Primer: How to Pick your Career Path (Part 2)

I’ve promised to produce a primer for applicants taking the FSOT in Jan-Feb 2017.  One of the first steps you take is to choose your career track, also known as your cone.  It’s a big choice as it will be how you are judged, how you are promoted, and how you spend your 20+ years in the Foreign Service.  Perhaps, most importantly, once you select your career track, there’s no changing. (well, okay, not quite, but it is pretty important).

When the Written Exam Was Actually Written

In 1985, circa the Dark Ages, when I took the “written” FSOT, it really was a written exam with answer sheets, N0. 2 pencils, and stern admonitions not to mark outside the ovals.  My score was rated across the four cones — Political, Economic, Consular, Administrative (now Management) — and as I recall you could pick any cone to secure a place on one of the career track registers. Most but not all applicants selected the cone in which they scored highest.  (Until 1999, PD officers worked for the U.S. Information Service, a separate agency.)

I selected Consular, which was my highest score, and after more than two years I got an offer.  Yes, the process was ridiculously long back in the old days.  It has speeded up considerably.

Today, the five career tracks open to Foreign Service Officers (FSO) are:

  • Consular
  • Economic
  • Management
  • Political (the one nearly everyone aspired to join back in my day. It’s probably still the case.)
  • Public Diplomacy
Picking your Career Track

State insists that you pick your career track before you take the Foreign Service Exam.  Many (most?) applicants have no idea what an FSO does much less in his or her career track.  We may not like it, but we have to accept it.  “Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die” and all that.

For all the Department’s shortsightedness on coning and other issues, they do provide you with a huge amount of online material to help you make the career track decision — quizzes, video interviews, descriptions of the various cones, and even an infographic detailing what officers do in their tracks

I encourage you to read everything on the Careers.State.Gov site.  You will find additional insight through online discussions, especially at the Yahoo Group – Becoming a Foreign Service Officer. This is an excellent resource and can help you in deciding your career track and other questions as you continue through the selection process.  Or it could make your head explode because there is just so much information and not all of it correct.

After you’ve reviewed this information, and you still have doubts or questions about your cone, take the Department’s quiz,  Which Career Track is Right for You? , to help you winnow down your choices.

Diplomat-in-Residence: A Great Resource

When you complete the quiz and have an idea of the track you lack it’s time to reach out to real FSOs and ask them questions. They are the Diplomats-in-Residence, 16 or so FSOs and Specialists the Department has assigned around the country to answer questions and to drum up interest in the Foreign Service as a career.

They provide an excellent way to nail down your career track. As you might guess, the quality of these sources varies, but I’ve known many of top-flight FSOs who have served as Diplomats-in-Residence. Although the Department may frown on my advice, I do recommend that you reach out not just to the DIR in your region, but any other who by cone, sex, or minority status may help you not only with your choice of career tracks, but also whether the Foreign Service would be a good fit for you.

DIRs are located at universities and colleges throughout the United States, but every candidate can and should make use of them.

Can I Change My Career Track When (or After) I Join?

No!  Err, maybe…

If you show up at A-100 demanding a change in cone, the answer from the State Department will be “no.”  The Department tries to cushion the blow by saying that FSOs throughout their careers serve in out-of-cone assignments throughout their careers and the higher you the less your career track matters.  For instance, I was a consular track officer, but in my final 12 years in the Foreign Service, I was in multifunctional (sic) jobs — twice as a DCM and twice as a Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS).

The Department doesn’t want you to get your hopes up, but in truth a few mid-level FSOs do change career tracks. Openings in the tracks do open up, but if you think you can join the Political track, you’re dreaming.

Seriously,  there are lateral transfers between Consular and Management, and even some Political and Economic FSOs who grow tired of working the cocktail/reception circuit and decide to join the Consular and Management tracks, which have a more “9-5” schedule.

