I get asked a lot of questions about my Peace Corps service and the Foreign Service. Don’t see your burning question? Post in the comments and I’ll be happy to answer.
1. What is a Foreign Service Officer (FSO)?
The mission from the Department of State’s website: The mission of a U.S. diplomat in the Foreign Service is to promote peace, support prosperity, and protect American citizens while advancing the interests of the U.S. abroad.
In other words, a FSO works in an embassy (like headquarters) or consulate (like a regional office) supporting US programs and interests in other countries. FSOs work on a number of different things, including processing visa requests, promoting US culture and opportunities, counseling host country nationals on policies, helping foster trade agreements, and managing our assets abroad (buildings, vehicles, people).
Diplomat and Foreign Service Officer are one in the same. Want more information? May I direct you to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foreign_Service_Officer
Here’s a great video that gives a robust look into the Foreign Service.
2. What will you do?
I am a Generalist within the Management track/cone. That means I must be prepared to serve my country in whatever capacity she deems fit; however, for the most part I will be doing management work. My first (and possibly second) tours will be doing consular work. That means I will be processing visas, helping American citizens abroad, and well probably processing more visas. Every officer has to do consular work in their first four years. Why? 1. It builds character. 2. Workload vs. human capacity. 3. Builds a strong foundation. 4. Because DOS says so.
As a Management Officer, I will do a number of different things. I’ll probably be a General Services Officer (or assistant) in one of my first management tours. As the name implies, it covers a lot of things, from vehicle maintenance, housing fixer, resource allocator, employee paperwork processor, problem solver, fire putter-outer, and overall customer service representative to my fellow FSOs. Also, spreadsheets.
3. Will you be allowed to still have a blog or will you be able to talk about what you do?
Yes, I will be able to keep my blog and other social media. Discretion is the name of the game though. I will not be able to talk about the parts of my job that are sensitive or classified. I serve the US Government first and foremost, and administrations change and will change throughout my career. There’s no use in fighting against a policy you can’t change, unless of course it has terrible moral or ethical obligations that would basically make you want to never be a human again. In those cases, there is a way to express dissent internally.
So while I may not be able to share as many details about my job as I did when I was in the Peace Corps, I will still try to give a general insight into life as a FSO. I ask that you please respect my duty to my country and not be offended when I don’t respond to questions about my job or change the subject to the weather.
4. What’s your DC training like?
The first six weeks of training are known as the A-100 class. Previously, the class was held in a room named A-100. The A-100 class is essentially Diplomacy 101. (Someone please teach me how to pick out silverware on a table.) We will likely learn about safety, history, leadership skills, management, structure, what life is like overseas, coping techniques, and writing skills. We spend two days at a retreat, doing leadership team building stuff. We spend a couple weeks frantically researching countries and posts.
There are two special ceremonies to look forward to as well: Flag Day and Swearing In. Flag Day is a dramatic ceremony where everyone learns where they will be assigned. It’s apparently the definition of anxious. Swearing In is a formal ceremony where hopefully Secretary Kerry or Deputy Secretary Burns will administer our oath of office and officially let us in to the folds.
Afterwards, I will have between 4 weeks and 10 months of additional training, depending on the country I am assigned. This training will be language and job focused. Generally, after every change of station I will have some form of training back in DC.
5. What are some of the perks of being a FSO?
There are some great perks to being in the Foreign Service. I’ll just list them.
1. Free housing, almost always fully furnished and in many places complete with security guards!
2. Competitive salary
3. You get to say you are a diplomat and that my friends is really, really awesome
4. Black passport, because blue is pretty, but I guess if you make the passport you get to pick the cool color
5. Getting to serve your country without having to wear Kevlar (regularly)
6. Moving every 2-3 years
7. Getting to explore new corners of the world
8. Career growth with an ever changing job
9. Incredible colleagues
10. Getting to combine all your passions, travel the world, and get paid for it.
6. What are some of the downsides?
Like every job, there are some downsides to being a Foreign Service Officer, again a list:
1. Living in a bubble, oftentimes FSOs only explore a small portion of the capital or city they are posted to, without really discovering the rest of the country or the culture
2. Uprooting your family every two years or being single and doing the same
3. You don’t get to see your family and friends very often
4. Some posts are dangerous and FSOs have been targeted in the past
5. Lack of access to favorite foods, cough cheese
6. Not being able to express political opinions publicly, you know if you are into that sort of thing
7. Always being wary of people who try to befriend you if they know where you work or that you are an American (security clearance paranoia)
8. Never knowing where home is
9. Some posts lack access to good healthcare
10. You’re essentially always on duty
7. Where will you be posted?
My first assignment will be as a consular officer in Cairo, Egypt.
8. What advice do you have for someone pursuing this career?
Read everything you can about the testing process, not just the FSOT, but the QEPs, and the OA. Study. This process isn’t something you just willy nilly decide to do. The people who fail the OA aren’t prepared for each section. This isn’t an interview, this is an assessment. If you prepare for each portion keeping in mind what they are testing, you can succeed. For the FSOT, know the general subjects tested and study. You can study, it is possible. Brush up on English grammar, read a fun history book, click through treaty and policy links on wikipedia.
For the QEPs and OA, know the 13 dimensions backwards, forwards, and in pig latin. Spend time practicing and studying for each section. I spent 4 months preparing for the OA and it paid off, I scored a 5.7 on the exam. If you want this job, prepare to spend a considerable amount of time (for me 4 years) pursuing it.
Also, see these posts for more information on specific steps:
9. What was the process of becoming a Foreign Service Officer? Was it hard?
Here are the basics: http://careers.state.gov/work/foreign-service/officer/test-process
Was it hard? I failed the FSOT the first time I took it. Passed the FSOT the second time, but didn’t make it past the essays. The third time I studied for 4 months straight for the Oral Assessment and knocked it out of the park. So was it hard? Yes. Why? Because there is a lot of ambiguity throughout the process. In addition, it tests your patience, perseverance, drive, and anxiety levels. Even after passing you still have to wait for an inordinate and uncertain amount of time for clearances and a call off the register. This process isn’t for the faint of heart.
10. How long did your application process take?
From the first time I took the test in 2010 – 4.5 years. This candidacy took exactly 12 months from the test to class start date. And I was incredibly lucky with that.
[questions and answers are forthcoming.]
Still have questions? Leave a comment and I’ll add to this list!