Your Questions Answered, Volume IV

It has been about a year and a half since my last YQA post, so I decided to share a selection of repeat questions the blog has received since then for wider distribution, along with my answers. I have edited both questions and answers for clarity and privacy wherever necessary. In this edition, I tackle questions about candidate experience and qualifications, travel, dual-citizenship, and mail.

These are unofficial opinions and my personal advice, which are worth roughly what you pay for them. (Wink!) These posts remain popular through the years, so I will try to do them more often if the questions keep rolling in.

Go ahead, ask a diplomat! You can email the blog a question at askcollectingpostcards@gmail.com.

Q: I have always wanted to serve my country, but I got married at age 19 and put away those dreams. I am now divorced with 5 kids (most of them out of the house) and so I am now unboxing my dreams and pursuing the Foreign Service in hopes of becoming a U.S. diplomat. I wanted to ask you a question regarding the Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP) Personal Narratives (PNs). As you may know, PNs are now required at the time you register to take the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT). I don’t have a lot of international experience–except for traveling abroad as a tourist or as an exchange student to Japan when I was 16 years old. How do I show that I can handle international relations when I don’t have a lot of life experience to draw from? 

A: I am really glad to hear that you have resurrected your dream of serving in the Foreign Service. I have heard about some of the changes with the FSOT and QEP steps merging. In my opinion, the most important thing about writing the PNs is still answering the question prompts. You would be surprised how many people write really well-written statements that don’t address the question being asked. I think telling stories from your personal and professional life that demonstrate and highlight as many of the 13 Dimensions of the Total Candidate (which I talk about in my QEP post) as possible is the best strategy: 

https://collectingpostcardsblog.com/2014/05/27/becoming-an-fso-part-ii-the-qep/

While it’s true that a lot of incoming diplomats have a lot of overseas experience, be it travel, work, Peace Corps, internships, etc., and “relevant” academic background like Ivy League degrees in business, law, or international relations, NOT everyone does, and it isn’t required.

What the Department is looking for is candidates who have the skills they are looking for (outlined in the 13 Ds), like written communication, leadership and management, etc. which can be collected over so much of life in various ways. Take the opportunity to demonstrate your experiences through the lens of the questions being asked, regardless of whether you think those experiences have a direct nexus to “international relations” or not. Answering their questions will show them who you are and what you can do better than a CV can.

The other important thing to know is not to self-adjudicate yourself out of the running. I feel like women underestimate themselves so much. Go for your dreams, and let them tell you no if they’re going to – don’t you tell yourself you can’t do it! 


Q: Does age play an important role in whether or not you are accepted into the Foreign Service (FS)? I understand that the age range is from 21-60, however, I have noticed through my research that many people seem to come to the FS after having a successful career in another career track whether it is an administrator, lawyer, etc. Is it common to work in other career tracks before starting as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO)? I am wondering if it would be a disadvantage to apply without a previous long-term career? Also, many people have encouraged me to get a graduate degree in something like global studies or foreign affairs. When it comes to a career in consular affairs how important is a master’s degree? Also is it better to get a more expansive one like global studies or a more specialized degree in a certain country or question? However others have said that experience in a relevant occupation or field would be better. What is your opinion on this advice?

A: It is common to wonder what bearing prior age, work, education, and life experience have on an applicant’s candidacy and service, and how to best position oneself for success. The answer is… it depends.

Although you are not technically required to have a college degree for any of the generalist FSO tracks – consular, economic, political, management, or public diplomacy – most candidates do have undergraduate and advanced degrees, and sometimes in multiples! Most of my A-100 classmates had master’s degrees, law degrees, or MBAs, and the majority of my FSO colleagues do too, irrespective of their track or position.

As you pointed out, a portion of officers come to the FS from other careers and are already seasoned. There is no doubt about it – more experience can be helpful. In less abstract terms, an advanced degree puts you higher on the compensation scale right out of the gate, and helps you get a foot in the door on competitive jobs that are often a precursor to the FS; in my case, I had almost nine years of federal service in Washington DC and overseas when I joined the FS.

Advanced degrees can also provide regional or technical expertise in a theme that you could try to build upon during your career, although you can expect to serve in a variety of roles across regions you may have not focused on before.

But I don’t think it is a huge disadvantage if you have less education or work history as long as you have the qualities the Department is looking for (Google the 13 Dimensions of the Total Candidate if you’re not familiar). Those abilities can be and are developed from a range of activities that don’t fit the stereotypical FS mold. In my opinion, how you demonstrate that is more key than how old you are, or what type of specific academic or professional background you have – it is what you can demonstrably do with it in service to the Department.

