I Am No Longer A Foreign Service Officer


KilimanjaroA post I wrote in October 2006 called “What is a Foreign Service officer?” ranks among this blog’s most popular entries. I wrote it during the heady days when I was looking forward to a long career as a diplomat and retiring from the Foreign Service. Alas, it was not meant to be. I resigned from the U.S. Department of State last year to pursue other interests, a decision that I do not regret and am thankful I made.

I owe it to readers who read my earlier post a balanced view of the Foreign Service that cannot be found in the Foreign Service Journal, AFSA press releases, State Department literature, or blogs written by diplomats or their dependents. Most of what you read online about the Foreign Service is rosy and, in my opinion, defends it to a fault. Perpetual sunshine about the Foreign Service does not tell the full story and does a disservice to those who are interested in becoming Foreign Service officers and need a more realistic picture of what to expect.

If you are interested in a career as a Foreign Service officer, you should seriously consider these points before embarking on the lengthy and competitive application process. I do not want to dissuade you from pursuing your dream, but you should be aware of some realities of Foreign Service life that are not well publicized. These views are my own but have been reinforced by years of firsthand observations and conversations with peers. Many of my colleagues shared these sentiments.

1. Worldwide Availability. You are expected to be available for service worldwide, and your personal preferences may not be taken into account. You may be called to go somewhere you don’t want to go that could put your life at risk. The needs of the service supersede yours. Expect to serve in places you may not want to be.

2. Separation. Be prepared at some point in your career to be separated from your family and serve unaccompanied. If your spouse or partner also works for the Department, expect to do separate tours at least once in your career, possibly more. As of last year, over ten percent of all posts were unaccompanied. If keeping the family together is your raison d’être, you may be disappointed.

3. U.S. Interests. Expect to promote U.S. foreign policy. There is little room for altruism and idealism if it does not coincide with U.S. interests. These interests depend on the administration in office, and whatever you advocated may change at any time. You do not serve your country. You serve the Federal Government and hope that it is doing what’s best for your country.

4. Frequent Moves. Be prepared to move frequently. In some cases, this may mean a short tour of one year or less in a conflict zone, a short-term assignment, an evacuation, or a reassignment to another post. You will move from place to place every two-to-three years, or sooner, unless you can find a different assignment at the same post. While moving from country to country may seem exciting to some, relocation ranks as one of the biggest headaches for Foreign Service families.

5. Bureaucracy. Get used to working in a bureaucracy. You work for the Federal Government. It may be “cool” being a diplomat, but you are still a member of the bureaucracy. Expect decisions and paperwork to move slowly through the system, if at all. Often they will be “overcome by events,” a fancy term that means you did a lot of work for nothing. You will do an immense amount of paper pushing in the office until you’re senior enough to have support staff to do it for you.

6. Unfair Rules. “Fair” is a four-letter word. Do not expect justice or fairness. The rules are written to be equalizers and may make no sense. Expect “no” as an answer to even the most logical requests and massage the rules until you get to “yes.” You are subject to the Foreign Affairs Manual and federal regulations. In a rule-based organization, those who know the rules and how to work the system tend to do better. Those who expect fairness, justice, or hold firm in their resolve often go wanting. The Foreign Service has few options for those who want to pursue a complaint because the rules were written with the Department’s interests in mind.

7. Multiple Clearances. Do nothing until you have cleared with everyone who needs to approve whatever you’re doing or face potential consequences. Your superiors are ultimately responsible for your actions under mission authority and can take disciplinary action if you misstep. If you’re a free spirit or like to do things your own way, think twice. Measure as many times as it takes to get full clearance and then cut.

8. No Privacy. Do not expect to have any privacy. Your life is on public display, and you are expected to lead yourself in public responsibly. Do nothing privately you would not want to see end up in the pages of the Washington Post. Everyone wants to know what you’re doing. Everyone, inside and out.

9. Unhealthy Work Environment. Expect to work with a variety of personalities from many cultures. Given its high-pressure working environment, the Foreign Service has elevated levels of stress that can negatively influence behavior. While many employees are excellent colleagues, the Department has its fair share of bad bosses and nasty coworkers. The Department’s hierarchical clearance and promotion systems are designed to give leverage to those in positions of authority. They can make your life miserable if you’re not compliant or simply rub them the wrong way. Try to get along, even if it goes against every fiber in your being, because with perseverance you too will rise to a position of authority and eventually exert your own leverage.

