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.