The New York Times on Saturday described the U.S. State Department’s accelerated efforts to recruit more foreign service officers (FSOs), the people who staff American embassies and consulates overseas. While FSOs come from a wide range of disciplines, some scientists find these jobs rewarding, particularly when they can apply their earlier training. For example, a few years ago Joan Woods described for Science Careers her transition from biology studies to public health work in Malawi for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), one of the agencies mentioned in the Times article.
FSOs represent the United States in political, economic, consular (passports and visas), press, cultural, and administrative positions overseas. In addition to salary and the usual benefits, FSOs often receive housing (either directly or through reimbursements) for themselves and their families and bonuses for agreeing to serve in hardship posts. But FSOs must agree to serve anywhere in the world, including dangerous and difficult places where they may face long separations from their families. Many months can be spent in full-time language training to prepare for these assignments.
Even with these caveats, the competition for FSO spots is intense. The Times article says that 12,000 to 15,000 applicants compete for an average of about 450 new positions each year. Applicants must pass a written exam, an interview, and a full security background investigation. Those with foreign-language skills, particularly in Middle Eastern and Asian languages, receive preference.
For those with science or engineering backgrounds, the State Department hires FSOs for specialist positions in information technology and security work. USAID also seeks experts in public health and agriculture, as well as social scientists. Some officers who enter as specialists become generalists, learning the political and economic policy issues needed to advance to management positions in embassies and in Washington.
Full disclosure: the author is a former foreign service reserve officer and current board member of the Public Diplomacy Alumni Association.