Monday, November 25, 2013

Your Questions, Answered

 With thanks to Si Hua for her thoughtful questions.  Good luck on your paper!

1. What was one of the major sacrifices you had to make for this career choice, if any?

The biggest thing you sacrifice for a job like this is a certain amount of leeway in your interactions with others.  You need to always be mindful of representing the United States -- that doesn't mean never expressing your own opinion, but it does mean knowing your audience and being thoughtful about what you're saying and how people will take it.  Some officers will cite the need to move every few years as the biggest sacrifice.  I don't think that part of it is actually as difficult as never really getting to be "off the record" (and staying in one place forever has its own challenges, I imagine).  You do have to agree to live apart from your family for at least a portion of your career -- that sacrifice can be hard, even for single people.  My family and friends were unable to visit me in Pakistan, so I had to accept having very limited opportunities to interact with them over that year.

2. Does one need to have any prior experiences before applying for this career?

The only hard and fast requirements are that the applicant be a U.S. citizen between the ages of 20 and 59, available and fit for worldwide assignment.  Experiences with other cultures, working in teams, managing, writing, and just a demonstration of general curiosity about the world are definitely helpful, however.  You can read more about it on our recruitment site.

3. Is there a lot of stress involved with this career?

Yes.  Some of it is logistical (figuring out a new boss, job, home, friends, so forth every few years, for example, or living in a dangerous or difficult place), and some of it is professional.  We tend to put a lot of pressure on ourselves to preform well, and the constant wondering if you are meeting expectations and doing a good job can be stressful.  The stakes can sometimes feel very high, though you might never be sure about the true impact of your actions.  That ambiguity is part of the stress.

4. Are there any misconceptions regarding this career?

Ha, yes!  To the extent that people have an idea about the Foreign Service at all, I think they don't understand how much of what we do is just normal "office work."  Filling out forms, writing memos, responding to email, managing budgets or personnel -- all that necessary but very unglamorous stuff.

5. What is the work/family/life balance like?

It really depends on the person and the assignment.  There's a high demand to perform, but some of the most successful officers are also very dedicated parents and spouses (and siblings and children).  It's just something each person has to figure out for her or himself.  

6. What are some unique benefits of having this occupation?

Knowing that you are serving your country -- the "service" part of the Foreign Service -- is really quite wonderful.  You get to be part of something bigger than just yourself.  No matter what menial, small thing you're doing, it is feeding in to that bigger goal of helping the United States -- and helping the United States more often than not involves helping others in the world, too.  It's a great feeling.

7. What are some unique challenges of having this career?

Mostly that the challenges themselves change with each new assignment.  The learning curve for each job is incredibly steep.  You have to balance the need to take action with not always having all the details.

8. What is the work environment like?

It is completely dependent upon the place, the job, the mix of coworkers you end up with, and the political scene (both at home and in your host country).  I'd say the mix of coworkers is the most immediately impactful variable on any work environment, especially the mix of local hired staff. 

9. Have you faced any ethical problems that may have challenged your integrity?

I think when people ask this question, they assume that ethical challenges would come from carrying out foreign policy with which you disagreed.  More often, however, challenges to one's integrity come not from disagreements with U.S. policy, but from the everyday kind of ethical dilemmas we all face:  are you honest when you don't know something?  Do you own up to mistakes and accept the consequences?  Do you take credit for the achievements of others?  Do you keep your word?  I've definitely grappled with all those moments.  In a lot of ways, I think our day to day actions as Foreign Service officers -- the more mundane showcase of our integrity, if you will -- are more important than any big ethical statements, especially as representatives of the U.S.   

As far as U.S. policy disagreement goes, my ethical approach is twofold:  first, I took an oath to uphold ALL the policies that we as citizens have collectively decided, even when I don't like them -- keeping that oath is something I will absolutely do.  Second, in those areas in which I do disagree with our policy, I use all the means at my disposal to constructively address my concerns (voting for good Congressional and Executive representatives and letting them know my views, primarily; I've also used our State Department dissent channel with some success).  I have enough faith in our system to believe that misguided policies will be worked out over time -- and enough awareness to realize that my disagreement could be due to lack of a clear understanding on my part.  Frankly, responsibility for policy lies with all U.S. citizens, not just those in government, and I would be culpable for those policies with which I disagree whether I were an FSO or not. 

 10. If applicable, what was your field of study in college? Did the knowledge you gained from your field of study help you pass the Foreign Service Officer exam?

I double majored in Anthropology and Philosophy for my undergrad degree.  I had some notion of wanting to figure out the world around me, but I definitely had no idea how I was going to apply the things I was learning (at least not in a 'putting food on the table and a roof over my head' kind of way); the Foreign Service was an unexpected happy fit.  Cumulatively, the analytic and writing skills both majors stressed were helpful in passing the Foreign Service Exam (one of the questions even had me list the sociology and anthropology courses I'd taken) and have continued to be helpful in my day-to-day assignments.  Both majors have also helped me to deal with the world being a lot more absurd -- and a lot more tragic -- than I first imagined. 

The most helpful preparation for this job, however, was probably working in a small, perpetually-on-the-brink-of-failure frame shop.  Never taking the availability of resources for granted, doing more with less, dealing with customers and coworkers, putting in extra work for the good of the business rather than with the idea that you'll be directly compensated...  Those lessons have been pretty key.

11. What are some classes you recommend taking in college to help one prepare for the exam?

Well, first I'd say not to think of it as "prep for the exam" -- passing the exam is not the whole goal in and of itself.  Take those courses that get you closer to satisfying your curiosity about things and that help you to clearly express your questions, conclusions, and thought processes.  That will be helpful no matter what field you enter, and especially helpful for the Foreign Service.

12. What is your advice for someone who is interested in this field of work?

Read a lot -- a whole lot.  Write a lot.  Learn to be comfortable with ambiguity.  Be willing to make your own fun.  Develop healthy ways of managing stress.  Never miss a chance to tell the people you care about how you feel.  Give up on your dream of owning a collection of rare, antique glassware.


Mick Harris said...


I’m interesting in joining the foreign service and working abroad in the future. I’m currently in Portland, OR with an undergraduate degree in Political Science and I’m considering some various grad school options. My uncle is a retired Foreign Service Officer and suggested I go to the AFSA website. I found your blog listed there and was hoping you might be available to answer some questions for me. I would have sent you an email, but I couldn’t track one down. I would be grateful for some first hand knowledge and insight. If there’s any chance you could respond to this and/or email me, my email is I appreciate your consideration and hope to hear back.

Many thanks,

Mick Harris

Katie said...

Mick, I'm glad to hear of your interest and would be happy to email you, though it might take a while between responses. I'll send a note to you now to get started.