Michael Gene (M. G.) Edwards is a writer of books and stories in the mystery, thriller and science fiction-fantasy genres. He also writes travel adventures. A former U.S. diplomat, he served in South Korea, Paraguay, and Zambia before resigning in 2011 to write full time. He is recipient of numerous State Department awards, the Joint Civilian Service Achievement Award from the U.S. Department of Defense, and a commendation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Paraguay. He lives in Bangkok, Thailand with his wife Jing and son Alex. For books and stories by M.G. Edwards, visit his web site at www.mgedwards.com. Contact him at me@mgedwards.com or on Facebook or Twitter.

The views in this blog entry are solely those of the writer and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State.

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50 Comments

  1. Visitor

     /  January 4, 2012

    I asked about almost all of these (7 out of 9) during my initial oral interview. Some of them are just common sense. Federal govt = Bureaucracy & U.S. Interests. Foreign Service = moving, hardship, (lack of) privacy. Worldwide Availability = Job description.

    http://careers.state.gov/officer/selection-process#nogo has almost all of the “not well publicized” information clearly defined on their careers page.

    Claiming this information isn’t easily obtained or hard to find is not true.

    Reply
  2. Michael Young

     /  January 5, 2012

    Bravo for telling it like it is Mike!

    Reply
  3. Visitor

     /  January 11, 2012

    Not true..

    Reply
  4. you won't publish this anyway

     /  January 13, 2012

    Grow a pair.

    Reply
    • Dude, he has a pair– he spoke out, and used his real name to stand behind what he said.

      What do you have to put up, a snide remark made anonymously?

      You got nothing. Come back once you grow some.

      Reply
  5. Well said MG. I would add the following:

    1) If you are 25, single and can fit everything you own into your KIA as you read this, re-read everything MG said above imagining yourself at 45 with a spouse/partner/kids/dogs/piano/special needs child/allergy to dust/etc. Much of what seems tolerable at an early point in one’s career wears thin later on, when it is much harder to resign and move on. Do some thought experiments early on.

    2) Because much of what State does is not quantifiable (“Improve relations with Country Z”), what is “right” can be determined arbitrarily by a boss that is out for herself, a little crazy or vindictive. You can get caught up in that and hurt by it.

    3) The FS is high school. Everybody knows everybody, and what people think of you matters more than anything. Be a cool kid, or do what the cool kids say, or suffer. Kids who “don’t get along” end up dying of old age as an FS-02 assigned to the worst jobs.

    Peter Van Buren
    http://www.wemeantwell.com

    Reply
  6. mgedwards

     /  January 14, 2012

    Thanks, Michael and Peter, I appreciate it. I could have written a lot more but want this post to be informational, not vindictive.

    Peter, you’re right that some things in State never change even when you do. The weight allowances for household effects are the same for a single person as they are for a family unless you’re an ambassador or part of a tandem. The fuzzy logic at State you mentioned can be quantified, like “build up democracy program” or “sign X agreement,” but it means that what you do often doesn’t bear fruit for years. The negotiation process with your host nation partner often lasts years, and you may be wrapping something up started by your predecessor x4 a decade ago. It can be very frustrating work.

    Regarding the FS as high school, that’s corridor reputation, which in my opinion is highly overused inside State. You are what your reputation is no matter whether it’s true or not. A slanderer can destroy your reputation, and someone with sins to hide can be covered up or no confidence their way to a new assignment. I like to say that bad employees never leave; they just get shuffled around. The way to control your corridor reputation is to suck up as much as possible, press the flesh like a politician with those you think can get you a plumb job–but don’t be obviously insincere or fake. Take as much credit as you can for as little work as possible and stay a bit lazy so that you’re not too busy when that great opportunity comes along. I’m totally serious. I once was told that I worked too hard and did too much. That was the final straw. I took my work ethic elsewhere.

    Mr. You Won’t Publish This Anyway, I published your comment. Did you know that revealed your identity when you posted a comment? Would you have written what you did if you knew it wasn’t anonymous? Perhaps you meant that State needs to grow a pair (of what is unclear). I have never worked for a more hyper-sensitive organization than State.

