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9 Things You Need to Accept as a Foreign Service Specialist

with 3 comments

Working in the Foreign Service is a fascinating and rewarding career, but as a Specialist one needs to accept certain realities of one’s standing and role in the larger picture.  Here are a few realities of Foreign Service Specialist life that are worth mulling over- whether you’re a prospective or if you’re currently serving and are in a revelatory mood.

1. Generalists are, and always will be, your boss(es). Face it: you’ll never be an Ambassador or a Deputy Chief of Mission.  The Foreign Service at the upper levels has no room for Specialists regardless of how hard you work, how many awful posts you served in, or how good of a manager you are.  There is some wiggle room for the medical specialties (fun fact:  the RMO is the only person other than the President that can order an Ambassador out of post), but otherwise you will almost certainly experience this glass ceiling if you stay in long enough.

2. You will often not have the same diplomatic privileges as your Generalist counterparts. This question always pops up in Specialist orientation; “Do I get diplomatic immunity?”  The FSI staff will say “Sometimes, but it depends.”  The actual answer is “Usually not, but it doesn’t matter.” Here’s the thing about diplomatic immunity; if you have to invoke it, you’re screwed anyways.  For a speeding ticket usually a diplomatic passport is enough to make the local cops think twice, but for the more serious offenses you may not go to jail, but you’ll be expelled out of the country and your career outlook will darken significantly.

3. The Generalists (and most of the Specialists) will have no idea what you do outside of the stereotype for your position.  In the first couple weeks of my first tour, I knew the RMO made sure I didn’t keel over, the GSO assigned me my housing, and the FMO could make my job immeasurably easier or harder as they controlled the cash.  Oh, and I figured out pretty quickly that the OMS was a godsend.  The SEO stereotype is “the tech guy,” and gets approached as such.  No- I cannot fix your microwave right now.  No, I don’t have time to discuss why your home wireless network isn’t working right.  You just learn what you can and do your best.

4. People are assholes. At every post large or small, there’s that one Generalist who thinks their presidential commission entitles them to talk down to you as if you’re some kind of subhuman species.  While I guess it would be nice to have a certificate e-signed by the President and Secretary of State, if you make the mistake of talking to “that person” ask them what a presidential commission actually means.  They’ll stammer for a while searching for a response, giving you time to escape.

5. Language training?  Hah. If you are in a skill code that requires you to have some sort of interaction with Foreign Nationals (DS Special Agents, some OMSs, some Facilities Managers, some GSOs) you might be lucky enough to get the class that is supposed to bring you to a 2/2 in a non-SCNL language.  If your job is highly technical or specialized in nature (all the IT folks, SEOs, STS, all the medical folks) you can pretty much forget about anything past the 2-month “FAST” course that focuses on conversational topics.

6. Think corridor reputation doesn’t matter?  Think again. Most specialist skill codes are small (approximately 5,000 total divided amongst 21 skill codes, with 1,600 or so being DS Agents), which means gossip spreads like wildfire.  After you’ve been in a a tour or two you can bet that your colleagues at your next post will have heard about you, even if they don’t let on that they have.  Tread lightly.

7. Your rating officer will probably not be in your skill code. This has big implications when it comes to EERs and promotions.  If your rating officer doesn’t know what your job entails, how can they write about how well you did your job?  The answer is: they can’t.  Throughout your rating period you need to constantly remind (in a nice way) your rating officer when you have done something and get them to understand why it’s important.

8. You are geographically limited. Not all Specialties have a presence in every post.  This has particular implications for Specialist/Generalist tandem couples, in which the Specialist usually takes the lead.  If you’re an SEO and really wanted to serve a tour in Nuokchatt, sorry to disappoint you.

9. You are support staff.  Like it or not, you won’t be in the news, you won’t be wrestling with the big issues, and you won’t be quoted in the paper.  Your job is to maintain the environment needed to complete the mission.

Don’t despair!  These things might seem like big issues or it may seem like you’re disadvantaged, but they’re all part of the dance.  I’ll list the (many) advantages of being a specialist next time, most of which are corollaries to the items listed here.


3 Responses

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  1. You’re spot on with these … ESPECIALLY #6!!!


    14/03/2011 at 15:55

  2. Hi — this is a great post, I linked to it at Smart Leadership ( Many thanks!


    24/03/2011 at 03:17

    • Thank you! I was wondering what those incoming links from intelink were from…


      30/03/2011 at 21:14

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