Can You Change if You Pick the Wrong Career Track?

Yes and No.  Technically, you can switch “cones” (FS Speak for career tracks) during your Foreign Service career.  The Foreign Service use to call the delightful process “Conal Rectification.”  Bureaucratese at it’s best…

Anyway, in responding to a question from a reader earlier in the week, I realized that my earlier post wasn’t complete.  This fellow felt so trapped by the process he was delaying his registration for the June Foreign Service Exam while he debated which career track was right for him (Political, Economic or Public Diplomacy).

I agree with him that it’s a big decision.  In my day, you got your written scores broken down by career track (except for PD, which was still under the US Information Agency), and as I recall the higher your score the more likely you’d get a job offer.  You still had to pass the oral exam, medical tests and security clearance, but the cone choice was farther along in the process.  Unlike today, it gave you a rational reason to pick a cone.

Now, of course, you’re selecting a career track as part of the first step of registering for the FSOT.  Some, perhaps many, applicants don’t have a clue about the differences between cones.  And why should you?  You could be lucky and have a friend or family member who’s been an FSO or you’ve reached out to form a network of FSO mentors.  The correspondent fit the latter category, and I guess I became a member of his network.

Anyway, I’ve included my response below.  I hope it helps:

 

It’s a tough decision.  The Department made a bad choice in forcing the career track decision before you actually take the FSOT.  How is a newcomer going to know what type of work they want to do.

Anyway, here’s my advice:

1) Reach out to the nearest diplomat-in-residence to ask your questions.   Also, if you know any other active duty or retired FSOs, post the questions to them. The more FSOs you talk the better you will understand the career tracks and the better your decision will be;

 2) Read all of the advice on Careers.State.Gov.  It really is an excellent website.

 3) Don’t count on being able to switch career tracks after you join in the Foreign Service, especially moving into the Political career track.  I came in as a consular officer because I like managing people and helping Americans.  My background was as a journalist and editor and the consular “cone” began to chafe during my second tour in Zambia, where I was head of the consular section.  Fortunately I had a compassionate DCM who took pity on me and began to throw parts of econ and political portfolios to me, including health (HIV/AIDS) and environmental issues like wildlife poaching and that sort of thing.  I still liked consular work but I wanted more writing and analysis.

After an okay tour in DC, I bid on a Pol/Econ slot in Mali, one of the toughest places to serve in the Foreign Service.  I say that because I thought it wasn’t going to be high on anyone’s bid list.  Indeed, there was only one other bidder on the position.  She didn’t want to go to Mali — but she was a political officer. Normally, the assignments panel would automatically place her in the position.  Luckily, the head of junior assignments was (is) a great guy.  He saw how much I wanted the job, had the background and the French.  He went pleaded my case before the panel.  The assignment went to a “shoot out” (sorry for the FS lingo; you’ll learn it quickly when you join.) between me and the political officer.  Again, the junior assignments guy was very persuasive, and I squeaked by.  Remember, however, that I had to fight like crazy to serve in one of the least glamorous posts in the world.

There is a formal process for switching cones, which does work between Consular and Management cones, and even with the more sought after tracks, like PD and Econ.  However, it’s virtually impossible to switch into the Political career track.  At least in my 25 years, I never heard about someone successfully shifting career tracks into Political.

The Political career track remains the Holy Grail of the Foreign Service. Most people aspiring to join the Foreign Service want to serve as a political officer.  In my 25 years in the Service, I never heard of someone successfully switching into the Political cone.  So if you’re eager to become a political officer, put it down as your choice when you register.

The Economics and Public Diplomacy career tracks are less sought after, although PD is growing in popularity.  There is some movement between these two cones.  Likewise at entry and mid levels, there are a lot of Political/Economic jobs that Economic officers can bid on and compete with Political officers.  (Anyone wanting to switch into the Consular or Management career tracks usually has no difficulty.  It doesn’t happen that much).

Now on your specific questions:

— you should take the June test, even if you’re still not sure.  Pick a career track and sit for the exam.  I can’t tell you which one, but it’s time to make a choice.  My own career was a bit haphazard — the plus for consular is that you get promoted faster and manage a lot more people.  When I reached -02 I took a DCM job at a small African mission.  A DCM job is mixture of all of the cones, and it was a fantastic experience. Some FSOs say that the DCM job is the best in the Foreign Service.  My last year I was the chargé, basically the acting ambassador.  Next tour, I went to Uganda, and again was chargé for the last year.  By the time I retired last year, I went for 12 years without a consular post.  Everyone’s career in the Foreign Service ends up being so different.

