The Foreign Service isn't a single organization. Prospective officers actually apply to join one of two different agencies: either the Department of State or the Bureau of International Information Programs. The Department of State develops and implements foreign policy, while the Bureau of International Information Programs explains these policies and actions to the world by engaging in public diplomacy. When hired, officers are offered an appointment to one of these agencies. There's very little moving between agencies. Foreign Service officers work in Washington, D.C., or are stationed in more than 170 foreign countries that have U.S. embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions.
Many people apply to the Foreign Service directly after finishing graduate school through the USAID's Junior Officer Program, while others work in other government agencies or professions. (USAID is a government agency that "works to end extreme global poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential.") Some serve with the Peace Corps or the military, gaining experience with foreign affairs before applying, or they work as teachers in American-sponsored schools overseas. Some work as Congressional aides or interns.
Before being offered a job with the Foreign Service, you must pass a series of tests. The written exam consists of multiple-choice questions and an essay, and tests your knowledge of history, foreign policy, geography, and other relevant subjects. The U.S. State Department offers a study guide to help applicants prepare for the exam. The number of positions available varies from year to year; typically, thousands of people apply for fewer than 500 positions. The Foreign Service has been known to cancel its annual exam because of too few job openings.
Those who pass the written exam move on to the oral interview and must pass a security clearance background investigation and a medical exam. But passing these tests doesn't necessarily mean employment; passing candidates are placed on a rank-order list based on their test scores. As jobs become available, offers are made to those at the top of the list.
The U.S. Department of State publishes a list of 13 qualities it seeks in a Foreign Service Officer candidate. Visit https://careers.state.gov/work/foreign-service/officer/13-dimensions to view the list.
New recruits are given a temporary appointment as career candidates, or junior officers. This probationary period lasts no longer than five years and consists of orientation and work overseas. During this time all junior officers must learn a foreign language. The candidate's performance will be reviewed after 36 months of service, at which time a decision on tenure (once tenured, an officer can't be separated from the service without written cause) and appointment as a career Foreign Service officer will be made. If tenure is not granted, the candidate will be reviewed again approximately one year later. Those who fail to show potential as career officers are dropped from the program.
Career officers are rated by their supervisors once a year. A promotion board decides who is eligible for advancement. Promotions are based on merit. Officers who do good work can expect to advance from Grade 6 through Grade 1 by the time they complete their careers. A very experienced career officer may have the opportunity to serve as a member of the Senior Foreign Service, which involves directing, coordinating, and implementing U.S. foreign policy.
Visit https://careers.state.gov/work/foreign-service/officer for comprehensive information about careers.
Read publications such as Foreign Service Journal (http://www.afsa.org/foreign-service-journal) and STATE magazine (https://careers.state.gov/state-magazine) to learn more about the field.
Participate in an internship with the U.S. Department of State.
Conduct information interviews with Foreign Service officers and ask them for advice on preparing for and entering the field. The U.S. Department of State offers Diplomats in Residence, in which career FSOs located throughout the United States provide advice to young people about careers. Visit https://careers.state.gov/connect/dir for more information.
Visit https://careers.state.gov/work/foreign-service/officer/career-track-quiz to take a quiz that will help you assess which Foreign Service career track is right for you.