Pick Your Career Track Before the Foreign Service Exam (Part 2)


Seriously, it’s kind of a crap shoot picking your Cone without knowing something about Career Tracks, or at least knowing something a bit more than what’s described on careers.state.gov.  If it were an ideal world, you would all have State Department mentors assigned before you make this decision has to be made.  Some of you will or have already interned at Embassies and Consulates overseas.  Others have learned as former Peace Corps Volunteers or staff members at overseas NGOs what officers in the five Career Tracks actually do.  You, who are so fortunate, at least have a clue what you’ll be doing.  For the rest of you, well, you always can ask me.  Fire away.  This post with some admittedly abridged descriptions of the five Cones will at least, I hope, put you in a position to the right questions.  Meantime, I’ll also provide the names of books that can help you.


No Hollywood movie has ever/ever accurately portrayed the work of a Foreign Service Officer.  I’ll devote a post to this later.  Screenwriters and directors routinely cast FSOs as schemers with the power to overthrow foreign governments or wiener-ish dweebs who go out of their ways not to help American Citizens in trouble.  The movie Midnight Express is one such movie, depicting the consul in Istanbul who deals  with Billy Hayes, a convicted hashish trafficker, as slimy, unctuous and dismissive.  In fact, my first boss in the Foreign Service was that consul, and I have never found a more courageous, straightforward and caring individual in my career.  He laughed about the movie, saying Midnight Express was wrong on so many levels that he watched it only once and thought it more a comedy than drama.  Midnight Express, like so many others,  was a smear job, a pathetic attempt to score points by depicting the consul as a weak, mealy-mouthed bureaucrat.  I guess it’s no surprise that the screenwriter was Oliver Stone, the lucky man who never fails to take complicated, nuanced issues and distill them to black and white.   But I digress and I promised you more information about the Econ, Consular and Management Career Tracks.


Econ officers are a sexy bunch, well, no not really, but they do work in a “substantive” Cone.  Honestly, when I joined the Foreign Service, Pol and Econ were the only really “serious” Cones.  But even then Econ trailed Political in attracting the bidders.  It’s crazy when you think that Economic Officers are the ones most likely to find employment when they retire, quit or otherwise bail out of the Foreign Service.  If you opt to bid on this route and you’re still in school, take more classes in micro and macroeconomics.  Those working in the private sector will also be in a position to do well.  The key is to  “hit the ground running” (one of the Foreign Service’s most overused expressions).   Economic Officers do similar work as political officers, reaching out and developing networks, trying to get a handle on a range of issues — from a country’s monetary policy to its stand on Climate Change, from a country’s export and trade policies to a U.S. company’s complaints on the Rule of Law in the country’s court system.  You draw on multiple sources, from government ministers to the local World Bank resident representative, and then report your findings and analysis back to the Department in cables.


The wonderful thing about Wikileaks, should one ever admit that the treasure trove of “front-channel” cables are in fact real State Department reports (still strictly verboten for FSOs and other Department personnel) are the accolades from outside observers.  Many media outlets, including The Guardian in London, no big fan of the U.S. Government,  acknowledged that not only was the reporting detailed and accurate, but the prose was excellent, even sublime.  Overseas, fellow diplomats and many government officials agreed that the quantity and the quality of embassy reporting was truly incredible, and at least for the diplomats had their capitals wondering what they did all day, if the Americans were producing so much information.


The Wikileaks scandal leads me to another point that is so important.  In the Foreign Service, you will be judged by your analysis and perhaps more importantly your writing skills.   You must write fast and accurately.  If you don’t, practice hard now.  There is no greater skill for an American diplomat.  The State Department’s writing tradition is as strong as the U.S. military’s oral tradition.  To be a good officer in the U.S. Army or any of the other services, you must be a good briefer — focused, to the point, preferably with  PowerPoint slides.  In the Foreign Service, to be a good officer you must be a clear and succinct drafter.  Cables and more and more emails are the grist of an FSOs life.  Coming in with strong writing skills will put you ahead of your peers for tenure and promotion.


Regrettably there are too many lawyers working in the Consular Cone.  I agree that the work lends itself to legal thinking and practice.  Just about all U.S. visa law — pertaining to nonimmigrant and immigrant visas — is set out in the Immigration and Nationality Act.  When politicians talk about immigration reform, they are discussing possible ways to amend the INA.  But if lawyers gravitate towards consular work because it resembles legal work, well, that’s (in my opinion, of course) is not a good thing.  Lawyers make lousy visa officers for a number of reasons:

  •  Lawyers find it impossible to deal in the gray area that exists in the law.  There is only one right answer and if it takes three days/three weeks/three months to hash it out, well, so be it.  With today’s workloads, hundreds of thousands of visa applicants receive a two-minute interview.  There is simply no time to deep dive into the nuances of the law.  Harsh, yes; accurate, absolutely.  The goal of  visa work is to process applicants — talk to them, discuss their circumstances and make a decision.  Fast.  There is no dilly-dallying in visa work.  The law is clear.  An applicant is deemed to be an intending immigrant, until and unless he can convince the interviewing officer to the contrary.  In short,  you’re guilty until you prove yourself innocent.  Lawyers generally can’t deal with the fact that a visa section resembles more a McDonald’s at lunchtime than a law office on main street.
  • Lawyers by and large make lousy managers.  Visa Sections around the world, especially in “Visa Mills” like Seoul, Mexico City, and Manila may have 20-30 FSOs and more than 100 local employees, handling hundreds of thousands of applicants.  Management is the name of the game.  You as the manager have to keep things moving, juggling the cultural differences, language hurdles and insane pace of the job.  I’ve seen some, but not many lawyers succeed at this.
  • Most lawyers that I’ve come across in the Foreign Service are not funny.  If you don’t have sense of humor, the Foreign Service is not for you, especially consular work.  You’ve got to keep your FSOs and your Foreign Service Nationas (FSNs) –now called LSE’s, or Local Service Employees — happy and laughing.  High morale is essential in consular work.  It’s important in every section of the embassy, but bad morale kills a Consular Section faster than any other office.
I’m going to discuss the other side of Consular work — American Citizens Services — in another post, but if visa work is tough and mean and unforgiving then ACS is the part where Americans help Americans.  Usually.  And it’s why I joined the Foreign Service.
Okay.  this is still another “too long” post.
I’ll sum up Management/Administrative Officers as some of the finest officers in the Foreign Service.  Tasked with Herculean duties, they do their best and put up with a lot of shit.  Who wants to go to an Embassy party only to be accosted by people complaining that their housing sucks and they want a new air conditioner.  It happens all the time.  The best Management Officers are gifted with handling people and have  the patience of priests.  They handle all the administrative functions of an overseas mission — human resources, shipping, diplomatic pouch, maintenance of housing and Embassy buildings, motor pool, finances, etc.  The officers range from the brilliant and speedy to the lazy and stupid.  All Cones have their share of those officers, but perhaps it gets noticed more among Management Officers.  Consular and Management work shares one important trait — if these sections are running smoothly, no one notices.  But if either service is sub-standard, everyone knows right away.




  1. I’m really glad I found your posts. Is there a way to contact you with a few questions regarding Consular work? Thanks!

  2. hey Bill! I have a number of questions. Can I email you?

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