Entering diplomacy through the archive: Changing from academia to the Foreign Office #career

In this blog post, dr. Daniel Stinsky tells us more about his shift from a PhD in Political History to a career in the Foreign Office in Berlin.

The first time I ever visited the Federal Foreign Office (Auswärtiges Amt) in Berlin, I was there to do research. I first entered the Foreign Office quite literally through a side door, looking for the archive. I was then a PhD student at Maastricht University’s history department, interested in files pertaining to long-forgotten international trade conferences. Now, a few years later, I come to the same building every day for work, not as a researcher, but as an attaché, a policy officer in training. Did researching the history of international politics prepare me for a job as a diplomat?

The selection process for policy officers at the Foreign Office is notoriously tough. Each year, well over a thousand people apply. Besides German citizenship, the minimum requirement is a Master’s degree. Graduates from all faculties may apply for a three-stage selection process dragged out over several months. While law is still the epistemologically dominant discipline at the Foreign Office and in the German civil service in general, this long-standing dominance is increasingly challenged by the social sciences. Those who are eventually hired for the so-called “crew” thus come from diverse academic backgrounds, including exotic (for the civil service) subjects like engineering, theology, or archeology. In my crew, the 74th, political scientists constitute a majority, as do (for the second time ever) women.

Daniel Stinsky

Policy officers first take up a year of training at the Foreign Service Academy in Berlin-Tegel. The training comprises classes in English and French, international law, consular affairs, history, economics and political science, as well as seminars on media training, rhetoric, or the role of the churches in international politics. Courses take place en bloc, and are intersected with blocs of practical work in the ministry. After the training period, policy officers enter the so-called “rotation”, meaning they move to a different position either at the ministry in Berlin or at one of the embassies every three to four years. Diplomats are considered generalists, and must (in principle) be ready to accept any job (be it consular, political, economic, or cultural affairs) at any embassy worldwide. Historians, who are generalists by nature, are in my opinion well-placed for this type of professional adventure.

I had toyed with the idea of a diplomatic career earlier, but did not apply immediately after my MA in comparative modern history. Instead, I first moved to the Netherlands to pursue a PhD. My thesis was on the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), an international organization dedicated to all-European cooperation, even across Cold War boundaries. I consulted the archives of UNECE in Geneva and those of different member states – of East and West Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States – and thus read through many files and diplomatic correspondences produced by embassies and ministries of foreign affairs. When I finished my thesis, the thought of switching sides – from researcher to actor, historian to diplomat – did not seem far-fetched. Having done historical research meant that I was trained to gather and process large amounts of information, to think and write analytically, and to consider multiple perspectives on a given issue – skills that are indeed useful in the Foreign Office.

Image: The entrance of the Auswärtiges Amt, Berlin