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I'm a Department of State Foreign Service Officer currently based in DC after overseas assignments.  Before entering the Foreign Service, I got an MPP.  I'm happy to answer questions about the Foreign Service, the hiring process, graduate school and the Foreign Service, Wikileaks, etc.  I won't tell you where I went to school or where I've served since I'd prefer to try to preserve some sense of anonymity, but almost anything else is fair game.  So, if you'd like to ask questions, go ahead.

 

As usual, any responses are my own and do not/not necessarily reflect the views, policies, etc. of the Department of State.

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Hi CurrentFSO,

 

1) Could you tell us what track you are currently on, and why you elected said track?

 

2) What is the most beneficial skill set you derived from your MPP? Do FSOs with MPPs from "top programs" have any measurable advantage that you have seen?

 

3) How is not having an MPP as a FSO a limiting factor in career progression and daily work potential?

 

Thanks!

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Hi CurrentFSO,

 

1) Could you tell us what track you are currently on, and why you elected said track?

 

2) What is the most beneficial skill set you derived from your MPP? Do FSOs with MPPs from "top programs" have any measurable advantage that you have seen?

 

3) How is not having an MPP as a FSO a limiting factor in career progression and daily work potential?

 

Thanks!

 

1) I'm in the Economic track and chose it because of previous work in export promotion. 

 

2) The ability to write concisely.  Previously, I'd written lengthy academic papers and a variety of work-related written products, but hadn't been introduced to concise policy memo writing.  I don't really write memos the same way I did in grad school, but the writing habits I learned have come in handy in writing cables, briefing materials, etc.

 

3) Not at all.  Plenty of people come in to the Foreign Service with no graduate degree or a graduate degree in another field like law, business, regional studies, etc.  For better or for worse, the Foreign Service really only cares what you've done in the Foreign Service and previous education and work experience doesn't really help you get ahead unless you developed specific skills that are helpful in the Foreign Service, like the writing example I mentioned earlier.

 

Edited to add:

 

2.1)  Sorry, I missed the second part of that question.  I don't really see that people from "top programs" have a noticeable advantage.  There certainly are plenty of SAIS, Georgetown, HYP, etc. alums running around in the FS but there are plenty from other programs, too, and it's not nearly as skewed toward the elite schools as one might think.  Promotions are based off of evaluations and they can't mention where you went to school.  Assignments are based on luck and who you know, which is as much a function of who you've worked for in the Foreign Service as anything.  If you meet Assistant Secretary X at an alumni mixer, that can be helpful, but having actually worked for Assistant Secretary X will allow them to give you a much more complete recommendation when you're bidding.  So, anecdotally, the "prestige" of the program you attend doesn't have as much of an impact on your career as your assignments and promotions do.

Edited by CurrentFSO
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I took the FSOT right out of college and didn't pass the initial test (did very well on the job knowledge and english expression sections, but bombed the biographic information section). Would getting a grad degree help on the biographic info section? Do you think it was because I didn't have any relevant work experience? Thanks.

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I took the FSOT right out of college and didn't pass the initial test (did very well on the job knowledge and english expression sections, but bombed the biographic information section). Would getting a grad degree help on the biographic info section? Do you think it was because I didn't have any relevant work experience? Thanks.

 

The bio section is tricky because it's not something where there's clearly a right or wrong answer, and I don't have any insider knowledge of what they're really looking for.  However, what I tried to do was to think of myself in terms of the general public as opposed to grad school classmates/college classmates/etc.  For example, I may not be the best traveled person in my grad program, but I'm probably a lot better traveled than the general public. 

 

I would also take a look at the 13 dimensions that they use in the hiring process.  You can find them on the careers.state.gov website.  Those are the qualities that they're looking for in prospective FSOs and answering the bio questions in ways that demonstrate those 13 dimensions couldn't hurt.

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What was the timeline for you application? When did you register for the test? Have to submit the personal narrative? Go for the oral exam? Get placed on the register and hear back?

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What was the timeline for you application? When did you register for the test? Have to submit the personal narrative? Go for the oral exam? Get placed on the register and hear back?

 

I registered for and took the FSOT in July, heard back from the QEP in August (at the time, you submitted your QEP answers when you registered for the test), took the OA in February, was medically and security cleared in June, added to the register in June, got an A-100 offer in July, then started A-100 in September.

