Why I applied for the Foreign Service (late)
Updated: Apr 14, 2021
I took the Foreign Service written exam – the first in a series of entry exams – in October 2016. Technically, I could have taken the test three years earlier (two months after I got American citizenship). So why did I wait?
In this post, I’d like to talk a bit about my personal situation first and follow that with a list of the main reasons I decided to sign up for a diplomatic career.
I always aspired to a career in international relations. I wrote about my trials and tribulations regarding EFM embassy jobs and being an independent consultant in an earlier blog post, so I don’t want to rehash everything here. Basically, I was happy to be an EFM at first, but it didn’t work out the way that I wanted, and when I pursued other career options I found it way too stressful.
The Foreign Service had always been in the back of my mind somewhere, but it never seemed the right time to apply. Not having US citizenship was an obvious obstacle but even once I got it, I figured the board of examiners would laugh in my face once they heard my (slight) Dutch accent. I guess I didn’t know then, as I know now, that “being American” does not necessary mean being American-born – it’s more about a state of mind (and a naturalization document, of course).
Who wants to be a tandem?
Another important obstacle that prevented me from taking the Foreign Service exams was that I was convinced that it would be too difficult to be a tandem couple. My husband has been a Foreign Service Officer for ten years, and during that time I heard plenty of horror stories about trying to combine two diplomatic careers.
Some diplomats argue that finding good embassy jobs for both spouses is nearly impossible, saying that one spouse is always going to end up taking jobs they don’t really want and that hurt their career. According to others, occasional separation (as in, working at different posts) is almost a certainty.
These kinds of warnings really affected me. I mean; I didn’t want to destroy my husband’s career, obviously! Also, I found the idea of serving at different posts unacceptable. I knew that I wanted kids, soon, and I didn’t think it was fair to sign up for a job that would allow my kids to live with only one parent at a time.
Of course, a third factor that caused me not to apply for the Foreign Service was a fear of failure. I wrote about that in another post and, perhaps most importantly, how I finally overcame this fear.
I talked about being a tandem with my husband many times, but we always reached the same conclusion; we didn’t want to be a tandem couple because we were happy and grateful for what we had. Every time we saw a tandem couple struggling with their assignments, we felt more certain that we saw things clearly and that we had made the right decision for our family.
PLAN A, B and C
Then came the summer of 2016. We had our next assignment lined up – my husband was going to have a great job as Public Affairs Officer (PAO) in Yerevan, Armenia, and I was going to find an EFM job. My husband bid on Armenia because we both loved the country, but also because we thought that there would be a lot of EFM employment opportunities – enough to where, I thought, I would almost be guaranteed a job.
Boy, did that turn out differently!
With the stroke of a pen, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson eliminated the global EFM employment program in February 2017 (only to reinstate it by the end of the year, as we now know). When it happened, I was just as appalled as the rest of the EFMs, but I think I was far less surprised.
Somehow I had always known, on an almost subconscious level, that I couldn’t trust this type of “employment program” with my career. Even though lots of improvements have been made to the program, it is – as has now been proven – rather unreliable. Knowing this, I hadn’t put all my eggs in the EFM basket.
I make it my business to explore all employment options for the countries we bid on and to have several plans lined up by the time we move somewhere new.
In the case of Armenia, my Plan B was getting into the Master of Economics program at the American University of Armenia (AUA). Applying for the Foreign Service was my Plan C – I still thought it wasn’t the right time for it, and thought I would surely fail anyway, but at least it would be something to keep my mind occupied.
Is it ever the right time?
Being in Washington DC to study language for a year made it easier for me to take the step to apply for the FSOT. Since the tests are not administered in all countries, I felt good about the fact that I wouldn’t have to travel for it. In my mind, I went over the sequence of events; if I passed the written test in October, I could do the oral assessment in the spring. I would still be in Washington DC in the spring, which would also be convenient…
And if I’d pass the oral exam, I’d have to wait for a security clearance before I would go on the Register, and that would probably take a really long time. After I’d get onto the Register I would not know if and when I’d get a job offer. So in a way, it would be impossible to time or predict anything that would happen once I passed the exams – which made me think that now was as good a time as ever to take them.
