What does it take to become an ambassador or high consular officer?
October 12, 2004 11:29 PM   Subscribe

Say one wanted to one day serve as the US ambassador to (or is it of...) a particular country. Or if that seemed out of reach, maybe the Consulate General / Consulate to (again, or is it of...) a particular country. Or if even that seemed out of reach, and hell just get a job in the embassy or work for the Consulate. So, any chance an everyday average Joe, with a clean record, and a sharp intellect could get such a gig? Or is it just for former senators, congressmen, and big donors to political campaigns?
posted by pwb503 to Law & Government (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Actually, diplomat jobs are awarded based on merit. You don't even need a college degree. But they're not easy to get--in the past there have been more than 20,000 applicants for 400 jobs.

The application process is rigorous.

First you need to take a written test. I took it a few years ago, and if I recall correctly it took about four hours. Multiple choice questions on the test cover national and international history and geography, basic computer use, and people skills. There are also weird personal experience multiple choice questions like, "How many friends do you have from different cultural backgrounds?" You might be asked to pick between 0, 1, 2, 3, and 4 or more, but then you actually have to name them. There are other questions about the books and magazines you read, and more aimed at finding out how much cultural experience you have.

Also on the written test are two or three essay questions. On one, you will probably be asked about a well-known controversial issue--maybe gun control. You're asked to construct an argument. On another you'll be given a topic you probably don't know anything about--maybe a pressing issue between two made up countries. You're asked to construct another argument. Your essays are scored based on how well-written they are (grammar, etc.) and how well the present a logical argument.

Almost everyone fails the written test. If you pass, you will be invited to a full day oral exam. In the oral exam, you will participate in a number of group and solo activities. Group activities include being put on a team and being asked to argue with other teams for limited resources. You'll also be interviewed by a panel that asks you normal job interview-type questions as well as questions about your opinions about different cultures.

The oral exam day is scored not based on your experience, but on how you think and how you interact with others. In the group activities, you have to show that you are willing to listen to others and that, while you want to win, you don't want to win at all costs (this is not "The Apprentice," it's diplomacy). In the interview, it's good to show that you think about how people are differnet in different cultures.

Even someone who has just been to high school, but who recognizes that different cultures exist and has an appreciation for them could do well. On the other hand, former heads of NGOs have been turned away for being too bossy, or for being overly simplistic in their interview questions.

You probably won't pass the oral exam. Most people don't.

If you do, you'll be put on a waiting list with maybe a few hundred other people. As jobs become available, the people above you get are hired. I don't know how long you get to stay on the waiting list, but it's not forever. If you don't get hired by the time your waiting list time is up, you've got to start the whole process over again.

The State Department is the smallest cabinet-level US agency--I think there are fewer than 3,000 employees. And it's a hard place to get a job.

There's more information here
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:45 PM on October 12, 2004 [1 favorite]

Excuse my grammar. Perhaps this is why I didn't make it past the essay questions.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:48 PM on October 12, 2004

Oh, I see you're in Portland. When I took the test it was at Mount Hood Community College, if that helps. It's offered several times a year. I recommend paying the $20 or so for the study guide, and maybe getting a high school US history text book too.

You can take the test as many times as you want. Most people fail the written test several times before they make it to the oral. And I've heard of people taking the oral test a number of times, too.

There are online message boards about the exam, but a scorer I know says that most of the speculation on these boards is actually 180 degrees away from what the State Department is looking for.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:52 PM on October 12, 2004

OK, this my last post in response to your question. Sorry for going ballistic. There aren't many questions posted to AskMe that I know this much about.

If you want to become an ambassador, it will probably take you 20 years or more if you go the career State Department route, and that's if you're lucky, politically popular, and very talented.

Once you are hired by the State Department, you are required to be promoted every so often or you lose your job. And unlike in high school, there are not pity promotions.

I believe that you have up to 11 years to be promoted. But you can only be promoted if you go through a procedure called "opening your window," and once you open that window you have to be promoted within six years. People who play it safe tend to wait five years after a promotion before opening that window, but this makes for slow career advancement. And there is a maximum age for the Foreign Service--sixty-somthing, I think--after which you must retire.

If you get promoted high enough, you will be eligible to join the Senior Foreign Service. But it's just about as hard to make the leap from regular Foreign Service to Senior Foreign Service as it is to make the leap from not Foreign Service to regular Foreign Service. And once you make it to the top you are only guaranteed employment for as long as there is a specific job need that your abilities qualify you for. If there is no such job available, it's time to retire.