So, no, if you are a Management or Consular or PD Officer, you will not find a way to join the Political ranks because there are no/no vacancies at mid-level.  Similarly, the Economic track only rarely seeks mid-level FSOs, and you be so far behind in competing with your new peers for promotion, it’s probably not a wise career move.  I don’t have a lot of information on the Public Diplomacy career track, but it is very attractive at the junior and mid-level ranks because the cone features work as an Information Officer (spokesperson), Cultural Affairs Officer (exchanges, cultural activities, spending money to preserve important historical sites) or the  Public Affairs Officer, the big kahuna who manages the mission’s entire Public Diplomacy program.  I don’t see many PD Officers leaving their career track.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Happy Thanksgiving to you all. It’s a big holiday at U.S. missions overseas, and it brings together a lot of the American community, including expats, Peace Corps volunteers, teachers and many from the local community. I’ve found that Thanksgiving is sometimes a difficult concept to get across, but at least host country nationals leave knowing that it’s a very important U.S. holiday.

I’m attaching a video on diversity that the State Department produced recently – The Foreign Service: In Search of Diversity. It’s worth watching.

IMPORTANT – Deadline for State Department Internships

You don’t want to miss the Oct 17 application deadline for unpaid student internships over Summer 2015


Half the interns will serve at the State Department in Washington, DC, while the other half will serve overseas in some of the 270 U.S. embassies, consulates, and missions.  It’s not clear how many internships there are, but get your application before the October 17 deadline to be considered.


Important reminder: begin the process to secure your security clearance ASAP.  This is the hurdle that trips up many hoping to work for the USG. 


The information about the internship program can be found here at USAJOBs or via Internship Applications.

As I’ve said before there is no better way to see if the Foreign Service is right for you than to work for 10 weeks as an intern.  Even better, since these internships are over the summer you will very likely be filling in for an FSO who will be on leave or transferring.  I’ve relied on interns as political officers over the summer in my overseas posts.  In Washington, it’s not unheard of for interns to assume the duties of desk officer in a regional bureau or program officer in a functional bureau.

Good luck!








Management 101: Don’t Let the Shit Float Up

Tips on How to Get Promoted in the Foreign Service.  If you can live with yourself…


More often than not, these guys (and most were men) did nothing of the sort.  And when I got back to Washington, first serving as a DAS in a functional bureau and later in a regional bureau, I was thrown under the bus by my so-called protective bosses.

I’d ask, “What happened to backing up my decisions, taking the heat for my decisions or arguments in meetings?”  The manager would typically stammer, hem and haw, and say something on the order of, “you’re in the big leagues now.  It means taking ownership for your decisions.  Trust me it won’t reflect badly on you.  In this building, no one makes decisions so someone who does is eventually valued.”

Bullshit.  The State Department has a thousand ways for the managers to cover their asses, and only one way to make a decision.  It’s easy to duck your responsibility — write an action memo to your boss or better still to your boss’s boss.  Pushing them to make the decisions.  As you’d expect, most of those came back with copious notes and no decision or the third box.  The first box is “yes,” the second box is “no,” and the third box is the principal’s response, which in so many words was “Don’t expect a decision on this from me.  Either send it to the Deputy Secretary or rewrite it to make it ‘less committal’ or better still spike it.”

No sour grapes (well, maybe a few), no unhappy camper, no respect within the building (but tons outside, where decision makers are actually admired)  To be honest, Washington, or at least the State Department runs more on non-decisions than true “yes” or “no” decisions…  Or wait until the crisis happens and then someone has to make decisions, usually at the highest level.  It is the essence of Edmund Burke’s conservatism.

In the Foreign Service, you will get promoted if you stay away from decision making..  You will get promoted if you don’t/don’t make waves.  You will be nailed and beaten down if you disagree with the higher-ups, even if they haven’t made a decision. You make a decision on something it’s your ass flapping in the wind.

Trust me, and forgive me my bitterness.  I still consider working as a Foreign Service officer the best job in the world, and certainly in the U.S. government.  It’s just with the passage of time, I see things more clearly.  And occasionally, just a few times, it irks me.

Pick your assignments carefully; pick your bosses very carefully  But that’s the subject of my next post.

Cheers and good luck,

Foreign Service Exam: First Conference Call; Here’s the Link

Thirty-five callers joined the first conference call last night, Thursday, September 26.  The call lasted about nearly two hours minutes, and the questions were excellent, ranging from how will the sequester affect hiring in FY2014 to how is the culture inside the Foreign Service.

You can find the recording here —

I am sending the MP3 file out for transcription, and I’ll try to provide a Table of Contents or Index to make it easy to search.

