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A Career in the Foreign Service: What You Need to Know

The U.S. Department of State offers many exciting and challenging career opportunities in diplomacy, encompassing regions all around the world. For individuals with a background in military service, as well as the appropriate educational credentials, the Foreign Service presents a promising avenue by which to effect change on a global scale. A career in Foreign Service offers lucrative salaries and handsome benefits packages, as well as ample opportunities for unique life experiences. However, it is important to understand all the facets and responsibilities of these jobs before determining if a career in Foreign Service is right for you.

The United States has over 270 embassies and diplomatic institutions on every continent, many of which are located in regions where populations face socioeconomic hardships, environmental crises and war. Through employment with the Foreign Service, diplomats have the opportunity to positively impact the lives of underserved foreign populations, while simultaneously working with vital U.S. diplomatic institutions to progress American interests in national security, global economic development, and peaceful international relations. Such assignments provide candidates with valuable opportunities to immerse themselves in various cultures, customs and ways of life across the globe.

Required Skills and Job Responsibilities

The Department of State’s officials represent the U.S. government abroad, and their actions have a significant impact on the United States’ 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 prior experience in the military is not necessary in order to pursue a career in the Foreign Service, it can be useful for developing leadership skills and corresponding with military personnel. Foreign Service officers often work closely with the U.S. Armed Forces, and having an understanding of the inner workings of the military can help a Foreign Service officer develop a 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. Foreign Service officials must exercise good judgment and be able to develop practical and effective solutions that promote U.S. interests as well as benefit foreign constituents; this is no small task and the vast 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

Candidates for this position should understand that pursuing a career as a Foreign Service officer is a long-term commitment. This 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 highly volatile region at some point during the first few years of their careers. Every day, these professionals work in very 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, and as the face of the U.S. in foreign regions, they strive to maintain these relationships to protect and promote U.S. interests.

There are five possible specialized career tracks for Foreign Service officers, including:

  • Consular officer
  • Economic officer
  • Management officer
  • Political officer
  • Public diplomacy officer

Each career track offers lucrative compensation and incentives. Foreign Service officers receive many types of benefits including paid leave; paid-for housing when traveling overseas; federal health, medical and retirement benefits; and even compensation for their children’s education.

Foreign Service Specialist

Beyond the scope of diplomatic duties, there exists a myriad of specialized options for Foreign Service professionals, such as the Foreign Service Specialist position. Individuals from a range of professional backgrounds—such as health care, human resources, engineering, foreign language instruction, and other disciplines—may be qualified for employment as Foreign Service Specialists.

This career path contains a wealth of important positions in the following categories:

  • Administration
  • Construction Engineering
  • Facility Management
  • Information Technology
  • International Information and English Language Programs
  • Medical and Health
  • Office Management
  • Law Enforcement and Security

These individuals work directly with foreign populations. A construction engineering specialist, for instance, may be responsible for recruiting and managing staff from their region of service, while medical specialists may help establish and operate health care clinics intended to serve the local community. Specialists enjoy benefits similar to those of Foreign Service officers, and like their diplomatic counterparts, Foreign Service Specialists must be willing to relocate frequently and live away from family for extended periods of time.

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, including:

  • 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 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 traumatized by war or severe economic hardship; and PEPFAR coordinators advance the mission of providing 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 Foreign Service positions.

Pay Grades for Foreign Service

Salaries for all Foreign Service operatives are determined based on an individual’s years of experience and level of education. There are nine pay grades and fourteen steps per grade for Foreign Service operatives, with salaries ranging from $33,700 at entry levels to $159,117 for experienced Foreign Service professionals. Salaries for entry-level officer positions can range from $47,170 to $95,626, 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 working in areas considered “hardship” zones receive additional pay anywhere from five to 35 percent 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 working in Foreign Service, both domestically and internationally, are proud to serve the U.S. government, helping to 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 across 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.

Learn More

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

Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in Diplomacy program provides working professionals with a broad understanding of global communications protocol and a deep knowledge of the world issues that affect international relations. The program allows you to build on your political, governmental, or business expertise with 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?


2018 Pay Schedules, U.S. Department of State

Careers: Worldwide/Foreign Service, U.S. Department of State

Foreign Service Officer Salary: A Comprehensive Guide (2017 Update), Path to Foreign Service