Note: Citizens of non-U.S. countries could expect somewhat similar levels of impact, primarily because other countries have significantly fewer diplomats (<10 per embassy). While the geopolitical impact of other countries' Foreign Ministries will differ, diplomats of other countries likely rise in rank much quicker AND diplomats could be a quarter of the strategic policy team at their embassy early on, covering a very wide range of issues.

Summary: This article provides a brief overview of the U.S. Foreign Service, including a description of the hiring process, the opportunities, and the challenges of being a diplomat. Given the opportunity for building expertise in shaping government decision-making and a low but considerable probability of shaping important policies early in your career, we conclude more EAs should consider diplomacy even if they might not pursue a life-long diplomatic career.

 

The U.S. Foreign Service – the United States’ diplomatic corps – is a highly sought after job in Washington - and is likely a promising path for U.S. citizens aiming to work on issues of great power competition, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence governance, biosecurity, global health, and global poverty.

The two of us served as diplomats; the knowledge and experience we gained was invaluable. Here, we reflect on our careers at the State Department in the context of effective altruism.

Is this career for me?

The Foreign Service, the diplomatic corps of the United States, offers a rare opportunity to get experience in different long-termist/EA topics, including nonproliferation, public health, biosecurity, AI, cybersecurity, and U.S.-great power relations, even if you come in without experience or expertise in such topics. Similar to a military officer, the career requires you to rotate your job assignment every few years, providing the opportunity to get meaningful experiences across a range of issue areas, anywhere on the globe.

Employment as a Foreign Service Officer grants you entry into the federal government system, a security clearance, and substantive foreign policy experience in varying subjects. Foreign Service Officers gain career experience as policy “generalists,” able to switch in and out of important topics. This skillset and diverse set of experiences allows Foreign Service Officers who depart to easily enter other policy careers and/or specialize in important topics.

The hiring process is different from most other federal and private sector careers. All that is required is that you pass a couple standardized tests and resume screening – no strict education/work experience requirements exist, nor does the hiring process strongly favor people with prior policy experience.  EAs with limited or no policy experience who are looking to get into the U.S. government or policy should consider applying despite the 2-3% pass rate. While the Foreign Service is often a second career (average age of entry is 32), there are those people who enter the Foreign Service in their early 20s as their first career via applying directly or a fellowship program. Abi entered at 23 right out of her masters program and Dan joined at 26.  (Note: You must be a U.S. citizen to apply.)

The Foreign Service hiring process is largely immune to the power of networking because each of the four phases of review involves multiple independent judges and scoring systems, which are mostly disconnected from each other. Recommendations carry no weight in the process. An American citizen can take the first portion of the test almost anywhere in the world (embassies offer the test to U.S. citizens abroad), so one of the judges knowing a candidate is rare and would likely lead to a judge recusing themselves. The application process isn’t perfect by any means, but issues stem from the difficulty of assessing the 13 desired skills rather than nepotism.

The testing process seems to moderately favor extroverts and those with good writing/grammar skills, knowledge of global affairs, and familiarity with embassies/Foreign Service general structures. Eligibility for both the medical and security clearances could be impacted by mental health issues, though the government only denied 11 security clearances for psychological reasons in 2021, or because of recent drug use. Marijuana use, for instance, is federally illegal even if used in a state that has legalized it.

To evaluate whether the career is right for you, check out the State Department’s website and take its quiz on whether you’re a good fit. Most relevantly, Foreign Service Officers move to an entirely new country every few years; folks who crave being close to home or “putting roots down” will quickly burn out. Further, successful bureaucrats are patient in navigating a complex bureaucracy and appreciate that you can only “win” sometimes. Professionals who seek to “move fast and break things” would be better off elsewhere. The bureaucracy moves slow, but having a role in bringing the full weight of the massive U.S. government against a challenge can be awe inspiring.

Why the Foreign Service Offers High Expected Value

The United States spends over $1 trillion per year on national security and foreign policy. A key portion of this funding goes to pursuing cooperative relationships with other nations and international organizations, typically channeled through our more than 250 embassies and consulates worldwide, which are staffed and run largely by Foreign Service Officers. An effective and impactful diplomatic corps is vital for the project of world peace.