Thanks again for the participation.  I’m planning to do another conference call or Webinar in the near future.  Sign up for my  monthly newsletter to stay abreast of conference calls and podcasts.

Cheers, Bill









Department of State: Internship Applications for Summer 2014


The State Department has opened its application season for internships — domestic and foreign — for Summer 2014.  As I’ve said before, an internship at an embassy abroad is the best way to see if you really do want to work as an FSO.  You will have 10 weeks serving in a various capacities in a foreign mission, frequently in a developing country.

When I was DCM in Uganda, we had excellent interns during my three years there, including some who went on to join the Foreign Service, the Civil Service working in the State Department as well as overseas development NGOs.

In Kampala, we treated the interns as if they were officers, well, because they were officers.  No joke.  We were typically shorthanded over the summer — transfer season and R&R trips — so we relied the interns to fill the vacant positions.  Most served in the political and economic sections, but we did have some in the consular, public diplomacy and management sections.  

We also put the interns up in embassy housing which was open awaiting new officers or those gone for the summer.  This helped to defray the costs for the interns.

Why defray the costs? Because these are unpaid internships for undergraduate and graduate students.  These days, there’s a lot of controversy surrounding unpaid internships, likening them to slavery, but if you’re serious about the Foreign Service or Civil Service you reall should take part in this program, which the Department correctly points out is the only way for an undergraduate or graduate student to work in a U.S. Mission abroad.

About half of those accepted serve in Washington, DC or other cities around the country and the other 50% serve at embassies or consulates overseas.

All travel expenses, e.g., airfare, visa, passport, etc., are borne by the intern.

There are a bunch of requirements — at least a 2.5 GPA, for instance — and you can find instructions here.

You must complete the online application on the USAJOBS website and in addition to your biographical and education data complete the following:

• Select up to two (2) bureaus or posts abroad
• Specify a country or countries
• Include a well-written Statement of Interest
• Provide all required documents

NOTE: A couple of words of advice

— if you want to go overseas as an intern, pick a larger post abroad so you can be sure they’ll have empty slots to fill (Not all missions host interns every year).  In Africa, for instance, I’d recommend picking Ghana or Senegal over Togo, Kenya or Uganda over Burundi.

— if you speak or are studying a foreign language, put it on your application.  If you have an interest in a country or region, put it on your application and weave it into your statement of interest.  (On writing, remember no boring, stuffy academic writing in your statement, go for active voice, power verbs, clarity and succinctness.)

FINALLY AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, file for your security clearance ASAP.  too many students get tripped up here.  You need a security clearance and that process takes months.  You need to be able to handle documents and information classified at the SECRET and CONFIDENTIAL levels.

Good luck, and as always let me know if you have any questions in the comment box.
















What if You Can’t Pass the Foreign Service Exam?

The statistics are pretty bleak.  Amb. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the then-director general of the Foreign Service, told a Savannah audience in April the following startling fact:

  • in 2012, out of 22,000 applicants took the Foreign Service Exam, the State Department hired only 425 FSOs.

What does this mean?  Well, your chances of actually getting hired by the Foreign Service are pretty slim.  In short, you have a 1.9% chance of passing the exams and being offered a job.  Ouch.  It also means that it’s time for Plan B for most applicants.

Plan B is not something to be ashamed of…  We’ve all fallen back on Plan B in our lives.  I applied to Georgetown for undergraduate studies.  I didn’t get in (didn’t even get wait-listed!) so I decided to go to a school where I was accepted, the University of Chicago.  It was my Plan B school.

I want the features offered by a $2,500 a month 1-BR apartment in Washington, DC. I couldn’t cut the price so a I fell back on my Plan B, a $1,500 a month studio apartment in Washington, DC.  We fall back on our Plan B’s multiple times every day.

Of course, career choices are a big thing, a huge thing, really.  So falling back on your Plan B is the stuff of angst, pain and depression.  Okay, you can pick yourself up now.  And get on with your life.

But think about what you wanted from your Foreign Service career:

  • living overseas
  • an interesting and satisfying job
  • helping American citizens or people in general
  • advocating policy positions
  • a well-paying job with good benefits
  • the prestige of being a U.S. diplomat

Well, I would argue that except for the last tic you can — right now — apply for an international job that will give you all of the same lifestyle and benefits that you would earn as an FSO.

