State Department Recruiters Aim to Expand Foreign Service

Hiring more diplomats is contingent on congressional approval of a larger budget. It would increase applicants’ chances of getting in.


George Sibley (right) led a provincial reconstruction team in Iraq when he and Tel Kayf mayor Basim Bello inaugurated a power station in 2011. Photo courtesy of George Sibley.

The Biden administration has tasked the State Department with recruiting more Americans to the Foreign Service, with the presumption that Congress will authorize a budget increase to enable the department to hire more diplomats. Although congressional approval is far from guaranteed, the prospect of more slots for incoming officers is good news for those planning to take the Foreign Service exam, and it might encourage potential candidates who previously viewed passing the exam as a long shot.

The department’s recruiters, including 16 so-called diplomats in residence based at universities around the United States, are offering some of that encouragement to prospective applicants. Usually having at least 15 years of experience, these mid-level and senior Foreign Service officers try to put a human face on a mysterious profession. They also explain the lengthy and arduous entrance process, which includes written and oral exams, as well as a qualifications evaluation panel, and can take up to two years.

“It’s a good time to be applying, because the probability of being selected will go up when more people are hired,” said George Sibley, a senior officer with 32 years of service, who is currently a diplomat in residence for the mid-Atlantic region, encompassing Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. “Assuming Congress passes a budget that supports this, we may be going into a period of increased hiring. That will generate more pressure on us to deliver more top-quality candidates.”

The State Department offers the written exam — multiple-choice and essay questions on current affairs, government, politics, history, geography, economics and related areas — every February, June and October. Candidates usually start working on their applications months in advance, because they need to decide at the very beginning which of five career tracks — political, economic, consular, management or public diplomacy — they will pursue, and to write so-called personal narratives. Since most Americans have little to no idea what exactly the Foreign Service does, many college students wonder what a diplomatic career would look like.

“A lot of the Foreign Service is shrouded in mystery, and I spend a little bit of my time doing some myth-busting about what the requirements” to join are, said Yolonda Kerney, a mid-level officer with 16 years of experience who is currently a diplomat in residence for the Washington, D.C., Metro region, including Maryland, as well as Delaware and West Virginia. “We don’t have any secrets about what we recruit for and what we evaluate against.” Students often ask whether they need a graduate degree, she said. “No, you don’t need a degree at all.” The only requirements are U.S. citizenship, 20-59 years of age and availability for worldwide assignment. No specific education level or foreign language proficiency are required.

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Kerney, who is based at her alma mater, Howard University, said that she and her colleagues offer candidates insight and advice on “how they can be competitive and what it is we are looking for.” Sibley, who is based at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, said the information diplomats in residence provide depends on the regions for which they are responsible. In the Northeast, and particularly in areas not far from Washington, D.C., “the idea of the State Department and foreign affairs is more familiar,” which is not necessarily the case elsewhere, he noted. The questions applicants ask also reflect their background. “If I get a veteran who is 35 years old and has a wife or husband and three children, that person’s questions and concerns are going to be dramatically different from those of an undergraduate student,” he added.

Melissa Martinez and Kali Jones, former diplomats in residence, wrote in 2017 that they saw their roles as “connectors, engagers, leaders, communicators, institution-builders, educators, storytellers, mentors and more.” Foreign Service officers, who change posts every three years or less, bid on these positions as they do on any openings abroad or in Washington.

“The work we do is both what I term wholesale and retail,” Sibley said. “Wholesale is outreach to a career fair to a large group to do an information session. But we also do retail, which is to say, I provide my email address to frankly anybody. I have one-on-one email conversations or, if I detect that somebody is very interested and we can benefit by having a conversation, I invite them to join me for a one-on-one session to talk about the opportunities that are there. That one-on-one contact is very useful. The broader contact is also useful, but a little more hit or miss.”

This time of year is usually very busy, Sibley added. “We have just come out of the application period for Rangel and Pickering fellowships,” State Department-funded programs leading to Foreign Service careers for underrepresented candidates. Kerney, who is Black, said that diversity is important, because the State Department wants a “Foreign Service that reflects the whole of the United States.” Retaining minority officers has been even more challenging than recruiting them, she noted. Diplomats in residence participate in various career fairs and reach out to alumni networks. “People who are our best prospects tend to be those who have been out of university and have done some work,” Sibley said. He and his colleagues also help applicants who have passed the written exam to navigate the next stages of the process.

The summer may be barely over, but thousands of American students are already working on their applications for State Department internships next summer — and diplomats in residence recruit interns as well. Because security clearances take months, the department will accept summer applications from October 8 until October 18. They also recruit for Civil Service positions, which are based domestically and may better suit those interested in a career supporting diplomacy who don’t like moving around every couple of years.

“Why do you want to do this?” Sibley said he often asks prospective Foreign Service candidates. “If you believe that representing your country overseas would give your life and your career meaning, there are few better opportunities. If you are interested in lifelong learning, every time you move from one country to another, you’d be learning about a new economic system, a new political system, a new culture, new food. If you are looking at living a good, stable life and having a good retirement, that’s all possible.”