The only problem left, in my mind, was my husband. What would he say if I told him that I was ready to apply for the Foreign Service? If I’d pass and get a job offer, there would be no guarantee that we would get positions at the same mission, or even in the same country. Would he worry? Would he like the idea of making more money together? Would he resent having to make career adjustments in order to accommodate me?
Thinking this over, I suddenly had a realization. It was really weird, since I already knew this information, but my brain had never connected it to other pieces of information. What I realized was: my husband can take temporarily Leave Without Pay (LWOP) without the risk of getting fired – because he’s tenured. So if we would be sent to different embassies, he could still join me if he wanted (and I’m sure that’s what he’d want). I looked at it like this: I had zero job stability at the moment, and he had plenty. Why wouldn’t I try to get a good, stable job too?
And what about his job commitment in Armenia? I knew he was going to love that job, and I would hate for it to fall through. I was also sure that he would really dislike the idea of disappointing his supervisors and the bureau by pulling out. But I realized that there was a good solution for that too; because I was already an EFM I would have the right to defer my candidacy on the Register for up to two years. Problem solved!
It's complicated anyway
So, on a personal level, I felt like I had finally resolved my issues. Our little family would be fine because we had options. On a professional level, however, I had other concerns. As I said, I'd already made other plans; I wanted to go back to school for a Master’s degree. Also, I figured I could wait until the EFM employment program was reinstated, or I could go back to consulting, or I could volunteer. I had plenty of ideas.
But to turn all of these ideas into action, not knowing if any of them would work out, each and every time we moved… it seemed exhausting. Plus I worried that I wasn’t going to be fulfilled doing different kinds of jobs every time we moved; how was I ever going patch a career together, be good at something, and make myself useful to the world?
I understood by now that, if I wanted to have a progressive career, being an FSO wouldn’t make my life more complicated; it was already as complicated as it could possibly be. Whether I would pursue a career as a diplomat or as something else in the field of international relations, I was going to have to fight for jobs all the time, anyway.
All about motivation
So, I figured that taking the FSOT was definitely worth a try. I also realized that, more than ever before, I was deeply motivated to succeed. Immersing myself in studying for the exams, thinking about the State Department and really envisioning myself as a diplomat felt like entering a new, but also familiar world.
It wasn’t difficult for me to come up with the main reasons that formed my genuine interest in representing US interests as a diplomat. And yet it was still a process to formulate it – a process in which I dug deep into what drives me, how I see the future, the world, and myself. Reasons like:
My growing up: Growing up in the Netherlands and being part of an ever-expanding European Union, I've always felt more like a world citizen than anything else. Although my initial dream was to be an actress, and I was a stage and movie actress for some years, as a young adult I realized that my real calling was to work on international issues, especially in countries where the challenges are the biggest. I wasn’t afraid of going new places and exploring new things – I saw it as an important mission to at least try and make the world better.
My educational background: My family and friends expected me to go to acting school, but instead I chose to study History and International Relations. I wasn’t very good at it at first, but I was very motivated to gain knowledge and experience. I tried to get into an exchange program to study in the U.S., but because all of the slots were already taken I went to Canada for a semester (I picked a course called American Foreign Policy, though). Eager to see what the “developing world” looked like, I followed that up with internships at the United Nations and at the Dutch Embassy in Nigeria.
My professional experience: I always tried to gain as much international work experience as possible. I worked for the U.S. Department of State in two embassies, and then for a private consulting company on migration issues. I loved seeing firsthand how foreign policy can have a real impact on people’s lives. I especially loved my job at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan as the Deputy Refugee Coordinator, where I promoted American values and helped ensure the protection of thousands of Afghan refugees. I also volunteered for organizations working on sports diplomacy, infant and maternal health, women entrepreneurship, refugee legal assistance, and environmental awareness.
My passions & ambitions: Working full-time to advance U.S. foreign policy goals and strengthening international cooperation through public service combines my desire for a stable career and increasing responsibility with being part of a greater effort to enhance peace and stability. I have always enjoyed traveling, learning new languages, seeing other cultures, and meeting new people. I like every day to be different, to work with people with different views and backgrounds, and to be challenged. I also think that diplomatic work is extremely relevant in a time of globalization, in which more and more people across the world connect with each other.
Want to know more about a career with the State Department? Check out careers.state.gov 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; my experience working as a FSO in What Diplomats Do.
For career advice from people with great international jobs check out:
Other posts on international careers on this blog: