What does a career in the FCO look like as an economist?
Diverse and fascinating. No-one will have the same career as any other diplomat economist. We deliberately don’t have a separate career path for economists after your first two roles*.
You may wonder then why we bother to have a separate stream and why you don’t just join as diplomats?
Well our overall thinking is we want economists out in the general population of our diplomats. Economists bring a different skill-set that can be usefully applied in pretty much any diplomatic job – many political problems can have economic solutions or need an understanding of economics to really get to grips with the political situation. If you think back to the Arab Spring, one of the key drivers for the protests were young people not being able to get decent jobs.
We also recognise that the economics you studied at university might need topping up with additional training and experience before you go overseas.
So what do the first few years look like?
A typical first year role is in the Economics Unit in the FCO in London. Here you will work on a wide-range of pieces of work from analytical papers on the geographical region you’re covering, to assessing business cases for FCO programmes, to providing analytical support to policy teams across the FCO. In your first year you’ll be managed by an experienced economist and provided with plenty of opportunities for formal and informal economics-related training. Your wide regional coverage means you’ll probably have more diverse travel opportunities than your generalist colleagues. In your second year role, you’ll typically work directly embedded in a policy team learning some of the more traditional skills of policy development. This role will still be focused on the economic side of the policy area but will typically be less technical than your first year. Alternatively, you could opt to learn a hard language such as Mandarin or Arabic.
After that, you’ll go overseas for your first posting. For many this will be an economics related role, but this is not mandatory. After that you manage your own career and will typically do a range of economic and non-economic roles. We also encourage and support you to go out of the FCO on a short-term secondment to an economic-related organisation either in Whitehall or outside. This is because we want our economists to gain broader and deeper economic experience than roles in the FCO can provide alone. We also provide support for continuous professional development as an economist whether you are currently in an economic role or not, such as offering the opportunity to bid for funding for external training courses such as a master’s degree.
What kinds of economic roles exist?
Many embassies have a specific economics officer or team in over 20 posts from Lebanon, to South Africa, to Mexico, to Washington, to Turkey. These roles vary but normally include providing economic and trade advice to Whitehall, organising economic related visits, managing programmes, and lobbying on market access and economic reforms. When I was in South Korea, this was everything from helping poultry exporters, to facilitating UK expertise on green buildings, to agreeing civil nuclear cooperation, to organising the economic elements of a State Visit to running our scholarship programme to sharing Korean expertise on digital. There are many more joint roles in other posts which also cover prosperity or energy. In London, most of the specific economics roles are in the Economics Unit, but we also have satellite teams in Europe and Overseas Territories directorates.
What kind of economist is suited to a career in the FCO?
One that is interested in global macroeconomics and interested in applying their knowledge in the real world. But also has broader interests in international relations. The work is less technical than for many other government departments, but increasingly the FCO is becoming a larger programme spending department and we need economic expertise to help develop and assess business cases. Your career won’t be purely economic, but will be varied and interesting and need you to draw on your economic skills throughout. And you won’t be tied to your desk – building relationships and being able to communicate your expertise to colleagues with little or no economic knowledge is vital.
Head of Economics Unit, FCO