What is a diplomat? (Including key skills and duties)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 6 May 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Diplomats represent a country's interests overseas. Becoming a diplomat is a challenging career, but this fast-paced role offers variety and the opportunity to travel around the world. Diplomats typically start their careers in the UK before undertaking postings to different countries. In this article, we answer the question 'What is a diplomat?', discuss their day-to-day responsibilities, the work involved and what qualifications and experience can help you secure a job in the diplomatic service.

What is a diplomat and what do they do?

If you're interested in politics and international relations, a career as a diplomat could be for you. Diplomats are part of the civil service, specifically the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). This governmental body focuses heavily on international relations, working closely with other countries to support trade, travel and military alliances. Diplomats undertake postings as part of their career, spending several years abroad at a time, during which they represent the interests of the UK in a foreign state.

When they're undertaking an overseas posting, a diplomat is part of the UK diplomatic mission, which is typically based in either an embassy or a consulate. 'Diplomat' is a broad term, as there are a number of different ranks that a person working as a diplomat can hold. The type of role they take on and the level of responsibility they hold depends on their rank. When posted abroad, a diplomat holds one of three ranks: charge d'affaires, minister or ambassador. Alongside holding a rank, each diplomat has a specific role they fulfil.

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What roles do diplomats play at embassies and consulates?

An embassy acts as the main point of representation for the UK in a foreign country and is usually located in the capital city. In large countries, the UK may also have secondary offices in other major cities, called consulates. While diplomats at an embassy deal with international politics, relationship building and trade diplomacy, a consulate typically handles smaller, more localised affairs. This includes helping British tourists who encounter problems, such as facing criminal charges, or victims of crime or people who lose their passports.

In contrast, the diplomatic mission within an embassy has a number of different sections. The number of sections and the number of diplomats in each varies depending on the size of the embassy. Nations such as the United States, Australia and Canada have very large British embassies, with hundreds of diplomats employed there. In smaller countries, the embassy may only have a handful of diplomats dealing with the most important international liaison matters.

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What kinds of roles do diplomats fill at an embassy?

Some sections of an embassy focus on trade agreements. These roles involve liaising with a variety of people in the host country, such as politicians or industry leaders. Diplomats can play an important role in negotiating trade deals or dealing with political situations that endanger existing trade agreements between the UK and their host country. Other sections work in military liaison and peace-keeping agreements. The diplomats working in these sections work closely with military representatives such as defence attachés. They often provide early indications to the British government about military tensions that may threaten peace.

The fundamental purpose of a diplomatic mission is to maintain as strong and harmonious a relationship as possible between the host country and the UK. This could involve listening to the concerns expressed by local politicians and working to provide solutions or escalating the issues to the appropriate people within the British government. They can also play an important role in disaster management, for example, by providing funding and coordinating military support in response to a natural disaster in the host country.

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What skills does a diplomat require?

Much of a diplomat's work involves liaising with representatives of the country they work in. This might involve regular meetings, debates and negotiations to agree on the terms of a particular trade deal or finding a mutually agreeable solution to political problems. This means that strong interpersonal skills are hugely important, along with highly developed verbal communication skills, patience and the ability to deal with stress in challenging situations. They may lead large teams, including other diplomats and locally engaged staff, so strong leadership, fairness and management skills can be important attributes.

Diplomats frequently write reports used to help political leaders in their own country understand the political or social context of issues arising in their host country. As such, diplomats require excellent written communication skills to help them write clear and concise reports. A keen interest in politics, plus the ability to interpret local reactions to UK policy changes, are important, as is the ability to apply knowledge and understanding of local culture to provide context to verbal or written reports.

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What are the day to day responsibilities of a diplomat?

A diplomat may spend much of their day in meetings relating to the areas they cover. This could be trade meetings with local politicians or industry experts to help negotiate the terms of a trade deal. There may also be significantly less formal meetings with key contacts, which focus on relationship building and developing a deeper understanding of their needs and requirements. Depending on where a diplomat works, they may also attend regular meetings relating to foreign aid. In countries with multiple consulates, diplomats are responsible for coordinating efforts between offices.

Daily responsibilities may also include preparing reports and drawing together information from various sources to provide insight into events and political sentiments in the country. The diplomatic service is hierarchical, so experienced diplomats may spend some of their days undertaking supervisory duties, overseeing the work of more junior colleagues. Additionally, diplomats may answer written correspondence and liaise locally to update travel advice and information for British citizens relating to their host country.

What qualifications do diplomats usually hold?

While there are no specific qualifications for a diplomatic posting, there are many skills that can be developed to help you secure a role in the civil service. The majority of jobs in this part of the government require you to hold a bachelor's degree or higher qualification. This could be in any subject, but any specialisms in international relations, politics or languages can be particularly useful when it comes to demonstrating your skills. There are also citizenship requirements for roles in the department, and candidates may undergo security checks.

Having a second or even a third language can be extremely useful and make you more deployable, meaning it can improve your chances of getting competitive overseas postings. Diplomats may move around the world several times during their career, which can mean learning several different languages as they work. An aptitude for linguistics, plus a willingness to keep their skills fresh by immersing themselves in local culture, is an important ability for diplomats.

Related: Guide: what jobs with a languages degree can I do?

What training do diplomats undertake?

The British government offers a specific scheme to train and develop people to become diplomats as part of the civil service fast stream. This branch of the fast stream entails UK-based training in the basics of diplomacy, trade and international relations. Once you've qualified, you can apply for diplomatic postings in embassies around the world. Typical postings last at least three years, sometimes more. Some diplomats move around to many different countries throughout their careers. Some may return to the UK to fulfil a senior policy or advisory role in the later stages of their careers.

The FCDO may provide intensive language training for diplomats prior to their posting in a different country. This can continue while the diplomat undertakes their posting. The necessity of this varies depending on the country they work in. For English speaking countries or those that usually opt for English as a business language, there are fewer requirements relating to language training. As diplomats tend to move around the world, most of them likely undertake some form of language training at some point in their careers.

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