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What Does a Foreign Service Officer Do?

Industry Advice Political Science & Security

The work of a foreign service officer (FSO) can look quite different depending on where they serve and what they specialize in. However, at the root of all foreign service work is a desire to make a real difference, not only in America but in countries around the world.

Read on to learn what foreign service officers do and how a specialized master’s degree can help you find success in this role.  

What Does a Foreign Service Officer Do?

According to the U.S. Department of State, foreign service officers aim to “promote peace, support prosperity, and protect American citizens while advancing the interests of the U.S. abroad.”

This mission statement accurately represents just how extensive a foreign service officer’s responsibilities can be.

“These diplomats tend to be what we call ‘generalists,’” says Janet E. Garvey, Ambassador (Retired) and adjunct faculty member within Northeastern’s Master of Science in Global Studies and International Relations program. 

The work of these generalists might include anything from defending their home nation’s foreign policy in high-stakes political conversations to helping U.S. citizens who are traveling overseas. 

To get familiar with this wide array of duties, newly-appointed foreign service officers begin their careers by spending four years working abroad in both developed and developing countries. During this time, they gain exposure to a variety of standard diplomatic practices firsthand. At the end of those four years, they return to the U.S. to work out of Washington D.C. and learn how to apply their experiences and skills from their time abroad to benefit the nation on U.S. soil.

At this point in their careers, FSOs can settle into a niche area of foreign service and tailor their future placements to fit their unique interests and abilities. For example, some foreign service officers choose to focus the remainder of their time in the field working with a specific country or region. Others declare an affinity for a type of placement at this time. For instance, they may express a preference or disfavor of “hardship postings,” which involve serving in underdeveloped or developing countries without access to extensive resources or support.

Others still might desire to “carve out a specialty in an area,” says Fiona Creed, associate teaching professor within Northeastern’s Master of Science in Global Studies and International Relations program. In these cases, an FSO might take the opportunity to declare an official specialization and continue working within one of the five cones of foreign service.

Below we examine what these five cones represent and explore the responsibilities an FSO holds within each.


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Foreign Service Officer Responsibilities: The Five Cones 

1. Consular Cone

Known for being one of the oldest and most widely recognized specializations within foreign service, officers within the consular cone hold a slew of public-facing responsibilities that citizens most often associate with foreign support. For example, many Americans interact with consular-appointed foreign service officers when trying to obtain a Visa to live or study abroad.

Alongside Visa and passport work, FSOs in this cone provide emergency and non-emergency support to American citizens in their host country. These responsibilities include helping with international adoptions, handling the birth or death of an American citizen overseas, dealing with American arrests, and assisting during natural disasters or evacuations.

“I liken the consular cone to social work,” Garvey says. “It’s people who really work closely with people and help them when the situation calls for it.”

2. Political Cone

At the core of these specialists’ work is a responsibility to keep the American government abreast of any political developments that occur within their host country. To accomplish this, political FSOs are kept up to date with the latest positions of the American government on varying issues and are often tasked with representing U.S. views or stances in conversations with their host country’s political leaders.

According to Garvey, these professionals may also be in charge of “dealing with NGOs [or non-government organizations], human rights activists, opposition parties, [and] journalists” in their host countries.

3. Economic Cone

As the title suggests, foreign service officers who work in the economic cone oversee issues in their host country related to business and economics. However, these issues are not limited to just banking and finance. FSOs who specialize in economics have a hand in trade and commerce between America and their placement country, international transportation (including, most substantially, aviation), and communication of economic developments during their time there to the U.S. government. These professionals also often oversee environmental, science, and technology-related affairs as they relate to the interests of the American people.

4. Public Diplomacy Cone

Garvey explains that, rather than directly dealing with the government, FSOs in this sector are responsible for reaching out to the public. They may, for example, develop cultural or educational programs that inform individuals in their host country about American culture, politics, economics, and more. These individuals also establish clear lines of communication between policymakers in their country and the U.S. to defend America’s national interests as needed.

5. Administrative Cone

Foreign service officers who work in the administrative cone are often based on-ground in America within the Department of State. Garvey explains that these individuals “run our missions overseas. They’re responsible for personnel, for the building, for the security, [etc.].” 

Alongside these human resource duties, administrative FSOs gain a holistic understanding of the federal service function across countries. They develop skills in leadership, negotiation, and innovation throughout their work. The consistency of operating out of one place allows them to cultivate deeper and more lasting relationships with other countries’ diplomats earlier on in their careers. 

Finding Success in the Foreign Service Field

While Garvey ensures “there’s no one model” that represents every professional’s path into the foreign service, there are many common skills and experiences shared by those who do manage to land a job in this rewarding field. 

Below, we offer three actionable steps that those hoping to pursue a career in foreign service can take to set themselves up for success.

1. Hone Important Skills

Most foreign service officers share a set of common qualities that help them succeed in this unique career. Often they are patient, patriotic, love to travel, have extensive intellectual curiosity, are enthusiastic about other cultures, and, perhaps most importantly, possess an unmatchable passion for international affairs.

Though these personality traits are less learned than they are naturally developed, Garvey and Creed also acknowledge that there are specific practical and interpersonal skills aspiring FSOs should hone before applying to a position in this field.

