Note: Citizens of non-U.S. countries could expect somewhat similar levels of impact, primarily because other countries have significantly fewer diplomats (<10 per embassy). While the geopolitical impact of other countries' Foreign Ministries will differ, diplomats of other countries likely rise in rank much quicker AND diplomats could be a quarter of the strategic policy team at their embassy early on, covering a very wide range of issues.
Summary: This article provides a brief overview of the U.S. Foreign Service, including a description of the hiring process, the opportunities, and the challenges of being a diplomat. Given the opportunity for building expertise in shaping government decision-making and a low but considerable probability of shaping important policies early in your career, we conclude more EAs should consider diplomacy even if they might not pursue a life-long diplomatic career.
The U.S. Foreign Service – the United States’ diplomatic corps – is a highly sought after job in Washington - and is likely a promising path for U.S. citizens aiming to work on issues of great power competition, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence governance, biosecurity, global health, and global poverty.
The two of us served as diplomats; the knowledge and experience we gained was invaluable. Here, we reflect on our careers at the State Department in the context of effective altruism.
Is this career for me?
The Foreign Service, the diplomatic corps of the United States, offers a rare opportunity to get experience in different long-termist/EA topics, including nonproliferation, public health, biosecurity, AI, cybersecurity, and U.S.-great power relations, even if you come in without experience or expertise in such topics. Similar to a military officer, the career requires you to rotate your job assignment every few years, providing the opportunity to get meaningful experiences across a range of issue areas, anywhere on the globe.
Employment as a Foreign Service Officer grants you entry into the federal government system, a security clearance, and substantive foreign policy experience in varying subjects. Foreign Service Officers gain career experience as policy “generalists,” able to switch in and out of important topics. This skillset and diverse set of experiences allows Foreign Service Officers who depart to easily enter other policy careers and/or specialize in important topics.
The hiring process is different from most other federal and private sector careers. All that is required is that you pass a couple standardized tests and resume screening – no strict education/work experience requirements exist, nor does the hiring process strongly favor people with prior policy experience. EAs with limited or no policy experience who are looking to get into the U.S. government or policy should consider applying despite the 2-3% pass rate. While the Foreign Service is often a second career (average age of entry is 32), there are those people who enter the Foreign Service in their early 20s as their first career via applying directly or a fellowship program. Abi entered at 23 right out of her masters program and Dan joined at 26. (Note: You must be a U.S. citizen to apply.)
The Foreign Service hiring process is largely immune to the power of networking because each of the four phases of review involves multiple independent judges and scoring systems, which are mostly disconnected from each other. Recommendations carry no weight in the process. An American citizen can take the first portion of the test almost anywhere in the world (embassies offer the test to U.S. citizens abroad), so one of the judges knowing a candidate is rare and would likely lead to a judge recusing themselves. The application process isn’t perfect by any means, but issues stem from the difficulty of assessing the 13 desired skills rather than nepotism.
The testing process seems to moderately favor extroverts and those with good writing/grammar skills, knowledge of global affairs, and familiarity with embassies/Foreign Service general structures. Eligibility for both the medical and security clearances could be impacted by mental health issues, though the government only denied 11 security clearances for psychological reasons in 2021, or because of recent drug use. Marijuana use, for instance, is federally illegal even if used in a state that has legalized it.
To evaluate whether the career is right for you, check out the State Department’s website and take its quiz on whether you’re a good fit. Most relevantly, Foreign Service Officers move to an entirely new country every few years; folks who crave being close to home or “putting roots down” will quickly burn out. Further, successful bureaucrats are patient in navigating a complex bureaucracy and appreciate that you can only “win” sometimes. Professionals who seek to “move fast and break things” would be better off elsewhere. The bureaucracy moves slow, but having a role in bringing the full weight of the massive U.S. government against a challenge can be awe inspiring.
Why the Foreign Service Offers High Expected Value
The United States spends over $1 trillion per year on national security and foreign policy. A key portion of this funding goes to pursuing cooperative relationships with other nations and international organizations, typically channeled through our more than 250 embassies and consulates worldwide, which are staffed and run largely by Foreign Service Officers. An effective and impactful diplomatic corps is vital for the project of world peace.
