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So, You Want to Be a Diplomat?

Leslie (Les) McBee, Diplomat in Residence (DIR) at Cal from 2005-2007, offers his insights about how to prepare for an international affairs career and life as a diplomat. Les came to Cal from a posting as Consul General for the south of France, Corsica, and Monaco.

1.  Which majors/degrees are conducive to a career in diplomacy?

In seeking to create a Foreign Service that truly reflects the face of America, diversity is our watchword, one which applies to the US population mosaic as well as to academic backgrounds and personal interests. Working overseas often requires harnessing all the component parts of your education in order to get the job done, so a broad basic education will serve you well. Personal flexibility, intellectual suppleness and a sincere interest in others, including the ability to communicate well and listen “between the lines,” are all excellent starting points for this career.

2.  Which languages should I become proficient in to maximize my efficacy as a diplomat?

There is no country that America does not touch and no country that does not touch us in some way. The core function of a diplomat is maintaining, creating and, yes when needed, repairing relationships between America and other countries. A US diplomat must be an effective and productive communicator, and this most often involves mastery of the languages used in host countries. While the Department of State is currently actively seeking to augment the number of diplomats who can function in so-called difficult languages such as Chinese, Urdu, Farsi and Arabic, to name a few, it is essential to have Foreign Service Officers who are effective communicators in all languages. In any case, before beginning a new assignment, language training is given at the Foreign Service Institute so that professional proficiency can be attained.

3.  Will I have to sacrifice my personal beliefs and opinions if I become a diplomat?

The Department of State is the part of the US Government that is responsible for formulating, implementing, and supporting American foreign policy, as well as assisting its citizens in need of help. The Department is not seeking cookie-cutter diplomats. As we live in a democracy, one always has the right to personal beliefs and opinions, and knowing, on public occasions, how to judiciously separate the personal from the professional is an important element in the practice of diplomacy.

4.  How much travel should I  expect in my career as a diplomat?

Generally, the majority of lengthy travel is from the United States to one’s next posting. After arrival, you set up house, get to know a new neighborhood, figure out practical shopping, office and school routes (if you have dependents), and essentially settle in as one would anywhere. Part of the initial adjustment period may be devoted to adapting to cultural or social differences that might require, for example, going to an open-air market for most shopping. Travel within your host country is generally one of the great plusses of Foreign Service life as it offers an opportunity for learning about and in-depth exploration of your new temporary home. Generally, postings are of 1 to 3 years’ duration.

5.  What are the dangers involved in being a diplomat?

Much will depend on where you are assigned. In most places, the sort of “big city antenna” that you would normally use in any large American town are appropriate; in other situations you will need to consult closely with your post’s Regional Security Officer.   Obviously, if you are serving in a country in which violent activity is a potential or a reality, then security officials at your embassy or consulate will have developed relevant office, residential and travel procedures to help you remain safe.   In most new situations, it is usually advisable to be aware of your surroundings and to behave discreetly and not call undo attention to yourself until you know more about cultural traditions and behavior patterns. In all cases, you will receive security consultations before you leave the United States and after you have arrived at post, as a matter of course.

6.  What sort of preparation do you recommend to someone who will be taking the FSWE?  Are there specific books to read or subjects on which to especially focus?

Many people compare the Foreign Service Written Examination to the SAT, with a bit of the games Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit thrown in for good measure.   While the test is undeniably rigorous, the best possible preparation is a good basic education. Many people have found it helpful to be regular readers of “Time” or “Newsweek” or “The Economist,” all of which offer weekly exposure to significant domestic and international events. It's also very useful to have a good knowledge of American history, our intellectual traditions and how our government functions. The State Department website offers suggested readings and courses that some potential test-takers have found helpful.

7.  Which Foreign Service Officer track leads to becoming a diplomat?

There are five traditional career tracks:  Consular, Political, Economic, Management, and Public Diplomacy. An individual in any one of these tracks will hold diplomatic titles in the countries in which they serve and, over the course of a successful career, may climb the career ladder to the top rungs, even ultimately becoming competitive for an ambassadorial slot.

8.  If you have a specific area that you want to work in, is it necessary to have lived in that country prior to applying, or do you receive training once you are assigned?

While the Foreign Service enthusiastically welcomes new officers who speak more than one language and are possibly bi-cultural, as a new employee you agree to world-wide service. The Department makes an effort to balance its geographic personnel and expertise needs against the expressed desires of an employee. For almost all assignments, training is available at the Department’s Foreign Service Institute where courses are offered on a vast array of subjects deemed necessary to assist you with having a successful posting.

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