Posts Tagged ‘Foreign Service’

A few catch-up links RE: the Foreign Service

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Struggles of interns to get clearance at the State Department: a “long, difficult, and frustrating process” during which you are apparently required to disclose every non-American friend on Facebook you’ve ever had. As if this were even possible.

State’s Hometown Diplomat Program helps you receive a hero’s welcome at your high school.

Selling the Foreign Service in Canada. Again, as if this were even possible.

Rock Star in Dhaka

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

Follow the trials and tribulations of a 25 year-old Foreign Service officer currently stationed in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (She’s kind of a big deal.)

Diplomats in Residence as career resources

Thursday, September 10th, 2009


Sixteen senior Foreign Service Officers, known as Diplomats in Residence, are assigned to different universities throughout the United States in order to help recruit “the best and the brightest” into the Foreign Service. On DipNote, Barbara Cummings, Diplomat in Residence at Howard University here in DC, discusses her role as a mentor for young people wishing to join the Foreign Service, as well as a number of opportunities available to those interested in international careers, including internships and fellowships.

Find out more about Diplomats in Residence and locate the one nearest you.

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…

How fluent do we really need to be?

Friday, August 21st, 2009

Retired Foreign Service Officer Ken Yates, writing at WhirledView, provides an interesting and well-reasoned take on the necessity of linguistic fluency to be an effective FSO. Despite passionate calls from the Hill and other places for more FSOs to be native in several languages, for Yates, it’s not feasible or reasonable to expect that the majority of FSOs will have the time or resources to become that fluent in one language, let alone several:

For me, training in Japanese, Korean, Dari, Icelandic and Mandarin Chinese, in that order, resulted not in approaching the desired level aspired to in Congressional speeches, yet it did help to sensitize me to the important cultural and personal understandings that were essential to developing and maintaining professional contacts.

[...] It soon became clear to me that just about all of my most important contacts had English competence far beyond what I could realistically hope to achieve in my scant months of study of their language. After all, many had studied English from their early school days, or even studied abroad. My linguistic struggles were more effective as an “icebreaker” than as a means to communicate substantively. When real substance was discussed, I found it essential to have a competent translator on hand. The advantages to that was a more formal discussion at a slower speed that could focus better on the issue at hand than on the imprecision resulting from my usually lesser competence in their language than they had in mine.

The full post is worth a read. Having studied a few languages myself, I would agree with Yates that “fluency” is a ridiculously tough thing to achieve—and it’s very subjective. I’ve had people, after seeing me speak in French or Chinese, comment, “Wow, you’re pretty fluent, huh?” I would shrug and say, oh so modestly, “Well, not really…” But the truth, of course, is that I’m not even close to fluent, in a professional sense, in either language. [Why do people think I'm fluent? Most likely because 1) they don't speak that language at all so don't have a frame of reference and 2) when I do speak my intermediate Chinese or my once-advanced but now intermediate French, I do so in a confident way that makes it seem like I really know what I'm doing.] Despite my lack of fluency, my language studies and skills have helped me in my career in, as Yates notes, cultural understanding and ice breaker type situations. But certainly in professional settings, especially when using Chinese, I’ve always, without question, relied on my counterparts to use English or on translators. 

So, getting back to the main issue, is it a bad thing if our FSOs aren’t native-level in several languages? Not necessarily, it seems. As Sherry noted in a discussion we had about this article and this topic, she has often thought that genuine curiosity and keen interest in learning about others (including their language) are even more critical to success than fluency in a language. Of course, she said, we want our FSOs to be as proficient in languages as possible—but other skills (such as cultural and historical understanding) are also essential. That’s not to say that we don’t want Americans studying languages to the point of native fluency—we certainly do. But it’s just to note that 1) it perhaps doesn’t need to be a requirement of all FSOs to be fully fluent in the language of the country in which they are serving; and 2) just because you aren’t fully fluent in a language doesn’t at all mean that the knowledge you do have of that language and the effort you’ve spent studying it is wasted.

Joining the Foreign Service at 50

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

That Lady There is applying to the Foreign Service at 50 because she’s “always wanted to… — (Doesn’t that sound trite?) — and now think it’s a wonderful time to do so.” She’s counting down the days until her Oral Assessment (the clock currently stands 69 days, 10 hours, 35 minutes, and three seconds—no two seconds—no one second…), a major hurdle for joining the Foreign Service that comes after the written exam and the submission of five personal essays. 

Follow her in her quest—or at least take a peak through her blog, especially if you’re in the process of applying to or considering the Foreign Service. Her real-time, learn-as-you-go thoughts and insights on the FSO application process seem immensely useful: How do you prepare best for the OA? (Practice and repetition, until it’s second nature); How do you overcome nerves at your OA? (Look at it as an interesting way to spend the day rather than a terrifying experience); Do men gain an advantage by wearing wingtips to their OA? (No, unless they really look good in wingtips).