    Reply
    • Akasha

       /  September 10, 2013

      You know, this is truly interesting and it reads a lot like “why to rethink serving in the Peace Corps” too. I actually have had better experiences, learned the language and the culture better and integrated with the local cultures better going it on my own than I did when I was in the Peace Corps. Granted, you’re only there for two years, but I left after 8 months and about half of the others in my group left after 1 year. So, yeah, do your due diligence, but good luck finding those FS workers or RPCVs who actually are still in the service or completed their time completely and gained some wonderful benefit from it … they usually won’t tell anyone anything that isn’t PC and rosy because they don’t want to get kicked out or lose what they got for their work.

      Reply
      • Ben

         /  January 6, 2014

        PCV here, currently 5 months into service. You should know, as a PC dropout, that each volunteer has a very unique experience. Every site is different, every assignment is different, country programs are different, etc. Peace Corps service is exactly what you make of it, which makes it hard to generalize. However, the only difference I can see from “going it on my own” and being a PCV is lacking the resources and support that Peace Corps provides at your disposal.I’m quite satisfied with my experience so far. I came in with a low language level but now I am able to converse in a professional setting with my counterparts and I have made very close bonds with members of my community. You have to be committed to doing your job. It’s not all about the benefits you receive, but the benefits you bring to your community. We’re not tourists.

  7. For the balanced view you seek, don’t forget the books “Realities of Foreign Service Life,” volumes 1 and 2, published by AAFSW (the FS family member non-profit).

    Reply
  8. Good post, Mike! And so true. I especially like #3,6,9. US Interests “uber alles,” (above all) as Germans would have said in the not so distant historic era. Whatever those interests are interpreted to be at any given moment.

    Same goes for US corporate, especially financial world. Can attest from personal experience.

    Reply
  9. Mia

     /  April 13, 2012

    Thanks so much for this post. I was seriously considering taking the exam, but after hearing how it’s just like where I work now (BS, lazy people get ahead, kiss asses galore) I might as well just stay here and deal with it in the comfort of my own home with my family and Walmart on every corner.

    Reply
  10. Fascinating former career! You make ‘writing what you know’ broad and intriguing!

    Reply
    • mgedwards

       /  July 24, 2012

      Thanks, Leslie! I do my best. There are so many fascinating places in the world that the world doesn’t know about!

      Reply
  11. Michael–

    You tell it like it is. Everything you say is accurate and true. The Foreign Service isn’t for everyone for a variety of reasons. I’ve just started a blog to help folks try to pass the test and join the Foreign Service. Your post highlights most of the issues that candidates need to weigh and consider before joining up. I still believe that the Foreign Service is the best job in the U.S. Government.

    Keep on traveling; I love your blog.

    Best,

    Bill Fitzgerald

    Reply
    • mgedwards

       /  September 12, 2012

      Thank you, Bill, for your comment. I agree that the Foreign Service is the best job in the U.S. Government, but it may not be the best job for everyone. There may be other careers in international organizations (e.g. NGO) or the private sector that may be a better fit for some. Many talented people find this out after the fact and then leave the service. It’s impossible to know whether the Foreign Service is right for you until you join, but it’s better to be as informed as possible before making the decision. All the best with your blog–thanks for providing an information resource for prospective FSOs. Keep in touch!

      Mike

      Reply
  12. Thanks for the post. I’m a recent college graduate with a bachelor of business in finance and considering a career with the federal government. I also recently returned home after traveling for 9 months to countries in the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and Oceania. Traveling has inspired me to pursue an international career, but the path is uncertain. I’m considering applying to the Peace Corps and/or studying for the FSO exam. However, the more I read about being an FSO, the more it sounds as if the only things FSOs do are write papers and move frequently. Do you feel there’s an opportunity for real and positive impact for the foreign countries you serve as an FSO?

    Reply
    • mgedwards

       /  October 1, 2012

      Hi, thanks for your comment. There certainly are opportunities to make a real and positive impact for the countries where you serve as an FSO. You can have the most impact in places where you have more influence on the bilateral or multilateral relationship. It’s more difficult where there are greater interests directed by Washington unless you work in the lead office in charge of an issue or relationship. If you’re in the field, your engagement can have an important and lasting effect on the United States’ bilateral relationships.

      That said, it’s important not to overestimate the affect you can have as one person. In many cases it’s a team effort, and in others, there are failures and negligible or negative results. Don’t worry about being stuck writing papers and moving frequently — you’ll have your fair share of once-in-a-lifetime adventures and memorable experiences that will make the job interesting. There’s almost never a dull moment in the Foreign Service. But remember that there will be plenty of times when you’ll be doing less glamorous work as well as meaningful assignments.