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Hey,

Thank you for answering our questions.  I have two questions:

 

1) What is the average age of foreign service officers?  Or if that is too broad a question, what is the average age of a foreign service officer on the Economic track?

 

2) I'm about to begin a graduate program that focuses primarily on Asia.  I like Asia (otherwise I would not be specializing in the region) but I would like to work in other areas as well if I join the State Department.  Would I only be able to work on issues relating to Asia or could I potentially move around?

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Hey,

Thank you for answering our questions.  I have two questions:

 

1) What is the average age of foreign service officers?  Or if that is too broad a question, what is the average age of a foreign service officer on the Economic track?

 

2) I'm about to begin a graduate program that focuses primarily on Asia.  I like Asia (otherwise I would not be specializing in the region) but I would like to work in other areas as well if I join the State Department.  Would I only be able to work on issues relating to Asia or could I potentially move around?

 

 

1)  I've heard that the average age of new hires is about 30-35.  Of course, I've met people who started in the Foreign Service as 22 year olds and as 59 year olds.  I have no idea if there's any difference in the average age of new hires between career tracks.  That's an interesting question.

 

2)  You could definitely move around and get experience in different geographic areas.  The State Dept is organized in to geographic and functional bureaus and getting experience in a couple different bureaus is encouraged.  Most people tend to focus on 2-3 bureaus, but some people bounce around from bureau to bureau. 

Edited by CurrentFSO
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CurrentFSO,

 

1) What are options for married FSOs? Are their families allowed to go on low to medium risk tours? 

 

2) Have you heard of FSO couples bouncing around to the same locations at the same time? 

 

1) Families are usually allowed to go to most posts.  There are a few where no family members are allowed unless they have a job there like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, etc.  There are a few more where school aged kids are not allowed due to insufficient or unsafe schools, like Algiers, Monterrey, etc.  But, most places are open to families.  You can take families to Nuevo Laredo, Bogota, Caracas, Cairo, Kinshasa, etc.  There is the risk that a post's status could change during your tour if something happens.  I know families who were in Libya in 2011 when the embassy was evacuated and then it became an unaccompanied posting.  A number of families had to leave post on short notice after Monterrey stopped allowing school-aged kids at post.

 

2) Yes, they call them tandem couples and they can be FSO-FSO, FSO-FS Specialist, or FS Specialist-FS Specialist.  It takes some coordination and there may be gaps between when you both get to post.  You have to find two jobs at the same post that open at roughly the same time and that you can convince them to choose you for the post.  So, that can limit you to larger posts that have a lot of vacancies or DC where there are always lots of vacancies.  Some couples choose to take separate assignments at certain points, too.  It can also mean that, at some point, you have to decide whose career will take precedence since finding super assignments for both of you can be tough.

 

One thing to note, it's harder to coordinate tandem assignments if you're both in the same career track and sometimes even if one is Political and one is Economic.  Neither one of you is allowed to supervise the other, so it can be difficult to find two open assignments in the same section where one is not responsible for supervising the other.  In some posts the Political and Economic sections are combined in to one Pol/Econ section so that's why even being Political and Economic tracked officers can be a bit problematic in assignments. 

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This is going to sound like a dumb question, but I'm going to ask it anyway. Do you have any advice on picking a track for someone whose interests fit into multiple tracks and who took that screening test online and got within 2 points for three of the five tracks? Thanks in advance, and apologies for asking something that's probably kinda idiotic.

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This is going to sound like a dumb question, but I'm going to ask it anyway. Do you have any advice on picking a track for someone whose interests fit into multiple tracks and who took that screening test online and got within 2 points for three of the five tracks? Thanks in advance, and apologies for asking something that's probably kinda idiotic.

 

It's hard to pick a career track because it's hard to know what the work will really be like if you've never done it before.  Everyone will do at least one year of consular work and it's not uncommon for people to do out-of-track work from time to time, though too much out-of-track work may slow down your promotions (or not if you're a real rock star).  So, if you have an interest in multiple tracks, it's not a deal breaker.  You might check out a couple of books on the Foreign Service like "Inside a U.S. Embassy" or "Career Diplomacy" since both books talk about the different tracks in a little more detail, which could help you clarify which tracks are more interesting than others to you.  You can also consider reaching out to a Diplomat in Residence, who are senior FSOs based at universities around the country.  They can answer questions and go in to more detail about the different tracks, too. 

