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Should I Join the Foreign Service: Pros and Cons

Nov 15, 2017 | Becoming a FSO

There are a variety of considerations you should make before joining the Foreign Service as a diplomat. The “job” is not just a career, but it is also a lifestyle – one that has many perks and potential drawbacks.

Searching online, asking former/current diplomats and their spouses, asking questions on forums, and reading books, just to mention a few, are all resources you should seek to assist you in your determination of whether or not to join the service.

But none of that can begin, without taking the first critical step of introspection – you need to know yourself. You need to acknowledge what you like, what you do not like, what you can live without, and what you must have. Some of these things you already recognize about yourself, others you will only learn through experience.

Know your flexibilities, and those of your partner and dependents if applicable. Being a diplomat is dependent on this.

Your decision! The Pros and Cons.

When I first wrote this draft, it started much differently. The original intent was to break down the pros and cons of joining the Service into separate posts. But as I was typing away and considering the options, it didn’t feel right to divide the information. It was a disservice.

So instead, I’ve combined them below.

What follows are essential aspects of a career in the Foreign Service you should consider in your decision to join. As you read, determine if the area discussed is a pro, con, or TBD. This is your decision to make.

Worldwide Availability

This should go without saying, but if you want to join the Foreign Service, then you do so with full knowledge that you are going to be living overseas. Furthermore, you agree with Uncle Sam to go wherever he tells you. This is not to say consideration to your preferences are not made, they very much are! Every Officer is given the opportunity to bid on their next post, but if the Department of State requires your particular set of skills in Peru, then guess where you are going.

The U.S. has around 300 embassies and consulates around the world. Some missions are rather large, while others are made up of a small diplomatic staff. You need to be able to adapt to both. Just two examples of what that could mean:

  • In smaller missions, you may be asked to fill the role that in a larger embassy may have been filled by 3-5 people.
  • In smaller missions, you may be working in an isolated part of the country and have less access to cultural opportunities, health institutions, schools, etc.

Relocation Every 1-3 years

With the Foreign Service, you have the opportunity to live in many different parts of the world. Much more than “skimming the surface”, as the typical tourist would do, you have the chance (if you want to, and you should) to immerse yourself in the people, culture, environment, politics, and nuances of a post. Time is on your side to both go to remote areas and to treat your new relocation as a regional hub (e.g., if you live in Europe, it’s much easier to visit other countries in Europe).

For some, relocating to a new post every 1-3 years is something to look forward to. You get to see new places, meet new people, and more. But to others, the constant movement can be hard.

You might not ever feel “settled”:

  • There is the constant motion of packing and unpacking;
  • There is no “coasting”: new post, new friends, new situations, new taboos, and new experiences;
  • Almost as soon as you arrive at a location (depending on your length of stay), you have to start thinking about the next posting;
  • If you have children, they may feel uprooted;
  • And more.

Some of these might sound great to you, but others might find the above a significant impediment to joining. Perhaps one post was not a good experience, and you are looking forward to the next one.

I recall how much I was looking forward to the end of our post in China. Not because the country or the people were terrible, I enjoyed those aspects, but it was because of my school experience. Middle school was difficult (kids can be mean), and I looked forward to a “fresh start”.

Consistently moving may be one of the most difficult and beneficial aspects of being a Foreign Service Officer. For each post brings new benefits and challenges. At your next post, you could:

  • Be living in an apartment as opposed to a house with a yard;
  • Be living in a mostly winter climate as opposed to tropical;
  • Be living in a country with a culture dramatically different than your own, and have to adapt to it;
  • Be making a higher salary due to danger and hardship pay, as opposed to just the base salary; or
  • Be a quick four-hour flight back to the U.S., as opposed to a travel time of 36 hours.

It all comes down to what you make of it and keeping a positive outlook on the aspects of your life that you can change and those that you cannot.

Salary

Pay is brought up consistently as both a benefit and a deterrent for joining the Service. Whether you are a solo Officer, with a partner, or have dependents, the salary question affects you differently.

As an aside, how much does a Foreign Service Officer make is a question that I get asked a lot, which is why there is an extensive post that breaks this information down.

Here are two reasons, I have heard, as to why the Foreign Service salary is a deterrent to joining:

  • You can make more in the private sector when compared to the FSO’s base salary; and
  • Your partner/spouse may be limited to the salary work he/she can do. Thus, you are reliant on the Officer’s income only.

Here are three reasons, I have heard, as to why the Foreign Service salary is not a deterrent to joining:

  • Depending on the post, “modifiers” (hardship, danger, and cost of living for example) increase your base salary;
  • If you have children, their k-12 education tuition is covered; and
  • Your overseas housing rent and utility payments are covered.

Hardship and Danger Posts

A part of worldwide availability and consistently moving is that you will most likely be stationed at a mission categorized as hardship or dangerous. Considering these two together, you have a spectrum of possibility. Designation may be assigned because you live in an unhealthy environment (e.g., air pollution is abysmal) and/or you live in a conflict zone and your life may be at stake. To help, here are the following definitions:

A post is designated dangerous, or more specifically that danger pay allowance is allocated to your salary:

When, and only when, civil insurrection, civil war, terrorism or wartime conditions threaten physical harm or imminent danger to the health or well being of a majority of employees officially stationed or detailed at a post or country/area in a foreign area.

