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Joining together: tandems and timing

Joining the Foreign Service as a couple is increasingly common. The State Department doesn’t release official statistics but I heard many times that more than 15% of foreign service officers are married to each other these days.

These marriages can be either between generalist FSOs and/or Foreign Service Specialists (FSS) such as diplomatic security agents. In either case, it matters a lot when each spouse joins the Foreign Service; joining at different times generally makes things easier.

Joining at different times

In my case, my husband was a FSO for twelve years before I joined as a Generalist. While it was impossible to line up our first tour together (we didn’t get posted to the same embassy) we managed to stay together because we had options.

First of all, as an EFM (family member of a FSO) I had the right to defer my entry into the Foreign Service for up to two years in order to line up with my spouse’s hiring cycle. So we didn’t have to spend any time apart for orientation or training in DC if we didn’t want to.

The second thing that worked in our favor was that my husband was already tenured. Officers are typically tenured after four years of service. Because my husband is tenured his assignments aren't “directed.” This means he isn't obligated to go wherever he's told or risk losing his job—which is theoretically how it works for untenured officers. In our case it meant he could "break" his assignment without much fuss.

A third benefit we enjoyed for NOT joining at the same time is that my husband has lots of experience and many professional contacts in different bureaus—and at various ranks within the Service. So when he found himself without an assignment it took minimal time or effort to find a telework position he could do from Berlin.

Joining at the same time

So what if you’re married and you're trying to get into the Foreign Service at the same time? Once either of you gets hired, it would be very difficult passing up the opportunity to join and instead waiting 4-5 years to apply again. And it's really hard to influence timing anyway. You never know who will pass the exams and how long security clearances take.

I met several couples who recently joined around the same time. Most didn’t get posted at the same embassy for their fist assignment. There were couples who were split up and had young kids, or were trying to get pregnant. The countries they were posted were close enough that they could visit each other in the weekends, but only if they were willing to take (and pay for) a 2-3 hour flight every time.

To make it more likely to get postings together you should seriously consider choosing different career tracks. The worst possible situation is where two spouses want to work in the same section, which is basically impossible due to a lack of positions and nepotism concerns.

Ultimately, I believe, the most successful tandems are the ones that want to make it work the most. Plotting a career in the FS is confusing enough; there are no guarantees you get the postings you want, and it’s impossible to predict what it will truly be like to work in X country, or how hard it will be to learn language Y. Adding the complexity of two careers to that mix creates more difficulty and uncertainty.

So far, so good?

For me, it’s been OK so far. My spouse had a wonderful and rewarding 12 years of Service before I joined and is prepared to accommodate me during my first two tours--even if that means only telework positions for him. I already decided I'll be flexible (again) once I’m a tenured officer. Once I have more leeway as a mid-level officer I’ll do any job in any country to make my family happy.

Let's hope my optimism lasts! Once my husband and I start bidding this summer we'll see how easy it really is for two accommodating spouses to stay together.

Want to know more about a career with the State Department? Check out or check it out on social media @DOSCareers

Read more! About my experience with the Foreign Service in the section How To Become a Diplomat; different Foreign Service career tracks in Diplomacy 101; and my experience working as a FSO in What Diplomats Do. For career advice from people with great international jobs check out: Career advice with journalist Aisha Chowdhry Career Advice with Entrepreneur Gertje Vanhoutte Other posts on international careers on this blog:


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