 

Also, I don't advocate picking a track because it's less competitive and hiring needs do shift, but typically Political and Public Diplomacy are the most popular, followed by Consular, and then Management and Economic are usually the least competitive.  I don't think it's wise to pick a track just because it's less competitive, because you'll spend most of your career in that track and if you don't like it, you'll be miserable and make everyone around you miserable.  However, if you're equally interested in more than one track, I see no harm in choosing one that's usually less competitive to increase your odds of an Oral Assessment invitation and ultimately an employment offer.

Edited by CurrentFSO
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CurrentFSO,

 

Thanks so much for volunteering your time to field questions. Do the majority of FSOs you've encountered stick with the Foreign Service for the long haul, or does there seem to be a fair amount of turnover? Also, if you've ever had problems with bureaucracy or had to work on policies you didn't agree with, how have you made the best of your situation?

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CurrentFSO,

 

Thanks so much for volunteering your time to field questions. Do the majority of FSOs you've encountered stick with the Foreign Service for the long haul, or does there seem to be a fair amount of turnover? Also, if you've ever had problems with bureaucracy or had to work on policies you didn't agree with, how have you made the best of your situation?

 

I don't have statistics handy, but a lot of people do stick with it for the long haul and some who leave go on to work for State or other U.S. government departments/agencies in Civil Service positions.  I've been in about 5 years and probably about 5-7% of my initial training class has left the Foreign Service.  Again, I don't have stats, but anecdotally, people tend to leave for family reasons, health reasons, and some frustration with the work. 

 

Certainly, there have been issues with bureaucracy.  Your first two assignments are directed assignments, meaning you can provide input, but the assignments officers ultimately tell you where you're going.  Sometimes that works out great, sometimes.....not so much.  Take a look at the list of embassies and consulates on the state.gov website and picture your life in each and every one of those places, because you could end up in any of those places.  Not sure about Kinshasa?  Not crazy about narcoviolence on the border with Mexico?  Not up for the heat and crowding in India?  Then you might need to adjust your expectations or look for another line of work, because they could send you to any of those places.

 

There are frustrations with moving (what do you mean you can't find half of my boxes!?!), adding new family members to orders when you have kids, waiting to get reimbursed for travel/training expenses, etc. 

 

Thus far, I haven't had to advocate on any policy I vehemently disagreed with.  There have been a few times where I questioned the wisdom of certain instructions, but nothing that made me hop up and down and scream.  There is a dissent channel where, if you disagree with policy and your opinions aren't making it to Washington, you can write a cable and send it back to Washington that way.  It does sometimes result in a policy shift.

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That last bit is interesting to hear.  I had had the impression that FSOs were essentially drones carrying out policies thought up in DC.

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That last bit is interesting to hear.  I had had the impression that FSOs were essentially drones carrying out policies thought up in DC.

 

Thanks, we think very highly of you, too. ;)

 

Not exactly.  Certainly, you won't be the sole author of U.S. government policy toward Russia on your first tour, but it's more than just delivering the mail from Washington.  As a Political or Economic officer, you're writing cables on what's going on in country and that info informs decisions in Washington.  Depending on the issue and country, a lot of things can be decided at post with minimal Washington consultation.  On larger issues and certain countries, more things will be decided in Washington, but usually a post has input in to that decision.  Unless you're the President, you'll be reporting to someone, consulting with other agencies, etc and not making policy on your own.  Even when the President makes decisions, they're informed by positions from various agencies, congress, etc. 

 

If you're posted in Washington, then you're usually part of the Washington policy process.  That may mean that as desk officer for country X, you're tasked to write briefing papers for someone senior in the State Department to make a decision or to take to the interagency process or White House.  When you're writing them, you reach out to post, to other offices in the State Department that work on that country or issue (there are regional and functional offices in the State Department), and so on. 

 

Eventually, you're senior enough that you're making more and more decisions and having more and more input in to decisions that are made higher than you. 

 

In other cones, you have different objectives, but again, certain decisions are made at post, certain decisions are made in DC with post input, etc.  For example, a Public Diplomacy section might get instruction to reach out to a certain group, but often they have a lot of latitude in how they achieve that. 