Relocate to sunny Baghdad

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

Word on the planned hiring surge of FSOs at the State Department is continuing to spread. (in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley) reports that potential relocation to Baghdad or Kabul looks a lot more appealing than it used to, because of ‘this economy’:

A hiring initiative called Diplomacy 3.0 now calls for the State Department to add 750 generalists and more than 500 specialists this fiscal year and a similar number next fiscal year. Most people apply to work in public diplomacy and politics; the agency is seeking more management, consular and economics officers.

Also of note from this article is the tidbit that State is not just looking for young applicants, but more experienced ones as well:

The State Department is trying to be more accommodating of older applicants. Many more people are joining in their 30s, Dry said. The peak age is about 30.

“We’re all interested in talented people who may be on the rebound from these other jobs,” he said.

No one will get rich being a diplomat, he warned, but said, “This is a time in the sun for the State Department.”

Difficulties of the public diplomacy-cone

Monday, July 6th, 2009

Former State Department official Joe Johnston reminds us that there used to be a government agency that focused solely on public diplomacy. It’s been ten years since USIA was abolished and, as Johnston describes it, “public diplomacy-coned” FSOs face real challenges in their career development. He also thinks, though, that sending a chunk of new FSO hires to the public diplomacy track could help with the problem:

State may hire as many as 1,000 new Foreign Service officers in Fiscal Year 2010 if Congress approves the Department’s budget request.  Considering that there are no more than a thousand FSOs in the public diplomacy career track at this time, a healthy share of the thousand new officers could make a critical contribution to public diplomacy’s effectiveness by lowering vacancies and enabling adequate time for training between assignments.

UPDATE: I neglected to mention, though should have, that Joe is a distinguished member of the Public Diplomacy Council and introduced Sherry and me at a PDC event featuring Working World several months ago. The PDC holds a good number of interesting events in DC, all of which give young professionals and job seekers access to some of the most accomplished professionals working in public diplomacy.

A hardship post is different than a dangerous one

Monday, June 15th, 2009

James Fallows ponders the seeming incongruity of an FSO post in Shanghai warranting nearly half as much hardship pay as posts in cities like Kabul and Baghdad. Doesn’t seem like serving in a major, booming city like Shanghai is quite as “hard” as serving in a war zone, Fallows thinks. A commenter writes in, though, to inform him that hardship doesn’t mean danger:

I’d like to point out that the hardship differential is not designed to compensate Foreign Service Officers for dangerous duty. The hardship differential is paid for a variety of reasons: if the duty location is heavily polluted, or if it is very isolated, or if it is in a very poor area and amenities are hard to come by, and so forth…

Hardship pay is separate from danger pay, which is paid for tours where life and limb are risked.

Equal benefits for same-sex partners of American diplomats

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

I noted on Friday that, while the State Department ranked a high fifth in the ‘09 rankings of best places to work in the U.S. government, it ranked much more poorly in the subcategories of Pay and Benefits and Family Friendly Culture and Benefits (17th and 26th). In a heartening related note, though, I now see that State will finally offer equal benefits and protections to same-sex partners of American diplomats:

Mrs. Clinton said the policy change addressed an inequity in the treatment of domestic partners and would help the State Department recruit diplomats, since many international employers already offered such benefits.

A response to its poor benefits and family culture rankings? Possibly, but probably not. The long-overdue reversal of a shamefully discriminatory policy? Absolutely:

“At bottom,” [Clinton] said, “the department will provide these benefits for both opposite-sex and same-sex partners because it is the right thing to do.”

“Study abroad is like spring training for this century”

Friday, May 15th, 2009

I wanted to take a second to return to the Hillary speech at NYU’s commencement that I alluded to yesterday. I took the time to listen to it in full today and…wow. I want to meet the person who is writing this stuff and buy him/her a beer. Even though I’ve been accused of being overly earnest from time to time, and despite the fact that I’m guilty of using the phrase “follow your passion” on more than one occasion in this space, I’m generally more of a sarcastic cynic and not one who is typically prone to idealistic cheese. But listening to this stuff, I can’t help but admit that I’m inspired:

My message to you today is this: Be the special envoys of your ideals; use the communication tools at your disposal to advance the interests of our nation and humanity everywhere; be citizen ambassadors using your personal and professional lives to forge global partnerships, build on a common commitment to solving our planet’s common problems. By creating your own networks, you can extend the power of governments to meet the needs of this and future generations. You can help lay the groundwork for the kind of global cooperation that is essential if we wish, in our time, to end hunger and defeat disease, to combat climate change, and to give every child the chance to live up to his or her God-given potential. (Applause.)