Below we explore five of the most important abilities for aspiring foreign service officers.

Foreign Language Skills

Both Creed and Garvey agree that being able to speak, read, and even write in a foreign language is one of the most common and effective skills for FSOs. “Language skills are very much encouraged going into the foreign service,” because it demonstrates to the hiring team that you have an interest in and dedication to other cultures, as well as the capacity to learn, Creed says. Displaying this potential for lifelong learning is crucial in a field that requires so much relocation and change.

Flexibility

In foreign service, flexibility is a mandatory skill. FSOs must be able to adapt to the various physical environments and team structures of each placement they obtain, and must also adjust their approach to their work depending on the situation at hand. “Foreign service officers need to have leadership qualities, but also a quietness at the same time,” Creed says. “You need to know how to read a room and when to step back and let other people take the lead.”

Communication

An overarching theme in all five cones of foreign service is the ability to communicate with both a host country’s political leaders and with the American government effectively. Garvey explains that “the ability to meet with people, talk to them, and [help] them feel at ease” is vital for foreign service officers, especially early on in their careers. For this reason, all aspiring FSOs should aim to hone their communication skills, including the ability to listen, speak, and write in a concise and engaging way.

Analytics

Having even basic analytics training can be useful for those embarking on a career as an FSO. “We still do a lot of our work by writing reports and analyzing situations,” Garvey explains. To do this effectively, these professionals need to break down information and present it at a high level, often to a group without much prior context about the topic at hand.

Problem-solving

“I think one of the [skills] that’s very important is an ability to deal with a little bit of dissonance,” Garvey says. “Things are not always as clear [in foreign service] as they might be in other professions, so you have to be able to balance things out [on your own] quite a bit.” Successful FSOs thrive in ambiguous conditions, by observing their circumstances and making decisions based on deduced information rather than directive instruction.

Those looking to build a career as an FSO should find opportunities to hone these and other relevant skill sets to stand out during the extensive foreign service selection process.

2. Gain Hands-On Experience

Foreign service hiring managers look for individuals who have proven through their past experiences that they are equipped to handle the rigorous and truly novel work of an FSO. Thus, individuals hoping to land a role in this field should work strategically to gain relevant experience before embarking on this career path.

According to Creed, some of the most common backgrounds for aspiring FSOs include related fieldwork or experience with international development or nonprofit organizations. She also notes that “having experience in multidisciplinary teams and policy development” can go a long way in setting professionals apart during the interview process.

While obtaining these kinds of professional credits isn’t attainable for everyone, Garvey explains that any international experience can help a candidate stand out to the hiring team. This could include anything from studying abroad or doing an international internship or co-op during college, to serving in the Peace Corps or the overseas military post-graduation.

Individuals hoping to round out their existing experiences with more tailored exposure to foreign service might also consider pursuing a master’s degree from a program with an experiential learning component like Northeastern’s.

Within Northeastern’s Master’s in Global Studies and International Relations curriculum, for example, students can apply the theories they learn in the classroom to real-world scenarios through XN Projects and foreign service-specific programs like the Diplomacy Lab.

Through this strategic partnership between Northeastern and the State Department, students and faculty are “matched up with embassies all over the world who have foreign policy challenges, [and then work together to] solve that challenge for the embassy,” Creed explains.

This is just one of many examples of ways Northeastern students can gain relevant experience. “The more real-world experience you can have going into the field…the better,” Garvey says. “And real-world experience [offered in Northeastern’s program] is unparalleled.”

3. Pursue a Graduate Degree

A graduate degree, while not an official requirement, has become standard among those accepted into the foreign service.

“Most foreign service officers come with at least a master’s,” Garvey says. “Some have professional degrees, law degrees, or business degrees, as well, depending on [what cone they] plan to land in.”

If this growing reality isn’t reason enough to encourage aspiring FSOs to pursue a master’s degree, programs like Northeastern’s have also been designed to prepare students to succeed in the complex role of an FSO. The program’s curriculum includes countless opportunities for students to gain the hands-on experience and crucial skills required of foreign service officers today. 

What’s more, Northeastern’s faculty are dedicated to their students’ success. “The process of being accepted to the foreign service is lengthy…[but] we try to coach them through it,” Creed says, explaining that many of her students enter the master’s program at Northeastern having already started the process.

This dedication to their students isn’t the only benefit of learning from seasoned faculty, however. In many cases, those who are teaching within Northeastern’s program are actually retired ambassadors who have served as foreign service officers prior to teaching at the university.

Creed explains that having established faculty like U.S. Ambassador Janet Garvey, former German Ambassador Friedrich Lohr, and former Kyrgyzstan Ambassador Bakyt Beshimov in the program provides students with a level of insight into the workings of the field they won’t get anywhere else.

“[Our faculty] bring their experiences into the classroom and share with students firsthand what it’s really like to work in not only a mission or an embassy, but also in an international organization,” she says. “[They] have so many wonderful stories to share…[The excitement] is really contagious in that sense.”

Are you interested in pursuing a career as a foreign service officer? Explore our program page to learn more about how a master’s in global studies and international relations from Northeastern can help set you on a path toward success.


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