— on the environment jobs, yes, it can and should make up a lot of what an Econ officer does, but sadly it was my experience that it was frequently overlooked in favor of micro- and macro-economic issues.  There are regional officer positions that focus entirely on environmental concerns.  Surprisingly, those jobs don’t attract a lot of bidders, probably because FSOs are concerned that such a job won’t help them get promoted.  An interested PD or Pol  (or Consular or Management) officer could have a good shot.  They are typically at the -02 or -01 levels.

If you have any other questions, please let me know.  Good luck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. This is almost helpful in deciding my cone for me.
    I love working with people, background in journalism, PD, consular seems best fit.
    not too sure of econ – though i wonder if i can get a shot at the environmental..
    thanks, a

    • Anu–

      Good luck

      Bill

    • Which track is the most transferable in the case that one realizes that foreign service isn’t for them after a few tours?

      Also I know that Political is the most competitive but how do they rank after Political?

      • Steve–

        Sorry if I didn’t make it clearer in my post, . It’s next to impossible to transfer into the Political career track, do-able into the Economics career track, do-able into the Public Diplomacy career track, relatively easy to join the Management and Consular cones.

        Good luck,

        Bill

  2. Thank you so much for your posts, they are a great help to any prospective FSO. I was really attracted to the Economic cone because of the potential to do environmental work. I would be on the younger side to try and enter the foreign service but I do have a lot of experience in environmental projects. I do not have much experience in hardcore business or economics. Would this seriously harm my application?
    I am an International Relations major, therefore I am naturally attracted to the Political and PD cones, but shmoozing (as you put in a previous post) is not really my thing. Is there anything you would recommend?

    • Gary–

      Great questions.

      First off, there’s schmoozing and doing your job. Yes, political and economic types spend their days meeting with different people — labor leaders, politicians, expats, other diplomats, government officials, trade representatives, and so on. They take what they learn and turn it into cables, sometimes spot reports but usually more analytical pieces. At the same time, officers from the other sections of the Embassy — Public Diplomacy, Consular and Management — also meet with contacts. I suppose it’s how much time you spend with outsiders, and that depends on your rank and your style. The head of PD will meet with media officials, writers, bloggers and university profs to name just a few. Consular officers have to have strong and close ties — if possible — with local police and prison officials, hospital administrators, funeral directors, etc. Likewise, Management officers will be meeting with city officials, law enforcement, landlords and so forth.

      In short, everyone has to schmooze. I realize that not everyone is comfortable reaching out to strangers. I’m a pretty introspective guy myself, but I always took to heart what another far more famous FSO introvert wrote in his memoirs. George Kennan remarked about his experiences in his early days as a U.S. diplomat and said the key for him to get over his shyness was to remind himself that he was their not so much as George Kennan, but as a representative of he U.S. government. Whenever, I would pause before meeting with a minister or president, I would say to myself, they would never meet with me as Bill Fitzgerald, but they want to meet with me as the USG representative.

      On your lack of formal economics training, the State Department will not/not hold that against you. In the same way that the Department expects you to have the skill and ability to learn a language, they will expect you to learn economics. They offer a full-year Economics Tradecraft course for FS-03 and -02 officers. It’s pretty intense and supposedly gives you the equivalent of a master’s in economics.

      Hope these answers help.

      Best, Bill

  3. Thanks so much for posting this. I really appreciate it. I’ve been going back and forth on whether or not to go ahead and take the exam (I think the next one is in August) or if I should take more time to study for it, but this convinced me that Consular is definitely what I want and I should take the next one even if I don’t think I’m completely ready.

    • Great. I’m happy it helped.

      Good luck on the test.

      Chrs, Bill

    • Tessa-

      Sorry for taking so long to reply. I’m glad you found the posts helpful. People are probably sick of hearing me say that the Foreign Service is the best job in federal government. For me, it was rewarding (if at times a bit frustrating) and met my desire to live overseas (and representing the U.S. government)

      If I were in your position, I would shoot for the August test. Start a crash course on writing as well as some of your weaker areas, be they American history, economics, management, etc. Delaying to study, while good in theory, but the Foreign Service Exam, I think you’ll learn a lot by taking it as soon as possible. True, you may fail, but you’ll be learning key test-taking strategies (e.g., apportioning your time for the essay, etc).

      If you flunk, no worries. You’ll be in great company; it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It should just motivate you more.

      Let me know if this advice helps and what other kinds of blog posts you’d like to see.

      Cheers, Bill

  4. Have you ever thought about creating an
    e-book or guest authoring on other sites? I have a blog centered
    on the same information you discuss and would love to have you share some
    stories/information. I know my audience would appreciate your work.
    If you are even remotely interested, feel free
    to send me an email.

    • winona–

      Thanks for the offer. Yes, I am considering an e-book on life in the Foreign Service. I’m interested in guest authoring, but I have so little free time to devote to this blog that I don’t know if I could do a post worthy of your blog. Let’s discuss via email.

