Your Questions Answered, Volume VII

I can’t believe it has been two years since the last time I wrote a YQA post! I have certainly answered many emailed questions to the blog since then, so I’m eager to share some of them in the hopes it might answer a question you have about the Foreign Service.

In this post I will address how prepared I felt for my first diplomatic tour and why, my policy on Zoom calls with prospective FSO candidates, what in my background led me to the FS, a link to my candidacy study tips, my views on how stressful this career is, how I think high school students could prepare for the Foreign Service, and the book I read about this career that inspired me.

In a future volume of YQA, I will focus on questions about how the Foreign Service lifestyle affects an officer’s family members.

Q: Did you feel prepared for your first tour?

A: I did and I didn’t. I did because I had already lived and worked overseas for three years prior, I had a master’s degree in international relations, and I was already in my mid-30s. I had completed all my language and tradecraft training at the Foreign Service Institute (which was excellent), and I came into A-100 with nine years of prior federal service. I was also going into a consular job and I am consular-coned, so I looked forward to even some of the more difficult aspects of visa interviewing others may wish to avoid. Additionally, I had my husband with me at post for all but the first four months of my tour, and his companionship was important. So I had some significant advantages.

However, there are still things in retrospect I wasn’t prepared for. I wasn’t prepared for the language program not having a strong consular component and having to learn the vocabulary for consular interviewing on the fly. I wasn’t prepared for some of the challenges with leadership and workplace culture, and I wasn’t prepared to be treated like an “entry-level” employee even though I had almost 20 years of professional work experience. I wasn’t totally prepared for the fishbowl embassy environment, the gossip and mean-spiritedness of certain colleagues I encountered, and the way cultural factors and gender roles in the host country would wear on me and my particular circumstances day in and day out.

I also had a variety of health challenges during my first tour that I did not cope with well and that affected my outlook. I made some decisions about my health that were ultimately not in my long-term best interest. More succinctly put, my work-life boundaries needed some adjusting I wasn’t capable of doing at that time.

So hindsight being 20/20, I can’t say that academic background, age, and professional experience are everything. They certainly help you when you are overseas and stack you up well during the Foreign Service candidacy process, but there are some things you can’t anticipate. As one of my favorite former bosses used to say, “Every day is a school day.”

Q: I’ve been thinking about joining the Foreign Service. Would you be open to a 30-minute Zoom call to discuss my questions?

A: I am very open to answering any questions you have, but my schedule and my blog being semi-anonymous don’t permit me to do any in-person or video calls with blog readers who I don’t already have some level of rapport with. I realize that writing isn’t everyone’s favorite medium for connecting, but it’s the way I’ve chosen to interact. I have been known to connect on the phone and even in-person with people I have met through the blog though, after I am convinced they aren’t an angry past refused visa applicant. (Grin.) A couple very special blog readers I even met in real life and became Facebook friends with.

Best of luck with your Foreign Service candidacy if you decide to pursue it and feel free to email me anytime. I appreciate you reading the blog, and would be open to your suggestions on topics I could write about that would be helpful for prospective candidates.

Q: I am curious about your experiences and career path leading up to joining the Foreign Service. Also, do you have any additional study tips?

A: You can find more information about my academic and professional background on the About the Author section of the blog and the long road to my acceptance into the Foreign Service on the My Foreign Service Timeline tab. I also talked a lot about my study tips for the FSOT in the Becoming an FSO series, which starts at the link; some of it is a little out of date being from 2014, but as far as the tips I think they still stand.

Q: I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind telling me your view on how stressful the job can be. To be honest, in my mind I’m building up the stress level of being an FSO and it’s preventing me from beginning the process. There are a lot of things about the job that align with my interests and skills, but there are also a few that have me second guessing if the FS would be a good fit for me. The amount of stress the job could give me is probably the biggest. I know it’s a wide aspect of the job to ask you to talk about, especially to a stranger, but any light you can shed on whether you think it’s a serious concern or something that’s not even worth considering, would be appreciated.

A: Your question is pretty broad but of course worth considering, for a lot of reasons. Let me try to give you my take on it and hopefully it will resonate with you, or at least help you start thinking through your concerns.

When I think of the most stressful parts of this career, in many ways, I think of ambiguity. When I was a candidate for the Foreign Service, I was wondering if I might make it to the next step of my candidacy. When I was hired, I was focused on where I might serve. When I got my first assignment, I had a million questions about my packout, my housing, how to ship my car, and what it would be like in language training. Then when I got to post, I had to figure out how to navigate my new environment with a steep learning curve in a new language and culture, and wondered whether I would succeed at stepping out of my comfort zone to be who I needed to be at any given moment. Then suddenly within a year it was time to bid on my next post, and on and on ad infinitum.