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Haha -- sorry -- it wasn't my intention to come off harshly...

 

Thanks again for this information.  I don't see myself ever becoming an FSO, but it's nice to be more informed about how our foreign policy works!

Edited by Nabad
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How close do FSO's normally get to the local people of the country where they work?  Is making friends with locals frowned on as it might compromise a FSO's work?

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How close do FSO's normally get to the local people of the country where they work?  Is making friends with locals frowned on as it might compromise a FSO's work?

 

It really depends on the post and person.  There aren't many restrictions on who you can socialize with and so it's up to you to decide who you want to befriend, whether local citizens, American citizens, and/or expats from another country.  Many FSOs have foreign national friends, significant others, spouses, etc.  Others stick mainly to the expat population in their country of assignment.  It just depends on the person's preferences, who they see socially (ie parents of kids' school friends, neighbors, etc), language barriers, security situation, etc. 

 

You do have to report "close and continuing" foreign contacts to the Regional Security Officer (RSO) and on your security clearance paperwork, but there's no formal definition of "close and continuing" laid out.  Sometimes, if the RSO has adverse info on the person, they'll let you know and you'll talk about whether or not to continue the friendship/relationship.  Not everyone is who they say they are and not everyone who wants to be your friend has altruistic motives for being your friend.  Some countries have no problem exploiting friendships and romantic relationships for intelligence purposes. 

 

In one of my assignments, it was harder to make local friends because of the security situation and being unsure who was trustworthy or not, though I did make some good friends from the local staff at post.  In another assignment, there were very few security concerns and it was a lot easier to make local friends without having concerns about their motives in the back of my mind. 

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I see that you mention many FSOs start out in Civil Service positions before moving on to take the FSOT, was that the case with you? Do you have any advice for securing a position in the CS after completion of a graduate degree? Is it essential to have contacts in State or to complete an internship there? Thanks for taking the time to answer questions!

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I see that you mention many FSOs start out in Civil Service positions before moving on to take the FSOT, was that the case with you? Do you have any advice for securing a position in the CS after completion of a graduate degree? Is it essential to have contacts in State or to complete an internship there? Thanks for taking the time to answer questions!

 

I actually said that "some who leave go on to work for State or other U.S. government departments/agencies in Civil Service positions" not that they are in Civil Service before joining the Foreign Service. 

 

There are some who are in Civil Service positions before joining the Foreign Service, but I'm not sure what the percentage is.  It certainly isn't necessary to join the Foreign Service and I honestly don't know a ton about the Civil Service hiring process at State.  Many of the Civil Service people I've worked with have specific functional or regional expertise that qualifies them for their job. 

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I'm having trouble phrasing this question in my head, but I'm wondering if any FSOs leave the Foreign Service for the private sector, and how the private sector might value their skills. Does it make sense for someone to want to start a career in the Foreign Service and then after 5-7 years try and use that experience for work outside of the government? 

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I'm having trouble phrasing this question in my head, but I'm wondering if any FSOs leave the Foreign Service for the private sector, and how the private sector might value their skills. Does it make sense for someone to want to start a career in the Foreign Service and then after 5-7 years try and use that experience for work outside of the government? 

 

Certainly some FSOs do transition to the private sector if they leave the Foreign Service.  Some go back to what they were doing before the Foreign Service since becoming an FSO is often a second (or third or fourth!) career for many FSOs.  Others go on to a new career path based on their Foreign Service career.  Consular officers could go on to do stateside immigration consulting, work for companies who need help arranging to bring foreign workers to the U.S., etc.  Management officers will have a lot of skills that would apply to management in a large company.  Economic officers will develop expertise that could be valuable to companies looking to do business in foreign countries.  Public Diplomacy officers will likely have experience that could be valuable in PR or marketing for a private company, cultural exchanges at a university, etc.

 

So, I'm not sure that becoming an FSO is the best route to success in the private sector, but it's certainly an option if you decide that the Foreign Service isn't for you for whatever reason.

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I am curious about security clearances.  I am an American citizen who spent a couple of years working abroad and I have a graduate degree from another Western country.  Will it be difficult for me to get a security clearance?  Will people look down on me because my graduate degree is not from an American university?

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