K35 with minister Alexander Stubb in 2010.

Is it a life of glamour and comfort – or one of rootlessness and constant change? SixDegrees looks into how you enter a career in diplomacy, and what the pros and cons of the job are.

WHAT is the image that comes to mind when you hear the word “diplomat”? Someone who at one moment is mingling with a foreign country’s political elite, and at the next helps to settle a major international dispute? The reality of a diplomat’s day-to-day job may be something less glamorous, but there’s no denying the fact that the career is in many ways a unique one.

It is perhaps not surprising that entering a career in diplomacy is a highly selective process, given the changing nature of the job and the complexity of some of the areas it touches on. A diplomat may enjoy certain advantages, but the job also has a flipside that could make it off-putting for some.

The pathway into the world of diplomacy is the Foreign Ministry’s recruitment and training course Kavaku (short for the kansainvälisten asioiden valmennuskurssi, training course for young diplomats). Getting in is anything but a breeze: to start with; there are the rather considerable prerequisites, including, for example, a master’s degree and proof of language skills in two foreign languages.

Several steps follow the initial selection based on applications, including interviews, exams, language tests and aptitude tests. At every point a number of candidates is eliminated, and at the end of the process, which lasts for about six months, about 20 applicants are accepted to start the course. (For this year’s course, the application process in underway and over 500 applications were received in total ­– those accepted will start this September.)

It’s not rare that many applicants try several times before getting in. “I applied to Kavaku four times in total,” says Tommi Vuorinen, who started the course last autumn and works currently as an attaché at the Foreign Ministry’s Unit of International Environmental Policy. “The first three times I was eliminated already at the first stage of the application process. After the third time, I had given up on the idea.” However, after a couple of years of doing other things and living abroad, Vuorinen decided to try again, this time successfully.

Vuorinen first had the idea of becoming a diplomat after an internship at the Finnish embassy in Seoul, South Korea, where he was able to see what the profession is like. “What motivated me in this career was the diversity of the tasks,” he says. “The job combines in a meaningful way analytical thinking and practical work.”

Crucially, there is no specific profile that the Foreign Ministry seeks, and the backgrounds and skill sets of successful candidates may vary greatly. What is needed is a variety of qualities, ranging from having an analytical and generally curious mind to being flexible and able to adapt easily. The thinking goes that put together, these characteristics help diplomats assume the wide, changing range of roles that they encounter during their careers.

“Although we’re not looking for a particular profile, what the successful candidates have in common is a generalist’s mindset – an interest to do several things; not to be limited to thinking in silos,” says Kirsi Vanamo-Santacruz, the head of the personnel planning unit at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “It’s important to identify the right type of person. That’s what counts most.”

Diplomats’ many faces

The exact tasks of a diplomat depend largely on where they are stationed, but typically include some of the following: reporting back to Finland on the political and economic developments of the country, providing analysis for the Finnish decision-makers’ use, promotion of Finnish exports, taking part in meetings in an international setting, representing Finland in international organisations’ institutions, in addition to handling administrative tasks and consular services (aiding Finns abroad). In the EU, the diplomats have designated areas that they follow and in which they represent Finland’s interests.

Life on the move

Although candidates with degrees in political and social sciences form the majority, overall a wide variety of different backgrounds are represented in the course. In recent years, about two-thirds of both applicants and course participants have been women, following the general trend in higher education.

Those who in the end are accepted to start the Kavaku course are first given fixed-term contracts of 1.5–2.5 years at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. This period comprises mostly of practical work experience as an official, but includes also theoretical training on topics ranging from the basics of Finnish foreign policy to negotiation skills. If all goes well, the next step is a permanent position as an official in the Ministry.

The word “permanent” may, however, mislead in this case: the Foreign Ministry differs from other ministries in that most of its staff is not hired to fill a particular role. Instead, they follow a system of rotation, meaning that each career diplomat changes their role regularly, typically every three-to-four years. And as diplomats work both in the Ministry in Finland and its diplomatic missions abroad, being sent outside the country is an essential part of the job. About half of career diplomats are stationed abroad, however there can be only two consecutive missions outside Finland.

The actual position and tasks depend largely on the location: Finland’s diplomatic missions abroad vary from embassies to permanent representations in international organisations such as the UN and EU, where the officials work to make sure that Finland’s voice is heard.

According to Vanamo-Santacruz, the system of job rotation is in use in just about every country in the world. It’s meant to guarantee that the personnel’s connection with their home country remains strong, even if they are stationed abroad for long periods of time: returning to work in Finland regularly ensures that they do not lose touch with life there.

Moving regularly in and out of the country is, needless to say, not your typical career. “I tend to say that it’s not a job, it’s a way of life,” Vanamo-Santacruz says. “When I interview people during the recruitment process, I ask them if they’ve thought this aspect through. They need to be conscious of it.”

An official can naturally make their wishes known regarding what role they want to take on next. But in the end, job rotation is a necessity – each position needs to be filled, and every official stationed somewhere, meaning that they all need to be able to learn and adapt, to be capable to assume the variety of different kinds of posts that exist for them.

“For me, job rotation is one of the best things about the profession – you get to learn completely new things regularly,” Vuorinen says. He highlights the importance of attitude: “It’s much easier to adapt to new situations if you’re genuinely open-minded and eager to learn and get to know new places. Every country is different, so you should try to enjoy the good things and specialities of each country.”

Job rotation will continue throughout the diplomat’s career, though according to their performance, over the years they may rise in the hierarchy. Those found to be suitable for a supervisory position may reach the fourth and highest level, and can then be appointed as ambassadors – but still only for a few years, as what might be the best-known role in the field of diplomacy is also a temporary position within the job rotation system.

A well-liked profession

When asked about the effects such a career has on your personal life, Vanamo-Santacruz acknowledges that there are challenges that cannot be avoided, many of which don’t affect diplomats alone but also their families and friends. For instance, a diplomat’s partner will also have to be flexible, especially if they are to follow their spouse abroad. Solutions to this depend on circumstances: some may be able to take leave from work, and some have transferable jobs such as that of a journalist. Others may simply assume the role of a diplomat’s partner.

“For children, it’s a class half full or half empty situation – there are challenges, but, on the other hand, such life can be a richness and offer some special experiences for them,” says Vanamo-Santacruz. “Usually they handle this quite well as they’ve simply never known any other kind of life.”

The older you get, however, the more important it is that you have strong ties with your home country, Vanamo-Santacruz says. For example, a summer cottage can be an anchor in Finland, giving a reason to come back regularly. “In a sense, a diplomat needs to have both roots and wings – to have a sense of attachment to the home country, and at the same time a yearning to learn and experience new things.”

It seems that the Kavaku course is successful in attracting the right kind of people. First, the Foreign Ministry has the highest average retirement age among the ministries. Second, people rarely leave the job to pursue a career elsewhere. “Of course it happens that people leave to go work in the private sector or for an international organisation. But it’s surprisingly rare – yearly, it’s less than ten people that leave the Ministry,” says Vanamo-Santacruz.

She notes, however, that this kind of job loyalty may of course change in the near future. “I would say that it’s a calling, but it’ll be interesting to see how the generation Z sees this. Perhaps the job offers the kind of variability that the young seek, so it’ll continue to appeal to them.”

Teemu Henriksson
Image: Eero Kuosmanen / MFA