As far as age, I don’t have data handy, but anecdotally in my A-100 of 100 FSOs, most were in their 20s and 30s. I was 35. However, probably 15% were in their early 20s or their 40s and 50s. All of my colleagues were deserving, with very impressive backgrounds. About 11 of us were Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). In my experience, officers who are more junior in age tend to bring fresh perspectives, updated tech skills, and a willingness to innovate that is valuable and sometimes missing in their more seasoned counterparts. And getting “indoctrinated” into the professional culture of the FS can be a mentoring process for anyone, at any age or experience level.

And I want to echo your point about the FS “age limit.” It is true that career appointments must be made before a candidate’s 60th birthday (preference-eligible veterans have until their 65th birthday), meaning that in most cases, a new FSO must start A-100 at age 59. This allows requisite eligible time for tenure and retirement benefits before the mandatory retirement age of 65 as laid out by the Foreign Service Act of 1980.

I would say that the candidacy process is still extremely competitive; as of a few years ago, only about 3% of candidates who launched a candidacy ultimately received a job offer. I’m not sure how the numbers are now; you can find some media sources reporting that applications have been down during the current administration. However, I emphasize our process is merit-based and you don’t have to “be” anyone other than who you are. You don’t have to “know” anyone. Don’t self-adjudicate yourself out of the competition; let the Department be the arbiter of who they select. Put yourself out there and see what happens – we need talented and diverse officers, we need women, we need you!


Q: Does the spouse of an FSO always share an overseas address with the officer?

A: Yes, an officer shares a mailbox with their spouse and any family members at Post. Some posts are pouch-only, which introduces restrictions on liquids above 16oz and can be really slow. Other posts have both pouch and what’s known as diplomatic post office (DPO). An officer should check with his/her embassy or consulate management office to provide more information about the availability and use of DPO at Post, as well as rules for personal vs. official diplomatic pouches.


Q: As a consular officer, it seems like a second language would be helpful. How beneficial is knowing a second language? Would I use my second language often and does the language I know have any bearing on where I might get placed? 

A: Having foreign language skills is always an asset, especially for consular officers who spend so much of their time talking to visa applicants and dual-national citizens in the countries where they serve. Language skills can boost your score once you get on the register of cleared candidates, especially if you can demonstrate proficiency in a language that is a high priority. If a post is on your A-100 bid list and you speak the language there, the Department may very well send you, especially if the position is a “now” position, meaning the post needs an officer with the requisite language score as soon as possible rather than waiting for six months or a year for the Department to train an officer.

However, lots of FSOs come in without language skills and get trained at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington in advance of departing for their post. Demonstrating proficiency by achieving the required language score for a language-designated job during your first five years in the Department is necessary for tenure and job retention. Many of us learn several languages during our careers, and in my opinion, paid language training for several months while receiving DC-area government housing and per diem is a major perk of this job.


Q: How do you find all these cool places to visit within your country and/or traveling outside of your location to places you have never been? Also, if you had to travel to a place that would require a visa and it is not your duty station, can your diplomatic passport be used and would you still have to obtain a visa for the country [even though] it is not official business?

A: A lot of my ideas for trips come from my FS network of friends and colleagues. One of my favorite things to hear about is the trips people take – how they planned them, where they went, and what they saw. As a group, we tend to be off-the-beaten-path travelers, which I love!

The internet is also your friend. Our FS social media platforms have lots of travel discussions and ideas. Chances are, even if you don’t know how to prioritize what to see in Paris, or need a recommendation for a safari guide in Zimbabwe, or aren’t sure if a routing you’re eyeing makes sense, you have colleagues who have been there or have a friend serving there and can help. You will also be called upon to give advice!

A couple of our friends recently traveled from their post in Pakistan to South Africa to catch a ship on its repositioning voyage to the UK via the west coast of Africa and the Canary Islands. Who knew?! If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t even have known repositioning voyages were a thing, because boats and I don’t really get along. But I do like to research and get my own ideas and I have tried to be “pioneering” in my trips. For example, when we were in Tashkent, we were among the first to plan trips to the Maldives and later to the Aral Sea, and others later followed in our footsteps and planned similar trips because they liked our photos and trip stories. I also got good tips from the embassy community liaison office (CLO) and colleagues for trips along the Silk Road. CLO-organized trips at a post can be some of the most fun because you don’t have to worry about logistics, a language barrier, or missing the best destinations – embassy local staff with their expert insights have already got it all down.

