Sunday, September 30, 2012

Starting the FS at 20-something

A few weeks back, I wrote about what it feels like to start a new career in the Foreign Service over the age of 40. Today I'm turning to my colleagues in their 20s with the same questions. The State Department hires new generalists and specialists from ages 21 to 59 (see, and some of the younger set come to A-100 shortly after graduation or as Fellows. My particular A-100 had a good number of Fellows and recent grads, giving me a super resource on the topic. The following is by no means any type of proper scientific survey, but rather a collection of conversations and e-mails volunteered by a handful of 20-something entry level officers (ELOs) from a variety of backgrounds and in various stages of their personal life, from single to expecting a first child.  

So let's dive in. When possible, I'm going to quote instead of paraphrase so you can hear their exact thoughts:

1.   What do you feel are the advantages to starting the Foreign Service at your age?

One 24-year old mentioned that as she had just recently earned her graduate degree months before starting A-100, she was still in the habit and mindset of studying and felt it was easy to keep that level of motivation up.  This was certainly useful in A-100 and in the variety of intense training that often follows.

“As a 24 year old, this will be my first career and I have 41 years to accomplish my goals. I do not have as much pressure as many of my fellow A-100 colleagues due to my age, which allows me freedom to seek out jobs that might not advance me professionally advantageous (allow I think that all positions in the FS can help your career if you do your job well) but are of a personal interest to me. I feel that I have the chance to make mistakes and choose the path I want without seeing each birthday as one year closer to retirement.”

“The mid-20s is a great time to be in the Foreign Service. Since I have neither pets nor a significant other, I am truly worldwide available. I can get excited about serving my country without many caveats or hesitations about places I don't want to go. And when I do pack up and leave, I won't have a home to sell or a settled lifestyle to give up.

A 26-year old noted, “I can see some real advantages, such as being younger and trying to handle the hours and amount of information you have to take in.”

“28 feels perfect to me - I've had four years of previous work experience, two years of grad school, and plenty of time ahead to sink my teeth into this. I'm glad to have had a different life outside the FS to appreciate other paths and to know more of the real world in which policy has to operate. At the same time, I didn't spend so long in another career that it becomes hard to break out of an old life.

2. Do you feel there are any disadvantages/challenges that you face or are concerned about?

A few of the recent grads noted their concern about a lack of significant or applicable work experience prior to joining. Believe me; this was easy to feel, even for those of us over 40, as the FS attracts people from incredibly diverse backgrounds. Some felt that although they had internships in embassies and the State Department before through their fellowships, they hadn’t had “regular” work experience and all that comes with it in terms of knowing how to deal with different types of supervisors and coworkers.

“One disadvantage may be that since this is my first career, I might not be taken as seriously in my first posts as someone who has done impressive things already with their lives. While we are told that we all enter on a level playing field, my lack of experience in the "real world" might make the transition take a little longer than others who have had 20 years of working experience.

A mid-20’s man without graduate school behind him saw the positive side of starting from scratch:
“In some ways, I'm starting at a disadvantage because I don't have as much educational or work experience as many of my colleagues. But because of the way entry level officer careers are structured, I have access to the same posts and positions as everyone else. In addition, I have access to great mentoring; I get to work in a range of positions on a range of issues in a range of regions, and I receive excellent language training. Hopefully I'll have the chance to earn my Master's as a mid career officer. All this means that I'm not worrying about how the Foreign Service fits into my career plans--rather, all my career plans fit into the Foreign Service!

One 26-year old commented on the requirements the State Department has for breaking into the Senior Foreign Service, which is something a career employee could consider after about 12-20 years on the job: “Another plus might be that I can look at this as a long term career, but that might also be a drawback as I have to consider, 'Do I want to do what is necessary to make it into the Senior Foreign Service?' I could see someone who was a little older than I could enjoy the job in a different way since they know they don't have the years necessary to try for it anyway." 

3. Are you thinking this is a career for 5, 10, 15 or 20+ years?

This question got the biggest variety of responses, most of them hinging upon family and personal situations, instead of professional. Although more than one mentioned knowing they wanted to be a diplomat since they were in grade school!

“NO IDEA. At least five to ten. This is a privilege not to be taken lightly. But honestly, if the chance to be married came up, and it meant leaving the FS behind, I'd do it.

“Right now I am thinking of this as a career for as long as it makes sense for my family... right now my husband and I want this. Who knows what is going to happen when our parents are aging and need care? At this point in my life, I am still open to whatever is the right choice for the time."

The current economic situation came up a few times in conversation, with a few recent grads feeling thankful to have such solid jobs when they knew other college classmates weren't as fortunate.

“I would love to be in for 20+ years but also appreciate that I have plenty of options and I am not at the point where I need to stay because I need the pension for retirement. It is also encouraging that I will hit my 20 years/over the age of 50 and still have plenty of time to either transition to a new career or stay in until I am 65. The amount of options I have for the future, and the job security of being an FSO, ensure that I am one of the rare recent college graduates that feels some sense of security in my economic future.”