As you can imagine, the ambiguity was never really resolved. There were (and always will be) more questions to answer, more things to figure out, and more upheaval of our family, household, and careers on the horizon. I realized that “getting in” to the Department does not ease the ambiguity, as I had somewhat naively imagined as a candidate.

Sure, as you go along your questions change. You learn things and familiarize yourself with how to navigate through the bureaucracy. You develop muscle memory on how to meet these professional, personal, administrative, and logistical challenges. But there is never a point where everything is really settled permanently, because if we wanted that, we would just stay in the U.S. forever, and be people who never leave their comfort zones, never change jobs, and never move. (Of course, some people actively choose this, rather than end up with it as a result of some lack of resiliency, but I digress.)

I realized I needed to figure out a way to cope with the stress-related ambiguity without having all the answers way in advance, and have that be OK so it wouldn’t eat me alive. I’m a planner, and I like to control things and have answers, and sometimes in this career I have to let aspects unfold. I keep in mind that whatever comes up, I will be able to deal with it.

So, I guess the question is, does ambiguity and upheaval cause you stress? And to what extent? If not, what are the particular stressors you anticipate and how might you mitigate them? If so, is that worth the adventure of a career overseas, or is all of it in the aggregate – being away from loved ones in the U.S. for extended periods, maybe being an introvert in an extrovert’s world, trying to figure out how to function in a new country, working long and hard hours under often difficult circumstances, starting over again and again – too much?

For some of my colleagues, for example, stress and upheaval and being “on” are the things that make them excited to get up in the morning; others just cope and get through it in order to settle as quickly as possible and carry on in a way that feels most comfortable to them. “Stress” in a clinical sense is just the body’s reaction to a stimulus. What matters is how we deal with it. I have to underline this part.

Because besides everything you have to do to staff and organize yourself administratively around the job, then there is the actual work itself. Being in the Foreign Service, particularly if you are a generalist (consular, econ, public diplomacy, political, or management-coned), the type of jobs you are going to do can vary across functions the agency performs. For your first two tours, they will be directed assignments where you have input into what you do and where you go, but ultimately the Department sends you where it wants to (“needs of the service”) and you are not the master of your own destiny.

Does that cause you stress, and how might you deal with getting the career you want, but not being immediately able to focus on your chosen cone? You might be not consular-coned, but in a visa window for two years (or four!) interviewing applicants. You may do tours that are dream assignments for you, or it may end up being a mix of things you really like, and things the Department expects you to do to become a well-rounded officer. Public speaking, learning a foreign language, serving in the ops center, taking notes in a meeting for the ambassador, serving as a control officer for a high-level visit, adjudicating immigrant visa cases, reading Fulbright applications, being the duty officer and calling someone in the U.S. to tell them their only child has died in an accident, contributing to cross-cutting mission activities like being an EEO counselor or serving on the housing board, writing cables, delivering demarches to host country counterparts…

My point is, the experience of being a Foreign Service Officer is complex. It isn’t one job; it’s like a thousand jobs rolled into one. And what one person might consider stressful or unpleasant might be the reason someone else joined! But the Department’s idea of a “generalist” who can perform a wide variety of tasks to successfully perform at higher (deputy chief of mission and ambassador) levels in our “up or out” promotion system, where you can only spend so much time at a grade before you must be promoted or you are forced out, is key to rounding out an officer’s experience.

Is it going to be stressful to you? And are you going to cope with that stress in a healthy and productive way? And will it drive you forward and be worth it to you because you really want to do the job and you find that you are more resilient than you imagined? I have no idea. Only you know that.

I hope this is helpful, or at least provides a framework for you to drill down on some of the questions I raised. Personally, I don’t mind saying that there have been things about each of my three tours so far that have stressed me and made me uncomfortable, but mostly because it was just doing things I had never done before and did not know how to do. Once I mastered those things, sometimes enjoyably and sometimes through gritted teeth, I could laugh about it.

In my first tour as a consular officer, one of my tasks was to interview visa applicants in Russian and a lot of them were not eligible for the visas they wanted and I had to refuse them. Some of them would get mad and yell at me, which could be really uncomfortable. During my second tour I was a political officer in Australia and I had to go talk to my counterparts who worked on counterterrorism issues and deliver them messages (demarches) from Washington, and sometimes there were awkward conversations. I would drive over there in my car, trying to stay on the left side of the road, thinking, this is crazy, what am I doing. But afterwards I would feel exhilarated that I did it! And during my third tour in Mexico, while doing an arrest interview with a non-English speaking U.S. citizen who crossed the border with guns and went to jail, there was a super-awkward moment when I was trying to remember a verb in Spanish and literally couldn’t and instead said it in Russian. I felt stressed out and stupid and the prisoner was just there blinking, wondering what was going to happen to him.