Think about it.  Yes, there is  a job out there for you that will get you out of the States, push you into a new culture, have you work with smart and funny and bright folks, and make decent, sometimes more money then you would in the ForeignHow Service.

What’s the catch?  Well, you’ve got to find these jobs and get off your butt and apply for these jobs.  And seriously there are thousands of such jobs around the world.

And I promise to help you find them.  This is for Katie helping me to get off my butt and write it.


Spring 2014 Internships Available at State; Apply Before July 1

As I’ve mentioned previously, a State Department internship is a great way to see if the Foreign Service or Civil Service is right for you.

These internships are targeted at undergraduate and graduate students who are interested in Foreign Service or Civil Service positions with the State Department.  Those interested in Foreign Service jobs can work at an embassy overseas and learn from U.S. diplomats on the job.  You will likely be asked to contribute or write cables and reports.  You could also participate in meetings with host country officials and foreign diplomats.

For those interested in work in the State Department, there are positions open in many Bureaus.  This internship will give you a firsthand look at how the State Department operates in Washington, working with our embassies overseas, handling multilateral and bilateral issues and understanding the work of the dedicated Civil Service experts. 

If you’re interested, you can find the notice at  Follow the instructions there.  You should also visit State’s website for careers for additional information on the Spring 2014 Student Internship Program (unpaid).

Of course, there is no guarantee of future employment, but especially for civil servants the key to finding a job at State or anywhere in the Federal Government is to get your foot in the door.  From there, through networking and building contacts, you could end up with a full-time position.

An important tip is that if you’re interested, apply as quickly as possible. Although there are more than six months before the internships become available, the vetting process takes a long time, especially background checks for your security clearance.  In my experience, it is the security clearance process that is the biggest hurdle, not because it’s complicated but because there are too few investigators making the checks.

Your application is due July 1, 2013.

Good luck!




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.









Are You Too Old to Join the Foreign Service?

Absolutely Not!

A reader asked me earlier this week whether he was too old to enter the Foreign Service.  He’s 48, an international  lawyer, and has lived most of his career overseas, including stints in the Middle East and Europe.  He wanted to know if he was too old to join the Foreign Service.

No. The only regulation is that Foreign Service officers must retire at age 65.  Unlike the Civil Service, where staff members can work forever (and at least one I know is 85 and still going strong), FSOs have to hang up their tailcoats and top hats when they reach their mid-60s.

I have worked with many junior officers (JOs) in their 40s and 50s.   Most were skilled and professional.  Many joined the State Department as a second career.  They shared the wanderlust of the typical FSO and decided the opportunity to travel while doing interesting and important work would be ideal.  So don’t be surprised when you enter the service to meet “retired” teachers, lawyers, military officers, civil servants, and so forth. 

In my A-100 class, there was a 59-year-old former school teacher from the Pacific Northwest.  The youngest was 22 and fresh out of college.  The 59-year-old served 6 years and retired at 65.

One Thing to Consider

I did caution the lawyer with whom I spoke that joining the Foreign Service can be tough for second-career folks, especially those who’ve had successful and big careers before.  The Foreign Service generally doesn’t know or care what you did before, and assigns all entry level officers the same way, usually to a visa hell hole where you’re issuing and denying non-immigrant visas (NIVs).  Mostly denying.  So the middle-age entry level officers used to managing dozens or hundreds and making  $100m deals are going to be shocked at working some of the least attractive (aka crappiest) Foreign Service jobs during their first tour.

But most, if they can get over themselves and learn the ways of the Foreign Service, will adapt and likely flourish.  Their skills will be evident and used by the section chief or even the Ambassador who will include them in key meetings as notetakers or staff aides. 

Every ELO regardless of age is impatient to rise in rank and take on greater responsibilities.  Perhaps the inability to wait is even greater among older officers since they will likely have less time in the Foreign Service.  But don’t underestimate your bosses, they will see it and ask you to do more.  There’s always plenty of work.

This goes for younger officers, too.  If you have skills in a certain area — marketing, writing, management, computers, etc — offer up your services.   It’ll make the visa line bearable and you will get noticed.  had a background in journalism so second tour in Zambia I helped the economics section to report on wildlife management, HIV/AIDS, and other issues.