20,000 want to be U.S. diplomats each year

More than 20,000 Americans apply to become diplomats every year, but only a few hundred make it through the difficult written and oral exams, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, director-general of the U.S. Foreign Service, says on this week’s episode of “Conversations with Nicholas Kralev.”

“We don’t recruit people for jobs,” she says. “We recruit them for careers and a way of life.” She explains what’s required to pass the exams, and what skill sets the State Department looks for in candidates. She also talks about the shortcomings in training and professional development of U.S. diplomats.

A Foreign Service officer since 1982, Thomas-Greenfield assumed her current post in April 2012. Before that, she was ambassador to Liberia. In addition to Africa, she has served in Europe, South Asia and Latin America.

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One thought on “20,000 want to be U.S. diplomats each year

  • As a former FSO who came in mid-career and decided to leave the FS after one tour, I respectfully disagree with Ms. Thomas-Greenfield. The FS does not provide outgoing officers with sufficient training, and unfortunately, on-the-job training depends on how good one’s supervisor is (and whether he or she realizes that training new officers is part of his/her responsibility). I’m not saying anything new, but it does frustrate me that prospective officers are somewhat misled in the recruitment process. A-100 is an interesting class, but it provides only very minimal preparation for going out to the field. Likewise, the “cone-specific” training is rather generic, since it has to suit officers going to Yemen or to Canada, which limits how relevant the training can be, especially in fields such as public diplomacy.

    As for the best and the brightest, I encountered many officers who… weren’t. I realize that some came in under a different selection process, and some came in with the folding-in of USIA. I fear that the tenure process means that officers do get to rest on their laurels for a while, and the short period of many tours (1-2 years) means folks can get away with not doing very much for a while and no one is looking closely enough to really catch them out.

    I believe that Mr. Kralev is correct in his assessment that there isn’t any real professional development designed to teach smart people the profession of diplomacy. The “training float” idea isn’t going to get any traction now that the sequester forces the agency to further limit the hiring of new employees below replacement rate, and it has drastically reduced the possibility for officers and staff to travel to regional training courses.

    “This is not a place to test out your career options.” No kidding — when you find yourself suspecting that it’s not for you it’s very hard to push through and do the job that needs to be done when you’re in an environment that lacks the support for your career development and your family’s needs. There’s so much a new officer can’t know about how the State Department operates as an employer until he or she is there, serving overseas. I find the expectation that an A-100 newbie can know that he or she is ready to serve for life from Day 1 a bit bizarre in this day and age.

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