A post is designated hardship, or more specifically that hardship pay allowance is allocated to your salary,

When, and only when, the place involves extraordinarily difficult living conditions, excessive physical hardship, or notably unhealthful conditions affecting the majority of employees officially stationed or detailed at that place.

Sure, you get a salary bump when you live in places that are designated as hardship or dangerous, but you have to determine if this is worthwhile to you.

Additionally, if a location is deemed very dangerous and difficult, only the Officer may be allowed to go. If you have a family, they are located elsewhere. This could mean they stay in the U.S., nearby but a different city, or a different country entirely. Two examples:

  • When the Iraq embassy was first re-opening, a call was made for Officers to volunteer to go and do a “short” stint (6 months to a year if I recall correctly). If the Officer went, their families would remain where they were. When this was happening, we were in Kenya, and that’s where the families stayed.
  • Over the summer (2017), I met a young couple about to leave for their first post with the Service. They had put in for Turkey because they wanted to live there and because they wouldn’t be separated. Shortly before they left, less than a month, the designation of the post changed. Due to geopolitics, the post, which was near the Turkey and Syrian border, was deemed too dangerous for non-Officers. Because of this, the Officer would now go to the post solo, and her husband would have to live in Ankara. So they were nearby, but not together.

Some aspects of the Foreign Service career you can influence, like bidding for posts to try and control your location. But others are out of your hand and may only arise once you are located in the country.

When we lived in China, the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade happened. The reaction led to a dramatic and immediate rise in tension between the U.S. and China. Almost overnight, Beijing, once a safe city for me to walk in as a young teenager, was now dangerous – we were targets. Massive demonstrations erupted as students were bussed in every day to picket, chant, and protest against the U.S. embassy. Non-essential personnel was told to stay home, and children were not allowed to go to school. As tensions increased, staff had to destroy classified material for fear that the Embassy would be overrun. Protesters who jumped the fence were met by Marines in military gear and forced to return to the street. Non-essential personnel and their families were told to pack their bags; we were almost evacuated as tensions increased. Since we lived right next to the embassy, I saw first hand all of this taking place, and it will be a memory that stays with me.

In the end, tensions settled down, and although the Embassy walls were a mess, as bricks/stones, paint bombs, urine/feces were thrown at the walls, and a U.S. reporter was attacked (a brick was thrown and hit her head), it could have been worse.

This is just one of many stories I can tell that took place to my family and me during our Foreign Service career, and this one had international headlines. Many stories didn’t.

Something dangerous happening is not a given. You just have to realize that it is a possibility.

Representing the U.S.

You represent the U.S. as a diplomat overseas; this means you are on the “clock” 24/7.

Recall, this is not just a career. This is a lifestyle. Your actions outside of the embassy, as you interact with the people of the country, are just as, if not, more important. In some regards, there are higher expectations for you and the behavior you must uphold.

I recall many times being pulled into political conversations when I was trying to eat in public or walking down the street. Sometimes, I was in an open mood to talk, other times I did not want to. For both, you need to learn that there are things that can and cannot be said, and more importantly, that there are ways to say things, and then there are the correct ways of saying it.

Professionally, you are a representative of the government of the U.S. This means you are working on important national, bilateral, and multilateral issues. Some of these are “front page news”, but most of the time they are not.

Furthermore, it is your responsibility to implement the policies of the current administration, regardless of your opinions. Depending on what is happening at home, you may find this to be either honor or a disappointment. Additionally, depending on U.S. policies, and how her leadership is viewed, you may notice your relationships with the people of your host country to be friendlier or more challenging.

Equal parts determine the measure of a diplomat: her ability to succeed in her job, and her interaction with the people of her host country.

Other Considerations

Language
You receive training for the language required for your next station. For some, this is easy, for others this is not.

Away from Extended Family and Friends
Time zones add up. The farther you are from the U.S., the harder it is to keep connected. Furthermore, you may not be able to go to special celebrations, such as weddings and birthdays, because it is not logistically logical. Luckily, the Internet is making it much easier to interact with family far away, but there is still the physical distance.

Red Tape
You are working for the government, and if you have not worked for a state or federal agency before, there are additional, and sometime redundant, protocols and rules you have to follow. With added layers of security and communication protocol, what you think should take 10 minutes might take several hours. Perhaps you like the structure; maybe you think it slows activity down.

Comforts of U.S. May be Limited
Where you live may not have potable water, reliable electricity, or internet. Is it the end of the world? No, you just have to get used to it. Also, what you consider a grocery store or market may need to change. Box stores are not everywhere, and that order you just placed online will not be there within 24 hours. Depending on where you live, you will need to try the options available in the country. Sometimes the best meat is at the butcher around the corner. Sure they’re carving the cow right in front of you, but at least you know it is fresh.

Networking
You have to know your community, and since you are always moving, you have to re-learn your community. You need to meet new people and keep the connections you make. The diplomatic corps is mobile, the relationships you build will carry around the world as you grow your career and bid on future positions.

Variety
This speaks for itself and is mentioned above in several different ways. You never know what your current or next post has in store for you. You just need to enjoy the ride and make the best of it.

Homesickness
No matter where you travel to, feeling homesick is always a possibility. The Embassy does a sound job of trying to help you not feel too lonely, but we all feel it in different ways. It’s how you handle it that matters.

Just a Start

There are MANY more considerations that you have to review for yourself and your family. But the above is an excellent place to start, and a helpful way to determine what your pros and cons are. Good luck!