Yet 80,000 Hours’ previous review of the Foreign Service stated that the Foreign Service has good but limited potential for impact because rising through the ranks takes about 25-30 years.

In contrast, we argue that the Foreign Service is an excellent career option even if you decide to pivot after a few years. While the Foreign Service is structured to be a lifelong career (offers a pension, tenure, etc.), some Foreign Service Officers leave after a few diplomatic assignments, taking their newly impressive resume and broad experience with them into their next job and turbocharging their careers in a way that is hard to duplicate.

Here are four good reasons to join the Foreign Service:

First, and most importantly, there’s a chance (maybe 1%) of having a large policy impact early in your career. Most foreign service assignments will only offer marginal policy influence initially, but occasionally a policy window opens and you can find yourself with a HUGE amount of responsibility to define a world-shaping event. If you’re holding the biosecurity portfolio in China when a crisis strikes, you might suddenly find yourself directly shaping the decisions of the president. Many issue areas most prioritized by EA – biosecurity, pandemic response, artificial intelligence – remain neglected within the State Department. If you can introduce a more rational, long termist perspective into an often short-sighted policy process, the marginal impact of your presence can be quite significant. After the first 4-5 years (the first two diplomatic assignments), the probability of a larger policy impact rises significantly because officers have more control over their next diplomatic assignment, are eligible for many more positions especially in D.C., and become eligible for rotations, such as to the National Security Council or the EU.

Second, the best way to understand the national security decision-making process is to join it. Knowledge of how national security functions cannot be entirely deciphered without living inside of it for a few years. Gaining experience in national security policymaking is important because shaping the institution is a vital theory of change for many EA issue areas. We need leaders and allies who intimately understand how the government works, especially if their goals are to change it. Further, improving institutional decision making (IIDM) is a growing cause area in EA, and we need people with deep familiarity with institutions, bureaucratic politics, and organizational decision-making.

Third, a career in the Foreign Service offers you the best possible crash course in international affairs. You will gain unparalleled breadth and depth of engagement with issues and actors, and serving "on the front lines" provides irreplaceable experience. You will learn how new research and policy initiatives affect real people in far-away places in unexpected ways. The experience will internationalize your perspective. Between the two of us, we have lived and worked in four continents and have traveled all over the planet. We have had the opportunity to immerse ourselves in new cultures and languages, rub shoulders with presidents and prime ministers, and shape major policy initiatives. And a security clearance, once obtained, will provide you unparalleled access to the vast intelligence apparatus that is inaccessible to most.

On a related note, there is a moderate chance (~15%) chance of getting assigned to China early in your career, affording you a year of full-time Mandarin training and two years experience living in China. Specializing in China is an 80,000 Hours recommended career. Given the importance of US-China relations (and China being one-sixth of the world population), the State Department has many positions to fill in China.  Other languages that offer extended, two year instruction include Russian, Japanese, Arabic.

Fourth, the Foreign Service may make you more marketable than other federal or think tank jobs because you’ll gain international experience and prestige. Serving as a diplomat endows you with instant credibility in the DC policy landscape – few lines on one’s resume stand out quite as much. Further, the most difficult part of entering DC/federal government employment is getting your first federal job since that office will have to sponsor and wait for your security clearance. Once you have a security clearance, it is much easier to get other federal jobs, as your State security clearance will stay valid for two years after you separate.

Potential Downsides of a Foreign Service Career

The first four years of your career as a foreign service officer will not likely be focused on policymaking. There’s also a chance you may be assigned to a country of little geopolitical significance for one or both of your first two diplomatic assignments. Every career Foreign Service Officer is required to do an assignment (1-2 years) as a consular officer issuing visas and supporting American citizens abroad. Consular work can be meaningful and rewarding, but does not typically lead to large scale impact. The real magic starts on the third assignment when you’re able to work at headquarters in DC or land a job in a coveted assignment abroad after you’re tenured. All said, there’s a good amount of luck in landing a high impact diplomatic assignment during your first four years.

