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Cocktail parties, foreign dignitaries, expense accounts – the stereotypical life of a diplomat hardly meshes with the Matador philosophy of greener, sustainable travel and of honest interaction with the local culture.

BUT WHEN YOU’RE thinking of jobs that allow for a lifetime of travel, it’s a tough one to ignore. And as it turns out, the reality is both less glamorous and, perhaps, more in keeping with your goals and principles than you’d expect.

I recently asked Doug Holland (my dad), who is currently serving as a Canadian Foreign Service Officer in Barbados, what life in the diplomatic corps is really like. Read on to see if you have what it takes – and if the job’s for you.

What does a diplomat really do, anyway?

Most countries’ diplomatic responsibilities are divided up into three main categories: political, trade, and consular services.

So, “a political officer, in a small mission like ours in Barbados, is a generalist who reports on local developments and advocates for support for Canadian interests,” such as a Canadian-supported motion at the United Nations or a similar multilateral international effort.

“A trade officer promotes the interests of Canadian companies, by introducing them to useful contacts, making them aware of commercial opportunities, providing guidance for visits and basic information they can use.”

A consular officer deals with day-to-day travel problems like lost passports, and in an emergency, “provides essential services to Canadians in need.”

On an average day, a political officer might write a speech for a visiting high-ranking politician from back home or attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

A trade officer might put an engineering firm from their home country in touch with a local government, to help them land a contract setting up the new light rail system.

A consular officer might have to sort out the case of a visiting national accused of a crime, or contact family members back home in the case of an injury or death.

There are also more specialized roles for development experts, police or military attachés, and more, but the bulk of the work falls into these three main categories.

What are the perks?

Salaries vary across different governments and across different roles, but a rough spectrum might run from $35 000 to $100 000 per year, not including upper management. Other benefits include extra vacation time, “family reunion” flights, subsidized (and sometimes flashy) accommodation, duty-free goods, and more.

And then of course, there’s the travel, which “can range from the mundane and limited to exotic and too frequent.” For example: since arriving in Barbados, “I’ve been to Antigua twice, Dominica twice, Grenada, St. Kitts, St. Lucia twice and St. Vincent, all within less than 5 months – but I’ve not seen much of any of them,” thanks to meetings and report-writing.

Still, living and working as a diplomat, contrary to stereotype, can lead to a great deal of knowledge and insight about a country. Between invitations to cultural events and celebrations, endless briefings about local customs, and the simple immersion of everyday life, “you can get to know things about a country that few others would.”

Can diplomats ‘make a difference’ in the world?

Diplomats go where the average traveler can’t, from full-on hot zones like Iraq and Afghanistan to (marginally) more stable, impoverished places like Haiti or Chad.

While most development and aid work is done by more specialized staff, diplomats in these areas nevertheless have the opportunity to help repair a fractured economy, spread the gospel of electoral accountability, or get involved in the refugee claims process.

Even in calmer areas, there are still ample opportunities to effect positive change: “I like to think I am making a difference by promoting Canadian training for police, military, etc. and by encouraging regional institutional development so the good guys can better compete with the organized criminals.

Or making a difference by fostering Canadian standards for government procurement that will reduce corruption and old boys’ influence/control.” In other areas, “a trade officer might say she makes a difference by increasing a company’s sales so it employs more people.”

And a consular officer makes a difference for at least one stressed-out traveler when they arrange a replacement passport quickly, or, in a worst-case scenario, “when they send the body bag home promptly.”

Sounds pretty sweet – what’s the catch?

Some of the big-picture downsides can include social, cultural and linguistic isolation, or even physical danger. And of course, moving around the world every three years or so can take a heavy toll on families, as spouses are forced to sacrifice their own careers and children hop from school to school.

On a day-to-day basis, there are also the inevitable expat frustrations, when “things don’t work they way they ‘should’ like in Canada.” Then there are the financial challenges in the pricier cities of the world, “where our salaries don’t match up to what the locals get, so you’re in this really interesting place but can’t afford to go to a restaurant.”

How do I sign up?

Competition is fierce for a relatively small number of positions: baseline requirements generally include a bachelor’s degree (though a masters is increasingly an ‘unofficial’ requirement), and tough-to-quantify characteristics like judgment and intelligence. Language skills are an asset, as is prior international experience.