With regards to passports, there are a lot of rules that govern the use of diplomatic (black) vs. tourist (blue) passports. In short, we only use our diplomatic passports for entering and exiting the countries where we serve, including temporary duty (TDY) or work trips. We use our tourist passports for personal travel and returning stateside. This is sometimes called the “mid-air passport flip.” I do not think we are entitled to enter the U.S. on our diplomatic passports, but this is not applied consistently and we show them to CBP if they don’t understand where we are coming from.

There are often more visa requirements associated with foreign diplomatic travel than there are with tourist travel. In other words, it is easier to enter a country on a U.S. tourist passport than a U.S. diplomatic passport, because most purposes of diplomatic travel require a corresponding diplomatic or official visa from the country you’re entering. That is the permission the foreign country gives you under the auspices of diplomatic privilege to come and represent the United States in a formal capacity. That is much different than a trip for leisure as a regular ol’ American citizen.

I personally do not purport myself to be entering a country for diplomatic purposes if I am not unless it is absolutely necessary, in accordance with our rules. The passport we use is supposed to be predicated on the purpose of our travel, not convenience or optics. One exception to this was when we were posted to Uzbekistan and the embassy facilitated diplomatic visas in our diplomatic passports to neighboring Kazakhstan in the event of a large-scale emergency or evacuation. We traveled to Kazakhstan several times for leisure and since we already had known Kazakh diplomatic visas and were generally (although not always) crossing land borders, the “flip” seemed pointless and we just presented our diplomatic passports. The embassy recommended this for ease and transparency and we all did it. The Kazakhs would have been very alarmed otherwise to see us exiting Uzbekistan with no documentation in our blue passports.

A lot of countries only issue one type of passport to their citizens, based on who they are rather than our system of what we are doing. Every time I have been to Turkey and the immigration officer glimpsed my second passport, a lot of excitement ensued. The U.S. embassy or consulate’s management office can help answer questions about foreign visas, but before traveling I tend to check all the requirements myself, because consular officers know better than to assume it will all work out. (And we don’t like visa-related entry surprises!)

If you’re an FSO, please refer to official cables and guidance on the use of passports for official travel rather than my ramblings.


Q: I came to the United States in 2007 and naturalized in 2013. I still have citizenship from my country of birth and I want to become a U.S. diplomat. I studied International Relations at Columbia University, but I haven’t pursued a career in politics since graduating in 2015 because I was very interested in business. Now I want to fuse my business experience together with my passion for international relations and become an Econ officer. However, the fact that I still remain a citizen of another country, even though I haven’t been there since I came to the U.S., gives me anxiety about whether I should pursue a career in Foreign Service. Could you please tell me, to the best of your knowledge, if a candidate like me has a chance to make it in Foreign Service? 

A: I don’t think that you should be anxious that your background and dual citizenship would preclude you from being an FSO. There are lots of naturalized U.S. citizens with different backgrounds serving as FSOs. Some of them also have dual citizenship. In fact, the Department doesn’t have a blanket policy on dual citizenship at all. As far as I know, all cases of dual citizenship are handled on a case-by-case basis. 

The Bureau of Diplomatic Security looks at ties and foreign citizenship during a security clearance process with a lens on how it affects (or does not affect) a candidate’s loyalty to the United States, and also periodically during service if the candidate becomes an FSO. Diplomats with dual citizenship will most likely have a preclusion against serving in the country of their other citizenship to avoid conflicts and legal matters around what we call P&I (privileges and immunities). 

You can read the official, publicly available Department of State policy on dual citizenship at this link (which I have broken at the end to keep it from displaying the text):

https://careers.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Dual-Citizenship dot pdf

I think that if you are interested in becoming an FSO, you should definitely pursue it. The State Department needs to recruit and retain talented officers, and at least to me, it sounds like you would have a lot to offer. You shouldn’t self-adjudicate out based on worries about something that is actually very common.


Closing Note: If you’d like to talk to someone in person about the Foreign Service career and lifestyle, you can contact the nearest Diplomat in Residence (DIR).

Diplomats in Residence

Diplomats in Residence (DIRs) are career Foreign Service Officers and Specialists located throughout the U.S. who provide guidance and advice on careers, internships and fellowships to students and professionals in the communities they serve. DIRs are available to answer questions and share insight with those interested in Foreign and Civil Service careers, internships and fellowships.

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