Many people are ill-suited for the demands of a massive bureaucracy. Successful bureaucrats learn to navigate endless standard operating procedures, mounds of paperwork, and complex interoffice politics  in order to achieve progress. Even in a large organization, who you know still trumps the best available evidence in most cases. 

Working hours can be long and unpredictable.  It’s great to get invited to meetings at the White House, but the prep work can be intense, especially if you are supporting a senior-level official at the same meeting. Some thrive in such an environment, but many do not.  

The 321 names of diplomats killed on the job adorning the main entrance to the State Department is a reminder that Foreign Service life can be dangerous and isolating. Ambassadors have a higher rate of death than admirals and generals. Embassies are sometimes attacked and bombed, even in countries considered safe. (Abi was in the embassy when a backpack bomb misfired and Dan experienced mob violence up close.) Terrorist or other groups sometimes target diplomats since diplomats are the embodiment of the U.S. government, and terrorist groups seek the international attention that killing a diplomat spurs. Also, your foreign service life will expose you to a higher risk of violent crime, car accidents, and tropical diseases that are difficult to diagnose and treat in the United States. You might often be without access to high-quality medical facilities or emergency care. The safety precautions required to manage these risks can weigh heavily on one’s life.

While many find the opportunity to regularly move to new places enthralling, many find constant moves isolating and exhausting. It’s important to recognize that the Foreign Service  does not necessarily involve a lot of travel; you will be putting roots down in an entirely new country. And frankly, some people find out that they actually don’t like living abroad. On the plus side, the State Department takes care of many logistics, such as shipping your household items and car, and paying $30-65k a year for each child to go to a nearby top international school. On the negative side, some people find it exhausting to build a new daily routine and social life in a new country every two years, including making friends, navigating a foreign grocery store, and identifying good medical resources.

Spouses/partners will often find difficulty advancing their career. Exceptions might include if they have a fully telework career with flexibility for time zones or have a particularly international careers (i.e. ESL teachers, freelancers, some medical jobs). Finding a job locally can be difficult and, in some countries, impossible, due to lack of international work agreements. Spouses are eligible for some Embassy jobs, though these are unlikely to be related to the spouse’s field of expertise. Unmarried partners receive little to no support from the Embassy and cannot apply to most Embassy jobs nor use the Embassy’s medical unit.

Applying is Low Cost

Joining the Foreign Service is a great investment in yourself. It offers you unparalleled international experience, expertise in shaping government decision-making, and the potential to meaningfully shape policies early in your career. The expected value of a career in diplomacy carries some risk, however. One can serve for many years and never have the opportunity to contribute in an enormous way.

Nevertheless, we think this is a great career option that more EAs should consider. Even if you pivot, the upsides are excellent.

How to Apply: The Foreign Service Officer Test is available three times a year (certain weeks in February, June, and October). You’ll be able to reserve a testing site starting 5 weeks before each testing window up until a few days before the test. Set a reminder to yourself to sign up at the link that State provides here. You can take the practice exam online at any time for a sense of what score you might expect on the real test.

Students and applicants from non-traditional backgrounds should consider the various fellowship programs. Abi was a recipient of the Thomas R. Pickering Fellowship, which paid for most of her master’s program and supported her entry into the Foreign Service (with a service commitment of five years).

Background Note 

There are many types of State Department personnel, such as political appointees, the U.S.-based Civil Service, and the Foreign Service, the latter which includes doctors, IT Specialists, Office Management Specialists, HR Specialists, Regional Security Officers, and non-career Consular Fellows. This article focuses on the Foreign Service Officer (Generalists), since these positions are most focused on informing, implementing, and making foreign policy. The majority of Foreign Service employees who became Ambassadors are Foreign Service Officers. 

 

Biographies

Abi Olvera served as a US diplomat in Senegal, Egypt, and Washington D.C. She is currently at Rethink Priorities and Guarding Against Pandemics.

Dan Spokojny is a former US diplomat, having served in Lithuania, Belarus, Pakistan, and Washington, DC. He is now the CEO of fp21, a think tank dedicated to transforming the processes and institutions of foreign policy. Dan is also a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California, Berkeley.

