FAQ About Life in the Foreign Service

To be frank, I am in a rush to write this blog. It’s among the last tasks I have before leaving the office for my onward assignment. Haven’t we all been here?

So, in my last blog (for now) for GovLoop, I thought I’d share some FAQs that I’ve encountered over the years about life in the Foreign Service and how to get there. These are all my own opinions and don’t reflect any U.S. Government views. Any mistakes contained herein are completely my own.

Question: How do you get into the Foreign Service? To be a Foreign Service Officer (FSO), you have to take a written exam. If you pass, you undergo an all-day oral assessment. State FSOs can join early in their careers, whereas Commerce, Agriculture and other Foreign Affairs Agencies require a minimum of professional expertise to be eligible to apply.

Question: How do you prepare for the Foreign Service Exam? I’ll repeat the advice someone gave me when I once asked this question in college: study/work hard and read the New York Times every day and the Economist every week. In other words, be a person of the world. The questions on the exam can seem arbitrary so there’s no definite way to prepare. And, as your mother always urged you, it helps to get a good night’s sleep and have a proper breakfast.

Question: What is the oral assessment like? It’s a grueling all-day exam that changes from year to year. You can count on individual interviews and group exercises with some writing involved. If you have fun during the oral assessment, odds are that the Foreign Service could be the right fit for you, as many of the exercises are lifted from direct, real-world experience.

Question: What is it like once you get overseas? What I love best about my job is that every day is different and I learn new things almost on a daily basis. No two crises are alike! This can sometimes be daunting as well. You get to meet movers and shakers who shape opinion and policies in the host country, which can provide fodder for stimulating conversations. Moreover, you get to see that your work has had a real impact, whether you’re advocating for a U.S. company in a government tender, or issuing visas or procuring items that the Embassy needs. You make a difference.

Question: What are the downsides? Without dwelling too much on the negative, work-life balance is harder to achieve overseas. You tend to live and work with the same people, so that can mean talking about briefing papers on Friday nights. Moreover, as you’re representing your country, you may have less privacy (both in the Embassy environment and outside) than you’d like. Each country will have its own set of challenges and issues as well.

Question: How do you get to pick where you go? Each agency has a slightly different method, but basically when it’s your time to “bid,” you will have access to a list of potential assignments at various grade levels. There’s a system to adhere to when submitting your bids that you will learn in great detail. You write a “bid statement” and submit your list of bids. Then a “secret committee,” often not so secret, will use this and the information in your files (work history, language proficiency, etc.) to make the decision. State and other agencies also require extensive use of 360 surveys and other feedback to make these types of decisions.

Question: Do you recommend the Foreign Service lifestyle? Definitely! I enjoy my work and love being able to live in and see different places. But it depends on you and your family and your needs. It’s also important to integrate your spouse and children (as applicable) into the Embassy/local community. Spousal employment is a big issues for families who move frequently, as an example.

I hope these questions were useful for you. There are many more, I’m sure. Best of luck as you determine whether this is a career option and/or lifestyle for you (and your family, if applicable)!

Aileen Nandi is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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