Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Realities of Foreign Service Life, Part 1

An associate of mine referenced an old movie about the State Department ("State Department: File 649") the other day, and I watched it out of curiosity.  Despite some glaring inaccuracies and artistic license with reality, it was still an entertaining piece of history, dedicated to the FSO's who have lost their lives in the service of the government.  As such, it got me thinking about how the FS is perceived, both from within and without, and about things that may have been worth knowing before A100.

"It's very hard to get in."

That may seem an obvious statement to some, because it is a challenging--but not impossible--process.  In my 18 months with the Department, I believe that the logic behind the selection process has a certain practicality to it that makes it unique among jobs.  First, as Foreign Service Officers, we come into contact with an astonishing array of individuals in the course of our work.  On any given day, I could feasibly discuss the technical challenges of Scriabin with a pianist; the obstacles faced in optimizing a ray-tracing algorithm; or the chute-to-shipping processes inside a slaughterhouse.  I may know very little about a topic, but what little bit I know allows me to carry on an intelligent conversation with the other person and make them feel that their contribution is understood and appreciated. It's essential to the job.

"The OA is unfair, and skewed toward a certain demographic."

This is actually two separate issues, and I respectfully disagree on both counts.  Our A100 cohort had nearly 100 people, and it was an excellent mix of age, race, gender, ethnicity, educational and experiential backgrounds, religion, and orientation.  As to the unfairness, the OA is the very model of what we do all day, every day: discuss and reach consensus, present and analyze information, make recommendations, and remain composed in difficult situations.  The 13-D's are so embedded in how we conduct business that it is necessary to recreate or simulate situations that cause them to shine--hence the OA.

"You have to be Alpha/Aggressive/Type A to be successful as an FSO."

Again, no.  I believe that this myth is more associated with horror stories about the GE portion of the OA than it is about the State Department itself.  With that being said, do not confuse 'aggressive' with 'assertive'.  Some people are more driven than others, but a person who does not 'play well with others' is going to have a difficult time maintaining a positive corridor rep.

"As an FSO, it'll be nice to just pick up and go wherever I get posted."

Nice sentiment, but what you don't see is that PCS'ing requires a tremendous amount of work and coordination on the part of the FSO themselves.  Read that statement again and think about what that could entail.  We are assigned to a location, but then are completely, totally, responsible for getting ourselves there.  Arranging packout, tickets, insurance, school enrollment, spousal employment options, passports, visas, travel orders, vouchers, check-ups, vaccinations, reservations, communicating with predecessor, supervisors, HR at post, check-out, check-in, negotiating departure and arrival dates, communicating with your sponsors and mentors, post research, getting approval for training and/or bridge assignments, scheduling consultations, and so on and so forth--that's all on you, the FSO.  It requires Initiative, Planning & Organizing, Composure, Resourcefulness, and Working with Others, and counts nothing toward your EER!  ;)

"The Department of State is Big; The Department of State is Small"

 Yes, and yes.  Working for the State Department allows you to have some control over your own personal development and career trajectory, as well as to discover or seek out interests that you may have and turn them into your personal projects.  The scope of available positions and portfolios is mind-boggling, and it's not uncommon to hear of some wild and wacky posting that you never dreamed could be affiliated with the Department.  Yet at the same time, State is small enough that you quickly discover that you either know or know of a good percentage of the entire Department.

"I look forward to being paid to learn a language!"

Despite my many years of sharing this same sentiment, the reality is that it can be much more stressful than you may imagine.  It's not laid back like it was in High School or College.  It's your job, and you are completely responsible for getting yourself to the required level within the required timeframe, or you risk arriving late to post.  It's not a great first impression to show up two to three months late because you couldn't get the language in the same amount of time as everyone else.  Again, it goes back to being responsible for getting yourself where you are supposed to be, precisely when you need to be there.

"It sounds like an awful lot of trouble.  Is it even worth it?"

Absolutely.  Despite the stress, this is without a doubt the best job I've ever had.  It's interesting, fun, and there is something new and exciting to discover each day.  The people are excellent, friendly, and helpful--they know that we're all in this together.  It's an amazing feeling to sit down from day one and know--know--that you are accepted as and expected to be an integral part of the team.

As many of you know, it took several years and a lot of frustration and heartache before I made it through the process.  My only regret is that I didn't start sooner.  :D

If you are still in the process, keep at it!  You can do it!