Expect an extended testing process rather than a straightforward resume-and-cover-letter, interview-and-offer type of scenario. You might be tested on your writing skills, your knowledge of world events, logic, or aptitude for languages.

In the latter stages, expect to have to pass a serious security screening: this may include exams relating to your physical and mental health, extensive police background checks, and the accumulation of a fair bit of your personal information in a file folder somewhere in your government’s intelligence branch.

For more information, try the US Department of State, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, or the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Feature Photo: Mikey G Ottawa



Eva Holland is a historical researcher and freelance writer living in Ottawa, Canada. She blogs about travel for World Hum and Vagablogging, and her writing has appeared in The Ottawa Citizen, The Edmonton Journal, and Matador Travel.



About The Author

Eva Holland

Eva Holland is a freelance writer, Senior Editor of World Hum and a longtime contributor to the Matador community. She lives in Canada’s Yukon Territory and blogs about Alaska and Yukon travel at Travelers North.

  • Mena Hanna

    I’m a high school senior, which degree do you think I should pursue to be a diplomat? And How/ or Where will I find a job afterwards?

  • http://www.matadortravel.com/travel-community/deva Eva

    Hi Mena,

    Diplomats come from a wide variety of majors, depending on their area of interest – some examples might include international development, political science, economics, business… Many diplomats also have post-graduate degrees, often in law or a specialized program like international affairs or public policy.

    As for the “where” – you can only be a diplomat for your country of citizenship, and your state department or department of foreign affairs website should have information about recruitment.

    Hope that helps!

  • http://www.thathappenedtome.com LuckyChica

    this was a really helpful and informative article. thanks so much for posting.

  • Ryan G.

    WOW! This has been my dream job, as I cannot imagine many other jobs that enable me to be so immersed in international relations and culture! The only thing keeping me back from trying out for this job is the fact that I must move every 3 years. I’ve always wanted children, adn I think ti would be unfair to ask them to move that often. Guess it’s back to the daily grind then…

    • Sara

      I’ll travel with you. It won’t bother me a bit :-)

    • http://www.driftingfocus.com/blogs Kelsey

      Actually, studies have shown that “Third Culture Kids” (children raised abroad in the culture of neither parent) generally have great advantages both academically and socially. Most 3CKs are very outgoing and social, and since they generally have access to incredible international schools, their education is top-notch too. I have known folks who actually joined the foreign service *because* of their kids.

  • jessica

    being a diplomat sounds very interesting. im a bio major and im actually thinking of diplomacy because i want to travel and see the world …but im afraid that after i study in uni for my degree , that i may not have what it takes to become a diplomat, meaning, i may not pass the test that is required and then i would have no job. I obviously want to have a job, that earns alot of money.

  • Emma

    I’m a high school student, and I’m really attracted to a career in the foreign service. What classes should I

    a) take in high school, and
    b) take in college (i’m planning on getting my master’s degree)

    Also, how much choice is there in which country you are posted to? I’m fully prepared for a challenging area– I was just curious about how the post selection works. Thanks!

  • Naomi

    This has been my choice of career as well for at least 3 years now because I will love to travel and live abroad. I wanted to have a small family too, I’m not looking forward to having a tough time finding a spouse. I also will have a point in my life to take a scooter from La to argentina. But it doesn’t seem too many vacations, long vacations like that are offered.
    With the majors there seems to be a lot of other job opportunities available if I decide at a point to leave it, hopefully not.. there must be some guy willing to move around with me.

  • Kate M

    Hi,

    I’m really interested in a career in this field, and have been trying to plan the classes that I take, and activities that I partake in in a way that will maximize my likelihood of getting accepted into a job in this field.
    My main question is: What type of previous international experience to you have to have? Can it just be personal travel to various countries? Or does it need to be through organizations such as foreign exchanges and programs such as UNICEF’s J8 program?

  • francisco sanchez

    My dad is a diplomat and i also want to be as him

  • chinenye kanu

    i am a student of a university who study history and international relation i want 2 be a diplomat dat is why i choosed d course.

  • Andreas

    Hello,

    I am graduate student of classics (Greek and Latin literature and ancient history). Is my major suitable for being diplomat or must I study something else and get some other degree?

