Matamoros, Mexico: Washington, D.C.:

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Foreign Service as a First Job, Part 1

I write this blog for a few different reasons. It helps me keep up with family and friends who can read about what's going on in my life, whether it's Foreign Service related or not. That's why you may sometimes see a post that appears to have absolutely nothing to do with my job. Other times, I try to write about the Foreign Service itself, to give people a look into what the job is like, how I managed to get it, and personal experiences that I face. This post will belong in the latter of those two categories.

As I sometimes do, I'd like to call your attention once again to the small disclaimer found at the bottom of this blog. These thoughts are my own, are completely personal, and are not the views or thoughts of the Department of State or the U.S. Government whatsoever. 

Now that that's out of the way, let's get started.

For those of you who don't know, the Foreign Service is my first "real world" job. Of course, I worked while I was in college, but that was 1) on-campus, 2) part time, and 3) still within the "college bubble." As I've mentioned in previous posts, I never really expected to pass the FSOT the first time I took it, much less be working for the State Department just three and a half months after I graduated. Take that for what it's worth.

I imagine that adjusting to any first job would be difficult and come with its own interesting, strange, and sometimes funny challenges and occurrences. The whole getting paid for your work thing comes to mind as an example. But I've been realizing recently that I'm not only dealing with "first job adjustments" right now but also "State Department adjustments" and "federal government work adjustments." Numerous friends, many of whom are higher-ranked than I and most of whom are coming from other, really impressive private sector jobs, have helped me recently realize that the State Department culture is a whole different beast.

One of the things I'm having to get used to as an adjustment that I suppose fits both the categories of first job and State Department is that of chain of command, hierarchy, and authority, and (lack of) autonomy. Now, I don't have a problem with authority (at least, I hope not. If I do, I'm totally missing it.) I respect that - in any job - you have bosses who are higher up the food chain than you are, who have much more experience than you do, and who most of the time know what's best. (I didn't say all the time there because I suppose there can always be exceptions to that.) In any case, if your boss wants something done a certain way, you do it - period. Most bosses are more than happy to hear your thoughts on what you're doing, and I suppose it wouldn't be too uncommon for them to try to work your thoughts into their idea to make it even better. In my opinion, that's how it's supposed to work. I also totally respect and appreciate the Foreign Service's ranking system, in which we literally have diplomatic ranks that mean a lot and are not to be taken lightly.

At this point, you're probably expecting some funny or even slightly scary story of how I had to learn this the hard way, but to be honest, I mostly understood this from the beginning and have made an effort not to break the chain. If you know me, you know I'm rather opinionated, so you can imagine that I do sometimes give a bit too on an idea or project that I've been tasked with. Most of the time, though, it's just because I'm trying to learn and to do the best job I can. 

The point of all this rambling is to say that I'm not really used to working under numerous bosses. In college, I had just one boss who gave me pretty much complete freedom to get things done and do them in my own way. I never really had to clear anything - I had my boss's complete trust. So I would receive a task or project, then I would go off and do it and come back when it was done. Plain, simple, easy. Full autonomy.

The State Department doesn't operate that way. At all.

When given a task or project in the Foreign Service - especially as a bottom-of-the-food-chain, can't-go-lower-on-the-ladder-or-you'd-be-underground entry level officer - you're typically given an explanation of what is to be done, a general idea of how to do it, and then a list of people that need to clear off on what you're doing throughout the process (the exception to this is visa work; except in extremely rare circumstances, your bosses actually can't tell you what decision to make, or even override one you've already made). Obviously, quite different from the "work" environment that I came from in college. In my first few months on the job, I often found myself getting calls from my boss with little "reminders" that I wasn't supposed to be doing quite so much on my own. That people need to sign off on my work, people need to be consulted, kept in the loop. Oops. I often became slightly frustrated that it seemed like I couldn't take too many steps outside the seemingly strict parameters of my job before bells started ringing somewhere (read: emails starting coming in from higher up the chain) informing me of my missteps.

