What Do Diplomats Do? A Student’s Guide

Industry Advice Political Science & Security

The Hollywood image of a diplomat is someone who attends swanky cocktail parties with top-level officials. But a diplomat’s role is far more dynamic.

Diplomats work to protect their home country’s citizens, repair relationships between nations, and create lasting bonds that help them shape foreign policy. A career in diplomacy helps you explore different cultures and connect with communities worldwide while living and working overseas.

Currently, there are more than 270 embassies, consulates, and other diplomatic missions around the world, with over 13,000 officers representing the U.S. overseas.

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If you are interested in becoming a diplomat or learning more about the field, here is an overview of what diplomats do:

What Is a Diplomat?

Diplomats, also known as Foreign Service Officers, create, preserve, and repair relationships between their nation-state and other countries. They often engage in complex dialogues and negotiations with international representatives in order to protect their nation’s interests abroad, including economic, political, social, or cultural views.

Working in an environment with a new culture and language—and with potentially limited amenities—can be challenging. While a diplomat’s career can be demanding, they typically have the opportunity to experience different cultures and meet people from a variety of backgrounds.

“Being a diplomat is a unique and wonderful opportunity to understand different cultures along with the complexity of life in other nations,” says Baktybek Beshimov, a professor of the practice in Northeastern’s Master of Science in Global Studies and International Relations program. “It is a chance to reach your desired goals and to present your country successfully while promoting the relations between different nations.”

What Do Diplomats Do?

A diplomat’s duties include creating and maintaining strong international ties related to peacekeeping, war, trade, economics, culture, environmental issues, or human rights. They often collect and report vital information that could affect their nation’s interests, giving top officials advice on how their home country should respond. Some diplomats negotiate treaties and international agreements before a politician approves them, while others assist humanitarians.

There are five paths diplomats can go into, and tasks can vary by track. These paths include:

  1. Consular Officers: Officers facilitate adoptions, help evacuate Americans, stop and prevent identity fraud to secure national borders, and fight human trafficking.
  2. Economic Officers: Officials work with foreign governments, international businesses, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other agencies regarding science, technology, economic, energy, and environmental policies both within the U.S. and abroad.
  3. Management Officers: Officers act as leaders responsible for all embassy operations, including information technology, security, human resources, and fiscal budgeting.
  4. Political Officers: Officials analyze their host country’s political climate and negotiate with all levels of government officials, from ambassadors to prime ministers.
  5. Public Diplomacy Officers: Officers engage, advise, and influence opinion leaders, local non-governmental groups, future leaders, academics, think tanks, and other government officials to promote mutual understanding and support for U.S. policy interests.

Within the U.S., diplomat rankings include:

  • Ambassadors
  • Envoys
  • Ministers
  • Charge D’Affaires

What Is the Work Environment Like?

Once hired, diplomats complete orientation and training in Washington, D.C., for several months, according to the U.S. Department of State. Afterwards, they are assigned to their first post. The first two tours overseas typically last two years each, and they are designed to develop diplomats’ expertise in different working environments while strengthening their foreign language skills. After a probationary period of up to five years, diplomats can express their preference for postings from a variety of positions.

“As a Kyrgyz diplomat to India, I travelled to many different parts of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka,” Beshimov says. “It enriched my knowledge and understanding of different cultures. I made a lot of friends and enjoyed understanding the cultures, traditions, and customs of the people.”

Most diplomats travel to overseas embassies and consulates around the globe. They may travel to the United Nations Offices in Geneva or New York, or to the homes and offices of heads of state. Diplomats typically serve in at least one developing country, where there are higher rates of disease, difficult climates, or social upheaval.

A diplomat usually spends approximately three years in one country, but this varies depending on vacancies. According to the U.S. Department of State, diplomats need to be between the ages of 21 and 59 before they are designated to their first post.

What Are the Benefits?

Diplomats travel extensively, making it a great career for those who are interested in interacting with people from different cultures and customs. They are held in high regard by their communities, and their adopted state will often assign them high status, certain immunities, and special privileges, such as free housing and travel.

