Pick Your Career Track Before the Foreign Service Exam (Part 1)

We called them Cones when I joined the Foreign Service in 1988.  At some point, the HR folks changed the name to be more in touch with the times so they became Career Tracks.  It’s a better description, but HR has apparently also decided that you need to pick your Career Track before taking the first exam — the written test.  As I recall, when I took the test, they scored us on how we did in each of the Cones, or Career Tracks, and then told us to pick our Cones.  I picked Consular, but that’s not important right now.

First, let me list and describe the five Career Tracks:

  • Political – dubbed “Pol,” as in she’s the pol off (political officer).  Political is considered the most glamorous Track, at least in political officers’ minds
  • Economic – known as “Econ,” or E-con.  The second “substantive” Cone or so political and econ Tracks were considered when I joined the Foreign Service
  • Management – used to be called Administrative, and is still referred to by many older FSOs as Admin.  HR and M (Under Secretary for Management) decided a few years ago that “Administrative” didn’t give the full breadth or importance of a Management Officer’s work.  So it became Management.  All FSOs manage, of course, but only Admin Officers are called Management Cone managers.  Go figure.
  • Consular – where some of the best State Department managers are found.  From Day 1, Consular Officers are called upon to manage local employees and their colleagues in visa and American Citizen Services sections in Embassies and Consulates around the world.  The number manages continues to increase as consular officers advance in the Service.  Every FSO has work as a consular officer before they are eligible for tenure (more on that later).
  • Public Diplomacy – called “PD” by FSOS.  When I joined, there wasn’t a separate Public Diplomacy Cone; all PD functions were run by a separate agency, the United States Information Service (USIS).  Around the turn of the century, State Department leaders (also known as the “Seventh Floor,” the highest floor at Main State decided that USIS should be merged into the State Department from whence it came some decades before.  There are still some bad feelings among long-time USIS officers, but although they had to give up their bigger houses and china, their budgets continue to remain outside the main embassy budget and each regional Bureau in the Department now has an extra Deputy Assistant Secretary from the PD Cone.

I’ll give you the skinny on Career Tracks.  The lion’s share of bidders still pick the Political Cone, which is still seen by many as the Foreign Service Officer Track.  Political Officers network with locals, glean information, complete analyses and reports (known as “cables”) to send to the Embassy.  Pol Offs frequently work closely with the Ambassador and Deputy Chief of Mission (the number two in an embassy).  She is called D-C-M, for short).

A Pol Off’s job should take place — in my view — outside of the Embassy, meeting with contacts, groups and others who have information that is important to an Embassy and ultimately the U.S. Government.  The only time a Pol Off should be in the Embassy is when he or she is drafting reports to send to Main State.  A Pol Off’s job is to schmooze, and if you like people and making contacts and going to receptions and other social events, then this is a great job.  Ironically, Political Officers in the Foreign Service are frequently introverts, which is not the best personality type for this intensely social field.  Some get over it.  Some do not, and it shows in their work.

George Kennan, perhaps the most famous FSO, admitted in his memoirs that he himself was very shy, but when he was a Pol Off representing the United States, his introversion disappeared.  He was doing his job as America’s representative, not as George Kennan, and he could in effect step out of himself and do his work.

Besides the glamour of meeting with political, labor, military and other types of leaders, Pol Offs — especially junior ones — usually get saddled with the myriad reports demanded by the Department — Human Rights Report, International Religious Freedom Report, Trafficking in Persons Report, and so forth.  Either mandated by Congress or demanded by one of the functional Bureaus or specialized offices at Main State, these reports can be drudgery.  To be sure, some are important.  Others, well, let’s just say they’re less important.  Ironically, the number of reports has increased as the number of Foreign Service Officers in the field has declined.

If the Political Cone attracts most applicants, I believe, Public Diplomacy comes in a close second.  PD is attractive work, whether you’re  the Information Officer (IO), an Embassy spokesperson.  Or you the mission’s Cultural Affairs Officer  (CAO), in which you organize public programs in music, art, books, etc.  American artists still make global tours, and the CAO organizes their visits. In the early 1960s Louis Armstrong did a number of foreign programs, and you can still find recordings of his trips.  For instance, I have a CD of Armstrong’s concert in Elizabethville in the Congo (now Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo).  CAO’s also coordinate Fulbright scholars, International Visitor Programs (IVP) and other foreign visitors to the United States.  These are plum programs because they frequently last for several weeks and show foreigners a cross-section of American life.  Their themes can range from democracy, law enforcement, justice and equality, minority rights,  youth, women in government, etc.  The USG has sponsored these programs for decades and they pay dividends as participants have risen to the top of their professions, becoming important contacts with generally positive views of the United States.

This post is too long already.  I’ll discuss the Economic, Management, and Consular Career Tracks tomorrow.



  1. john brown says

    Had the pleasure of citing yr post on my blog.

  2. Ryan Wells says

    Great information! Thanks for sharing this.

    I do have a question though (if you don’t mind): Since you must choose a career path before the test, does that mean there are different tests for each career field?

    Thank you!

    • Ryan–

      Nope, the tests are the same, although I would encourage you to highlight your past experiences and skills in the writing parts as well as your interview during the Oral Assessment.

      Good luck,


  3. Great post. I put together a quiz to help folks figure out what cone they should select — http://fsopro.wordpress.com/2014/09/01/fso-pros-no-b-s-conal-sorting-hat. Would be interested to hear your thoughts on it.

    • FSO PRO–

      It’s interesting, asks good questions, but at the end of the test it told me I should be a Management Cone officer!? Management, formerly known as Administrative, is probably the one area of the Foreign Service that would drive me to quit. I have nothing against Management officers; in fact, I routinely praised my admin officers precisely because it was work I had no interest in.

      As for your No-BS Conal Test, in principle, I like it, but I don’t know if it gathers enough evidence from the applicant to make the best choice. In the end, it could help an applicant narrow down their choices, but ultimately it’s going to be the applicant’s decision, based on more art than science.

      Keep up the good work on your blog.

      Cheers, Bill

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