You know, it’s humbling. We’re diplomats, but we are just people, and we’re aware of that. Some of the senior leaders that I admire most can laugh at themselves on a regular basis. And I think maybe that’s one of the things that saves me. This is going to end. I am going to expand my comfort zone. If this doesn’t go well, it will be funny… eventually.

Q: I am currently a high school student. My dream is to become an American ambassador and I have been reading your blog, which has been so helpful. As I start to look at colleges, I was wondering what you would recommend majoring in for a Foreign Service career path, and if there is any other advice you have about college with the intention of becoming a FSO.

A: Thanks so much for your email. It is great that even though you are still a high school student, you are thinking about your future and professional opportunities that interest you. There are still more men than women in the Foreign Service, so please know we need you! 🙂

For starters, you should know there is no one path to the Foreign Service. Many FSOs have academic backgrounds in policy, international relations, or related fields. However, not all do; if you’ve read my biography on the blog, you will see I studied psychology during my undergraduate years at a public university, and only later studied for an international relations degree overseas. I also did not go to an Ivy League school, nor did I know any FSOs at your age. In other words, this career wasn’t really visible to me until my 30s.

Many FSOs come from professional backgrounds of Peace Corps, government, military, or law – but again, not all. Some are economists, consultants, teachers, bankers, veterinarians, managers, artists, journalists, business owners, and anything else you can think of. I would encourage you to pursue higher education that interests you without making choices solely based upon what you think is the path to an FS career. If you want to study politics, go for it! If you want to study law, or medicine, or art, or economics, reach out and grab what you love. 

You can Google the State Department’s 13 dimensions of the total candidate, which will give you insights into what kind of traits the Department is looking for in its FSOs. Many of those “dimensions,” or abilities, such as written communication, objectivity and integrity, and quantitative analysis are held by people with diverse backgrounds. You can think over the next several years about what opportunities you could pursue in your professional, academic, and personal spheres to help you build up skills you may not have thought much about yet. Having the qualities the Department seeks is more important than having a specific academic background or degree.

Another thing you could do is check out the Diplomats in Residence (DIR) program. It is a program where senior level FSOs give guidance on the career path, as well as internship opportunities, to students and professionals in their local area. I’m assuming you live in the U.S., so depending on where you live, there may be a DIR at a university near you who you could chat with. They also sometimes hold public informational sessions on the Foreign Service candidacy and career. I went to one in DC during my candidacy and found it very helpful.

And finally, you did not mention what kind of background you have or whether you have spent much time overseas, but I would also encourage you to consider serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer when you finish college. Peace Corps, in my opinion, is fundamentally responsible for making me the kind of person who could thrive in an overseas environment. It also instilled in me a lifelong love of language learning, adaptability, cultural sensitivity, and patience which I did not fully cultivate pre-service during my teens and early 20s. Somewhere around 10-15% of FSOs are returned PCVs and Peace Corps is an incredible bond of service that continues to pay emotional and professional dividends many years after we finish our service. It isn’t for everyone, but I cannot personally recommend it highly enough, and it can make you more competitive for opportunities both professional and academic.

These are my best tips for you! I wish you the best of luck and please let me know in the future at any point how things go for you. Take care of yourself, stay safe, and good luck with your upcoming graduation. 

Q: Is there a particular book you’ve read during your career that has provoked profound thought or given new insights?

A: This is a thought-provoking question and I thank you for asking it. One book I could point to that gave me insight and reminded me of the potential impact of this career to diplomats and their families is “Embassies Under Siege: Personal Accounts by Diplomats on the Front Line.” I read it when I was a candidate for the Foreign Service.

It’s a little dated, published about a decade pre-9/11. Geopolitics and global threats have obviously changed significantly since that time. However, the book is still very relevant in the sense that attacks on U.S. installations persist and the firsthand accounts of diplomats who have survived them are a poignant reminder of the inherent risks of this career. I think about this especially on Foreign Service Day every May 5, a day when we honor U.S. diplomats who have died in the line of duty.

I thought about the book again during my first tour in Uzbekistan after a disturbed man threw a bomb at our embassy. While the duck and cover alarm screamed and we sheltered under our desks, I tried to comfort one of my Uzbek colleagues as she cried. (The man was later detained by police.) I later re-read parts of the book and remembered how much worse it could have been. These are the things – and worse, which we refer to as “If people start coming over the wall” – that we have to be ready for. Fortunately we have a lot of training to prepare us for a situation like that, as some of my colleagues who have already experienced such attacks in Iraq, Dhaka, and other places can attest. Thanks again for the question.

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Sarah W Gaer

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