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Careers That Create Impact: How to Become a Foreign Service Officer

The United States’ foreign relations began in the late 1770s, when Benjamin Franklin served as the country’s first official international representative, establishing relationships with France that proved crucial to the nation’s victory in the Revolutionary War. In the 230-plus years since, the U.S. has opened embassies and consulates in nearly every country in the world — only Bhutan, Iran, and North Korea currently lack U.S. embassies. Nearly 10,000 foreign service officers staff those embassies and consulates as crucial players in our international relations.

Political officers discuss U.S. policy.

If you’re interested in world travel, frequently changing job conditions, and the ability to enact meaningful change on a global scale, this career path may be for you.

What Does a Foreign Service Officer Do?

Foreign service officers, also known as diplomats, help manage political and economic relations with a specific country. Their areas of expertise can encompass a variety of issues, from economics and financial sectors to health, politics, military, and entertainment. Diplomats work for the State Department and under the direction of the secretary of state.

What a foreign service officer does will differ based on one’s specific path. The State Department lists five different types of U.S. foreign service officer careers:

  • Consular officers address humanitarian issues, such as adoption, the evacuation of American citizens in another country, and fighting human trafficking
  • Economic officers work with foreign governments and other governmental agencies on issues ranging from technology and science to economics and trade.
  • Management officers work in embassy leadership, learning about real estate, budgeting, and human resources management to make sure the embassy or consulate runs smoothly.
  • Political officers specialize in the politics of the country in which they work, staying in touch with government officials at various levels and keeping a close eye on any potential issues down the road.
  • Public diplomacy officers help influence public opinion on important matters, working with non-governmental agencies, think tanks, and society in general to “promote mutual understanding and support for U.S. policy goals.”


Steps to Become a Foreign Service Officer

Planning how to become a foreign service officer takes forethought. The right academic background combined with passing the State Department’s rigorous testing regimen are just the first steps toward qualifying for this demanding and competitive role.

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

A Bachelor of Arts in International Studies is an excellent degree for pursuing a career as a foreign service officer. This degree program offers students the opportunity to explore global issues in preparation for working overseas and includes an optional internship and study abroad opportunity. While diplomats certainly need to advocate for U.S. policy, they also need a thorough understanding of the host country and its political climate. In addition, a broad understanding of global and regional politics will help students prepare for a job abroad. A minor in a foreign language would also make applicants more competitive.

Gain Experience and Learn Global Politics

Beyond the classroom, it’s important to stay up to date with world events, especially in regions where an aspiring foreign service officer would like to work. Hands-on experience, intensive internships, study abroad programs, and volunteer efforts allow graduates to apply classroom learning in the real world.

Apply to Work for the Federal Government

The State Department describes an eight-part procedure for becoming a foreign service officer. Prospective diplomats need to select a career track from the five listed above before they apply because this is part of the registration process for the department’s Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT). Applicants who pass the FSOT’s multiple-choice and essay sections need to submit a personal essay and then participate in a day-long oral assessment covering the 13 aspects of foreign service work. Those still in the running will then complete medical and background clearances and be reviewed by a Suitability Review Panel before being placed on a list of individuals approved for federal service, sorted by career track.

Foreign Service Officer Salaries

Because foreign service officer is a government job, it’s part of the federal pay scale — a complex system based on a series of grades, each with its own steps, or pay levels. The foreign service officer (FSO) pay scale has three grades, each containing 14 steps that indicate a different level of experience and seniority, as well as a different rate of pay.

When one is first hired as a foreign service officer, the grade and step (and therefore salary) depend on education level and qualifying experience. The salary range, as a result, is quite wide, varying from $45,000 to $136,000 per year.

Employment Outlook for Foreign Service Officers

The growth of the foreign service officer field is difficult to predict and often based on federal events. According to the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the primary union of U.S. foreign service workers, there were more than 13,800 foreign service employees in September 2017 — 8,000 “generalists” and 5,800 “specialists.” The current number of diplomats depends on administration and policy. For instance, the U.S. had a 15-month freeze on foreign service officer hiring in 2017-18 but then hired three classes of FSOs later in 2018.

Learn More About Becoming a Foreign Service Officer

An exciting, meaningful career as a foreign service officer begins with the right degree — one that prepares candidates for a life abroad in the political sphere. Check out how Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Arts in International Studies can help you take your career global.


American Foreign Service Association, HR Fact Sheet

CNN, “24 Hours with a U.S. Diplomat”

Glassdoor, “U.S. Department of State Foreign Service Officer Salaries”

Path to Foreign Service: “Foreign Service Officer Salary: A Comprehensive Guide (2017 update)

U.S. Department of State, “5 Career Tracks for Foreign Service Officers”

U.S. Department of State, Foreign Service Officer

U.S. Department of State, Mission

U.S. Department of State, “13 Dimensions: Foreign Service Officer Qualifications”