In failing economy, Foreign Service test attracts record numbers
Forget about a career in investment banking. Hedge funds, schmedge funds. For many these days, diplomacy is where it’s at.
Late last month, the State Department announced that the February administration of its Foreign Service officer test had reached the agency’s “worldwide scheduling limit,” reflecting a surge in applicants from previous years.
Inspired in part by a new president who promises to strengthen alliances abroad at a time when companies are cutting their rosters, thousands are looking to the Foreign Service as a future career path.
“The numbers are definitely up for this go-around,” said Robert Dry, a diplomat- in-residence at City College of New York.
More than 5,000 people have registered for the February exam, according to Brenda Greenberg, a State Department spokeswoman. By comparison, just over 3,000 applicants took the March 2008 exam, the highest registration that year.
The exam is the first step in a highly competitive selection process used to recruit a significant portion of the State Department’s career diplomats. Close to 9,000 people took the exam in 2008, according to Greenberg. The average exam pass rate is a mere 20 percent.
The exam is widely known for its difficulty, with subjects ranging from world history, economics, math and U.S. government. It is not uncommon for applicants to take the test several times before passing. The few who pass are invited to Washington for an oral interview. From that elite pool, only a few hundred are hired every year.
“We look for people who have quality skills, the motivation to represent the United States abroad, and to improve the world,” Dry said.
This year, the State Department aims to hire approximately 450 Foreign Service officers, which does not include Civil Service officers and Foreign Service specialists who are also hired to work at the State Department. Starting salaries for Foreign Service officers range between $42,576 and $58,775, and are based on an officer's educational background and work experience, according to the State Department's website.
While the application process is as competitive as ever, it is now easier to apply. Previously, applicants were required to submit essays before taking the exam. The State Department has since revamped the application process and now applicants need to submit essays only if they have passed the exam.
The election of Barack Obama, whose presidential campaign highlighted the importance of diplomacy as a foreign policy tool, has played no small role in the increased interest in the Foreign Service, according to diplomatic hopefuls, foreign policy experts and members of the State Department.
“People are getting more excited about foreign policy,” said Erica Tun, a 24-year old public relations specialist from Fort Wayne, Ind., who is registered to take the exam in February. “There is a president who is interested in making the nation more global.”
Tun, who has applied for a position in the public diplomacy track, which focuses on defining America’s image abroad, first considered the Foreign Service just a few months ago when she found an online job posting as the presidential election reached a fever pitch. “It piqued my curiosity,” she said. “I always had the interest, but didn’t have a way to focus my energy.”
In addition to public diplomacy, applicants can apply to work in consular affairs, economic affairs, management affairs and political affairs, according to the State Department’s Web site. New Foreign Service officers spend their first two to three years working at a consulate abroad.
For Tun, who has not traveled beyond the Virgin Islands and Canada, the Foreign Service represents an opportunity to explore the world beyond her hometown. “There was always a part of me that wanted to be part of a bigger world,” she said.
For Jonathan Posner, a 37-year-old management consultant from Laguna Beach, Calif., applying to the Foreign Service is an opportunity to return to the adventures of working abroad. He has previously worked as a consultant in Venezuela, Germany and China and wants to work in management affairs.
Posner had considered applying to the Peace Corps several years ago, but he got married and raised three children in the United States instead.
Foreign Service officers must spend their careers posted in several locations around the world, including some designated as “hardship” posts in areas with high crime rates, limited access to modern health care or high levels of pollution.
“It’s the same as being a military officer; you have to be ready to be posted anywhere, and you can be put in harm’s way,” said Daniel Hamilton, director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations and a professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Hamilton was deputy assistant secretary for European Affairs at the State Department during the Clinton administration.
Despite the challenges, career diplomats like Robert Dry manage to pursue this demanding profession while maintaining a family life. “I was in Riyadh, Vietnam, Oman and Paris, all the while raising a family, and I would never give it up,” Dry said of the last 12 years he spent overseas.
While some, like Posner, head to the Foreign Service later in their careers, others, like Nicole Sunderlin, 21, hope to launch their careers at the State Department. Sunderlin, who is studying political science at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich., applied for an internship with the State Department on a whim and was accepted.
Sunderlin spent three months as a consular intern at the U.S. Embassy in London, where she spent most of her time helping U.S. citizens who were overseas register to submit absentee votes for the 2008 elections.
After her time in London, she was set on applying to become a Foreign Service officer in the consular affairs track. “I came home and immediately registered for the test,” Sunderlin said.
Although applicants say that living abroad and exploring different cultures are among their primary motivations to apply, the Foreign Service is not all romance. More than half of all Foreign Service officers are serving in a “hardship” post, according to a congressional report published in September 2008.
From securing a stable Iraqi government, to achieving stability in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Congo, to nuclear nonproliferation negotiations with Iran and North Korea, the next generation of Foreign Service officers will face enormous challenges.
“These are the kinds of things that require a robust Foreign Service, and there is a sense on Capitol Hill that we need to reform and enhance the diplomatic arm of the government,” Dry said.
The new administration's focus on diplomacy and the appointment of Hillary Clinton to Secretary of State have given hope to Foreign Service officers, applicants, and experts that it will usher in a renaissance for the State Department.
“The U.S. is presenting a new face to the world; Obama and Clinton have emphasized principles (of) pragmatism,” said Alan Henrikson, director of diplomatic studies and a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, contrasting the new administration’s pledged diplomatic program to what he called “more doctrinaire approaches.”
The State Department has submitted a 2009 budget of more than $11 billion, an increase of more than $700 million from the department’s 2008 estimated budget, and it includes funding for the creation of several hundred additional diplomatic jobs.
Although Dry maintained that a strong U.S. military is paramount, he noted the cost of war as a point of comparison. “Diplomacy,” he said, “is cost effective.”