Becoming a consular officer or a consul general is a lot easier. If you're willing to work in a remote city or third-world country, you coulud be a consul general within a few years. The consul general is the top ranking American in that city (barring visits by occasional visits from out-of-town big wigs), and there are people who hold this title in their 20s or earlyl 30s.

Working in remote cities or third-world countries has financial benefits, as well. Generally, the government will provide your housing for free while you are posted abroad. If you're posted somewhere less desireable sometimes you can also get a 20% to 30% salary boost, called "hardship pay." In third-world countries where live-in household help feels generously compensated for $30 a week, you may find yourself feeling quite well off on your government salary.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:02 AM on October 13, 2004

Response by poster: Croutonsupafreak, thanks for all the information, it is greatly appreciated. For the hell of it, I might just look into taking the tests at Mt. Hood CC. I would love to hear more about what you know about the consular officer / general positions or simply positions under those. Thanks again.

posted by pwb503 at 12:54 AM on October 13, 2004

I've got a good friend who now works for the Swiss consulate in Sweden, so while I'm not as knowledgeable as croutons, I have learned something about it.

The main thing was that there's a big difference between the "consulate" and "diplomacy" sides of things. The "diplomacy" side is the "outward" facing side--your government's face to the other governments in the world. (Ambassadors, etc.) The "consulate" side is "inward" facing--it's the part that helps US citizens when they're overseas. (Lost passports, etc.)

To hear my friend tell it, the diplomacy side is more of the star track, and the consulate side isn't deemed as glamorous. (He was disappointed when he graduated from his training, and got ranked as a consulate member.) Apparently, there's not much crossover--the consulate side tends to be career people who are working their way up the ranks, and once you're put on that side of the fence, there's not much chance of crossing over. On the diplomacy side, though, it's clear that there's a lot of political appointments that completely skip the whole "career diplomat" thing...just think of how many movie stars, businesspeople, etc., that get appointed without any experience. Going back to crouton's point, it's apparently very possible to be a star, work your way up the diplomatic ranks, and then find all the available ambassadorships taken by political appointees. Yay.
posted by LairBob at 6:04 AM on October 13, 2004

Ambassadorships are notoriously given out as ponies to political cronies supporters.

Seriously. Do your president a business or funding favor and you're in, regardless of credentials. Not all the time, but so much of the time they're just rewards.

Negroponte is an exception, perhaps chosen because of his CIA background and experience in supporting the Contras in Honduras. He's been down and bloody dirty before, now he's back, in Iraq.

I remember a list of U.S. ambassadors to various countries and their qualifications lack of qualifications and the relationships that got them appointed, but I can't find it now. I'm googling, though.
posted by Shane at 6:31 AM on October 13, 2004

My two cents:

LairBobs distinction between outwards (ambassadors) and inwards (consulate) work can be nuanced a bit. The consulate part also deals with granting of visas to foreigners wanting to go to the country, especially when applying to immigrate etc. But it definitely is more bureacratic and administrative in nature, only rarely involving direct negotiations between countries.

The ambassadors/political style work can also be very inward looking, as in promoting financial and business interests and so on.

I don't know too much about the American foreign service, but it seems to me that the politically appointed ambassadors usually go to smaller places (as e.g. the american ambassador here in [small Scandinavian capital] who, if a career diplomat, makes me doubt the existence of the vigorous testing described above).

It seems that the top-dogs at the more important places (UN, London, Berlin, Paris etc) are all career diplomats or otherwise skilled and educated in the fine art of cocktail parties and corridor deals.
posted by AwkwardPause at 7:24 AM on October 13, 2004

I still can't find that list, I think mostly from the '80s and before, who were given Ambassadorships to Sunny Places. Looking over the list of current Ambassadors, many are career diplomats and are required to know a little about American foreign policy. So I guess things have changed somewhat, but I'm betting not totally.

On the other hand, maybe they're not so bad...
posted by Shane at 8:34 AM on October 13, 2004

It seems that the top-dogs at the more important places (UN, London, Berlin, Paris etc) are all career diplomats or otherwise skilled and educated in the fine art of cocktail parties and corridor deals.

Definitely not all career diplomats, but definitely all high powered.

For example Kingman Brewster, Carter's appointment as ambassador to the UK, who was formerly president of Yale.

