From military to diplomat

Are you a current or former military member and thinking of joining the Foreign Service as a diplomat? This is the post for you! I recently participated in a session organized by State to discuss the pathway from being in the military to becoming a diplomat, and I learned a lot! 

It was great to hear the stories and learn more about the journey. This pathway is, in part, how my father was able to join and become a Foreign Service Specialist. Now I know a little more how that worked (though we’re talking a few decades of difference here).

What follows is a summary of the responses to some of the asked questions. Review this comprehensive guide first if you need a grounding on the Foreign Service process. If, after reading the answers to the questions below, you still have questions, then please contact your regional Diplomat in Residence

To be clear. The questions below were asked to the panelists about a Foreign Service Officer (generalist) role. The writing that follows is a summary of the responses of the panelists. I am not differentiating the panelists in their answers. 

Q/A: from military to diplomat

Why did you transition from the armed forces to the Department of State?

To serve my country. It was a true calling to serve my country in the armed forces, and I wanted to continue as a diplomat. There are definitely some distinct cultural differences as a military member compared to being a diplomat, but it has been a rewarding second career. 

I had a mandatory removal date from the military, and I started looking at my options. What was great about becoming a Foreign Service Officer is that you don’t have to know anybody. There is no networking requirement. 

Like the service response, I didn’t want to help a company for profit. I wanted to support my country, and the Foreign Service drew me.

What skills did you learn in the military that were transferable to the Department of State?

First and foremost, adaptability. The experience of working with different groups of people, being put into different situations and environments, and the nuances in culture, were all excellent skills to bring to State. 

To use the materials around me to accomplish the tasks at hand. Like the military, the Department of State is a government entity and will not always have the necessary resources to achieve a goal. This background will assist you as an FSO. As a military officer, my leadership skills are a valuable commodity for State. 

Having completed the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps, I had excellent writing and speaking skills to provide to State.

Having served as a defense attaché, I learned to navigate the waters of dealing with State, introducing me to the work culture at State. I learned quickly to appreciate the skills of the State Department personnel. My tour as defense attaché was a great experience before deciding to become an FSO, and I highly recommend you take the opportunity to complete a tour if possible. 

What do you wish you knew about State and the role before joining? What would you have done differently?

Make sure you explore all of your options while in the military. I chose the first job that jumped out at me, which was the wrong thing to do. Make sure you research what it is that you want to do next. I found out about the Foreign Service after my second career, but I would have learned about it sooner if I had studied. In addition, research the five career tracks, and choose wisely.

I wish I knew how long the process would take. It’s a substantial amount of time from researching about the position, taking the test, and actually being called to A-100. It took me a year, but that is considered quick. Make sure you plan well ahead of time. Also, the choice between career tracks is essential, but there is not a lot of exposure. Finally, hallway reputation is crucial in the Foreign Service.

Make sure you involve your spouse or significant other while considering and applying to this process. This is a lifestyle, not just a career. You need to bring your partner in on this decision early and make sure they are on the same page. This career is very different from the military, and this is a decision you need to make together. 

Can you speak to an event or experience where you think your military service informed your response or action at State?

Whenever there is an emergency, check on yourself, check on your people, and report up. This line of thinking applies in the military and helps a lot at State. When it comes to crises reaction, you who are serving in the military know what to do and are ready. Follow the (mental) checklist of what needs to be accomplished. 

Have a bias for action. There is little tolerance for letting things slip by. Make sure you get your work submitted on time, complete tasks as appropriate, and request more work. 

State needs capable employees who can deliberately plan and execute the plan. Many VIPs visited the post, and because of my military training, it was second nature to prepare for these visits. 

What are the cultural similarities and differences between the Departments of Defense and State?

Similarities.

The bond of service. We are all here to serve our country while making a decent living. In addition, there is a hierarchy when it comes to decision-making and the flow of information. 

Differences.

State has a much longer view on things than the military. The military likes results. State is in it for the long view. For example, State may not come to a conclusion by the end of a meeting, and as a military member, you may find it odd not to arrive at a decision.

Camaraderie. The military was stronger, much closer, and I miss it. The Department of State does have camaraderie, but it is different and doesn’t exist in the same way. Also, you can’t use the same colorful language at State as you would in the military. 

Some other items include: at State, it is encouraged to negotiate your evaluation report; the military is a command organization vs. at State is leadership by consensus organization; you don’t typically get commanded to do something, there are many nuances, which requires learning.

What’s the difference between joining the State Department as a deployment vs. assignment?

Having your family with you is an enriching experience. It brought my family so close together. We had to rely on each other 24 hours a day. It was a wonderful bonding experience. Different than the deployment experiences I’ve had.

