“Should I Join the Foreign Service?”

May 16, 2012

Peter Van Buren, the most recent State Department “white blood cell” looking to do to some institutional housecleaning at Foggy Bottom, commented in a recent Huffington Post article about choosing a career in the State Department:

Understand that promotions and assignments are more and more opaque.  State has recently determined that even promotion statistics cannot be released.  Changes in Congress will further limit pay and benefits.  Your spouse will be un/underemployed most of his or her life.  Your kids will change schools, for better or worse, every one, two or three years.  Some schools will be good, some not so good, and you’ll have no choice unless you are willing to subvert your career choices to school choices, as in let’s go to Bogota because the schools are good even if the assignment otherwise stinks.  You’ll serve more places where you won’t speak the language and get less training as requirements grow without personnel growth.  As you get up there, remember your boss, the politically-appointed ambassador, can arbitrarily be a real estate broker who donated big to the president’s campaign.  Make sure all these conditions make sense to you now, and, if you can, as you imagine yourself 10, 15 and 20 years into the future.

Is he right on these points? Absolutely.

But keep in mind that State is still a damn good place to draw a paycheck with great benefits to boost. As long as you’re resigned to holding out your hand for a paycheck every two weeks, State beats a lot of other employers out there. Every job has it’s draw backs and frustrations and State is not immune.  But few employers out there pay you to work overseas on expat packages.

Personally, I am still on the lower rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, caught between “physiological” (food, water, sex) and “safety” (of body and resources).  If you live in the levels “self-acutalization” (morality, creativity), then ok, maybe you might not want to join State afterall.


Be Careful What You Wish For…

May 25, 2011

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.

Pet Peeve #2 – Pets Are Not People?!?

February 16, 2011

This is only a pet peeve because I’m a huge dog lover, but no, Fido is not a “member of household” under State Department regulations. Despite the fact that pets have an enormous impact on employee moral, especially for officers posted in less than ideal posts, the State Department does not make any special accommodations for your pets.

Housing Example: Fido chews through your government-provided Drexel Heritage dining room table; you are on the hook for making the table whole again either through repair or replacement.

Shipping Example: Fido needs to get to China with you? Get ready for a possible 30-day quarantine in Beijing Customs once doggy or kitty arrives in country. Doggy has to get to Dubai with you? If he’s snub-nosed, no airline will fly him to Dubai (Middle Eastern airlines have lost a few snub-nosed dogs due to respiratory issues and none will take these types of dogs again). If he’s not snub-nosed but over 20 pounds, doggy will have to fly by cargo and not in the cabin with you. Keep in mind most air cargo holds are not climate controlled. As you can see, the list of logistical challenges in shipping a pet could be very, very long.

Behavior at Post Example: Somehow your pet gets out of your house and causes an incident that effects the community, such as doggy bites the guard to your house or community enclave or kitty is decimating the local endangered bird population. In a case like this, post management (which includes the Ambassador) could require you to remove your pets immediately at your own cost.

Lastly, in many places, veterinary care and attitudes towards pets is not to US standards and customs.  In leasted developed countries be ready for emergency contingency planning and possible mistreatment of your pets if you leave it unattended in public places.

In sum, the official policy of the State Department to traveling pets is that they are a privilege but not an entitlement. That being said, there are many sympathetic colleagues (such as me) who can help iron out some of the wrinkles in safely getting your pets to your overseas post and settling in safely and happily.

High Quality Overseas Education for My Kids?

February 1, 2011

Yes, it’s true; when you’re posted overseas the State Department is obligated to ensure your children receive the same level of education they would receive as if they were residing in the United States.

What does this mean? In many cases this means your children can attend some of the top international schools for free. In summary, the policy is:

  • You must be serving overseas. (If you’re assigned to D.C. you’re on your own.)
  • Each overseas post determines which local school (or schools) at post qualifies as meeting the basic requirements of emulating a quality of education comparable to what your children would receive in the U.S.
  • Whatever this school charges for education per year is the amount the State Department will reimburse you for each school-aged child.
  • There is no limit to the number of children the State Department will support. (Again, this is not to encourage you to have lots of children, and each child of course must be in your legal custody.)

