that affect international relations.

The program empowers you to build on your political, governmental, or business expertise. It delivers a solid foundation in the theories and practices that direct international relations and political science within the international system.


Recommended Readings

5 Key Approaches to Foreign Policy Analysis
Career Overview: Foreign Service Officer
How Will Improved Relations Between the U.S. & Cuba Affect Our Respective Economies?


2020 Pay Schedules, U.S. Department of State
Pathways Internship Programs, U.S. Department of State
Careers: Worldwide/Foreign Service, U.S. Department of State
Which Office is Right for You?, U.S. Department of State
Careers, USAid
Consular Office Career, U.S. Department of State
Foreign Service Officer, CareerMatch
Steps to Becoming a Foreign Service Officer, U.S. Department of State
Foreign Service Officer, U.S. Department of State
Foreign Service Officer Salary: A Comprehensive Guide (2017 Update), Path to Foreign Service

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