A mid-20s returned Peace Corps Volunteer added: “For some, salary is a consideration. While the Foreign Service may not pay as much as some of the private-sector competition, I'm used to living on a small budget and my Foreign Service salary seems like a fortune. In addition, working in the Foreign Service makes it easy to save for retirement--I've got the Thrift Savings Plan, the Foreign Service Pension System, and the money I'll save abroad living in USG housing. By joining the Foreign Service early, I'm saving when it makes the biggest difference.”

4. Is making Ambassador a goal for you?
During A-100, it was a common phrase among the presenters who came to speak to us on their particular field of expertise, “When you make Ambassador…” but the responses from my colleagues was mixed on the subject:
“Honestly, right now I have no interest in becoming an Ambassador. But I think that stems from lack of knowledge about the Department and how things in the Foreign Service work more than it does from a dislike of the job. I could see that becoming a goal someday, but only if I decide to make this a long-term career. As with all things in the Foreign Service, 'it depends.'"
“No. Only if it were a small country. I want to maintain some sense of privacy.
I like the title ‘Political Section Chief’ much better.”

“I think it should be the goal of any FSO to reach that level. I am also realistic that only a small group of FSO's ever reach that position and there are plenty of other great jobs in the FS.”

5. Do you have any concerns about meeting Mr/Ms 20-something while bopping around the world? If so - do you picture being a tandem or meeting a local someone?

In regards to the personal side of the equation, many singles expressed concerns about trying to meet a future spouse or partner when their new career required them to move every one to three years. Or, the married ones wondered about starting and raising a family on the move. Such as this ELO who shared:

“One challenge/disadvantage I face is the question of whether or not I want to raise a family in this lifestyle. If I had older/grown children I would be thinking about where I want to go in the FS differently. Right now, I am looking at hardship posts but I know that in a few years I probably won't want to work in those kind of places, and that could harm my chances of making this a long-term career, should I choose to do so."

I heard far more worries from my single female colleagues than from the young men regarding meeting Mr/Ms Right in the FS. The women questioned whether or not a man from a more traditional culture would be willing to potentially take a back seat to his wife’s career, whereas this was not a concern among the men. The whole idea of meeting another FSO and forming a tandem was interesting, but they acknowledged that it comes with the inherent complications of managing two careers. In Bogota, the other two women in my office had each met their husbands in A-100, so it’s not such a crazy notion to consider.

The single women also spoke more about their personal security in certain countries than the men did, and there was one particular assignment in our class that some of the young women agreed would NOT have been wise for them to accept. Fortunately, none of them were assigned there.  There’s a common saying, “You can tell the country of a man’s first post by the nationality of his wife” which is very, very often true. I heard a funny addition to that saying recently, “…and you can tell the country of a women’s first post by the nationality of her furniture.” This made me laugh as I could think of a number of female friends in Bogota who had feathered their nests with Colombian handmade furniture!

“Yes, this is without a doubt the thing that troubles me the most and makes me question this path. How am I supposed to go deep into a community and have enough time to know someone well enough to marry when we are all coming and going all the time?”

Two married colleagues responded with:

“I do feel lucky that I have a spouse who is so open to this life. He is ready to leave his career and move around the world and do different things wherever we are. We are open to the possibility that he might someday join the Foreign Service and we could become a tandem, but after hearing stories about so many others who struggled to be together, I think he is more interested in doing whatever he can at post rather than make the FS his career too."

“All I can say though is that you need to go into this career with a good attitude and not be so worried about your career that you forget about your current (and future) family. I am excited for the opportunity to share this experience with my wife and our daughter who is on the way and will enjoy it that much more because I have people who will be there to support me.” 

6. Anything else you’d like to add?

“I am really glad I got that master's degree. And I finished it just in time too. However, if I was going to do things over again I would have taken more classes in public policy or political science so I was better prepared for this job. I really didn't plan for this to be my career so I operated as if I was going to go into teaching/writing history, which I am still happy with. I worry for those who make getting into the FS their only goal at this age and then get frustrated when it continues to not happen for them. I was glad I had other goals and other futures to focus on. I was moving toward getting my doctorate when I got the A-100 call and there is a good chance that when this is over, I will move back into that arena too. But really, it all depends!" 

“The biggest reasons I'm in the Foreign Service, though, have nothing to do with age--I want to serve, and I want a job that keeps me on my toes. Being young and single just makes it easier.

“I'm going to go down this road as far as God would lead, whether it's just one tour or all the way to Ambassador. If at any time it seems like it's no longer the right place to be, that's okay - there's not one single job that can only make me happy. But this one seems pretty great so far!”

“Ultimately, everyone can have a long and fulfilling career in the FS and age should not be viewed as an advantage/handicap. From being with our A-100 class for over six weeks, I have met impressive people from age 24-59 and would be glad to learn from and work with all of them.” 

I found this last sentiment particularly true. It was refreshing during A-100, and even now in our further training, to continually learn from, and be surprised by, the accomplishments of ALL my new ELO friends, regardless of age.

So, the bottom line is that whether you’re 40+ or 24, there simply isn’t one way to come into this career, nor one way to take it once you’re in. Which is good, because the State Department needs people to take on the job of diplomacy at all levels of the hierarchy, in all subject matters, in all living conditions and in every country (save a few) around the world. Pardon the extra serving of corn here, but there certainly are many roads to Rome!

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