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A Traveler In The Foreign Service: How To Avoid Posts Where You Might Get Eaten Alive
"I have a great opportunity for you in Port Moresby," said Hollis, my State Department Career Development Officer (CDO)/used car salesperson.
I Googled Port Moresby from my office at the American Embassy in Skopje, Macedonia, and the results weren't encouraging. And when I asked a more senior person at the embassy what he thought, his first reaction told me all I needed to know about the place.
"Papua New Guinea," he said. "Don't they still eat people there?"
The practicality of this system is that if you're in a two or three year assignment, you typically know where you're going next near the midway point of your tour. If you love your post and are heading somewhere dreadful next, you have plenty of time for the apprehension to build, but if you're excited about your onward assignment it can make even the worst job or post seem bearable.
If you have a one-year assignment to a danger post, you typically bid right before or after arriving in say, Kabul or Baghdad. And since serving at a post like that gives one some serious bidding equity the next time around, nearly everyone manages to go somewhere they want after serving in conflict zones. So your ticket to Afghanistan can be tempered by a ticket to Sydney or Rome that's already in the bag by the time you land in Kabul.
If you're a traveler who has thought about joining the State Department's Foreign Service, but want to know more about how likely you are to be able to live in the regions you prefer, this is a primer on what to expect if you join the Foreign Service.
First tour: FSO's start their careers in a class called A-100 and are given a "directed assignment" to their first post. Officers can express bidding preferences but whether you get what you want is a real crapshoot. If you have a foreign language proficiency, your chances of going to that country/region are good, but don't bank on it.
Career development officers (CDO's) take a variety of factors into account in deciding who goes where: job/career fit, family and school considerations (i.e. they are less likely to send someone with school age children to a post with no accredited schools), health considerations (if an FSO has a family member with health issues), language ability and the timing of when the job is open versus what job and language training the person would need to fill the position.
Second tour: The second tour is also a directed assignment but here's where things get really tricky, as far as bidding strategy goes. Junior officers can only get one full language course in their first two tours, and they have to do a consular job as well. So if, for example, you exhaust your language training on the first go around, or don't fulfill your consular obligation, your bidding options can be severely hampered.
In my case, I was given Albanian language training prior to departing for my first post in Macedonia, and since I wasn't proficient in any other foreign languages at that time, I could only bid on jobs at English speaking posts and jobs, which didn't require foreign language proficiency.
The second assignment is supposed to be based upon bidding "equity." Those who are at the toughest posts – and here, toughest is defined by those with the highest hardship and danger pay ratings – have the most equity, and should get the first pick of assignments.
But in reality, FSO's with connections or good karma sometimes manage to float by from one good post to another while others go from bad posts to even worse ones. I loved living in Macedonia, but since it was rated as a 20 percent hardship post at the time I was bidding for the second go-around, I thought I would have plenty of equity to get one of the 20 jobs I bid on for my second tour.
But then I got the Port Moresby phone call from Hollis, who explained that I didn't have enough equity to get any of the 20 posts I'd bid on, and would have to take my chances with the leftovers. CDO's are very much like used car salespeople, so he was trying to push the places that no one had bid on. After weeks of wrangling, I was given Port of Spain, Trinidad, which wasn't at all up my alley, but seemed quite acceptable compared to Port Moresby.
Mid Level Bidding: Once FSO's get tenure, the directed assignment process is over and officers lobby and interview for jobs based on their own merit. The equity system is still in play but less so. In decades past, some FSO's managed to specialize in one geographic area, but these days, with huge missions in Baghdad and Kabul, no one can get away without at least bidding on hardship posts, and many officers are getting sent on unaccompanied assignments in dangerous places against their will.
Tips: In an A-100 class, it's essential to try to find out through the grapevine as much as you can on who's bidding on what. The most important thing to gauge is what jobs everyone is putting at the very bottom of his or her list. Let's say, for example, that nearly everyone has Khartoum as the bottom of their list, but you have it somewhere near the middle of your list. Well, guess who's got a pretty damn good shot of spending Christmas in Sudan?
In general, you want to present bid lists that make sense and that you can defend rationally. Trying to tell CDO's you prefer Dublin, Sydney and Prague because they have good beer in each place is a sure way to get a one-way ticket to Dhaka. And last, but definitely not least, if you have high-level connections, use them, and remember that you can always negotiate.
Bottom line: Joining the Foreign Service is a little bit like joining the military, in terms of signing your fate over to the government. It's obviously far cushier, pays better and is less dangerous, but you can't completely control where you go and you can get sent to places you do not want to go without your family members. If you're flexible, adventurous and not extremely risk averse, it might be a good career option for you. But if you're just hoping for an easy way to live in Sydney or Rome, you're barking up the wrong tree.
Read more from "A Traveler in The Foreign Service" here.
[Photos by Dave Seminara and friar's balsam on Flickr]