Career Profiles: Foreign Service Officer

A spotlight on different career paths students can pursue after SIPA

By: Walter Kerr

SIPA is a feeder school for the US Foreign Service. In my seven years as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO), including three overseas tours, I served with dozens of SIPA graduates.

There is no “right” time to become a US diplomat. When I joined, colleagues in my entering class ranged from recent college graduates to those joining as second or third careers. There is no “right” background, either. My FSO colleagues were former teachers, journalists, scientists, bankers, consultants, soldiers. In Brazil, I served with a guy who used to be a scout for the Boston Red Sox.

Why Join the Foreign Service?

People join the Foreign Service for many reasons: the opportunity to serve your country; to live abroad; to learn new languages; as well as to have impact early in your career. During my first tours overseas, I visited Americans incarcerated in Chinese jails to help them understand their rights in a murky legal system. I also helped destitute US citizens get home, managed international exchange programs that linked up-and-coming foreign leaders with their counterparts in the United States, and helped document and make public human rights abuses.

Insider Tips

To join, applicants need to take a written test (the Foreign Service Officer Test, or FSOT in Foreign Service lingo), submit writing samples, and undergo a day’s worth of role playing, job interviews, and other activities (this day is known as the Oral Assessment).

  • For the FSOT, you should be familiar with the US Constitution, have a good grasp of written English, and have a survey-level understanding of important historical events. To prepare, I picked up The Almanac of American History, which provides a cliffnotes of the most important topics in US history. I also memorized the names and locations of the ten largest lakes in the world, ten tallest mountains, ten longest rivers, as well as every article and amendment in the US Constitution. I’m glad I did.

  • Visit the State Department’s careers website and memorize the State Department’s six precepts (leadership, communication, management, etc.). Every FSO knows these precepts by heart. They are the criteria by which promotion panels evaluate us, and the criteria you will be evaluated against for entry into the Foreign Service.

  • Have stories ready to go that speak to each precept that show why you’re the best candidate.

  • Pick up a critical needs language or, even better, a super critical needs language like Mandarin, Arabic, or Korean. Everyone who passes the Oral Assessment is put on a rank-ordered hiring list, known as the Register, and proficiency in one of these languages will give you significant bonus points which will put you ahead of others who made the Register.

Words of Wisdom

A retired ambassador once told me something along the lines of, “Early in their careers, people choose assignments based on where they want to live. In the middle of their careers people choose jobs based on what they want to do. Only at the end of their careers do people realize the thing that made them happiest was whom they worked for.” I echo this.

Seek out opportunities to work for excellent ambassadors and other bosses. Also, don’t serve in places where you disagree with US policy. No matter where you serve, your job will be to defend and advance US interests. Work in places where you will be proud to do that.

While I’ve left the Foreign Service, I still love the institution of the Foreign Service. I recommend it strongly to SIPA students interested in pursuing a career in public service who also want to live overseas. There are few more rewarding, intellectually challenging, and adventurous ways to serve your country.

Walter Kerr is a first year student in the EMPA program. After seven years in the Foreign Service, he now serves as Chief of Staff for Zenysis, a Silicon Valley-based technology company active in international development.