      Cheers, Bill

  5. It is possible to go from the Consular cone into PD and vice-versa? I’m equally interested in both Consular and PD work. I’ve read PD skills can be parlayed into advertising, educational programs, and grass root work. Are Consular track skills transferable into the private sector?

    Does the Consular track get to do PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) work?

    Thank you.

    • Lyndon–

      Good questions. In theory, yes, it’s possible to switch from consular to PD, but it depends on the needs within the PD cone and any previous experience you’ve had in PD work. Every year, the Department publishes a list of career tracks that have vacancies. Political usually doesn’t have vacancies. Econ does, but few. PD is typically the same, but I haven’t seen the list in the past year.

      Yes, PD gives you very marketable skills outside of the State Deparment. Consular work can as well, but it’s not as clear. For instance, in order to rise in the system, consular officers have to show that they can manage larger and larger groups of workers. That skill is sought after in the private sector.

      Any cone can serve on a PRT. Frankly, when PRTs were at their high point, the Department was worried about filling all of the billets and would take nearly everyone who applied. There are needs for consular officers at the new consulates in Afghanistan and Iraq, too.

      I’m glad you’re thinking about joining the conference call later this week.

      Best, Bill

  6. Great website. I’ve gained a lot of valuable information. I’m torn between the Consular and PD career tracks. Since I am interested in both do you believe a good strategy would be to apply to Consular since it is less competitive than PD? It just seems virtually impossible to determine which is the best fit for me prior to working as an FSO. I also feel that my prior work experience is more relevant to Consular work compared to PD? How important is work experience in the selection process for PD officers? Thank you for your time!

    • Kari–

      Sorry for the delay in replying. In fact, the Foreign Service believes that any officer who passes the Foreign Service Exam can be taught to perform well in any cone. So, for instance, an immigration lawyer who has 10 years of experience in handling immigrant and non-immigrant visas will no score higher than a 22-year-old fresh out of college. Of course, the lawyer may have an edge in the PN, but frankly if there’s a 22-year-old out there who explains clearly and with enthusiasm why she feels that serving American citizens in a consular section overseas, well, that will count a lot when it comes to selection.

      Yes, I agree with you on forcing applicants to pick their cones/career tracks before they’ve even taken the written exam seems silly. The only way around it is to try to snag a Foreign Service internship to see firsthand exactly what officers from the different cones actually do. You can also reach out to the Diplomats in Residence, who are working at various colleges and universities around the country. They’ve been trained at recruiting, and presumably can answer some of your questions.
      Finally, try to track down a retired FSO that you may know either through your work at college, your parents or some social networking site, liked LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.

      Good luck. I still do think it’s by far the best job in the Federal Government.

  7. Adrienne says

    Hi Bill,

    I recently became obsessed with becoming an FSO. I had been thinking of ways to work abroad for a few years now and stumbled upon this career, which I feel is the perfect fit for me!

    I am filling out my application form now but am still torn about which cone I wanted to pursue. Like you, I loved the idea of leadership, living abroad, and helping Americans who are abroad so I naturally gravitated towards the Consular cone. However, I am worried about transferrable skills in case foreign service does not fit me so I have been looking at Management because that seems safer. I read that Management Officers do at least one turn as Consular Officer, but it did not appear that I would get to work with AmCits; which is what i truly wanted to do.

    What type of career paths can a consular cone lead me to outside of foreign service? What are some other things that I should consider to help me come to a decision? By the way, I took the quiz on the State’s website for which consular career would work best for me and I scored very highly in the Management and Consular cones (mid 90’s).

    Thank you so much! I am really glad I came across your blog.

    • Very good points. The choice is to do what excites you or what makes you more marketable when (if) you leave the Foreign Service. Yes, the Management Cone might give you a leg up in the job market, but the truth is that if you have passion for consular work, then go for it.

      Look at the statistics too. Most people who join the Foreign Service make it a career. the rule of thumb back in the day was that after your first two tours, 70 percent were tenured, 15 percent quit to pursue something else, and 15 percent were not invited to continue. I believe the numbers have held roughly the same, except that the percentage of ELOs not tenured has fallen.

      Good luck and let me know what you decide.

      Cheers, Bill

  8. Charlotte Brock says

    Bill,
    Just wanted to note that there was at least one FSO who switched cones (“conal rectification” as I’ve heard it called) from Admin/Management to Political. My father, Sam Brock, who served from 1984 to 2012. There aren’t many like him.
    Best,
    Charlotte

    • Charlotte–

      It is do-able and kudos to your dad for making the jump. But as I think we agree, it is pretty rare.

      Thanks for writing,

      Bill

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