Archive for September, 2009

An overview of the Foreign Service from an FSO

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

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…

China: career catalyst and character builder, ctd.

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

James Fallows questions the NYTimes’s “the Chinese streets are paved with gold” hypothesis:

We have this story last month, which suggested that if young Americans couldn’t find jobs at home, all they had to do was move to China and they’d shortcut into positions of responsibility. I’m here to say: Well, sort of.

Is China exciting enough that people should go there? It sure is. Can young people with no background in China or Chinese find work quickly? Probably so — if they’re willing to teach English. (And can get a visa — whole different topic.) And if they stay and learn the language, lots of other opportunities often do turn up. Really, for Westerners in their 20s it’s hard to think of a better investment of a few years than going to China, learning what it’s like, becoming comfortable with Chinese ways and Chinese people, facing its discouraging realities but also sharing its sense of possibility.

But the idea that many non-trained grads will find “good” jobs — eg, ones where the Chinese employer regularly pays them? Or that it’s realistic to go from zero to “highly proficient” in Chinese language in a short time? Or that young foreigners will be insulated from the, ummm, idiosyncrasies of typical Chinese accounting and business practices? Those all seem a stretch. This kind of “land of gold!” account of today’s China has a touching parallel to the “gold mountain!” accounts of prospects in America that have historically drawn Chinese migrants across the Pacific. Both are accurate in spirit, but potentially misleading on details.

My first reaction to the story was that if you’re young and looking for an international, “character-building experience,” China’s never a bad way to go. My English teaching experience there continues to serve me well, in those non-specific, character-building ways (i.e., not the Chinese language skills I learned but rather the intangible skills that I was forced to develop: adaptability, confidence, resilience, the ability to succeed despite language and cultural barriers, etc. etc. etc.).

But I’d have to agree with Fallows in his assessment: Going to China to teach English or study the language is one thing, but going to find permanent employment is a whole different ball game. How do you even begin? I would have no idea. A great point from one of Fallows’ readers currently working in China:

The NY Times article you mentioned is basically treated as a joke here within expat circles. Laughed at and dismissed. As you mention, you can become an English teacher immediately. Anything else takes luck, work, and contacts. (Your own or others; I know a guy who did get an architecture job here fast: he’s best friends with one of the most well-connected people in Beijing. There may be a connection.) I know [one of the people]  mentioned in the NYT article: She speaks fluent Chinese, has a Yale education, an impressive resume, and works 20 hour days. She’s not some gal who just showed up in China because she couldn’t find a job in the States.

I’ve been here for a year now and am very aware of how my poor Chinese hampers me. Even though I’m a senior-level copywriter and my abilities are much needed, my rudimentary Chinese keeps me from being hired full time (fortunately, I want to be a freelancer). I’ve been told that the whole [major advertising] group requires now that all new hires speak Chinese reasonably well — which means none of my clients could hire me if either of us wanted that…

The other issue is contacts, which seems to be the way work is handled here. Now that the economy is improving, or seems to be, I’m suddenly busy — but it’s taken a year of going to networking events, writing talented designers out of the blue, and being friendly at parties to get to this point. I’m sure people who are more gung-ho and social than me…  could get well-connected faster that I did, but I’m skeptical of a know-nothing recent graduate with no special skills and knowledge to offer being able to connect quickly with the right people and then get a good job.

What’s it really like to work in international aid? ctd.

Friday, September 4th, 2009

I’ve never worked in international aid, and more and more I realize that the realities of being an international aid worker in the field are very much different than doing many other kinds of international work, largely because of the security concerns and other extreme difficulties that arise when living and working in the dark and dangerous parts of the world. Thus, I’ve been trying to highlight, via links to those who know and who’ve been there, what it’s really like to be an international aid and humanitarian worker. Michael Bear in particular does a great job—he’s been chronicling the realities of a number of the big aid agencies, and yesterday posted on the myths about international aid work. Surely you can’t really know what it’s like to be an aid worker until you’ve done it—but if you’re considering a career in aid, I think it’s terribly important to be aware of the realities of before diving in.

It’s Friday morning

Friday, September 4th, 2009

This made me laugh (both the exchange, as well as the clarification that we are indeed meant to find it “humorous”):

“How many people work here?”

“About half of them.”

—Answer, to a journalist, of an American ambassador regarding the staff at her embassy; anecdote meant to be humorous

From John Brown.

