Ambassador Kelly talks about careers in diplomatic service

For Chicago native Ian Kelly, the term “home” isn’t restricted to just one location in the world.

Since embarking upon a career as a Foreign Service officer nearly 30 years ago, Kelly has lived in a different country, chosen by the government, every three years. His job has taken him to such places as Russia, Turkey and Italy, where he’s worked with diplomats and embassies to analyze and interpret various aspects of culture with other countries.

Kelly, currently the U.S. Department of State’s Midwest Diplomat in Residence, recently visited the University of Wisconsin­–Madison campus, where he participated in several sessions to promote careers with the State Department. He told students that this line of work, while sometimes challenging, can be exciting and rewarding for those interested in travel, “a lot of intellectual situation,” and holding a variety of jobs.

Kelly began his Foreign Service career after earning his master’s degree in Russian at Northwestern University.

Ambassador Ian Kelly talks with UW-Madison students about Foreign Service careers.
Ambassador Ian Kelly talks with UW-Madison students about Foreign Service careers.

“I took a student group over to…the Soviet Union,” he says, “And it was a very difficult time in U.S.-Russian relations. I had worked very closely with the embassy and the consulate, because our students were having some problems and pressure put on them, there were even some legal problems. So I got to know the work of the Foreign Service and decided this is what I wanted to do.”

He took the Foreign Service Officer Exam (FSOT), passing it on the second try. Since then, he says, “I’ve spent most of my time in central and eastern Europe, served twice in the … former Soviet Union, a couple times in Vienna … I was ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.”

He also served as an official State Department spokesman, which included regular morning meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

While Kelly enjoys the perks of a diplomatic career, such as rubbing elbows with public figures and being provided with housing when he travels, having a family while serving as a Foreign Service Officer can be difficult.

“It’s not like deciding to work in Milwaukee instead of Madison,” he says. “With this, you move every three years and you can live all over the world.”

According to Kelly, someone opting for a Foreign Service career must choose between two categories—Foreign Service Specialist and Foreign Service Officer—both of which require serving more than half the person’s service overseas.

Foreign Service Specialists work in embassies as “the security officers, the medical officers, the nurses, the financial officers, human resources officers—a lot of the administrative work,” Kelly says. Prospective Foreign Service Specialists do not require testing and may apply at

Those who aspire to be a Foreign Service Officer, like Kelly, must take the FSOT, a series of tests that includes ACT-style questions, short essay questions, interviews and an all-day oral assessment.

The passing rate for the FSOT is “two to three percent,” Kelly says, but the test is designed to be extensive to “show how your background, your character, your interpersonal skills and your motivation” are suited for successful diplomatic career.

Foreign Service Officers may choose from among five career paths—public diplomacy officer, political officer, economic officer, management officer and consular officer.

Ambassador Ian Kelly
Ambassador Ian Kelly

Kelly, who took the path of public diplomacy, explains further: “We divide public diplomacy into culture and press. Culture does student exchanges, cultural presentations, speaker programs. I spent the first half of my career doing culture and the second half of my career doing press.”

Political and economic officers deal with either political or financial and trade issues, respectively, and analyze and negotiate these issues with other countries, Kelly says. Management officers administer embassies and have “diplomatic functions” outside the embassy, and consular officers deal with visas, passports and legal issues.

As the Midwest Diplomat in Residence, currently stationed at the University of Illinois, Kelly is “responsible for recruiting and outreach in the Midwest for five states.”

He recommends that students interested in a Foreign Service career apply for an internship at an embassy (either in Washington, D.C., or abroad).

“I think it’s a fantastic program, especially if you get an internship in an embassy overseas,” he says. “You work side-by-side with diplomats and get a really good taste of what life is like in the Foreign Service.”

He also encourages students to participate in fellowship programs, which offer students a snapshot of life as a Foreign Service Officer or Specialist, plus two years of graduate school paid for by the program and “limited appointment in the Foreign Service for five years” after completing the fellowship.

When recruiting students for these programs, Kelly looks for three key qualities: drive, passion for the field and the ability to fluently speak a language besides English.

“You want to make sure that this person really is ready to come out and work, really interested in international affairs and what an embassy does…I look for motivation and just seriousness, seriousness of purpose,” he says, adding, “Cultural adaptability is one of the big things we look for in a Foreign Service Officer.”

He suggests that those who are interested in Foreign Service Specialist positions sign up for email alerts about State Department job postings.

While Foreign Service work can often be challenging, Kelly feels consistently stimulated by the tasks his job presents him.

“It’s a career choice that you really have to reflect very seriously on,” he says, adding, “Nobody had to push me out to go overseas. The most interesting work is overseas.”

– by Haley Henschel

To learn more about State Department careers