  • sammy

    Should i pursue economy degree in order to become diplomat? how come economy students may become diplomat? i think economy no longer matters with being diplomat.Isn’t that economy about the finance and banking or other trade circumstances? could anyone please clarify about that? i want to become diplomat in Turkey and i want to decide between two majors which are economy or political science but i’m in Usa and political science major is all about the american governments.Please help me to understand that fact. should i study political science or economy?

  • Godfrey

    “Should i pursue economy degree in order to become diplomat?”

    I think you can combine both economy and international relations or politics courses to make your chances high.

    “how come economy students may become diplomat?”

    80% percent of our job as diplomats is based on economic diplomacy, so understanding of economy is benefiaciary.

    The most relevant requirements need are probably found in you foreign affairs website or by calling them. South Africa is teaches its citizen and recruit them to be diplomats since we believe that consolidation of African Agenda and balancing of North-South relations is very important. As we partner with the world we believe that we can contribute to “a better life for all”

  • http://equator.eftours.com/ Christina

    Thanks for this post. You did a really nice job of clearly explaining what it means to be a diplomat. I used your examples when trying to explain to students what diplomats do.

  • Sarah

    This has been my dream job for quite some time now. I am a high school student and my favourite subjects are: English; Spanish; French; geography and history. Even though it seems a long way away for me to even be considering what I would like to be in the future, I am taking this very seriously. The only concern I have, (which has already been mentioned above), is that I would like to have children I should imagine, it would be rather difficult for them travelling so often. This also makes it hard for them to settle down in school. This article has been extremely informative so thank you very much for posting.

  • Godfrey

    To Sarah,
    most of my colleaques normally worry about that. Instead of looking at that as a problem, take it positively and think of the benefits the child will have. Getting free education in best schools, meeting with high profile people in the world and learning different culture. You do not necessary need to be abroad always, you can go to mission two times and come and stay in Head Office (ofcourse you will still travel, but not always).

  • Andres

    Sarah: Go for it! If being a diplomat is your dream then dont let anyone or anything steal it from you. Its been my dream too and Im happy to say that after many years of hard work I have finally accomplished it. Im about to embark into the greatest adventure of my life.

    • Carenafaquir

      Hi

      My name is Carina, I am 22 years of age, From South Africa and I would like to become a Diplomat, I have a International Relations Degree, speak portugues and currently learning French. I intend to do my Honors in IR next year. I would like to know how long did it take you to become a Diplomat ? What lengths did you have to take to get to that position, how much experience shoud you have, what tests did you have to go through in order to be in the position you are in?

      Sory for all the questions, I honestly am curious because i dont know what next step to take.

      • Ezekiel

        Hi Carina, 

        contact your local Foreign Affairs Department for more information. 
        I don’t think the rules in one country are the same for another. 

        as far as I know, there are few tests. For the general knowledge, international knowledge, as well as language skill. 
        English is a must, and also another foreign language skill would be an added value. Especially the other UN Official languages (French, Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish, Russian). 
        Since diplomatic job really is about doing Public Relations, communication and interpersonal skills are highlighted. The more experiences you have, the better.

        And if you succeeded on those tests and get accepted in the FA, there are still some training, and usually you will be rotated in a few years (as in hopping from one country to another).

        but as I said before, look for information, esp from your FA Department.

        Good Luck!

        P.S: the next step is: keep track to the international news! newspapers, blogs, etc.

  • l

    International Relations is best for a diplomat. You choose a language to study while in the program as well.

  • Helen Taylor

    Hello,
    This is a good article. I’m a spouse of a Foreign Service officer and have lived in many countries.
    Two points I would add: a) in addition to Trade, Political and Consular, another important stream is Immigration – Foreign Service Officers consider applications from individuals who would like to study, visit, work or live in Canada, as well as people who marry Canadians, and are also involved with refugee matters.
    b) While it can be extremely difficult to continue a career as the spouse of a Foreign Service officer, and certainly benefits such as company pension plans are virtually non-existent, many spouses are able to work and develop their careers overseas. Sometimes it may mean changing direction and doing something you’ve not done in Canada but always had an interest in, sometimes you can find work in your own field. Careers such as teaching and nursing are most portable, while others have done many other interesting jobs at post. Flexibility, networking and a positive attitude are keys to success. The financial benefits of serving overseas helps to offset the financial losses.