This starts with opportunities for educational exchanges, the kind of dorm room and classroom diplomacy that NYU is leading on. I want to commend my friend, your president, the trustees of this great university, for understanding and believing in the importance of educational exchanges.

You know, study abroad is like spring training for this century. It helps you develop the fundamentals, the teamwork, and the determination to succeed. And we want more American students to have that opportunity. That’s why we are increasing funding for Gilman scholarships by more than 40 percent. More than 400 New Yorkers have used Gilman scholarships to spend a semester abroad, including nine students from NYU last year.

Now, of course, study abroad is a two-way street, and we should bring more qualified students from other countries to study here. NYU provides a prime example of what international students can bring to a campus and how they can benefit themselves and their countries. Over 700,000 international students came to the United States last year, and NYU had the second largest number of any school in the country.

Now, the benefits from such exchanges are so great that I am committed to streamline the visa process – (applause) – particularly for science and technology students so that even more qualified students will come to our campuses in the future. We’re also doing more to marry technology with global service. That’s why today I am pleased to announce that over the next year the State Department will be creating Virtual Student Foreign Service Internships to harness the energy of a rising generation of citizen diplomats. Working from college and university campuses, American students will partner with our embassies abroad to conduct digital diplomacy that reflects the realities of the networked world.

New jobs at State and USAID

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

We’ve been talking a decent amount (for starters, here) about how new resources are hopefully headed into the Foreign Service and USAID, resources that will create new positions and new jobs. At a hearing today in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Jack Lew, the Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources, confirmed our talk. In his testimony about the Obama administration’s international affairs budget, he stated:

The FY 2010 budget requests $283 million to support adding 740 new Foreign Service personnel at the Department of State, a significant step toward achieving a 25 percent increase in State Foreign Service personnel over four years.

And then he said:

The FY 2010 request includes a 45 percent increase in USAID operations to support adding an additional 350 new permanent USAID Foreign Service Officers.

This is good news all around, but particularly good news if you have ambitions to be in the Foreign Service, either State or USAID.

UPDATE: I missed this on DipNote, from a few weeks ago: “Secretary Clinton announced today on that Congress recently approved funding for the State Department that will allow us to hire over 1,000 new employees during the next few years. So now, we’re stepping up our recruitment efforts. We’re looking for smart people from diverse backgrounds who can help us perform our key mission here at the State Department—to strengthen our relationships with other nations and work toward peace and prosperity for all people, by using what we call “smart power,” the full range of diplomatic tools at our disposal.”

UPDATE #2: RE: Lauren’s comment below, Clinton’s speech from NYU announcing the creation of Virtual Student Foreign Service Internships, “to harness the energy of a rising generation of citizen diplomats.”  She also mentions that the Foreign Service is looking for good, young people: “Our State Department personnel are skilled, dedicated, passionate, and effective. And for those of you still looking for jobs, we are hiring a new generation of diplomats.”

UPDATE #3: Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, introduced the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for Fiscal Years 2010 and 2011 on May 15, which: 1) authorizes hiring 1,500 additional Foreign Service Officers over the next two years; and 2) supports the Administration’s plan to double the size of the Peace Corps.

New investment in diplomacy = new jobs in diplomacy

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

The word on the street (like this street) has been that the Obama Administration is determined to invest substantial resources in the Foreign Service and USAID, thus leading to an increase in Foreign and Civil Service jobs (like 1,500 new jobs, according the NYTimes). This morning, at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seconded this and remarked that the U.S. must end its underinvestment in diplomacy:

I am determined to see that the men and women of our Foreign and Civil Service get the resources they need to do their jobs safely and effectively. Even Secretary Gates has pointed out our country has underinvested in diplomacy. That must end. Just as we would never deny ammunition to American troops headed into battle, we cannot send our diplomats into the field in today’s world with all of the threats they face, 24/7, without the tools they need. We don’t invest in diplomacy and development; we end up paying a lot more for conflict and all that follows.

On the heels of this hearing, Sherry pointed me to a WashPost article from the end of March that again confirms the Foreign Service and USAID are “hiring, hiring, hiring:”

USAID, Uncle Sam’s foreign assistance agency, plans to double, to 2,200, its ranks of foreign service officers by 2012…[the] agency is looking for people in many areas, including health, finance and contracting. USAID plans to hire more than 300 people this year.

As an interesting footnote, the WashPost article also references the Presidential Management Fellows program (or PMF), a well-known and highly competitive program that is essentially a springboard into high-level government service. A worthy program, to be sure, but please note the line, “The 786 finalists, out of 5,100 who applied, are vying for about 400 jobs at about 80 agencies.” 786 people vying for 400 jobs. Clearly not every PMF is guaranteed a job.  But I have to say, during my dealings with PMF during grad school, it was presented to me in a very different way. More on my PMF experience after the jump.