What is a Foreign Service Officer?

The U.S. Department of State is based in Washington and employs thousands of foreign service officers and diplomats all over the world. They work in more than 270 embassies, consulates and other diplomatic mission areas across the globe. Work as a foreign service officer (FSO) exists in Europe, Eurasia, East Asia and the Pacific, the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and the Americas.

Working in some of these areas is difficult and dangerous; however, individuals with a penchant for public service and patriotism will likely find the work extremely rewarding. The opportunity to explore cultures and customs of countries around the world makes this job truly one of a kind.

What does the job entail? Foreign service officers are usually tasked with planning and implementing U.S. policy that aims to promote peace and prosperity in countries around the world. This work is important in that it advances the interests of the United States overseas. Strong leaders who are fluent in at least one foreign language are prime candidates for this job.

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For the first five years of service, FSOs are given two or three different overseas assignments that aim to train and help them identify special skills or talents in the field. This “probationary” period takes place after a full training and orientation in Washington. The first five years typically include work at a consulate and at least one assignment at a “hardship” post. Hardship posts are usually located in isolated and sometimes dangerous environments. FSOs must be flexible and available to travel anywhere they’re assigned to meet the needs of the Foreign Service. After five years, FSOs are typically given assignments that are better attuned to their professional goals and personal interests.

Qualifications and Salary Potential

FSOs must be between the ages of 20 and 59, and they typically hold a master’s degree such as our online master’s degree in international community development. To qualify, candidates must pass a written and oral exam, a medical exam and background check. Fluency in one or more foreign languages makes candidates much more employable as an FSO. The scores of the tests and evaluations rank applicants, and vacancies for officers and diplomats are filled from the list in order of candidates’ rank.

FSOs are paid based on their number of years of experience, their length of service, the location of their assignments and their qualifications. FSOs earn an annual salary of about $85,000, according to PayScale. There are many different variables and tiered salary structures to understand before signing on as a full-time FSO.