      If you’re interested in becoming an FSO, I encourage you to apply. I don’t want to discourage anyone from joining the Foreign Service if it’s their calling.

      Reply
  13. Hi, thank you for offering your perspective. As someone who has toyed with the idea of the Foreign Service for several years, the one question I find it difficult to get a handle on relates to your #3–U.S. Interests. What does this look like in the day to day when it comes to putting one’s own personal views aside? For instance, the U.S. takes certain military actions in a country, through bombings, threats of war, or actual invasion–where does a political FSO come into play? Thanks.

    Reply
    • mgedwards

       /  December 5, 2012

      Thanks for your comment, Denise. The unofficial answer from my own perspective is that the political FSO is a coordinator who liaises with many different stakeholders, from the Embassy to the host nation to Washington, D.C. (State Department/U.S. Government) to help the decision makers determine a course of action. In some cases, the FSO will have some influence on the decision, especially through their reporting, if the facts needed to make a choice are unclear. On policies driven by Washington, the officer has little sway. Even if they personally oppose certain courses of action, the FSO must defer to those in authority when decisions are made. If they believe strongly for or against something, their primary recourse is to dissent through proper channels. The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) sponsors an annual dissent award for FSOs who have the courage to challenge a Department policy. Some have chosen to take their grievances public (i.e. whistle blowing), although this is not considered acceptable and can lead to negative (and sometimes, positive) repercussions. In the end, some dissenters have been vindicated and eulogized such as Hiram Bingham IV. It’s better though, career-wise, to work through the system and support actions taken even if you don’t personally agree with them.

      Reply
  14. Jessica Issera

     /  January 10, 2013

    Hello!!
    I wanted to thank you for providing insight in this field. I recently graduated with a degree in psychology and sociology, but have always had interests in international service and making an impact on a global level. I have experience in traveling in the European countries due to being a “military brat”, so the constant moving around doesn’t bother me. My concerns are related to health and safety. Just what should I expect should I be recruited? Are the conditions terrible?

    Thanks again.

    Reply
    • mgedwards

       /  January 25, 2013

      Hi Jessica, thanks for your comment. Every country and post is different. Conditions vary from excellent to terrible; it depends on where you are. From my own perspective, there are two issues for you to consider: 1) Worldwide availability; and 2) medical clearances. Although you’re expected to serve at any post around the world whether it’s Kabul, Afghanistan or Paris, France, you must be cleared to serve there. If you and/or family member have a “Class 2″ medical clearance, it may preclude you from serving at some posts with inadequate medical care.

      I would encourage you to consider the Foreign Service if it’s something you want to do regardless of health conditions at individual posts. As you apply, you can talk to professionals who know far more than I do and make decisions about your future along the way. You always have the option to turn down a job offer, curtail (leave) post, or resign.

      Reply
  15. Fabiano Da Silva

     /  January 11, 2013

    MG:
    If could go back in time knowing what you know today. Would sign-up to be a FSO?
    Thank you,
    Fabiano

    Reply
    • mgedwards

       /  January 15, 2013

      Hi Fabriano, thanks for visiting my blog and your comment. That’s a tough question to answer. My decision was truly a fork in the road that took me overseas. If I’d turned down the offer to join the Foreign Service years ago, I would probably not be living overseas now, but when I said yes, I also gave up a good life and excellent job in the United States that I would probably still have. I’m grateful that the Foreign Service career gave me the opportunity to experience life abroad, but if I knew then what I know now, I’m not certain I would have made the same choice. It took seven long, hard years to figure out that I did not want to be a diplomat.

      Reply
  16. shawn

     /  January 15, 2013

    Really interesting. Was curious to know, the process to retire was it easy or cumbersome and how long did it take for your separation to go through?

    Reply
    • mgedwards

       /  January 25, 2013

      Hi Shawn, thanks for your question. The process to retire or resign takes awhile and is, in my opinion, confusing. It’s not easy. It took me almost a year from resignation letter to the final date. There’s no big bang that says you’re out; you have to remain alert to make sure all the documents and forms are processed correctly. In fact, one issue that soured me on the Department (DOS lurkers, take note) was my payroll status. I noticed the paychecks were still coming longer than I thought they should, and I notified State of the error. Turns out some State employee forget to file a form showing me as resigned, and State mistakenly overpaid FICA (Social Security) to Treasury. I received a terse e-mail threatening to bill me if State could not recover the overpayment even though the mistake was clearly the Department’s and I caught the error. Fortunately, the overpayment was corrected in time. State was happy, but I was fuming. If the Department had dared stick me with the bill for their mistake, I was ready to take legal action. But I digress. No, the process is not easy. Make sure you are covered, file all your paperwork properly, double check that it’s processed correctly, and cry foul if the Department tries to blame you for their foibles.