Example: You’re assigned to Bangkok and you have a high school-aged child.  If the “Overseas School of Bangkok” is a school approved by post and the school charges $5,000 a year in tuition, then the State Department will reimburse you up to this amount every year for your child, regardless of where your child is.  This means you can send Bobby to boarding school in London if you want, but the State Department would only reimburse up to $5,000; anything more you would pay out of pocket, anything less and the Department only reimburses the lower amount and you don’t get the rest of the balance.

As you can imagine, there are a lot of twists and turns related to this benefit, all of which are covered in the official regulations titeld “Department of State Standardized Regulations (DSSR) 270 Education Allowances”, located here.

Will I Have An Assigned Car and Driver?

January 25, 2011

NO.  Absolutely NOT.  Please get this myth out of your head before applying to the Foreign Service.

The only time you’ll have a car a driver dedicated to you is when you purchase your own car and hire your own driver, or, if you’re good or lucky enough to make ambassador.  But even ambassadors have limits on what they can use official vehicles for.  In general, embassy cars and drivers are for official use ONLY.

So, if you have to head to an official meeting after work, the embassy car can take you to your meeting.  However, if after the meeting you need to go home and home is the other direction of the embassy, you’re on your own.  Officially, the embassy vehicle can only take you back home if passing your home is “incidental” to the vehicle heading to another OFFICIAL location.

The regulations outlining use of official vehicles is 14 FAH-1 H-800 USE AND CONTROL OF OFFICIAL VEHICLES AT POSTS.  Great for bedtime reading if you’re ever having trouble falling asleep.

Do the rules get bent?  Sure, occasionally.  And occasionally they get really bent, but I’ll save that for another post that will likely be titled, “What to do when the Inspector General shows up at my front door at 3AM.”

Feel free to shoot me any questions on this and I’ll do my best to answer your overseas chauffeur related questions.

What Kind of House Will I Get?

January 18, 2011

Note, this is an exaggeration! NOT something you'll ever get in your Foreign Service career!

When the State Department sends you overseas to work, the U.S. Government will provide housing to you free of charge.  The size of your residence will depend on your rank and family size.

Since most people reading this will be just starting out, I’m going to focus on sizing for “Standard” rank officers, as opposed to “Middle” and “Executive” rank officers.

NOTE: The State Department will accommodate ALL your direct dependents and will not discriminate your housing assignment based on family size.  Married with seven kids and a dog?  No worries, the Department is obligated to accommodate your spouse and kids, although Fido will have to squeeze in somehow.

The official regulation for allocating residential space is called 15 FAM 230: ALLOCATING RESIDENTIAL SPACE (PDF file).

Below are space standards for “Standard” rank officers in three different localities as defined in 15 FAM 230, above.

Locality 1 (e.g. Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Brussels)

Family Size 1-2 3-4 5-6 7+
Square Feet 1168 1700 1976 2103

Locality 2 (e.g. Nassau, Sarajevo, Sao Paulo)

Family Size 1-2 3-4 5-6 7+
Square Feet 1286 1870 2174 2314

Locality 3 (e.g. Phnom Penh, Kinshasa, New Delhi)

Family Size 1-2 3-4 5-6 7+
Square Feet 1414 2057 2391 2546

This policy was intended to ensure officers have adequate residences for the care of their families and not necessarily an incentive to encourage people to have more children!

Pet Peeve #1 – No Personal Appliances at Work

January 15, 2011

Personal convenience appliances are not authorized for use in State Department office spaces. In other words, no coffee makers, microwave ovens, space heaters, fans or anything else that consumes electricity is allowed to be plugged into an outlet in a State Department overseas building.

This may seem like a small issue but it is absolutely infuriating on a day-to-day basis:  can’t brew my own coffee at work, can’t heat up my lunch, can’t cool down when the A/C is down, can’t warm up when it’s below freezing outside and the building heater is doing a poor job of heating the building.

In a prior post where I served, the Facilities Manager would walk around with a pair of heavy-duty scissors and snip the plug end of a power cord of all microwaves, space heaters, fans, etc.

Although I now agree with this policy for occupational safety issues (space heaters are notorious for causing fires), this policy is one of the small inconveniences that makes life in the State Department seem “NQR” (not-quite-right) sometimes.