I Want Your Job: Foreign Office diplomat

'You've got to be up to speed'

Alex McRae
Thursday 15 February 2007 01:00

Sujeevan Satheesan, 29, works for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as head of the France and Common Foreign and Security Policy team.

What does your job involve?

Policy jobs at the Foreign Office are either based around a country or region, like Pakistan or Africa; or a theme, like counter-terrorism or human rights. I'm head of a team working on the European Union's common foreign policy, which is where the 27 member countries of the EU act together externally. That might mean the EU training Iraqi judges and prosecutors; running a border checkpoint with the Palestinians between Gaza and Egypt; or calling on the Sudanese president to accept blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers in Darfur. When an action is proposed, we look at the legal base for it, its budget and, more broadly, what the UK thinks about it.

Why do you love your job?

International affairs is a fascinating area to work in. You get to work with people from all over the world, coming across different mind-sets and ideas - and your colleagues tend to be very interesting people, too.

Plus, it's always varied. My first job was managing the UK's relationship with Kuwait and with Oman. Then I was posted to Paris as a press attaché, where I was charged with explaining the UK's policies, on everything from trade issues to Iraq, to French journalists. After two years there, I came back to London to work on the parliamentary bill that ratified Bulgaria and Romania's Accession Treaty.

As you see, we move between jobs quite frequently, so you might be working on arms control, then switch to economic relations with China.

What's tough about it?

It's definitely challenging. You're often dealing with complex, sensitive issues, so it follows that the job can be difficult at times. And you need consistently to produce work at a high level, because it's your job to represent and protect your country's interests - it's a big responsibility. A lot of people find it can be difficult to co-ordinate overseas postings with their spouse's job and children's schooling, although that isn't an issue for me yet.

Isn't being a diplomat all about Champagne receptions?

No. There's a distinction between your life in London, and life abroad, when you're working at a British embassy or high commission. In London, you are basically a civil servant, working for the Government, so it isn't a luxurious lifestyle, although the work is extremely interesting. But when you're abroad, you are representing the country, so you do go to a lot of receptions in embassies - although it probably isn't quite as glamorous as it sounds, because you're actually handing your evening over to work. It's certainly not like you're only there to drink Champagne!

What skills do you need to be a good diplomat?

You've got to be able to think things through in a considered, well-organised way. The job isn't just about persuading colleagues or other diplomats - you might also have to give advice directly to ministers, so you've got to be totally up-to-speed on your area. You need to pay attention to detail, but also have the capacity to look at the bigger picture. The ability to learn languages, and then be confident about using them, also helps.

What's the career path and salary like?

There are two streams of entry: the mainstream and fast stream - joining as a "policy entrant". When you start as a fast streamer, you do two one-year jobs in London, analysing policy on anything from consular matters to nuclear nonproliferation, before being eligible for a foreign posting. The median starting salary for a fast streamer in London is £24,500; on promotion you might earn around £39,000.

What would you say to someone who wanted to join the Foreign Office?

If you're the kind of person who's inspired by world affairs, and you already follow the news, go to the website and get a sense of what the Foreign Office does. I believe there are still work placements for sixth formers and undergraduates. If you apply, you do need to be prepared to spend a large part of your career overseas - as with each rotation, you normally get posted to a country for two to four years.

For more information on careers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, go to www.fcocareers.co.uk. To apply for the fast stream, visit www.faststream.gov.uk.

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