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Foreign Service Worker Job Description, Career as a Foreign Service Worker, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training Varies—see profile

Salary Varies—see profile

Employment Outlook Fair

Definition and Nature of the Work

Foreign service workers represent the United States in countries with which the nation has diplomatic relations. The foreign service, a branch of the U.S. State Department, includes officers and reserve officers as well as support staff members and specialists.

Foreign service officers interpret U.S. foreign policy to the governments of their host countries and help foster friendly political and trade relations. They make periodic reports to their supervisors at the State Department on political activities, market conditions, public opinion, and other important matters. Sometimes foreign service officers help negotiate treaties and agreements that protect U.S. shipping, economic, and legal interests. Foreign service officers help ensure the welfare of Americans visiting or residing in foreign countries.

Foreign service officers can specialize in one of four areas of service: administrative, consular, commercial-economic, or political. However, most workers are knowledgeable in more than one field.

Officers with administrative duties plan, develop, and direct the operations of their offices. They are in charge of their posts' expenses and budgets, the acquisition and maintenance of government property, and the supervision of personnel. Consular officers assist Americans with problems they face in foreign countries, issue passports and visas to Americans abroad, and help foreigners who want to visit the United States obtain visas. Commercial-economic officers promote U.S. business in foreign countries, analyze and report on foreign economic trends, and negotiate commercial and economic agreements. Political officers interpret U.S. foreign policy to other governments, promote understanding between the United States and foreign countries, and negotiate agreements.

This American foreign service officer serves as a liaison to the governments of Africa and helps to foster friendly political and trade relations. (© Martha Tabor/Working Images Photographs. Reproduced by permission.)

Foreign service reserve officers perform similar tasks on a temporary basis. They work where they are needed most. Reserve officers usually have special skills that the department needs in such fields as agriculture, labor, economics, and finance.

Foreign service staff members provide the support needed to operate State Department offices in other countries. Workers include secretaries, nurses, communications and records assistants, and specialists in budget and fiscal problems.

Education and Training Requirements

Education requirements vary with the level of the job. Foreign service officers must be at least twenty-one years old and U.S. citizens. Applicants must pass written examinations to be eligible for appointment. Although there is no formal requirement that applicants have college degrees, many candidates have bachelor's and postgraduate degrees.

Candidates for appointment do not have to be fluent in foreign languages. After being hired, however, they must develop professional competence in at least one foreign language before the end of the four-year probationary period.

Education and training requirements for foreign service support staff and specialists vary as well. Secretaries must type forty words per minute, take dictation at eighty words per minute, and have three to five years of experience in clerical, secretarial, or administrative work. Education beyond high school may be substituted for part of the required experience. Communications and records assistants need at least eighteen months of experience in the field. They are also required to pass qualifying tests in typing, clerical, and verbal abilities. Staff employed as diplomatic couriers, or mail carriers, generally are college graduates who have had military experience. All applicants and their dependents must pass comprehensive medical examinations.

Getting the Job

Applicants must apply directly to the U.S. Department of State. Foreign service officers must take competitive written and oral examinations. The written tests assess applicants' general intelligence, problem-solving abilities, writing skills, and knowledge of history, government, geography, commerce, administration, and economics. Candidates who pass the written tests take oral examinations before a board of foreign service officers. The oral examination rates verbal ability. Board members ask questions on U.S. culture, history, economics, politics, and foreign affairs. Foreign service reserve officers do not have to take competitive examinations.

Candidates accepted into the foreign service are trained to serve as workers in particular areas of the world. The training period may last two years or more, depending on the needs of the service and the officers' qualifications. The training is part of the four-year probationary appointment that newly hired candidates serve before they become commissioned officers. After several overseas assignments, foreign service officers specialize in one area and, if they wish, may return to school to expand their knowledge and skills.

Staff secretaries may take three- to four-week training courses and then be assigned overseas. Others may choose to work in Washington, DC, for one year before applying for overseas assignments.

All applicants for foreign service positions are investigated thoroughly before employment. Candidates must be loyal to the U.S. government.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Officers may rise through the ranks; promotions are based on ratings from superiors. Highly ranked officers may be appointed ambassadors. Staff workers are also promoted on the basis of their merit ratings. If they meet the necessary requirements, they may eventually become officers.

Positions in foreign service are highly coveted, and the field is comparatively small. As a result, competition for appointment is stiff, with applicants far outnumbering available posts.

Working Conditions

Foreign service workers travel widely and meet many people of different nationalities. Maintaining relations with other countries is highly rewarding work, and members of the foreign service take great pride in their accomplishments. However, the work is physically and mentally demanding. Workers are under pressure much of the time. They are not always sent to the countries of their choice, and living conditions in some areas are substandard. Employees are on duty at all times, and work hours are often uncertain.

Earnings and Benefits

Beginning foreign service officers with bachelor's degrees earn between $18,000 and $28,000 per year. Experienced officers with special skills can earn $30,000 or more per year. Senior officers can earn up to $100,000 per year. Support staff members often start at about $16,000 per year.

Where to Go for More Information

American Foreign Service Association
2101 E St. NW
Washington, DC 20037
(800) 704-2372

Diplomatic and Consular Officers, Retired
1801 F St. NW
Washington, DC 20006-4497
(800) 344-9127

U.S. Department of State
2201 C St. NW
Washington, DC 20520
(202) 647-4000

Foreign service workers receive such benefits as paid vacation and sick leave, a housing allowance if government housing is not available, and special compensation for certain types of duty.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesLaw and Public Service