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A Day in the Life of a Political Leader: Diplomacy on the World Stage

01 July 2021

A Day in the Life of a Political Leader: Diplomacy on the World Stage

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Political careers are perfect for those with a keen interest in how their country is run, a passion for current affairs and a desire to help people.

Beyond the obvious routes - becoming an MP or working in a supportive capacity for a political party - there are all sorts of ways you can work within the political arena.  

You might research public policy as a policy officer, report on current affairs as a political journalist, campaign for a trade union or advocacy group, or work for the government as a civil servant. 

To give you an idea of what a career in the political sphere can look like, we interviewed Ben Simpson, a diplomat working in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office at the British Embassy in Libya. 

After graduating from Cambridge with a BA in human, social and political sciences, Ben went on to secure an MA in international relations in the Netherlands. His career has taken him from the NHS Management Training Scheme to the Diplomatic Service Fast Stream to his current role: Political and Security Officer at the British embassy in Tripoli. 

Though different to a politician, a diplomat represents UK political interests overseas. Want to know more? Read on...

Interested in gaining a unique, 360-degree experience of politics? Ben is just one of the amazing speakers on the Political Leader Programmes. Each is jam-packed with immersive career simulations, exclusive site visits and personalised career coaching, all designed to give you a more hands-on experience of the industry.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What does a typical day in your working life look like?

In my current role, a typical day involves meeting Libyan and international contacts, either alone or accompanying the ambassador to meet someone senior such as a government minister or military commander. 

I will keep in close contact with the wider embassy and the Foreign Office in London to discuss policy and upcoming events, and to share our assessment of the developing situation. 

I’ll try to write my report from the day’s meetings and send them back to London before the end of the day.

What first inspired you to consider diplomacy as a career?

For a long time, I had been interested in the world and other cultures, while at the same time being interested in British politics. 

My first job post-uni was with the NHS. One day at a conference, I met someone who told me they worked in the Foreign Office. 

He told me all about the places he’d worked, how he’d learnt Portuguese and been an ambassador. It showed me I could do something exciting, varied and interesting, while also having the platform to make a difference in the UK and the world. 

That evening, I went home and applied for the Diplomatic Fast Stream.

“Don’t be daunted. It’s [a] hard [career] to get into, and it can often take a few tries for people (myself included!) to be successful. Despite that, it’s worth it, so don’t get disheartened.”

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What’s the best thing about your job?

There are so many exciting opportunities all over the world to work on some of the biggest global issues we face, whether that’s terrorism, climate change, media freedom, conflict or famine.

You get to influence foreign policy from the inside and implement it on the world stage.

What’s the hardest thing?

You have to be open to going to a range of places, and while you get a choice, you can’t ‘map out’ your career exactly.

Living abroad of course brings its own range of challenges, too - being far away from family and friends, for example.  

What has been your biggest achievement since starting your career in diplomacy?

The Government decided to merge the FCO and DFID

I was charged with helping the new PUS (the head of the new department and most senior diplomat) establish the new government department which would bring together our diplomatic and development strengths. It was tough but brilliant to work on solving, at pace, so many complex challenges.

What are the perks/incentives, financial and otherwise, for a graduate looking to become a diplomat?

You can have a fascinating, diverse career working in different countries on a variety of different issues. 

If, like me, you don’t want to do the same thing for your entire career, the diplomatic service gives you those choices and will keep your career interesting. 

Travel is of course a major plus, as is the possibility of learning languages.

There are so many exciting opportunities all over the world to work on some of the biggest global issues we face, whether that’s terrorism, climate change, media freedom, conflict or famine.

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Are there different pathways or specialisms aspiring diplomats can choose, and if so, what are they?

Yes, I find that most people will have two or three areas of interest that they return to. 

For instance, if you have taken the time to learn Chinese and go to China in your twenties, you will likely return there a couple of times. Or you might decide to take an interest in jobs on national security, climate change, or trade. 

At the same time, diplomats are expected to be generalists: you have to arrive in a new country and work on different issues.

How did you find your first 12 months in the field?

In the Foreign Office, I did a year as a Visa and Immigration Policy Desk Officer. 

I’d say it was fairly typical for an entry-level role: I was expected to be the expert on the policy area, to write advice and briefing for ministers and to liaise widely across different teams and Whitehall departments. 

The best thing was that, as it was a small policy area for the office, I was given far more responsibility than my friends working in bigger teams.

What are your hobbies and interests outside of work?

Travel, whatever sport is freely at hand, and cooking.

Do you have any advice for young people thinking about pursuing a career in diplomacy?

Don’t be daunted. 

It’s hard to get into, and it can often take a few tries for people (myself included!) to be successful. Despite that, it’s worth it, so don’t get disheartened. 

Also, it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your background is. There is no ‘type’: the office is increasingly diverse and for many years the graduate intake has truly reflected our country.

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