A female Foreign Service Officer (FSO) graciously consented to speak anonymously about what it's like to work in a foreign service career. She is an FSO with the US Department of State and chose her career because she enjoys working with people, she wanted to travel, and she has a gift for languages. She's also interested in politics and foreign cultures and wanted to make a difference in the world.
Study and Preparation
In high school, our FSO took an aptitude test which indicated that the foreign service would be an ideal career for her. She researched foreign service careers in detail at the library and decided that the aptitude test results were accurate. If you want to prepare for a career in foreign service, then you'd do well to follow her advice to study history and international relations and gain foreign language proficiency. She recommends that candidates go to the State Department's website and read about the different careers available in the foreign service sector. Most people have no idea of the benefits or requirements of foreign service careers. If Foreign Service Officer recruiters come to your school, be sure and talk to them. If you're a student, you can apply for internships or summer jobs with the State Department. That way, you'll get a look at the career from the inside so that you can decide if foreign service is the right path for you.
Rewards and Challenges
A typical day on the job for a Foreign Service Officer varies, depending on the assignment. An FSO will spend about two-thirds of his or her career at posts at embassies overseas, and the rest of his or her career at the State Department in Washington, DC. Our FSO has worked predominantly as a Public Affairs Officer, managing exchange programs (Fulbright Scholars, English teaching programs, professional study in the US) or working with the media as the official spokesperson of the mission. Her career comes with both rewards and challenges. She enjoys supervising personnel and managing resources, such as small grants programs that support economic development, environmental improvement, or civil society capacity building. While living and working in foreign environments, FSOs are challenged by cultural norms and languages that may be very different from those we’re familiar with in the U.S. While working in Washington, D.C., challenges may arise in building consensus with other US organizations around a specific policy direction. The State Department often works with other agencies to implement programs in various fields, such as democracy-building, transnational crime, or counterterrorism.
Success in Foreign Service
Our FSO cites initiative, creativity, and a pro-active attitude as essential qualities for success in foreign service. Officers must demonstrate satisfactory performance in basic skill areas such as analysis, leadership, interpersonal relations, communication (written and oral, especially in foreign languages), and the flexibility to work in systems that may differ significantly from those to which we are accustomed at home.
Working and Living Conditions
Working conditions vary, depending on the assignment. A Foreign Service Officer's coworkers may typically include a handful of Americans and a larger number of foreign national staff either from the host country or other nations. FSOs usually have offices within the embassy and may live on an embassy compound or among the foreign population. Customarily, their housing is paid for and furnished, and education for their children is provided, making life comfortable for the entire family. Our FSO's daughter attended seven different American or international schools overseas, and her daughter's friends are from many countries where the family has lived (The Philippines, Tunisia, Egypt, Oman, Morocco, and Kuwait). Foreign Service Officers and their families move an average of every two or three years – more often than most families in the US. They must travel light and make new friends on a regular basis. FSOs learn to adopt the best of the places where they've lived and to be tolerant of the differences. The lifestyle puts the FSO and her family in the position of being representatives of the US at all times, which requires a high degree of personal accountability which the average person wouldn’t ordinarily face on a daily basis. If our FSO could do it all over again, she would definitely choose the same path. She feels it a great honor and privilege to serve the American people in this way, and being a Foreign Service Officer is the best application of her skills and talents that she could possibly find.