How To Become a US Diplomat in 6 Steps (With Duties)
Updated June 30, 2023
A diplomat is a professional who represents the United States abroad, protects American citizens who live or travel in other countries and maintains positive relations with diplomats and leaders of countries around the world. These professionals are typically savvy negotiators with excellent interpersonal skills who possess knowledge of foreign policy and languages. Understanding how to become one can help you determine whether this career aligns with your skills, interests and academic background.
In this article, we define what a diplomat is, outline what these professionals do and describe how to become one in six steps.
A diplomat is a public official who advocates for their country's international relationships with other countries.
Steps to become a diplomat include earning at least a bachelor's degree, obtaining political work experience and passing the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT).
Diplomats can pick specialty titles ranging from ambassador and foreign service officer to consular officer.
What is a diplomat?
A diplomat is a person who travels to different countries around the world to cultivate positive international relations between the country they represent and the host country. They may visit countries to strengthen an already positive relationship. However, a diplomat may also travel to conflict-stricken countries to manage international relations.
This role requires professionals to meet foreign leaders and report back on noteworthy situations. Diplomats change their place of work frequently, so it's important for them to be highly adaptable to change. U.S. diplomats, for instance, have more than 270 international embassies or consulates where they can work and placements in this job happen frequently.
What does a diplomat do?
As a diplomat can expect your first two assignments overseas to last around two years each. During these four years, you can gain more experience and strengthen your foreign language skills. After that, you can express your preference for a particular diplomat post, and begin your career. This role requires you to meet foreign leaders and report back on noteworthy situations. Here are some other common job duties you may perform if you pursue this role:
Understand local languages, customs and values
Collecting and reporting information regarding economics, human rights, and other topics that may impact their home country
Meet with members of international governments and represent their home country's values and policies
Try to motivate other international leaders to act in a way that their country desires, and create or maintain peaceful relationships among nations
How to become a US diplomat
Diplomats prioritize the political, economic, cultural and social interests of their country at the forefront when navigating through their host countries. They must be US citizens and be between the ages of 20 and 59. Here's a list of steps you can follow to become a US diplomat:
1. Pursue your education
It is often mandatory for you to have a college degree to become eligible for the role of a diplomat and be fluent in foreign relations. Having a bachelor's or a master's degree in political science, international relations, cultural anthropology, foreign policy, international studies, political science or sociology are all good choices.
It's also extremely helpful to get involved with any extracurricular activities that might bolster your career, starting in high school or college. Consider donating time to humanitarian work, researching and staying abreast of international affairs, joining political parties and taking on leadership roles.
2. Gain experience
It's important to gain applicable experience in international relations and cultural awareness prior to starting your career as a diplomat. Most students choose one of two options: apply for a related internship or choose a specialized graduate program in international relations, foreign policy or a related field that includes study abroad and hands-on learning.
Students have the choice to apply for several U.S. Department of State internships, which are typically unpaid, and provide hands-on foreign policy experience for students from high school, undergraduate and graduate programs for students interested in becoming diplomats. In these internships and fellowships, students have the opportunity to work in Washington, D.C., in federal bureaus and U.S. embassies and consulates around the world.
3. Choose a specialty
It's a good idea to select a career track before you register for the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT). While the goal of U.S. diplomats is to communicate U.S. policy to foreign countries and develop positive foreign relationships that further our national interests, there are several specialized diplomatic roles. There are occasions when the U.S. Department of State submits a call for professionals in a specific area to manage Foreign Service responsibilities in other countries around the world. As a specialist in your field, you can provide your country with important technical services. These specialties include:
Ambassador: This is the highest-ranking role of a diplomat. Your main duty as an ambassador is to coordinate the activities of the Foreign Service Officers you are managing, and other representatives in the country.
Foreign service officer: As a Foreign Service Officer, you take directions from the ambassador. Your role is to observe what is going on in your host country, analyze it and inform the ambassador and senior government officials when needed.
Economic officer: In this role, you collaborate with governments around the world to secure internet freedom. You may also fund scientific advances, negotiate new trade laws or protect the environment.
Management officer: In this role, you're responsible for all the operations going on in the consulate, embassy or diplomatic mission operations. You may manage anything from real estate to the budget.
Political officer: In this role, you handle updating the U.S. ambassador on any political events and political changes happening in your host country.
Political diplomacy officer: In this role, you may collaborate directly with the public in your host country through social media, websites, sports programs and more to build a mutual understanding of the policies of your country.
Consular officer: In this role, you're responsible for helping other U.S. citizens who are visiting your host country. If they're having trouble with the law in a foreign country or they have lost their passport, for example, you would be the one tasked to help.
4. Register for and take the FSOT
Next, you can undergo a rigorous selection process where you take a written Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT). To help you prepare, there is a FSOT Practice Test you can take, which is extremely similar to the actual exam. This can help you gauge your potential score and allow you to identify areas for improvement before you take the FSOT.
5. Submit a personal narrative and take the oral interview
Once you pass the FSOT, write a personal narrative as part of the selection process to submit to the Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP). You can then complete an oral interview, which includes role-playing exercises and is a one-day assessment. This is an interview that determines whether you demonstrate the 13 dimensions required to become a successful Foreign Service Officer. They are a set of skills, personal qualities and abilities that you must have to be approved as a suitable candidate for the role of a diplomat. They include:
Composure: Staying calm and maintaining your composure in a difficult or stressful situation is an essential aspect of your role as a diplomat. It's important to be a quick thinker and adapt to change effortlessly while always maintaining self-control.
Cultural adaptability: Communicating well with people from different cultures with different political beliefs and values can help you thrive in this role. A diplomat must show respect and be able to adapt to different environments.
Experience and motivation: It's also important to demonstrate that your previous work history has given you the skills to become a successful diplomat, and describe why you want to become a diplomat.
Information integration and analysis: A sharp memory and knowing how to draw from different sources, data and analysis can make you a more effective diplomat. You must also remember important details during meetings without having to write notes.
Initiative and leadership: Diplomats need to be responsible and focus on what needs to get done. They can also be a motivator for others and provide direction and opinions when needed.
Judgment: You must know how to assess a situation and understand what is appropriate or practical at that given moment.
Objectivity/integrity: Working with a diverse group of people in important situations requires you to always be fair and honest. You should present issues without being subjective and never be discriminatory or deceitful.
Communication: You must know how to communicate clearly and concisely while being persuasive, professional and precise.
Planning and organization: Being a diplomat requires you to prioritize accordingly and plan tasks effectively. You should know how to adopt a systematic approach and make the best of limited resources.
Resourcefulness: Being a diplomat is a high-stakes role that requires you to be a problem solver and provide alternatives when needed. It's also important to know how to be flexible in unanticipated circumstances.
Working with others: Whether at home or abroad, you should be able to work with others in a harmonious and constructive manner. Having strong team player skills and being able to cultivate strong relationships can support you in this role.
Written communication: You must have the ability to write clearly and in a concise manner, without grammatical errors in persuasive English.
Quantitative analysis: You must be able to read, identify and analyze complex data sets and use mathematical operations and problem-solving to find patterns and trends from this data.
6. Get medical and security clearance for approval
After completing the oral interview, you can then apply for medical and security clearance. A Suitability Review Panel then reviews your application and examines all of your qualifications, other than your medical records, to determine whether you're suitable for employment as a diplomat.
Once you gain approval, the panel adds your name to “The Register” with other candidates who are eligible to become U.S. diplomats. They organize this register according to candidates' specialty and order by rank based on previous scores and reviews.
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