The Foreign Service is not on many people’s radar, but it’s one of the most fascinating, adventurous, impactful and benefit-laden careers out there. On April 12, Foreign Service Officer (FSO) Stuart Denyer, head of the consular section at the American Embassy in Slovenia, gave a talk on a career in the State Department’s Foreign Service to John Brown University students over Zoom. Before Slovenia, Denyer worked in Djibouti, Zambia and Algiers. He has done everything from swing dancing with locals to tagging along on a Navy SEAL operation to rescue an American in a tricky spot in South Sudan.
There are five “cones,” or specialties within the Foreign Service: Political, Consular, Economic, Management and Public Diplomacy. Political officers analyze and report on host country happenings and must be able to negotiate and communicate effectively with host government officials. Consular officers deal with visa applicants and work to help Americans in host countries in such ways as, but not limited to, facilitating adoptions, helping evacuate or repatriate Americans and visiting Americans in prisons or hospitals. Economic officers work with host governments and other U.S. government agencies on technology, science, economic, trade, energy and environmental issues. Management officers are responsible for all embassy operations from real estate to people to budget. Public diplomacy officers engage, inform and influence local government officials, non-governmental groups, opinion leaders, academics, think tanks and the range of civil society to promote mutual understanding and support for United States policy goals.
The great thing about the Foreign Service is that, as generalists, FSOs can work in positions outside of their specialty. Denyer has worked primarily in consular affairs, but he has also worked as a public diplomacy officer. Of the five cones, Consular has the arguable distinction of more immediate, meaningful impact and more face-to-face interaction with host country nationals than any other specialty.
FSOs typically spend one to three years at each post—an embassy, consulate or office in D.C.—moving around constantly throughout their careers. If travel and variety is what you seek, the Foreign Service is the place for you. The typical FSO spends about 60 to 70 percent of their career overseas. Foreign language skills are vitally important to diplomatic work. When an officer is assigned to a country for which they do not already speak the language, they are required to attend intensive instruction in that language, which normally occurs at the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, and must pass a proficiency exam prior to beginning their assignment. When assigned overseas, FSO housing is paid for by the government, as are K-12 educational expenses for their children.
To enter the Foreign Service, applicants must pass an examination process, which includes both written and oral exams. The State Department encourages and seeks diverse applicants from all walks of life and educational backgrounds, though a majority of FSOs enter with at least a bachelor’s degree and a few years of professional experience. Much like the military, FSOs are eligible for a retirement pension after 20 years. As federal employees, FSOs are also eligible for participation in the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), which essentially functions as a 401(k).
Not a bad gig.
Check out the State Department’s page on careers with the Foreign Service here.