Be Careful What You Wish For…

Because you might get it.

You’ve passed the FSOT or you’ve recieved an appointment as a Foreign Service Specialist. Now you’re poised to dive into the work and lifestyle of a diplomat. But not all is quiet in Eden, you may be in for a challenging 20-year career, juggling life with work.

An excellent article about the realities of Foreign Service life-work in the latest (May 2011) edition of the Foreign Service Journal sheds considerable and accurate light on life in the foreign service. In The Foreign Service Juggling Act, writer Shawn Zeller touches on the full range of life-work challenge.

A few excerpts below:

It would be an understatement to say that a career in the Foreign Service poses some challenges to a healthy work-life balance. One need only think back to the hectic evacuation of American diplomats from Egypt in February. Or consider the yearly exercise to find volunteers to leave their families behind to serve in Iraq or Afghanistan.

On the work culture:

The Foreign Service culture is very work-focused and hard-driving, so the kind of people who work in its system “are intelligent, competitive people who have a natural tendency to be workaholics,” Hirsch says. “All of this urging to balance work and life does not mean that most people do so. In fact, the vast majority of Foreign Service officers — particularly those overseas — work long days, frequently go into the office on weekends and find very little time for themselves.”

On friendships:

Foreign Service employees spend a lot of time together and, ideally, that can lead to close friendships. But they aren’t easy to keep up. As Hirsch says, “Some people I’ve known for 30 years and consider very good friends, but I may not see them for five or six years at a time.”

On spouses:

A spouse who loves adventure and travel can be a Foreign Service employee’s savior when times are tough. But just as often, family issues can pose the most significant challenges for Foreign Service employees. A spouse or partner who expects everything overseas to be as easy as it is back home can make an employee’s life harder…There’s no getting around the fact, Foreign Service employees say, that spouses make huge sacrifices to allow their husbands and wives to serve abroad. Unless their employers are unusually flexible, they experience high levels of unemployment.

On “tandem” couples (where both spouses are FSO’s):

A year ago, AFSA [American Foreign Service Association] surveyed members and found tandem couples deeply divided over the department’s support for them. Four in 10 said they were satisfied, but three in 10 were extremely dissatisfied.

On children:

The State Department does wonders, many employees acknowledge, to ensure that Foreign Service children are well cared for and educated. In addition, Foreign Service life does, in some parts of the world, allow for the hiring of domestic help, which can ease a family’s burdens immensely. But the sacrifices can still be sad.


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