Yet 80,000 Hours’ previous review of the Foreign Service stated that the Foreign Service has good but limited potential for impact because rising through the ranks takes about 25-30 years.
In contrast, we argue that the Foreign Service is an excellent career option even if you decide to pivot after a few years. While the Foreign Service is structured to be a lifelong career (offers a pension, tenure, etc.), some Foreign Service Officers leave after a few diplomatic assignments, taking their newly impressive resume and broad experience with them into their next job and turbocharging their careers in a way that is hard to duplicate.
Here are four good reasons to join the Foreign Service:
First, and most importantly, there’s a chance (maybe 1%) of having a large policy impact early in your career. Most foreign service assignments will only offer marginal policy influence initially, but occasionally a policy window opens and you can find yourself with a HUGE amount of responsibility to define a world-shaping event. If you’re holding the biosecurity portfolio in China when a crisis strikes, you might suddenly find yourself directly shaping the decisions of the president. Many issue areas most prioritized by EA – biosecurity, pandemic response, artificial intelligence – remain neglected within the State Department. If you can introduce a more rational, long termist perspective into an often short-sighted policy process, the marginal impact of your presence can be quite significant. After the first 4-5 years (the first two diplomatic assignments), the probability of a larger policy impact rises significantly because officers have more control over their next diplomatic assignment, are eligible for many more positions especially in D.C., and become eligible for rotations, such as to the National Security Council or the EU.
Second, the best way to understand the national security decision-making process is to join it. Knowledge of how national security functions cannot be entirely deciphered without living inside of it for a few years. Gaining experience in national security policymaking is important because shaping the institution is a vital theory of change for many EA issue areas. We need leaders and allies who intimately understand how the government works, especially if their goals are to change it. Further, improving institutional decision making (IIDM) is a growing cause area in EA, and we need people with deep familiarity with institutions, bureaucratic politics, and organizational decision-making.
Third, a career in the Foreign Service offers you the best possible crash course in international affairs. You will gain unparalleled breadth and depth of engagement with issues and actors, and serving "on the front lines" provides irreplaceable experience. You will learn how new research and policy initiatives affect real people in far-away places in unexpected ways. The experience will internationalize your perspective. Between the two of us, we have lived and worked in four continents and have traveled all over the planet. We have had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in new cultures and languages, rub shoulders with presidents and prime ministers, and shape major policy initiatives. And a security clearance, once obtained, will provide you unparalleled access to the vast intelligence apparatus that is inaccessible to most.
On a related note, there is a moderate chance (~15%) chance of getting assigned to China early in your career, affording you a year of full-time Mandarin training and two years experience living in China. Specializing in China is an 80,000 Hours recommended career. Given the importance of US-China relations (and China being one-sixth of the world population), the State Department has many positions to fill in China. Other languages that offer extended, two year instruction include Russian, Japanese, Arabic.
Fourth, the Foreign Service may make you more marketable than other federal or think tank jobs because you’ll gain international experience and prestige. Serving as a diplomat endows you with instant credibility in the DC policy landscape – few lines on one’s resume stand out quite as much. Further, the most difficult part of entering DC/federal government employment is getting your first federal job since that office will have to sponsor and wait for your security clearance. Once you have a security clearance, it is much easier to get other federal jobs, as your State security clearance will stay valid for two years after you separate.
Potential Downsides of a Foreign Service Career
The first four years of your career as a foreign service officer will not likely be focused on policymaking. There’s also a chance you may be assigned to a country of little geopolitical significance for one or both of your first two diplomatic assignments. Every career Foreign Service Officer is required to do an assignment (1-2 years) as a consular officer issuing visas and supporting American citizens abroad. Consular work can be meaningful and rewarding, but does not typically lead to large scale impact. The real magic starts on the third assignment when you’re able to work at headquarters in DC or land a job in a coveted assignment abroad after you’re tenured. All said, there’s a good amount of luck in landing a high impact diplomatic assignment during your first four years.