The views above belong solely to the authors and do not represent those of the U.S. government.

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20 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:51 PM
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Thanks for writing this! I'd be curious to hear you expand on a few points.

If you’re holding the biosecurity portfolio in China when a crisis strikes, you might suddenly find yourself directly shaping the decisions of the president.

My naive guess would have been that, when a crisis strikes and senior national security officials put their eye on something, junior staff get mostly swept aside (i.e., might get listened to for information about what's happening locally but wouldn't have much room to set priorities or policy goals), because they're (perhaps inappropriately) seen as insufficiently aware of broader political/geopolitical/intelligence considerations, as insufficiently aligned with the President's priorities, and/or as rivals in an opportunity to show impressive leadership ability.

But it sounds like that's not what happens--which of my above assumptions are mistaken, or what are they missing?

Third, a career in the Foreign Service offers you the best possible crash course in international affairs.

Why do you see it as a better crash course than working in U.S.-based international affairs roles (e.g., some U.S.-based roles in the State Department or National Security Council)? (As you mention, there are upsides from being on the front lines, but I could also imagine some U.S.-based roles offering more breadth and more insight into high-level foreign policymaking?)

Also, could you share a bit about how you see the network benefits of working in the Foreign Service comparing to the network benefits of U.S.-based policy roles? Is this a significant upside/downside?

Good questions. A few thoughts:

  1. I think your assumptions are generally right, but I'd add one: One's authority in a policy space is somewhat proportional to the number of other people claiming expertise. The junior staffer who's been laboring on an otherwise ignored issue will skyrocket in value at the moment of crisis. For example, how many Ukraine experts were there last year compared with today? If that junior staffer can rise to the moment, they can launch their career on a new upward trajectory. Meanwhile, comparably few officials are working on the war in Yemen right now, which the UN has described as the "world's worst humanitarian crisis."
  2. US Diplomats spend an average of a third of their career in DC and two-thirds abroad. In this manner, the foreign service offers you multiple perspectives. You'll understand issues not only through the DC-centric lens, but also Beijing, Brussels, and Buenos Aires. The power lies in DC, but it's harder to build real expertise and relationships sitting behind a computer screen in DC.
  3. Building on the above answer, I'd ask: What's your network for? Building expertise and influence are sadly not always the same thing. If you want to build expertise on an international issue, it may be a significant advantage to build a great international network on that issue. That's not something you can build easily from home. Living/working in DC is a significant advantage for building influence in DC, but that game is much easier if you also have recognized expertise. The foreign service isn't the only way to build up expertise and influence, but it's a great one, and it's more accessible the most other pathways. But hey, if someone offers you a job on the NSC, go ahead and take it!

That's helpful, thanks!

This is a great article. Agree with the points raised, and think it is very balanced. Thank you for writing this.

One thing I would add -> the article touches on the frustrations of bureaucracy - this is definitely a big limiting factor. 

But I would add sometimes as a diplomat you will be called upon to do things you disagree with... not just things you think are a waste of time, but things that in some way you think are a bad idea. 

It might be helping the US export meat around the world, or siding with some pretty nasty regimes important for geopolitics, or cutting the aid budget in a country that really needs it. It might just be that you can't publicly speak your mind on issues you care about.

 To be fair, the politicians are elected, so they should get to call the shots, and if you don't like it, you can always quit. But I think many people would find this difficult to stomach, and that might mean a diplomatic career isn't for them. 

This is a great point - diplomats are often reminded (even as early as onboarding) that we must be willing to implement policies we don’t agree with. This point perhaps didn’t come to mind when drafting because this scenario can be avoided by selecting diplomatic assignments where you agree with the mission. This is also probably easier for diplomats (like me) who are in the Economic career track. The offices/countries where I’ve worked, we’ve pursued long-term sustainable economic growth, energy resilience, earthquake preparedness, science/tech/health cooperation, and better/expanded social safety nets. The risk for being assigned somewhere you do not agree with is highest in the first four years when you have limited control of where you go.