He was the only American ambassador that I have met. I met him at a gathering for American students at summer school at London. It may just have been his academic background that inclined him to attend, but if that is the sort of social whirl that fills the life of ambassadors I'm surprised that anyone takes the job.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 8:44 AM on October 13, 2004

My friend in State - father of one of my Harvard roommates - classes himself as a "career diplomat." He possesses all the requisites - good social background, captaincy in the Marine Corps, Harvard man - but looks down on the political appointees with a sort of bemusement.

In general, I get the impression it's an old boy's club. If you didn't know which fork to use by the age of 12 and don't know the difference between Phillips Exeter, Andover, and St. Paul's, you'll probably find yourself bumping a glass ceiling.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:48 AM on October 13, 2004

I don't know about the old boy's club. For one thing, the State Department started aggressively trying to hire women and minorities back in the 1970s. A number of its top diplomats today weren't even born in the US, though I believe citizenship is a prerequisite to hiring.

My dad served in the Foreign Service for nearly 30 years before retiring a few years ago, and he was a public high school and public university graduate. He served alongside people with a lot of different backgrounds--I remember one 40-something guy who had just entered at the junior levels, having taken and passed the tests when he got fed up with a career in zoology; other people entered from the military and some didn't even have college degrees.

I do think you have to be pretty good at milking your connections to get promoted to the top levels within the Foreign Service, but these are connections you form through relationships you build as you move up the ranks.

Once you make it into the Foreign Service you "bid" on where you want to serve, and some posts are a lot harder to get than others. Everyone wants Paris, but not many people bid on Kosovo or small one-person posts in central Asia.

If all your career you go to the popular places, you're probably only going to distinguish yourself if you've got connections. People who take personal risks and suffer the hardship of going to posts where there will be no other English speakers within 1,000 miles or where it's not safe to bring family members can often distinguish themselves without these connections.

I will second the contempt that career diplomats feel for political appointees. Not only do the politicos not have the background to justify their positions, but a lot of them seem to completely lack people skills and prove themselves incompetent in the eyes of career people

I don't know about the inward/outward face of diplomats. My dad mostly worked at pretty small posts--consulates instead of embassies--so maybe that's why he ended up with both kinds of responsibilities.

By the way, people who are accepted into the Foreign Service and actually offered jobs aren't just thrown out into the field. They go through a long training process at the Foreign Service Instutute , which covers etiquette, law, diplomacy and more. (My dad sometimes teaches there.) Then when they are assigned a post they go through even more training, learning the language and also being trained on the culture.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 3:44 PM on October 13, 2004

I took the written test a couple years ago while an undergrad, passed it, but fell short on the interview portion. As I recall there are no essays or questions about friends from other cultures. The written test is completely fill-in-the-bubble scantron stuff and is brought to you by the ACT folks.

The interview day was tough for me, as I am on the timid side when I am nervous (not alone there, I'll wager). Seven other applicants attended the same session. We split into two groups and were given a scenario much like CSF mentioned: x, y, z conditions exist in your country. Each applicant gets a portfolio describing a possible embassy program, 10 minutes to review it, and five minutes to prepare a presentation on why their program deserves funding. After everyone has presented, you get 5-10 minutes to debate the merits of the various programs and come to a decision as to how to spend your limited resources. Then you make a group presentation as to why you chose what you chose. The rest of the day varried in order but everyone had to: Spend 45 minutes or so reading about a workplace dispute and writing a memo outlining suggested remedies (mine was with regards to a new "hotshot" fresh from the Ivies and an older veteran of the service and their difficulties working together); and Get grilled by two interviewers with a mix of regular job questions, hypotheticals, problem-solving, and personal questions. I think there may have been something else like a more traditional essay, but I don't remember.

After that, you get put into a little room and called out one by one. Those who didn't make the cut, I am told, are called out of the room first so they can have them cleared out of the facility when those who get to go on to the next phase begin work on their security clearances and whatnot. But I didn't make it to that part, to I'm just passing on some fluff here.

As for the study guide for the written test, it is just a list of questions that have been asked in the past. You won't learn anything specific from it, but you'll have an idea as to what they're after. There's a list of suggested reading at the end of it that is so extensive that it is no help at all.
posted by guidedbychris at 2:20 AM on October 14, 2004

And a quick look at the Foreign Service site proves my memory faulty with regards to the essay and "biographical inventory" sections. They do appear on the written test. My recent stab at the LSAT must have clouded my recollection. Sorry.
posted by guidedbychris at 2:46 AM on October 14, 2004

Damn, but this thread is great -- fascinating insight into a career & organization that is not routinely profiled such.

Thanks, all -- esp croutonsupfreak. Good, good stuff.
posted by davidmsc at 9:28 PM on October 15, 2004

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