      Reply
  17. Carol Phelps

     /  January 15, 2013

    Thanks for your comments & insights! Our daughter is very interested in diplomacy (the let’s all talk together so we can get along world peace variety) so she’s always thought in terms of a career in the Foreign Service. Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like the place for an independent-thinking, caring idealist who has never played the high school social games or kissed up to anyone in her life. Maybe that’s why she’s gotten rejected by the State Dept. twice so far (despite having a good resume & intern experience with the State Dept.)?

    But we don’t know what to suggest to her as other options beside the State Dept. Yes, there are NGOs, and one NGO she interned for in Geneva was ready to “hire” her on the spot – the catch was that they (like most faith-based NGOs) don’t pay salaries – employees get to “raise all their own support”. So in that sense, you have to spend much of your time and energy promoting yourself, and it’s not even a paying job.

    What have you (and other ex-foreign service officers) found as meaningful, reasonably-paid, internationally connected jobs which aren’t with the State Dept.? Our daughter has a degree in Political Science, and is currently headed into the Peace Corps, but what can she do with herself after that, if playing the ladder-climbing “cool reputation” games, & promoting American policy, no matter how misguided or against the interests of humanity it might be at any given moment aren’t for her?

    Reply
    • mgedwards

       /  January 25, 2013

      Hi Carol, thanks for writing. The Peace Corps is a great option. Many volunteers have gone on to serve as Foreign Service officers. If she doesn’t join PC, has she thought about teaching overseas? One of the most common expat jobs overseas I’ve seen is teaching. There are two kinds of teachers — those who teach at small academies, and those who work at international schools. For those who have just graduated from college, teaching English at an academy is a good way to break into overseas work. If your daughter pursues a higher ed degree (e.g. Master’s or Ph.D), she can open up many opportunities to teach at more prestigious international schools. I know many expat teachers living abroad, and most seem to enjoy it. Pay ranges from low to great with housing benefits; it seems to depend on experience. Perhaps best of all, teachers often influence others (students) in ways that even diplomats cannot.

      In my own view, the State Department promotes diversity and supports creative solutions but hasn’t been able to figure out how to reconcile them with security and public affairs issues. There have been many initiatives encouraging Foreign Service officers to get out from behind their desks, build relationships with interlocutors, and find creative ways to solve difficult problems. However, many run into the reality that there are risks that every move can lead to disastrous results, from violence to scrutiny by the host nation and/or the media. What seemed like a good idea — such as sending an Ambassador to open an American Corner to show support for the Libyan people — can easily turn into a foreign policy disaster. Thus, safety and caution often trump free thinking and idealism.

      I wish your daughter all the best in her career search!

      Reply
      • Carol Phelps

         /  January 28, 2013

        Thanks so much for your thoughts! Our daughter Heather is planning on teaching English in the Peace Corps for a couple years, and if the State Dept. doesn’t work out after she comes back, she’s decided she’ll either head for grad school or try teaching overseas, as you suggest. Whether she eventually ends up in the State Dept., or decides it isn’t for her, she’ll need every piece of wisdom & advice she can get from people like you, who have gone before her, and learned how things work through first-hand experience.
        Thanks again for your response. Carol

        P.S. I went back and read your earlier post from Oct. 2006, when you were really enjoying your job. It reminds me of my own recent experiences. Some five years ago I landed what was in many ways my “dream job”, and though it had both joys and frustrations, I was happy to go in to work every morning. In fact I think my coworkers resented that I loved my work, and worked so hard – I was told later that I made “everyone else look bad” by doing such a good job. But things gradually went downhill as my bosses and work changed, until finally I was laid off. That was a happy coincidence, considering that the day I learned that, I’d been going in to hand in my resignation letter. My point is, it’s not necessarily the career, or even the place of employment, that makes a job good or terrible. It matters so very much who your boss and coworkers are, and whether you’re appreciated, or whether your ideas are put down and your time wasted. You just have to hope & pray that you’ll end up with good people to work for/with – because that seems to be the luck of the draw.