To use your example of aid cuts for illustrating how nuanced this can be: diplomats are likely to fight tooth-and-nail against aid cuts in countries that need it. While the diplomat might have the bad luck of delivering the news, they’ll have been in a position to fight the cuts for months (within the government, not publicly). The diplomats might then be able to pursue other types of financial support, citing lack of aid as a major reason.

Yep. I agree with Abi. I also I think this is true in any industry. Or even just as a taxpaying citizen. It’s just really hard to have one’s ethics be completely aligned with anything. But exiting doesn’t make those ethical problems disappear. You just leave them for someone else to deal with.

I haven't read this yet but I appreciate this post because it's important. It's so important that I will push back on the title of this post for understating how imperative this is. It isn't enough for some in EA to only consider applying to join U.S. diplomacy. Some of them should really, definitely do it for sure.

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You mean "American EA's should consider applying to US diplomacy", surely ?

We should start being more mindful about this type of thing, if we want to practice what we preach in terms of wanting EA to be, and be perceived to be, a globally welcoming and inclusive movement.

I think it probably makes sense to change the title of the post for efficiency reasons (I.e., “don’t bother reading if you aren’t American”), but not because I think it contributes to EA being a more “globally welcoming and inclusive movement,” which I feel like is a less significant issue/concern here. (Yes, the argument seems to be that without saying “American EAs” the implied assumption is that all EAs are American, but I don’t think that’s a strong vibe; at the very least, I wouldn’t imply that the post shows hypocrisy in EA)

I agree on the efficiency reason as well, good point.

However, as a non-American EA, I think its worth me pointing out that this type of thing is an example of the US-centric status quo in the community which does alienate and frustrate us non-US EAs (I know this is true for many of us, having been speaking and thinking about this frustration with other non-US EAs for about 6 years).

Thanks for the feedback. I actually would like the article to be considered by non-US citizens to consider joining their own Foreign Service. I was deciding between making the article more generalizable vs U.S. centric. I made the title more U.S. centric for efficiency/sorting purposes but have added a paragraph of my estimate for other countries' diplomacy careers at the very top. Overall, I think the scale of staffing size makes smaller countries' diplomatic careers competitive, despite the varying geopolitical influence of other countries.

Thank you for changing the title - I think it is more helpful overall now, and addresses the concerns I raised. BUT in addition to that, you added that note underneath it which not just addresses the point, but also raises an interesting consideration regarding non-US EAs working in diplomacy in their own countries, which I hadn't thought about and I think bolsters your overall point considerably. Well done !

That's really interesting, as an American who has been active in EA in the US and Europe I usually felt that England had an outsized weighting on EA stuff, not the U.S.

Yeah I think I should have been more accurate, I think by saying "US EAs" I really meant "US, EU, and UK EAs"

I think this post has a good list of reasons why diplomacy might be good. But I feel like a few things are missing, even if the post is just making the case to "consider" US diplomacy careers:

