How to Become a Diplomat

Industry Advice Political Science & Security

If you want to make a positive impact on the world, there are many career paths you can take to do so. For those with a particular interest in understanding the complex ties between different nations and their cultures, joining the United States Foreign Service as a diplomat can be an appealing choice. 

Currently, the U.S. Foreign Service employs more than 13,000 employees dedicated to representing the country abroad. These professionals work at more than 270 embassies, consulates, and other diplomatic missions across the globe to promote peace, support prosperity, and advance the interests of the United States.

The road to becoming a diplomat can be challenging, however. It’s important to understand what the journey to appointment will look like before you take the first step. Here’s a look at what diplomats do and the process for becoming an appointed Foreign Service Officer so that you can decide if this is the right career for you.

Download Our Free Guide to Breaking into Global Studies and International Relations

A guide for what you need to know to prepare for, and work in, today’s globalized world.


What Do Diplomats Do?

Diplomats, or Foreign Service Officers (FSOs), are typically charged with protecting their nation’s affairs abroad, including economic, political, social, and cultural interests. As such, diplomats often work to create and maintain international relationships related to peacekeeping, war, trade, economics, environmental issues, and human rights. 

Understanding what diplomats do can be a challenge because the responsibilities of a diplomat vary based on rank, chosen career path, and a variety of other factors.

The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations established three diplomatic rankings (which are akin to job titles) that diplomats could hold: ambassadors, ministers, and chargé d’affaires. Only the titles of ambassador and chargé d’affaires are currently in use. (A fourth rank, envoy, was in use before the 1961 convention.)

In the U.S., diplomats can choose to pursue five distinct career paths, which each focus on a different area of work:

  • Consular Officers play an essential role in facilitating adoptions, evacuating American citizens from other countries during times of crisis, and combatting fraud and human trafficking. 
  • Economic Officers work with foreign governments and agencies to facilitate policies related to science, technology, energy, environmental concerns, and economic issues. 
  • Management Officers manage the day-to-day operations of their embassies. 
  • Political Officers play an integral role in navigating the political environment in their host countries in order to advise U.S. policy.
  • Public Diplomacy Officers interact with a range of individuals within their host country—including academics, think tanks, opinion leaders, governmental, and non-governmental groups—to influence the next generation of leaders and promote support for the United States and its policies. 

How to Become a Diplomat

To become a diplomat, candidates must have the necessary skills, education, and experience. Those who are qualified for the position must then go through a rigorous selection process before being appointed to a role. 

Required Skills and Qualities

The U.S. Department of State recognizes 13 dimensions that reflect the skills, abilities, and personal qualities that are essential to work for the Foreign Service. To be an effective diplomat, candidates must possess these qualities, which demonstrate their ability to adapt to and respect other cultures while furthering the interests of the United States. The 13 dimensions include:

  • Composure
  • Cultural adaptability
  • Experience and motivation
  • Information integration and analysis
  • Initiative and leadership
  • Judgment
  • Objectivity and integrity
  • Oral communication
  • Planning and organizing
  • Resourcefulness
  • Teamwork
  • Written communication
  • Quantitative analysis

In addition to the “soft” skills listed above, diplomats must also have domain-specific skills related to the career path they wish to follow. Those who are interested in working as an economic officer, for instance, should have strong knowledge of economic principles, solid information gathering skills, and the ability to develop sound reports that can inform foreign economic policy. 

Finally, diplomats must be adept at learning new languages, as they are often assigned to positions in non-English speaking countries. Becoming fluent in a second or third language demonstrates an appreciation for cultures other than one’s own, as well as the desire for continuous learning.

Education Requirements

While there are no specific education requirements to become a career diplomat, a graduate degree in a related field of study can build the skills necessary for success in this role. As there are several different career paths that diplomats can follow, there are various fields of study that can prove valuable. A strong understanding of international relations and diplomacy is a must for all candidates, however. Thus, many choose to focus their studies in related fields for this reason.

Earning a master’s degree in global studies and international relations, for example, allows students to understand the unique relationships that exist between nations and how these relationships affect a myriad of subjects, from policy and law to economics and security. 

Some programs, like Northeastern’s, offer concentrations in related areas of focus to allow students to broaden their horizons.

Students at Northeastern University can choose from four concentrations, including global health and development, conflict resolution, diplomacy, and international economics and consulting.

Relevant Experience

Gaining relevant experience through internships, co-ops, or studying abroad is another way to refine your skills and stand out during the selection process. The importance of cultural awareness and a deep understanding of international relations cannot be overstated. Taking advantage of opportunities to build this type of experience is essential for aspiring diplomats. 

The Department of State, for example, offers several internship programs for those who are interested in beginning a career in foreign affairs. High school, undergraduate, and graduate students can apply to these programs and gain hands-on experience in the field.

Another way to gain experience is by selecting a graduate program that offers study abroad and experiential learning opportunities. Northeastern’s Global Studies and International Relations program, for example, provides students with the unique ability to put their learning into action and understand how it applies to the real world. Past students’ experiential learning opportunities have included work with the U.S. Department of State, Pathfinder International, Human Rights Watch, and many others. 

Selection Process

The selection process for United States diplomats is rigorous, and it is meant to identify those who are suited to represent and serve the nation’s interests abroad. Preparing for this process can be a challenge, so it is important to know what you should expect before you get started.

To be considered for the role of diplomat, you will first need to choose a career track and register for the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT). Once you pass the written portion of the FSOT, you will need to submit a personal narrative to the Qualifications Evaluation Panel and take the oral assessment. After completing these steps, you will undergo medical and security clearances, and the Suitability Review Panel will examine your completed final.

Finally, applicants who successfully complete the steps above are placed on the “Register,” which is a rank-ordered list of candidates used to fill open positions.

The process of becoming an appointed FSO is highly selective. Nearly 17,000 candidates take the FSOT annually, yet only approximately 1,000 are invited to the oral assessment each year. Those who go on to become entry-level officers have an outstanding work history, exceptional technical skills, and undeniable professionalism.

While there are far more applicants than there are open FSO positions, there are many other career opportunities available in international relations. If you are passionate about being a global citizen, becoming a diplomat is only one way to put your passions to work. Fortunately, there are many career paths to explore before you find the right fit for you.

Preparing for a Global Career

If you’re looking for a career that will allow you to have a global impact, becoming a diplomat is a challenging and highly rewarding choice. To get started on this career path, aspiring Foreign Service Officers should begin preparing early on to build the skills and experience they need to be successful.

Studying international relations and diplomacy is one of the best ways to prepare for a globally focused career. By doing so, students gain exposure to the diverse issues facing the world today. And by selecting a program that incorporates experiential learning opportunities into the coursework, students can gain real-world experience—a factor that is highly valuable in the FSO selection process. 

At Northeastern, the MS in Global Studies and International Relations is an interdisciplinary degree that provides students with the theoretical foundations needed to understand their specific interests in an international context.

Learn how a Master’s in Global Studies and International Relations from Northeastern can help you secure a diverse career and have a global impact.

Download Our Free Guide to Breaking into Global Studies and International Relations