  18. mgedwards

     /  January 28, 2013

    An reader obviously affiliated with the State Department posted an anonymous comment, an easy way to share dissent without disclosing their identity. I try to respond to all comments, but not if they’re made from fake or inactive e-mail accounts. If you post a comment and expect to receive a response, you have to go through proper channels and be genuine. No spam, please. Be aware that any comments may be shared with thousands of readers. As of this writing, this post has been viewed almost 15,000 times with generally favorable reception.

    —–Original Message—–
    From: MAILER-DAEMON@mgedwards.com [mailto:MAILER-DAEMON@mgedwards.com]
    Sent: Monday, January 28, 2013 6:41 AM
    To: me@mgedwards.com
    Subject: Failure Notice

    Sorry, we were unable to deliver your message to the following address.

    :
    Remote host said: 550 Requested action not taken: mailbox unavailable [RCPT_TO]

    Reply
  19. Alicja Fournier

     /  February 6, 2013

    Dear Mike,
    I really enjoyed reading your post. I wanted to become FSO for the longest time, a couple of friends of mine, got the job and are happy, but I still did not make my final decision. Everyone tells me that I should go for it and utilize my language skills (speak 4 languages) plus having master’s degree would most certainly help. However, after reading you post, I really do not want to be in negative environment and move so frequently, especially since I have 2 toddlers at home. Would you have any suggestions where I could utilize my skills working for Federal Government, since private sector does not have many options.
    Thank you.
    Alicja

    Reply
    • mgedwards

       /  March 20, 2013

      Hi Alicja, thanks for your comment. Have you considered a domestic position with an international focus at a U.S. agency? There are thousands of stateside jobs in the State Department, Commerce Department, Department of Defense and other organizations that deal with international issues. Many offer short-term overseas assignments (TDY) that can give you some international experience without living abroad and moving frequently.

      Regarding the negative environment, please keep in mind that these views are my own and may not apply in all cases. I had some good experiences working for State. Some of my former colleagues still in the Foreign Service enjoy working for the State Department and do not share my view. In addition, the Foreign Service isn’t merely limited to the State Department; other agencies such as the Agency for International Development (AID) and Commerce’s Foreign Commercial Service (FCS) also have representatives serving in embassies and consulates worldwide. While I’ve worked with colleagues from many of these agencies, I don’t know what it’s like to work for them.

      If you have a passion for working in an international capacity, you might consider looking at the career opportunities at multiple government agencies and choose the one(s) that best fit your needs and skills. There’s no guarantee you’ll end up in a positive work environment, but you won’t know until you try.

      Reply
  20. Brad Williams

     /  March 19, 2013

    Hi,
    Thank you for the incredibly informative post. I am a current serving U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines and I somehow passed the FSOT administered last February. I am now awaiting decisions regarding my PNQs. My 3 year service is expected to end this May. Despite the difficulties you mentioned, I am still interested in the Foreign Service. In the event I do not successfully make it thru the lengthy application process this time around, what do you suggest to make my application more competitive for the next time- Grad school with a masters related to state department or work experience related to state department. Basically, more school or more work experience? Thank you in advance!

    Brad

    Reply
    • mgedwards

       /  March 20, 2013

      Brad, thanks for visiting my blog. Congratulations on passing the FSOT! It’s a great step forward to a career in the Foreign Service. I think it’s better to focus on getting through this application process than to worry about the next time around. Visualize passing the Oral Exam and you may have a better chance of passing than going in concerned that you won’t.

      The process has changed since I took the written and oral exams (it wasn’t even called the FSOT when I passed), so I can’t tell you with any certainty whether school or work experience is more important. In my own opinion, both are. What was just as critical when I took the exam was reading the instructions carefully and making sure you know what is expected to pass. When I took the Oral exam, the 13 Dimensions were critical — they may still be — and I made sure I could demonstrate or explain how I exemplified the 13 Dimensions. Research what the Department is looking for and make sure that you meet or exceed their expectations.

      All the best with your Oral exam. If possible, talk to an expert about what to expect; my suggestions may not be up to date and are based on my experience a decade ago. Someone you know in the Embassy and/or the nearest Diplomat in Residence might be able to tell you more about the exam and careers in the Foreign Service. All the best, and thank you for your service in the Peace Corps! I have a lot of respect for what you do in the field.

      Reply
  21. Stan

     /  March 22, 2013

    This was a great read for someone considering this life changing route. Thanks for taking the time to write it!