What advice would you give someone looking to make this transition? What are pitfalls and common mistakes, and how do you avoid them?

It is a long process, so start planning early and before you retire from the military, especially if you know this is a career you want. You need at least one year of lead time. They don’t tell you that if you are invited to A-100, you can defer if required. So it is better to start early. That said, make sure you have a plan B.

Find a mentor, someone to help guide you through this process, and make sure that your family agrees with the concept of worldwide assignment. 

I encourage getting a job in the embassy to see what it is like. For example, consider a role as a defense attaché, Office of Defense Cooperation, or a Marine Security Gaurd. Review the resource Vets at State, which is a great affinity group.

How was the transition from field grade officer to a role as an entry-level FSO?

The transition will depend on who your supervisor is and if they recognize your experience. Regardless, it is humbling. You have to swallow your pride because you are starting a new career. But, a good leader knows when to lead and when to follow. If you like to lead and supervise, let that guide the career track you choose. The management career track allows you to manage numerous people quickly. 

On the first tour or two, you might have to swallow your pride and follow your role. Use your leadership skills when you can. If unable, know that you will use your leadership skills down the road.

Be humble when you first start. Know that you are transitioning from one tribe to another tribe. Nobody cares about your exploits on the battlefield. They want to know that you are willing to move from one tribe to another. In honesty, this is the circle of life. There are life changes from being a senior in high school to a freshman in college, from being a senior in college to starting a new job. Stay humble and earn your next level. 

Did any of you consider transitioning to the reserves and working at State?

I know a few people who do both and can manage the requirements. State will give you the time you need to let you complete your reserve duty and let you come back. You will have a lot in your place, but you will have two rewarding careers.

What was your daily experience like with resources and manning? 

The resource challenge is not going to end. You are plagued by resource challenges. You are holding the job of two people. You have to prioritize what you have around you.

Once accepted into State, how are assignments given?

Everybody does at least one consular tour, and getting into your career track on the first or second tour can be challenging. The first two assignments are selected by State. You can provide preferences, but State determines the final location. This is completed by ranking your available options (top, middle, and bottom). In my class, nobody got their bottom rank. 

Serving in a hardship post can give you a leg up when selecting the next tour. You have to make sure to learn a language for tenure, a consideration for you as you move forward in your career and as you select your first tours.

Know that you are not really competing with your classmates. Everybody has different tastes on what they consider a top first tour.

If you come out of the military with more than 70% disability, is that a problem joining the Foreign Service?

It’s not a problem. With many government jobs, you get a little bit of an advantage. 

Does being enlisted, as opposed to being an officer, serve as a detriment to your candidacy?

No. Your experience is what counts. Diversity of thought and experience is what State wants. It’s a matter of expressing yourself in terms of the 13 dimensions. This should not deter you from joining. 

How does speaking a second or third language help in hiring and assignments?

They show you have the ability to learn a language. It is an advantage because it shows you can learn. Does it mean you will automatically be assigned to a country requiring the language you have skill in? No. You do not have to come in with fluency in another language, State will teach you.

Is it a challenge to build new relationships?

No, there is a good support network, and everybody is in the same boat. You will do fine. State is a lot smaller than the military. If you serve with someone in one post, you will most likely see them again or be posted with them again in the future. Networking is important. If you want to grow it quicker, serve in D.C. or large posts.

Your kids get some of the best international education. It’s a beautiful experience. 

Folks who come into the Foreign Service single usually meet their spouse in the first two tours. There are a lot of opportunities to meet people from all over the world. There are considerations to keep in mind. But it is possible to marry someone from a foreign country.

I already have TS/SCI. Will State honor this, or will I have to undergo another clearance process?

Your clearance process will be quicker. The U.S. government has the exact top-secret requirements across all agencies. Your clearance will transfer over, and you will have to go through an update process as required.

Did you ever consider the other foreign agencies, besides or along with the Foreign Service?

There is no reason you can’t explore all of the opportunities to determine the best fit for you. You will be doing yourself a disservice if you do not consider all available options.

Is the consular fellow program easier or faster to get into?

It is not necessarily faster as the estimate is still 12-18 months. It is a separate exam, not the same as the FSOT, with the difference being that it includes a section on immigration law

Buyback

You are entitled to buy back your active duty years and credit that to State. This is a huge benefit and incredible financially as well. You start accruing more hours of leave per pay period than someone coming in brand new. This is a big plus.

At State, you get credit for government service and level of education coming in when it comes to salary/pay grade. You most likely come in at the top of the pay range for entry-level officers.

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