  • Lune

    In my country, most diplomats need to pass a series of tests in order to qualify for a position abroad. Although there are some who are appointed, that’s pretty much thanks to connections and politics.

    My friend’s sister is an ambassador, and she’s been around the world. She says while it’s fun, she never forgets that it’s work, and you bring your country’s name and reputation along with you. She has a lot of great stories though, and it’s wonderful to hear them.

  • Marianna Cavezza

    Dear Eva,

    Thank you for your post. You might think, why am I thanking you. Well I am a 23 year old International Affairs Graduate. I am mexican by birth but hold a Canadian and an Italian nationality. I have lived almost all my life between Mexico and Canada. However I did my Bachelors Degree in Mexico.

    I feel like a know very little about Canadian internal policies, I lived in Vancouver and I also feel life there is very different from Ottawa. After all the capital cities are where almost all political affairs are concentrated.

    The reason why I thank you is because I have been lost for over a year now, trying to give my professional life a direction.

    I always dreamed about being a diplomat, and I chose Canada to be the country that I would like to work for.

    I wanted to ask for your advice on what is best for me to do. I have had very little contact with Canada, I was thinking that the best way to take the big step was applying to a Masters Degree in a Canadian University. I applied at the University of Laval and got accepted. However, I was drawn by a Masters Degree Program in International Law and Economics in the World Trade Institute in Bern Switzerland. I really like this Masters Degree, I have checked almost all the Masters Programs in Canada and non of them offered a joint program. Almost all the programs are focused in one field of studies.

    My question is, should I pursue a Masters Degree in Switzerland knowing that I will end up the same, maybe increasing my academic level in international affairs and economy but still not knowing how things work in Canada?

    I appreciate reading your comment, and again thank you for taking time to share your experiences.

    Yours Sincerely

    Marianna

  • Zithobile Thubelihle Langeni

    I’m a South African university student, doing my first year in Bachelor of Administration cause. I’d like to know if I’m in the right path to becoming a diplomat, and what else can I be doing to support my build up to this job?

  • Christine Lucas

    hii..I’m a Tanzanian pursuing barchelors of commerce in banking and financial services but highly interested in working international, as a diplomat..what should be my next step?

  • Samantha Marie Richards

    Before my junior year in highschool I had the opportunity to travel abroad to Italy, France and Greece as a Student Ambassador for People to People. It was on that trip that I realized I want to do this for the rest of my life. I have always wanted to travel and to explore the world. Since my trip abroad, I have serve as a Student Page for the Maryland General Assembly and I frequently sit in on several of my University’s Student Government and Panhellenic Meetings. Lately however I have been questioning my decision. However after reading this article and the comments that have been made, I remember the reason why I wanted to become a Foreign Service Officer. It’s not for the politics but for the opportunity to travel and to repersent my country. I have had the same questions as the ones listed: how can I have a family? or why would someone want to put their life and career on hold for me? I haven’t found these answers yet but I know everything will fall into place. My current plan is to earn a bachelors degree in Political Science with an emphasis in International Studies and a minor in Spanish, after graduation I plan to earn a masters in International Relations. I hope to take the Foreign Service Exam after my completion in these fields of studies. Thank you so much for this article and for the comments that have been made, good luck to everyone :)

  • Bryant Scott

    Does anyone know what the educational requirements for South African diplomats are? Even for the lower-ranking consular officials, those dealing with visas, passports, etc. Must they too hold, at least, a bachelor’s degree as a minimum requirement? Or is it sufficient to have passed matric and to speak English plus a second language, such as Afrikaans? Thanks for the help.

  • Mzamo Mabizela

    I’m definatly going for this career path!

  • Alina Latinina

    Hello! I’m a high school student in Italy and I’m graduating next year. I’m probably going to do History&Politics or International Relations further. Being a Diplomat seems like a great job – lots of travelling involved, making a difference in the world, lots of perks. I’m applying to universities in England. My nationality is Russian, except I haven’t lived there for a really long time and spent most of my life travelling with my parents. I can speak Russian, Croatian, English, Italian and French. As far as I know, to represent a country you have to live there for at least 3 years and be a national. I’m not going back to Russia and I have no other nationality. Therefore I can’t represent any country, am i right?
    I’ve been thinking, is there any kind of UN Diplomat?

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