Diplomats also have the ability to shape foreign policy. Through the various discussions, summits, and debates they attend, diplomats offer solutions to recurring and large-scale problems, thereby impacting foreign policymaking. This could include directing millions of dollars in foreign aid to a developing country, or implementing a policy to reduce greenhouse emissions in order to stop climate change.

What Are the Risks?

Diplomats can be assigned to regions that are volatile, such Afghanistan or Sierra Leone. Working in these areas puts diplomats at risk for bombings, shootings, rebel uprisings, and other acts of violence. As a result, they are offered hardship pay of up to an additional 35 percent.

Where Do Diplomats Travel?

Diplomats travel around the globe, with more than 270 embassies, consulates, and other diplomatic missions around the world. This includes South and North America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Pacific Islands.

What Skills Do Diplomats Need?

Diplomats need a wide range of skills to successfully complete their mission. These skills include:

  • Leadership: Leadership and team management skills help diplomats connect with other officials and establish important goals. By knowing how to coach, lead, and inspire colleagues, diplomats can solidify a unified vision and work collaboratively with others.
  • Negotiation Skills: Diplomats need strong negotiation skills to persuade others to agree with their viewpoints. They need to be able to successfully present and debate ideas, and actively listen. This helps them maintain strong relationships and lead opposing groups to consensus.
  • Cross-Cultural Awareness: Diplomats must have a strong cross-cultural awareness in their adopted countries. They must respect that other people may have a different perspective based on their cultural background, and what is appropriate in their culture can be inappropriate in their host country. Diplomats’ cross-cultural awareness helps make assignments, meetings, and negotiations successful.
  • Written Communication Skills: Being able to write clearly and professionally is an important skill for a diplomat. This includes avoiding grammatical, spelling, and punctuation mistakes, and being able to use words concisely and persuasively to communicate effectively.
  • Research Skills: Diplomats need to be able to thoroughly research and examine information in order to make important decisions regarding foreign policy. They need to identify problems, determine what resources or additional information they need to respond to an issue, accurately evaluate the information, and use their findings to address the problem. Research skills also help diplomats address dilemmas and influence others’ opinions.
  • Foreign Language Skills: Diplomats need to be adept at learning new languages and are often bilingual or trilingual. Whether it is French, German, Spanish, Chinese, Hebrew, or Arabic, trying to understand a new language demonstrates their ability to become more knowledgeable in another culture and keep learning.

How Can I Get Started?

According the U.S. Department of State, the application process includes completing an online application, being interviewed in-person, going through an extensive evaluation process, and undergoing a background check. The Foreign Service exam includes a written test, an oral interview, and a negotiating exercise. You will also need to receive a medical exam and a security clearance.

Studying abroad during college and volunteering can both help you land a diplomacy position by shaping you into a well-rounded individual who has an appreciation for different cultures.

“I ask my students to go overseas, live abroad, and understand various cultures,” Beshimov says, “and to make friends, and be very curious about what’s going on around them. Understand what they would like to do in their lives.”

Earning a graduate degree can also help you advance in the industry by providing you with the network and skills you need to be successful in the role.

“My courses are built on teaching important skills in an increasingly complex world,” Beshimov says. “For example, in one of my courses, I provide students an opportunity to make their own documentary, which combines their knowledge on current events with their technological expertise.”

A master’s degree in international relations can introduce you to the reporting, negotiation skills, and intercultural connections you need to interact with a broad range of people, including the media, private sector, and civil society. Your assignments may include writing speeches, analyzing policy, making foreign policy recommendations, working on diplomatic teams, and performing crisis management.

A diplomat’s career is fulfilling and diverse. From working with developing countries to industrialized nations, multinational corporations to small nonprofits, and government officials to local citizens, diplomats engage with others to find collective solutions to global issues. If you’re looking for a career that is challenging, rewarding, and leads you around the world, then diplomacy could be the right choice for you.

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