Many people are ill-suited for the demands of a massive bureaucracy. Successful bureaucrats learn to navigate endless standard operating procedures, mounds of paperwork, and complex interoffice politics in order to achieve progress. Even in a large organization, who you know still trumps the best available evidence in most cases.
Working hours can be long and unpredictable. It’s great to get invited to meetings at the White House, but the prep work can be intense, especially if you are supporting a senior-level official at the same meeting. Some thrive in such an environment, but many do not.
The 321 names of diplomats killed on the job adorning the main entrance to the State Department is a reminder that Foreign Service life can be dangerous and isolating. Ambassadors have a higher rate of death than admirals and generals. Embassies are sometimes attacked and bombed, even in countries considered safe. (Abi was in the embassy when a backpack bomb misfired and Dan experienced mob violence up close.) Terrorist or other groups sometimes target diplomats since diplomats are the embodiment of the U.S. government, and terrorist groups seek the international attention that killing a diplomat spurs. Also, your foreign service life will expose you to a higher risk of violent crime, car accidents, and tropical diseases that are difficult to diagnose and treat in the United States. You might often be without access to high-quality medical facilities or emergency care. The safety precautions required to manage these risks can weigh heavily on one’s life.
While many find the opportunity to regularly move to new places enthralling, many find constant moves isolating and exhausting. It’s important to recognize that the Foreign Service does not necessarily involve a lot of travel; you will be putting roots down in an entirely new country. And frankly, some people find out that they actually don’t like living abroad. On the plus side, the State Department takes care of many logistics, such as shipping your household items and car, and paying $30-65k a year for each child to go to a nearby top international school. On the negative side, some people find it exhausting to build a new daily routine and social life in a new country every two years, including making friends, navigating a foreign grocery store, and identifying good medical resources.
Spouses/partners will often find difficulty advancing their career. Exceptions might include if they have a fully telework career with flexibility for time zones or have a particularly international careers (i.e. ESL teachers, freelancers, some medical jobs). Finding a job locally can be difficult and, in some countries, impossible, due to lack of international work agreements. Spouses are eligible for some Embassy jobs, though these are unlikely to be related to the spouse’s field of expertise. Unmarried partners receive little to no support from the Embassy and cannot apply to most Embassy jobs nor use the Embassy’s medical unit.
Applying is Low Cost
Joining the Foreign Service is a great investment in yourself. It offers you unparalleled international experience, expertise in shaping government decision-making, and the potential to meaningfully shape policies early in your career. The expected value of a career in diplomacy carries some risk, however. One can serve for many years and never have the opportunity to contribute in an enormous way.
Nevertheless, we think this is a great career option that more EAs should consider. Even if you pivot, the upsides are excellent.
How to Apply: The Foreign Service Officer Test is available three times a year (certain weeks in February, June, and October). You’ll be able to reserve a testing site starting 5 weeks before each testing window up until a few days before the test. Set a reminder to yourself to sign up at the link that State provides here. You can take the practice exam online at any time for a sense of what score you might expect on the real test.
Students and applicants from non-traditional backgrounds should consider the various fellowship programs. Abi was a recipient of the Thomas R. Pickering Fellowship, which paid for most of her master’s program and supported her entry into the Foreign Service (with a service commitment of five years).
There are many types of State Department personnel, such as political appointees, the U.S.-based Civil Service, and the Foreign Service, the latter which includes doctors, IT Specialists, Office Management Specialists, HR Specialists, Regional Security Officers, and non-career Consular Fellows. This article focuses on the Foreign Service Officer (Generalists), since these positions are most focused on informing, implementing, and making foreign policy. The majority of Foreign Service employees who became Ambassadors are Foreign Service Officers.
Abi Olvera served as a US diplomat in Senegal, Egypt, and Washington D.C. She is currently at Rethink Priorities and Guarding Against Pandemics.
Dan Spokojny is a former US diplomat, having served in Lithuania, Belarus, Pakistan, and Washington, DC. He is now the CEO of fp21, a think tank dedicated to transforming the processes and institutions of foreign policy. Dan is also a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California, Berkeley.
The views above belong solely to the authors and do not represent those of the U.S. government.