Saturday, March 11, 2017

The "Typical" FSO

The Department of State has been working to diversify the Foreign Service. It wants to be more representative of America generally, and it takes a very broad view of diversity, encompassing not only ethnicity, race, gender, age, and sexual orientation, but also things like geographic location and ways of thinking. In other words, we're not all supposed to be "male, pale, and Yale" privileged, liberal yuppies from the East and West coasts. :)

In all seriousness, things really have been improving, from diversity-promoting programs like the Rangel and Pickering Fellowships to greater mentoring programs and specialized associations. (See additional information at the end of this post if you want to learn more about that.)

Despite all of the above, I can tell you from my experience preparing for the FSOA with other candidates and taking a look around at my own A-100 that certain patterns still emerge. Here are a few groups that are at least well represented in my experience:

  • Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs), Fulbright alum, Boren alum: RPCVs and alumni from other major international exchange or language or service programs are a natural fit and are often aware of the Foreign Service through working with the Department of State directly.
  • Active duty military, veterans, and military contractors: They tend to be really qualified and some benefit from hiring preference.
  • Current Department of State employees: See above.
  • Lawyers: Wow, there are a lot of lawyers.
  • Those with advanced degrees: There are those with "just" a Bachelor's degree, but they are in the minority - especially now that hiring rates are so low. (There also may have been those like me who only had a Bachelor's when they passed the FSOA but received a graduate degree by the time they were hired. I didn't see many in this position, though.) I haven't seen anyone so far without any college-level education, with the exception of one respondent to an anonymous A-100 survey who has not identified him- or herself. (If that were me, I would be shouting it from the rooftops because that's awesome.)
  • Those on at least their second career: I definitely feel like the baby in my group, though it's a very cool opportunity for me to learn from my more experienced peers.
  • Those with some language skills: I debated whether I should include this one, because there's a sizable group with either no language skills or very minimal/deteriorated language skills. (I also don't want to perpetuate the myth that you need to speak a foreign language to get this job.) Yet it seems like most have at least some experience studying languages, even if it's high school Spanish and they are barely conversational anymore. Even some who have worked in the foreign affairs field didn't have extensive language skills.
  • Mormons: Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), more widely known as Mormons, seem to be disproportionately represented in a lot of U.S. government foreign affairs jobs, and the Foreign Service is no exception. Full disclosure: I'm a Mormon, but it seems to be more coincidental for me because I'm a recent convert. Other Mormons I know were drawn to (and successful in) the Foreign Service because of factors like mission opportunities they had when they were young (i.e., learning a new language and living in total immersion for two years in a foreign country) and the fact that no drinking, drugs, or excessive debt helps with the security clearance.

So there you have it. I was surprised I didn't see more businessmen and -women and NGO workers, among other things. That being said, we have at least two engineers in my A-100, so they're serious when they say you don't need an international relations educational and professional background to make it!

Here are a few additional resources if you want to learn more:

  • You can watch a PBS video about diversity in the Foreign Service here.
  • Learn more about the Rangel program here and the Pickering program here.
  • Check out a few Department of State official statistics and initiatives for diversity in diplomacy here.


  1. the mormon note threw me for a loop. but makes sense when you explained it more. what about current/past fed employees? maybe you wrapped that up on DOS employees or those on 2nd career?

    1. There were several people who were former federal government employees, especially State Department Civil Service employees, but I didn't see a ton of folks with lots of experience in other federal departments and agencies. Of course, my experience is a sample size of one and things could've also changed a lot since I wrote this about my class six years ago.