Graduates on a jolly

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

I’ve had this post in my queue for some time now, but have continually neglected it—partly because as the pace of things slowed down here in DC during August, the pace of my posts followed suit, but also because I began to rethink what I wanted to say. The post was prompted by an article from several weeks ago from the BBC: in an effort to give unemployed graduates something to do, the British government is paying 500 people under 24 to travel abroad and take part in projects “such as building schools”:

It comes as graduates face an increasingly tough job market. Forty-eight graduates are chasing every job on offer this year, according to a study by the Association of Graduate Recruiters.

The 10-week expeditions – to Borneo, India, Costa Rica and Nicaragua – will enable graduates to work on community and environmental volunteering projects in remote communities.

Reflecting on this story, here’s what I initially wrote, again, several weeks ago:

“It’s no surprise that I agree with one sentiment behind this initiative—that abroad experience is good prep for our careers, international and otherwise. But my main query to the organizers of said British government program would be: how well have you thought this through? Harkening back to our various debates of the merits of international volunteering, I think it’s fair to ask what the benefits of this program will be, beyond giving graduates in a rough economy something (worthwhile) to do. That is, how will the program benefit the communities in which these graduates will serve? Have the programs been fully fleshed out? Or will these 500 folks just be plopped into their host countries and given a hammer, with little consideration as to the local workers they may be displacing and the learning curve inherent in any development project that may make their efforts, while well-intentioned, potentially fruitless? The following comment from Wes Streeting, the National Union of Students president, doesn’t give me hope that much of this has been considered:

Funding opportunities for skills development is surely better than the soul destroying experience of sitting at home, watching Jeremy Kyle, on the dole.

While I have no idea who Jeremy Kyle is and am only moderately sure I know what ‘on the dole’ means, the sentiment that we might as well plop our youth down in poor places since they’ve got nothing better to do seems a bit ill conceived. Gaining valuable skills and career preparation by working/living abroad? Very nice. Giving no thought to the community you will be working in while gaining that experience? Not as much.”

For some reason, though, I was hesitant to push the publish button. I realized this was because I wasn’t sure I agreed with what I was saying. I thought back to my own volunteer experience in China, an experience I decided to plop myself down into, yes, partly because I wanted to learn Chinese and add another abroad experience to my resume and help a community, but also, I can admit, because it sounded a lot better than the alternative (which for me, at that time, was the soul destroying experience of working as a real estate sales associate for a grocery store corporate office). So how could I condemn people for doing what I had in fact done?

So: On the one hand, I do generally think it’s a bad idea for volunteers to be blindly plopped down where they may not end up accomplishing the good they hope to accomplish, or even end up harming locals by taking away jobs, etc. On the other hand, though, getting plopped down in a spot that you know very little about and being asked to do work of which you have very little experience can be incredibly rewarding, for both the volunteer and those in the local community. This belief comes from my personal experience: I showed up in the Yanbian region of China to teach English with zero knowledge regarding Yanbian, China, or how to teach English. Yet my struggles with language, regional culture, and how to be an effective teacher were an indelible learning experience and have benefited me enormously, personally and professionally. And I believe I ended up being an effective teacher (and even a role model) for my students, despite my initial struggles (I still keep in touch with several of them and they have commented how I was their first foreign teacher and our classes for them were formative in their study of English—I take great pride in comments like these).

The particular nature of the volunteer assignment, as well as the length of time spent in a place, can affect all of this, of course. Some assignments can be learned through on-the-job training and experience, especially given enough time (say, a year, as in my case:  a TESOL-certified teacher may have been “better” out of the gate, but I think I eventually morphed into a quality teacher). Others require more specific training and skill and couldn’t be learned on the fly no matter how long you keep at it (if I tried to volunteer with one of the international environmental evaluation projects my friend Derek works on, I’d be horribly lost and would probably do more harm than good).

The conclusion is, per usual, that there’s no cut and dry answer. And while I tend to agree that good intentions aren’t always enough when it comes to a volunteer project, especially an international development one, I still heartily believe that arriving in place with everything to learn can be a formative experience for all involved.

On to new ventures

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

Alanna Shaikh is leaving as the lead blogger and editor at Global Health. Seasoned readers of Working World will recognize Alanna’s name as one that cropped up into important discussions rather frequently. I’ll miss her incisive posts and her direct, well-reasoned, and unsentimental voice. I’ll especially miss her every-Wednesday posts on careers. And even though she’ll be gone from Global Health, something tells me we haven’t seen the last of Alanna. Sherry and I wish her the best in her new ventures and hope she remains active in the international blogosphere.  

Check out her last global health-related career post on where to find global health jobs.