    Reply
  22. Mark

     /  April 1, 2013

    For years I have wanted to join the foreign service as a foreign service specialist. I am a psychiatrist and they post openings for psychiatrists frequently. Psychiatrists are only stationed at regional embassies. Do you think a psychiatrist would have it better than a foreign service officer? I keep trying to convince my wife to do this but she is hesitant to say the least.

    Reply
  23. MB

     /  April 2, 2013

    Hi MG-
    I’m a CS employee at DoS in the DC area. Actually, I’m at US Despatch. So I’ve likely arranged for your HHE and CNS to move. I’ve been considering taking the FSOT. Actually-I did take it about six years ago. Within a few weeks I received a very nice letter from the DoS thanking me for my interest in FS and encouraging me to try the FSOT again at another time. I like to think maybe I’m a bit more refined these days and may possibly have more to offer. At any rate, I enjoy reading your blag as it offers the real scoop on FS that you don’t get on the DoS intranet.
    I especially enjoy reading your blog since I’m most interested in the consular track.

    Reply
  24. marles

     /  April 2, 2013

    Fascinating to know that this happens not only in my country. I also happen to resign as a foreign service officer in a south east asian country due to some of the realities which you mentioned here (plus a couple more). It’s nice to have read your entry!

    Reply
  25. hey
    im from india and its always been a passion of mine to become an ifs officer but when i read your blog which clearly indicated that the work ambience is like a high school repetition and i really dont want to revisit my high school memories again. can you be clear about how colleagues and coworkers treat their fellow officers and if its an awesome remake of mean girls with more mature people who wont change even if they are hit by a bus..(lol) just kidding, because if it is boy! i might change my mind. also now you may think im sensitive and i kind of am..do you think anyone can make it in the foreign service or is it subjective. do post my comment and reply because if you do you would be shaping my future for the better. and when you mentioned the tonne of work we get can you tell me what kind of category does it come under…hope its not filing and billing papers because if it is i might just get back to my post graduation to be a surgeon.

    Reply
  26. A.B. Rodde

     /  May 16, 2013

    Great article, thanks for candor which is balanced rather than just gloomy.

    Three of us, in very different stages of life, are about to register and apply for the Foreign Service exam.

    Questions:

    (1) Two of us have spotty career records including periods of unemployment and low-earning part-time employment. Still worth applying if one’s temperament, education talents and interests are a great match? We can “ace” the exam, but may not want to invest the time and effort if the Washington interviews or other steps will focus on a tight resume and references.

    (2) One of us — great with people, in sales, and in management — is considering the Consular track versus the Management track. What would be the general characteristics of a person who would fit well into each of these tracks?

    (3) Is Management normally going to involve more scrutiny of the resume-and-references than Consular will?

    Thanks for any guidance you can offer!

    - A.B. Rodde

    Reply
  27. navraj

     /  May 21, 2013

    good article

    Reply
  28. Grad

     /  May 25, 2013

    Thanks very much for the tips. I’m a recent college grad and not sure where to go. I have always been interested in FS but wanted to hear first hand some of the experiences. This article seem fairly unbiased. I appreciate your honesty and insight. Best of luck with your writing.

    Reply
  29. Zena

     /  June 13, 2013

    Can you get to the foreign service if you receive food stamps.

    Reply
  30. luke

     /  June 23, 2013

    What is the oral exam like and how difficult is it? I’m thinking about going through the process of becoming an FSO but the one step that worries me is the oral exam. Thanks.

    Reply
  31. stephen

     /  July 3, 2013

    I have an undergraduate degree in Applied Physics, and am currently working on a Master’s of Electrical Engineering (Emphasizing in nano-optics). How important are college degrees for this job? Are there technical aspects that would utilize my science and engineering background?

    Reply
  32. Thank you for your insightful comments regarding a career in the foreign service.
    I’m a lawyer and I’m going to take the FSOT in October.

    Reply
  33. Kim Sunga

     /  September 3, 2013

    Mr. Edwards,

    I’m very appreciative that you have posted this. I am currently awaiting my scheduled FSO exam. I have a family and very much nervous about the separation you wrote about. I’m very family oriented and have recently become a father. When you say expect to serve unaccompanied sometimes, does that mean doing a 2 or 3 year thing without them at some foreign country? I really need to know and think on this well before I complete the whole process.

    Reply
  34. Foreign services officers definitely have a tough job and a tough life.

    Reply
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