Above is my office at my last job when I ran the Worldwide Speaker Program. I could see the Capitol from the window. The view from my office in Iraq is not so nice.
I have been getting lots of emails from people asking me about jobs in the Foreign Service or in Iraq. I am probably the only FSO they know but hiring procedures are things I know not too much about. I let HR do their job. I came in the FS in 1984. Things were different back then (of course, much harder. Kids today have it easy. When we were young …) But I can give you my opinion about careers in the FS and a webpage (www.careers.state.gov) were you can find out more.
I could tell you that I always wanted to be an FSO, but I would be lying. My father wanted me to be a truck driver and I wanted to be a forester or maybe an archaeologist. Becoming an FSO was more a result of serendipity than design. I was taking a nap in the student union at the University of Wisconsin. When I woke up, I saw a booklet called “Careers in the Foreign Service” laying on the table. My snoring had driven away the previous owner. Before that, I did not know there was such as thing or at least I did not know that someone like me could get in.
FSOs join State through a written test. It is pretty hard, but not impossible. I wonder how some of my colleagues got in and I am sure they wonder the same about me. You have to know about little things and about lots of things most people do not care about. FSOs are very good at Trivial Pursuit and we can usually impress our friends when watching Jeopardy. Skills that sell in the marketplace…? They are useful skills for us because we are generalists. As generalists, we do what we need to do. They told me when I came in that my duties could range from talking to important officials to carrying luggage. I have done both. Sometimes the luggage job is more fun.
All joking aside, the FS has been good for me. I have been able to do things and meet people I could never have done. The FS taught me three languages: Portuguese, Norwegian & Polish. It gave me a year at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy and paid ME to attend school and live in New Hampshire. I have never had a job in the FS that I did not enjoy – mostly – and that includes my current job here in Iraq, which is often uncomfortable and sometimes a little scary but tremendously rewarding.
The hardest part is the travel and living in foreign countries. I know many readers are thinking to themselves that these are the great advantages, the very quintessence of the FS and they are certainly right. But it is also hard. You do not have the feeling of home and you are always an outsider, a sojourner, a stranger in a strange land (okay, I will stop with the descriptions). When we got back to the U.S. and lived in Virginia, I realized how much I enjoy being an ordinary American citizen, a participant in the affairs of my country and community. Diplomats are always guests, never participants and by clear definition never citizens of their host countries.
It is the career I wanted and I thank God I woke up to find that brochure at the Student Union, but the FS is not for everybody. After I come back from Iraq, I am thinking of retiring. The FS is a great job, but maybe it is time to do something else. I just don’t know. That is the final advantage of the FS. You can retire at 50 (with 20 years of service). You still are young enough to find something else and you have the FS retirement to fall back on if you don’t.
Below is the American Indian Museum was a short walk from my office at SA 44. Washington is a nice place to live too and you live there about 1/3 of your career.
FS is good work if you can get it. At least I really can’t complain. Check out the webpage at www.careers.state.gov. BTW – the Department did not put me up to this. As I said, I am getting dozens of emails. Maybe this will answer some of the questions.