The idea of becoming a diplomat conjures an image of a rarified job dealing with the upper echelons of society and guarding state secrets. This is true, to an extent. In the minds of many, being a diplomat is dream career. Filipinos are no exception.
But, how does one become a diplomat? The path to becoming a diplomat is often clouded. (Warning: typos ahead, I’m writing in a hurry. Contact me if you spot a typo and I’ll send you a free invisible unicorn horn for each one you spot.)
One reason for this is because the term “diplomat” is very broad. It’s not a technical term. There is no single set of rules that spans the entire world. There are conventions and widely-recognized international practices. However, each country will have its own set of laws and rules to govern its own conduct of diplomacy.
I’ll focus on how to become a Philippine diplomat. This is because that’s what I know best. I’ve been a Philippine diplomat since 2009, which makes it over ten years and counting at time of writing.
In the Philippines there are a number of way you can get a job or government position where you can be called a diplomat. Let’s tackle this question like a birthday cake, starting with the cream on top, down the layers to its main bulk which is available to more people.
Generally, in Philippines and in most, if not all, countries, you can either be appointed as a diplomat or you can be a career diplomat.
Appointed diplomats typically serve for a limited term or time period. In Philippines’ case, the appointing authority for most diplomats would be the President of Philippines or the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, for some cases.
Meanwhile, a career diplomat is someone who is a diplomat as his lifelong, full-time job, 9-5 (or technically in the Philippines 9 – 6pm, or maybe 9 – 9, or 9 – 12, or 9-5 o’clock of the next day or whatever, hehe).
Let’s start with appointed diplomats, then move on to career diplomats next.
If there were a cherry on top, a country’s top diplomat is the head of that country’s foreign ministry. You can generally call this person a ‘foreign minister’, for example the Russian Foreign Minister. In the United States that would be the Secretary of State. In the Philippines, that would be Secretary of Foreign Affairs or SFA.
The SFA is a Cabinet secretary typically appointed by the President of the Philippines. The SFA heads the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Philippine’s own foreign ministry. (Read this article for more information this: Understanding the Philippine DFA.)
The officials working in the DFA can also be called diplomats, and there can be up to three DFA Undersecretary positions, which are government officials that report directly to the Secretary, that are also appointed to the position, usually people recommended by the Secretary to help him. Not all Undersecretary positions are filled by presidential appointees, by the way.
Ambassadors or as they are known in full, ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary or AEPs, are diplomats that head embassies. Philippine Ambassadors (Filipino diplomats serving abroad not foreign ambassadors in the Philippines) can also be appointed by the president of the Philippines. Though, most Philippine Ambassadors are career diplomats. (Read: What’s the Difference Between an Embassy and a Consulate)
There is another case of appointed diplomats: Honorary Consuls. Honorary Consulates of the Philippines are private individuals, usually of Philippine citizenship residing abroad, who are appointed by the Philippine Secretary of Foreign. These diplomats are usually appointed in cities where there are no Philippine embassies and consulates.
I’ll also point out that Foreign countries might also appoint a Filipino citizen in the Philippines as one of their own honorary consuls. Technically they would be “Philippine” (as in Filipino citizenship) diplomats, but they’d be working for another country not the Philippines. But I guess we’re talking semantics here.
There are other positions such as Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other positions in international organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other bodies. People occupying these positions are sometimes appointed and sometimes career diplomats. Sometimes, they are Philippine diplomats elected to take these positions by fellow diplomats.
Lastly, there are also special diplomats called special envoys. These diplomats have special missions, for example they could be special trade envoys to China. These Philippine diplomats that are appointed typically by the President of the Philippines.
This would summarize the bulk of appointees. If I have forgotten any other case of what would be a Philippine diplomat, please shoot me a message.
So we’ve covered those who were appointed to become Philippine diplomats. Now, let’s move on to the majority of Philippine diplomats. These are the career foreign service officers.
Meanwhile, foreign service officers (or FSO) or career diplomats are people who take on a job in the foreign service of the country. You can think of the foreign service as a highly-professionalized government service, like the police or the military.
Let’s take a minute to pause and understand that not everyone working at DFA at foreign ministry, such as DFA, or a foreign mission, such as a Philippine embassy is a diplomat.
The bulk of DFA, including its foreign missions, are comprised by staff employees and staff officers who largely outnumber the FSOs. Also, some of our Philippines embassies abroad, like what most of other countries do, also have attached agencies whose personnel are called attachés, such as the Philippine Overseas Labor Offices (POLO) from Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) or the Philippine and Trade and Investment Center (PTICs) from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). (But really, there are lots of agencies.)
These people are mostly career civil servants. That means they work in DFA, DTI or whatever agency they belong at as a regular job, not as an appointee. A few of the attachés from other agencies are appointed but these are exceptions. These persons may be referred to as diplomats in a broad sense, and when abroad they may be covered by diplomatic immunity and even carry diplomatic passports.
However, in a strict technical sense, only those who are appointees who were discussed above (where I talked about Secretary of Foreign all the way to special envoy) and the foreign service officers I’ll talk about next are what most people would technically call diplomats.
So here were are – the career diplomat or the foreign service officer (FSO).
I’ve saved this for last. Why?
This was a long article and if you’ve gotten down this far, you probably really must be interested in how to become a Philippine diplomat (without being appointed as one, that is).
To become a Philippine foreign service officer you have to pass the dreaded FSO Exam. Of course, you have to be eligible to take the exam in the first place.
Once you pass the exam you become an FSO, Class IV, which is the equivalent of a vice consul when you get assigned abroad. (If you get assigned to an embassy, you also get the title of third secretary.)
Sounds interesting, right?
If you wanna know more there’s a law that explains all the ranks and the other stuff we discussed called the Philippine Foreign Service Act of 1991.
But wanna know more now?
Wanna take the exam?
Let’s see if you’re eligible to take it, first.
Primarily, to take the Philippine FSO Exam you have to be a Filipino citizen (yep, I got that one).
A few years back, the DFA (in particular the Board of Foreign Service Examinations) also required that you also have to be a Philippine resident.
You also should be a graduate of any four-year college course and have two years of post-graduate studies or work experience.
You could be Nursing graduate who works in Starbucks, or a Physical Education graduate who works in call center. If you’re eligible, you can take the exam.
There are a number of other eligibilities and requirements you might want to be aware of so. You just have to stay tuned to the the DFA website and check out the advisories and news every few weeks. They announce this exam every year and along with the requirements and other reminders.
They also might announce this exam on major newspapers. Most likely they’ll also announce it on the official DFA Facebook page.
Generally, it’s a five-part exam that typically goes over the course of a few months, with some parts taking more than a day. (Yeah, you go home to eat and sleep, I mean like a working day). It’s a really long exam. It’s said to be the Philippine Bureaucracy’s most difficult exam.
Wanna know more?
You think you can do it?
Check out this next part: The Philippine FSO Exams and My Golden Tips to Pass It.