What to expect from your first two assignments
Updated: Jul 20
New (Generalist) FSO start at the bottom of the career ladder, even those who already have 20 years of experience. They all start with two “directed” tours, typically overseas and two years each, and at least one of them has to be in consular affairs.
It’s absolutely fabulous to join the Foreign Service, but there’s a lot you have to learn and understand before you can get comfortable. Worse, there’s still a lot you have to prove before you get tenured, which means you have to put up with a lot of uncertainty and check a number of boxes before your job is truly secure.
You don’t get to apply directly for jobs for your first two tours. Instead, you rank a set number of posts from a list. The cities or countries you want most may not even be on the list and even if they are you might not get them—because the timing doesn’t work out, someone else is a better fit, or for no discernible reason at all. Ergo: you have to be extremely flexible.
Still, I’m not saying there’s no rhyme or reason to the assignment process. While some decisions defy all logic, others make total sense. Like a person who speaks fluent French getting assigned to Senegal or Haiti. Also, people are more likely to get a posting they ranked “high” or “medium” versus one they ranked “low.” In my class almost everyone received a “high” for their first tour. But that was only possible because people volunteered for some very challenging places.
Speaking the language of a certain country is no guarantee you’ll get posted there right away, if ever, unless you took bonus points to bump your test score, in which case you’re obligated to use that language during your first two tours (this only works for certain languages).
But when I was in orientation class, I noticed the assignment team was actively looking for speakers of specific languages to fill immediate vacancies. If I remember correctly it was French, Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese. Everyone who indicated speaking those languages went through immediate testing. But if you speak some “boutique language” like Italian, don’t count on being sent to Italy!
If you don’t speak a foreign language already, which is also quite common, you’re on language probation until you pass the test on one of the FSI-taught languages. For those people it’s likely they get assigned to a job that requires language training so they have the opportunity to get off probation, which is a requirement for getting tenured later.
To make things fair there’s a system in place that makes it likely that one of the two entry-level tours is at a “hardship“ post, like somewhere in South Asia or Africa. In turn, the other tour is likely to be in a more developed place. So you can kind of assume that if you go to a cushy European post first, you’ll be shipped off to a poor, remote, or less-than-safe country next.
Most posts aren’t in Europe
Most countries aren’t in Europe, so most positions aren’t either. Rather than having unrealistic expectations about how much fun you’ll have in London or Prague, it’s better to better focus on learning about and appreciating the wide array of exotic postings available.
Also, it’s quite typical for FSOs to say: How good my experience is somewhere depends less on the place and more on the position itself, and the people I meet. So better not focus on getting to Europe, or some other "ideal post."
Although all ELO positions involve some grunt work, many see consular work as the most tedious of all. Particularly FSOs who were sent to “visa mills” in Mexico or China, where they interviewed 100+ applicants per day when consular wasn’t even their chosen career track, are often bummed about that.
Assignment officers try to match positions to career tracks but there are just too many entry-level consular jobs to make it work for everyone. That means you can get assigned to a consular position for both directed tours. As a result, there are political and economic officers with five years in the Service who don’t have any political or economic diplomacy experience. That’s all part of the risk you take by becoming a Generalist and committing to fulfilling the “needs of the Service.”
FSOs are eligible for tenure, or lifetime appointment (for at least 20 years), after three years of work. Most officers receive it after four. They breath a big sigh of relief on that day—no more stressing about if they really have what it takes! They’re in!!
Unfortunately, the game is still far from over after that. The US Foreign Service uses an “up or out” system, which essentially means you have to keep fighting for promotions to keep your job. It’s possible to coast a little, or take time off due to family issues, but that’s not how most FSOs approach their careers—they spend lots of time on their own evaluation reports and lobbying for their next position. It’s pretty competitive!