Single Foreign Service Officers: Dropping a Truth Bomb

This week, Heather, from the blog Adventures Around the World, shares her perspective as a single “solo” Foreign Service Officer. Her story is one shared by many in the Service, but not one readily discussed because of its hard truths. A career in the Foreign Service has many perks: the profession, the chance to visit and live in new and beautiful places, the opportunity to meet cultures and people you normally would not be able to, and much more. However, there are many drawbacks, and it is critical that you be made aware of them, and understand them.

I have looked forward to sharing Heather’s thoughts on this matter, as it reveals much-needed candor on the subject and a viewpoint that I am not able to personally provide to you. I very much look forward to reading about your thoughts in the comment section.

If you were to randomly ask 100 Foreign Service Officers to describe their experiences, you would probably see a lot of common themes about their careers and living abroad. But those experiences are profoundly colored by their own circumstance, their personality, their family situation, etc. In my case, I joined the Foreign Service in my mid-30s and have remained unmarried throughout my 10+ year FS career.

I don’t claim to be a spokesperson for all single FSOs (and there are a lot of us). But in an effort to shine a light in some of the dark corners of the FS lifestyle for those who think it’s a piece of cake, I will highlight some of the issues that always come up when I talk to other single FSOs. (In recognition of the fact that single parent FSOs have a whole slew of issues that single dependent-less FSOs like me do not, I will refer to the single, dependent-less FSO as a “solo FSO.”)

There are a number of irksome practical matters solo FSOs frequently cite. Number one being PCS (permanent change of station). Granted, moving one person around the world is logistically simpler than moving a family of five. However, the weeks leading up to a PCS are chaotic and require a lot of running around. Two legs and two arms just aren’t enough. And if you have pets… a colleague of mine once commented that it was easier getting her children’s travel in order than it was getting her dog’s travel documents.

Once at post, health and security seem to be the solo FSO’s top concern. If you live in a house or apartment that is isolated from other embassy employees and you become ill or suffer an emergency, you could be at the mercy of how proactive and compassionate the RSO, Med Unit, and CLO are. I’ve heard both horror stories of neglect and heroic tales of kindness from solo FSOs. In the event of an emergency, which outcome you could expect is out of your control.

Often overlooked is the emotional well-being of solo FSOs, who are far away from family and friends. Solo FSOs have missed birthdays, weddings, funerals, and holidays back home, without the consolation of family celebrations at post. Social media and videophone apps make it easier to stay in touch with loved ones, but for many solo FSOs, the infrequency of personal contact with the people they care about can be demoralizing. The State Department could do more to address this.

I don’t want to just drop a truth bomb and walk away. There are many, many benefits to this career and to being a solo FSO: I can be completely selfish when it comes to bidding; I can take full advantage of traveling in whatever region I’m in whenever I want; I can use the second bedroom in my embassy-provided housing as a storage room! I have no regrets about this path I chose. Before you choose a similar path, just be sure your eyes are open and you know it’s not always easy.

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