Monday, May 16, 2011

Talking about the Foreign Service

Those of you who know me well know that I harbor diplomatic ambitions. My dream career at present is to become a Foreign Service Officer (FSO), political cone, at the Department of State. I have been exceedingly lucky to meet people who can help me achieve this. My mentor served with a political officer who currently works at Embassy Accra and was kind enough to introduce me for a meeting. After meeting a fellow FSO wannabe while signing up for classes, I invited her along after confirming a meeting. Wannabes should stick together after all.

He began with talking about his position. One of the best aspects of his job is to simply provide results. That is what Main State (State Department headquarters in Washington) and Washington (Capitol Hill and the White House) care most about, and not so much about how those results were achieved as long as the Embassy remains productive and efficient. The “unless otherwise directed” phrase best describes this as often times, a mission will simply tell Washington that this is what they are going to do unless otherwise directed and if no one responds, it is off to the races. In the course of his job, he has dealt with explaining why the US is invading Iraq and why the host government should be supportive of this, assisted American businesses such as Kosmos and Exxon Mobil navigate the burgeoning Ghanaian oil bureaucracy, and at mission higher-ups discretion, represented the U.S. at a women’s trade fair along with the diplomats of a few other countries, and a host of other duties. He told us that there is not a moment he has ever regretted joining the Foreign Service (FS).

He talked about lifestyle of an FSO, saying to my colleague and I that one must embrace the lifestyle or else you’ll never be happy. What is the lifestyle? Moving is important. Most FS jobs last about three years, transitioning to another post mainly during the summer. Most of the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan jobs are about one year and junior officers spend their first two two-year posts processing visas. Over a 26 year career, this diplomat lived in nine different countries including Washington D.C. That appeals greatly to me as I think that that transition to a new job with new people will break up things perfectly for me. I think that doing that is a great idea and is one of the main reasons why the FS carries so much weight in my mind.

When asked about his favorite post, he said that every post had its ups and downs. While he enjoyed most aspects of Kenya, thirty-five of his friends were killed in the 1998 Embassy bombings. A close friend was violently murdered. Nairobi is significantly more dangerous than Accra as violent crime is very rare here while it is more commonplace there. While serving in Suriname under an Ambassador that he did not get along with at all made him dread going to work, he learned to fly-fish there through some native guides, learning on waters that had seen few white faces and with some of the best fishing worldwide. When one remarked that a road would eventually be constructed through his homeland and that he was told that it would bring jobs, schools and tourists, he dismissed the development as ultimately not being good for his people. When serving at a hardship, unaccompanied post in the horn of Africa, he said that his colleagues were life-long friends. Apparently getting shot at can do that to a group of people. In conclusion, he noted that if we were happy with Ghana on balance, we would probably be cut out for the Foreign Service.

Why must one embrace the lifestyle? FSOs must spend a significant chunk of time overseas. Breaking down the diplomatic corps, two-thirds of the jobs are located overseas and about one third in Washington, reporting to Main State. Therefore, he told us to expect to spend about two thirds of our career abroad. While there are some 5,000 FSOs, recall that there are five cones or jobs, political, public diplomacy, management, economic, and consular. Then, there are various grades or rankings. Language training requirements, medical clearances, hardship posts, and unaccompanied posts all bring that 5,000 job number to about 50 that one would be immediate eligible for. Out of that 50, you are tasked to list six on your bid list as jobs that you immediately qualify for.

On the bid list, he suggested that as a political officer, one should seek to build a relationship with a bureau as he has done with the Africa Bureau. If they know your work and you put decent job in Nairobi at the top of your list, your chances at getting that position, fighting out three or four others while everyone else quarrels over the cushy posts in the European Union are significantly better. While bid lists seem a faraway dream right now, I am sure I will be contending with them before long. This diplomat will certainly be getting a call from me as his mastery of them along with their attached jobs propelled him to the top of his career.

He also discussed the job of political officer as I was most curious about this. A dearth of specific day to day job information stems from the unprofessionalness of blogging about a job that has classified material and State’s monitoring of blogs prevents this. However, he provided as much light as he could. Fundamentally, political officers are reporters, sending back those now famous (and eloquently written) diplomatic cables to Washington describing situations with plenty of details. He provided an excellent theoretical example. While Washington can discover on the internet that Ghana’s official HIV rate could be 1.7%, it may not be a true reflection of the actual number. A political officer would dig deeper, calling his contact who runs the main hospital to inquire his opinion on the rate, talking to friends at the Ministry of Health, those who provided that number in addition to sex workers, homosexuals, and other high risk groups that may have been excluded from that 1.7% as those groups are not well regarded by broader Ghanaian society. That is a political officer’s fundamental position, reporting on events such as elections, protests, and running down intelligence, sending to Washington what he or she thinks Main State needs to know.

Political officers also serve as sort of catch all operatives. If a job needs doing and no one else it on it, it may fall into the lap of an unsuspecting political officer. If the post lacks a military liaison, the political officer may liaison with the military to oversee a military training program as USG (U.S. Government) does a lot of that sort of work. Political officers might clear their plates to assist a Co-Del (Congressional Delegation) or to prepare for a President visit as these are often communicated in the manner of the White House telling the Embassy that the President is coming to town in July. That wide, always changing portfolio appeals to me greatly. Parts of the job such as writing and networking have come more easily than anticipated. Ultimately, it comes down to being a job in which dull moments are rare, a perfect career path for me.

Internships were another topic. He reminded me that an FS job offer is ultimately a measure of how well one does in the Foreign Service written test and oral examination, and while previous experience is important, passing the test outweighs most everything else. In his own experience, State told him that he was unqualified for an internship due to the GPA requirement at the time but made him an FSO a year later. After reading my last internship rejection email earlier that morning, I felt a lot better about that.

Speaking of the test, he shared with us the best strategy for passing. After seeing the Yahoo group dedicated to passing the FSOT, he said that most of what they discuss is nitty-gritty and largely unimportant. While I was not a passionate member of the group to begin with, it was certainly good to hear that from someone of his experience and rank. He told us that State fundamentally wants to know that you can write well, analyze and report on information, and have some basic knowledge. During the oral exam, they want to know whether you are the pushy jerk whom no one wants to work with or the quiet but effective result getter. He gave a specific hypothetical example in that many of the positions the test asks you to argue are fundamentally loser positions with flaws, saying that the goal is not to win but to stand by the best policy. He said a good strategy is the present your assigned position as best you can but conclude by being honest and saying that Cindy’s position is a better one. That tidbit will certainly stick in my mind. Talking to someone who just passed the test was his best suggestion, especially if they are in the A100 or close to being in the A100 job training class (diplomacy 101 for FSOs). He encouraged us to contact him should we ever have difficulty finding a recent pass-ee.

His advice on languages was also a particular help to me. He said that he has always had difficult learning languages and that while there are a few lucky people with a gift for them (Lucky for me, I have fallen rather hard for one of those people!), he was not one of them. Inquiring as to whether I had a dog and then asking if I had a stupid one (in my case two of both), he said that with persistence and hard work, you can train that dog to do something such as learn a new, difficult language. This comes after 20 months of slogging through Arabic in Tunis (and being able to fluently tell me so). He said that self-study for languages is difficult for those without the language gift. While I think I will continue with Arabic in the fall, his advice does provide me some perspective as I don’t actually need Arabic to join the FS, passing the test is the ultimate decider, outweighing all else.

In all, this was one of the highlights of my trip. It is not often that one meets a practitioner, let alone someone who is in the same cone that I am most interested in. I am very grateful and look forward to keeping in touch.

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