  • Arguments that this is the best thing some people can be doing with their careers. The best thing can be 100x better than a pretty good thing. Is this better than other paths towards policy careers? What about alternatives in other areas, like ops for EA orgs, GPR, or field-building?
  • The full story for impact. After gaining skills and marketability, what could someone do after foreign service? What important policies could be passed as a result? How does this ultimately reduce x-risk or create a huge number of QALYs?
  • Expected value calculations, especially since a heading claims there is high expected value. Assuming certain levels of talent and hard work, what's the expected value of the funding directed to effective policies by starting with a diplomacy career? The estimate doesn't need to be precise, but the current arguments in this post are consistent with the expected value being lower than many other things people could be doing with their careers.
  • For people who are struggling to switch over to policy from non-policy careers, the Foreign Service seems more accessible and provides a wider-range of exposure to EA issues than other entry or mid level policy options. For people already with established policy careers and a clear Theory of Impact, the Foreign Service might be a bit too open-ended (since you don't get to select for your first two assignments). For people considering alternatives that are not directly related to government work (like ops for EA orgs, GPR, field-building), I'd still recommend at least applying if they're in the minority of people for whom bureaucracy and constant moves isn't a strong downside. Even having 1-2 more people excited about effective altruism in the Foreign Service would effectively double how many there are. 
    • For example, if someone were an established expert in GPR research, the non-research work in the Foreign Service might not be a good career fit. If this GPR research expert really wanted to get into policy, I'd recommend more specialized strategic/subject-matter-expert roles in other parts of government unless they were very excited to join the Foreign Service specifically and are fine with waiting 10+ years to lobby for GPR within the government from a more senior position.
  • You asked about post-Foreign Service job options. Some go work at top tech companies as their strategic leads on different issues, join prestigious think tanks, start important think tanks from their US government knowledge (like Dan), become professors, etc. I have known of two who successfully ran for political office after. In other words, the Foreign Service is highly flexible. 80,000 Hours' post on career capital sums the value of this up: "If you focus on building valuable, flexible career capital, then you’ll be able to have a more impactful, satisfying career too." 
  • You asked about important policies that can be passed or influenced and how this converts to QALYs. The State Department covers a huge array of important issues like setting/negotiating multilateral/international law, Biological Weapons Convention, building crisis communication channels, building norms regarding biosecurity, great power conflict, public health, etc. The QALYs are difficult to quantify but could be massive in the same way that economists' work is competitive with RCT-backed interventions (EA Forum post: Growth and the Case against Randomista Development) Quote from their article: "China’s growth acceleration from 1977 onwards produced $14 trillion NPV in cumulative economic output. Thus, if the only thing the economics profession achieved in 50 years was to increase by 4 percentage points the probability that the Chinese government shifted to this new economic strategy, then it would have had greater economic benefits than the Graduation approach." Diplomats are quite similar to economists and political advisors in their work, so could influence better norms for the long term future as well as better more equitable sustainable economic growth and stronger public health interventions.
     

Many issue areas most prioritized by EA – biosecurity, pandemic response, artificial intelligence – remain neglected within the State Department. If you can introduce a more rational, long termist perspective into an often short-sighted policy process, the marginal impact of your presence can be quite significant.

How easy is it to go against the grain like that? Are there not institutional pressures to focus on short-term considerations?

There are definitely institutional pressures to focus on short-term considerations, especially for those offices that play bigger roles in quickly-evolving bilateral and multilateral issues. The more technical offices (also called functional bureaus) that have subject matter experts working on longer term strategic issues, and being called on to review the quicker/shorter-term considerations. These tend to have a higher number of Civil Service employees who are in the office for decades (unlike Foreign Service who are in a specific position for 1-3 years), making longterm considerations easier. Overall, I don't think State suffers as much from an emphasis on short-term considerations as other Departments might since the bulk of State's work isn't focused on partisan issues or dependent on election cycles.

I want to highlight one area of diplomacy which I think is particularly relevant to EA is Science Diplomacy - briefly touched upon at the start of the post. Would be curious to hear the OPs' views.

"Science diplomacy refers to the role science can play in international relations, or how diplomatic efforts support international science." (source)

I see a number of key areas here that EA  aligned Diplomats could be influence:

  1. Good and bad scientific co-operation: these outcomes can be both good and bad e.g. Democratic Country R and Country S co-operate to provide knowledge on pandemic prevention vs Authoritarian Country X and Country Y co-operate to exchange nuclear power expertise which could be misused for proliferation reasons.
  2. Developmental assistance in engineering: diplomats facilitate engineering experts from their country help to provide new power, utilities, transport, infrastructure for a developing economy to help it 'level up'.
  3. Using science and engineering to inform foreign policy-making: e.g. understanding the risks of A.I. integrated into weapons systems informs foreign policy objectives.

A note for UK people: seems that the main route into a diplomacy career is only the UK Governments Civil Service Graduate Scheme - there does not appear to be a direct inroad into diplomacy where you are able to go through a robust training program. I think this is dissapointing.

This is a great note. Science and tech diplomacy is finally getting a lot more funding and strategic priority. State just created a bureau entirely devoted to Cyber. The opportunities for science diplomacy are probably the highest they've been in a long time.