I realize I'm probably not making much sense. This blog post is very much becoming a stream-of-consciousness kind of thing, but whatever. Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about. Let's say that there are Bosses 1, 2, and 3, and I'll be Peon 4, where 1 is the top of the ladder, 3 is 4's direct boss, and 4 is the dirt the ladder is standing on. Let's say that Boss 1 contacts Peon 4 to work on a project, and let's assume that maybe Boss 1 didn't tell Bosses 2 or 3 about the project. To Peon 4, this seems like a directive from the top of the ladder, and it's clear that Bosses 2 and 3 weren't included in the directive. I have learned very quickly, though, that if Peon 4 doesn't inform Boss 3 (who in turn needs to inform Boss 2) that he has been given a task from Boss 1, the whole ladder gets a bit wobbly. Then, Boss 3 will want Peon 4 to run all of his work through Boss 3 before sending it to Boss 1 (which, in turn, means that Boss 3 might run it through Boss 2 before clearing it for Peon 4.) What started as an easy, straight-to-the-point task becomes a confusing maze of chutes and ladders. And now Peon 4 is in an awkward position. Boss 1 wants something asap, but Bosses 2 and 3 want to be speed bumps (not necessarily in a negative way) on the road to completion. Now, some (most notably, Bosses 1-3) may say that this game is a good thing - it minimizes error, keeps everyone informed, and generally creates a better product. From then on, Peon 4 is constantly worrying about making sure that Bosses 1-3 are appropriately advised of what Peon 4 is doing at all times. However, Peon 4 finds it to be inefficient and rather cumbersome. So then Peon 4 goes and works directly with Boss 1 a few times on a few different projects, which ruffles Bosses 2 and 3's feathers.

Ruffling feathers is generally not a good thing.

I have learned now, though, that most of the time all of this is actually for my benefit instead of the benefit of the project. I realized that the Department has a very well fleshed-out standard operating procedure for pretty much everything (and if there isn't, chances are I'll be tasked to write one. Already done that... twice.) In general, these procedures make sure that everything is done correctly and uniformly. What's more, it also keeps you from making grave errors that could stick with you for years to come. It took me a long time to come to this conclusion, but now that I have, I suppose I do kind of appreciate the process - even if I do still find it rather inefficient.

You could sum all this up with one word: bureaucracy.

I wonder if this happens in the private sector, too. I imagine that it does, but perhaps there might be a bit more freedom to step outside the boundaries and take a few risks. I've always been a proponent of taking risks, be they large or small. I think I'm realizing, though, that - in general - the Foreign Service is a little risk averse (at least, at the entry-level stage.) We entry level folks pay our dues by doing a bit of the "grunt" work (and, of course, I say that with the most endearing of sentiments) while the higher-ups get to do the big-picture, dreaming stuff. Someday, though, if everything pans out right, even we entry level folks will move up the ladder and get to do that stuff, too.

I really love my job, and I still can't get over my excitement that this is actually what I do. I am forever grateful to the folks who decided to give me a chance in the Foreign Service, from the testers who rated my essay, to the reviewers who read my personal narratives, to the people who did my interviews. I am learning so much, growing so much, and I think I will really enjoy serving as a Foreign Service officer for quite a long time.

I've decided to save the rest of my thoughts about working in the Foreign Service as a first job for some future posts. I have a lot of things I could write about, but if I did it all right now you'd just eventually fall asleep from boredom. For now, we'll leave it at this.

Do you think the private sector is the same way? More or less so? Sound off in the comments if you'd like.

Until next time...peace.


  1. excellent post, andrew. adjusting to real world jobs after college is always tricky business. throughout your post I kept thinking of my experience with non-profits, and how many times it's the complete opposite of what you write about. in many non-profits, there is no clear chain of command, little supervision, and hardly any operating procedures. of course this varies dramatically, i realize, but i think i've always been frustrated when organizations are either TOO organized or UNDER organized. i think a well-balanced organization has chain of command, supervision, and procedures without sticking to them as infallibles.

    again, excellent, insightful post. i really enjoy reading your blog posts brother.

  2. Hi Andrew, I am glad that I can "live vicariously" through your posts in learning about a Foreign Service career. In the end, I am glad to have taken the route of self-employment (as a legal translator), with no boss but myself, hours set by me (but actually determined by constant assignments and client requests), and flexibility to handle things as I see fit. Of course, the caveat is, if what I do is not working, I could go out of business, but normally we are able to self-adjust before that happens.

    Take care, and I'll continue to look for your interesting posts!



  3. I work at a well-known, government chartered non-profit, and I learned the hard way that autonomy, at least in my organization, is not really all that appreciated, haha. There is an almost maddening amount of bureaucracy and I really have about 4 supervisors.

    I really enjoyed reading this post!