Sep920098:42 am

An overview of the Foreign Service from an FSO

Courtesy of Hugo Guevara, a fellow Notre Dame alum and a Foreign Service Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, an insider’s overview of what it takes to begin a career in the Foreign Service:

For those interested in international affairs, it’s hard to beat being a Foreign Service officer. You can find all the details at the State Department website, but, in general, know that it is a long process — so start early. I happened to hit all of the gates at the right time and it still took ten months. Very often it takes much longer. 

The U.S. Foreign Service is divided in two parts — Generalists and Specialists. Specialists are hired to perform specific tasks, e.g. maintain an embassy’s computer systems overseas, coordinate embassy security, etc. Generalists are what you typically think of as U.S. diplomats overseas. Generalists are divided into five focus areas called “cones.” You choose your cone when you first sign up and it is VERY VERY difficult to change cones once you join so choose wisely. 

The five cones are: Political, Economic, Public Diplomacy, Management, and Consular. As one would expect, Political Officers deal with political relations between the U.S. and foreign countries. Economic Officers handle economic issues. Both of these cones require lots of reporting on developments in a host country. You basically spend your whole day meeting with counterparts and then reporting back to Washington what you have learned. These officers also convey formal messages from Washington to foreign governments. 

Whereas Political and Economic officers work behind the scenes directly with government officials, Public Diplomacy (PD) Officers interface with the public and media. They are responsible for crafting U.S. policy positions for release to the public. Management Officers run the nuts and bolts of an embassy — facilities, personnel, etc. Consular Officers are the ones who try to help you out when you’ve gotten in trouble overseas. They have the lead on dealing with American citizens overseas — issuing passports, reporting American births, visiting U.S. citizens detained in prisons overseas. These are also responsible for interviewing foreigners who want visas to visit the U.S. 

The traditional route to becoming a Foreign Service Generalist requires you to pass a written test, an oral exam, medical clearance, and then a security screening to allow you to view classified material. Though it may help, there is no requirement to have a background in international relations or languages. I, for one, studied engineering and was a civil engineer before I joined. [My emphasis.] Other colleagues have been nuclear physicists, screen writers, and one was even a classical ballet dancer. The U.S. government just wants smart people who are quick on their feet and can handle any situation thrown at them. Simply put, if you can pass the tests, you can be in the running. 

Personally, I am a Political Officer and have worked in Ecuador, Russia, Washington D.C., and Germany. Most tours are 2-3 years and you can usually take your family — except to war zones like Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. (However war zone tours are usually one year long.) My hours are very long and my workload is largely dependent on whatever news happen to break around the world. However, I have found the work to be fascinating. We plug into what is going on behind the scenes and joke that things have gone wrong if our efforts show up in the news — unless you are, of course, a PD officer. Foreign Service officers spend much of their time living overseas so you have to adjust to different languages, cultures, and being away from ND football — unless you are lucky enough to be at a post that has access to the U.S. Armed Forces Television Network.

Many thanks to Hugo for allowing me to share this with Working World readers. And he’s right on about Notre Dame football fans: being out of broadcast range come game day is often the most troublesome part of living and working abroad. I hunkered down at 3:30 a.m. in my frozen apartment in the hinterlands of northeast China to “watch” games by refreshing the ESPN gametracker every thirty seconds. Pretty much the most tedious and awful way to take in a game, but true commitment takes sacrifice…


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One Response to “An overview of the Foreign Service from an FSO”

  1. Wyatt says:

    Hello Sherry and Mark,

    My name is Wyatt from Magic City Campus in Minot, North Dakota. I would like to thank you very much for giving your time to speak with my fellow classmates and me about what it takes to work in a foreign country. I was quite intrigued by the wide variety of careers that a person might be able to pursue while working internationally. Although you spoke with our group for nearly an hour, I didn’t believe it was near enough time for all of the questions I still have for you. I would like to say thanks again, and hearing more from you would be great.

    Thank You,

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