We today celebrate the reopening for business of the U.S. government, a once proud franchise now reduced to periodic closures and reliance on borrowed money to stay afloat. At the same time, the government remains America’s largest single employer. With the doors reopened today, job-seekers are no doubt lined up for their chance at the trough.
Forbes released the results of a survey of liberal arts majors, asking who their dream employer might be. Number One was Disney, and the usual suspects of Google and Apple scored high. One sort-of surprise was the U.S. Department of State, which ranked Number Three as a dream destination.
The problem of course few if any of those liberal arts majors had ever worked for or substantively interacted with State. Their dreamy images are based entirely on State’s happy-talk propaganda, its Bennetton-like ads promising diversity, its public face suggesting new-hires will be doing important things and moving history.
Well, maybe not. As a public service for those glassy eyed, here is my answer to the question of whether they should join the State Department.
Intelligence Divorced from Innovation and Creativity
After 24 years of service myself, what I tell interested applicants is this: think very, very carefully about a Foreign Service career. The State Department is looking for a very specific kind of person and if you are that person, you will enjoy your career. I have come to understand that the Department wants smart people who will do what they are told, believing that intelligence can be divorced from innovation and creativity. Happy, content compliance is a necessary trait, kind of like being Downton Abbey-British but without the cool accent. The Department will not give you any real opportunity for input for a very long time — years, if ever. You will by requirement spend most of your first, second and maybe third assignments doing assembly-line like numbing visa processing, or holding VIP hands as they “Fact find” abroad. An early thrill might be watching the Secretary of State walk by (without a glance towards you) at 5am as you stand near his luggage as the day’s “Baggage Officer.”
There is no agreed-upon definition of success or even progress at State, no profits, no battles won, no stock prices to measure. Success will be to simply continue to exist, or what your boss says it is, or both, or neither. You may never know what the point is other than that a visiting Congressional delegation conclude with a happy ending, whatever that even is. I spent the bulk of my second tour taking visiting Mrs. VIPs shopping (more senior third tour officers got to escort the VIPs themselves!). This will be your life trip.
At the same time, State has created a personnel system that will require you to serve in more and more dangerous places, and more and more unaccompanied places without family, as a routine. America’s post-9/11 tantrums will ensure more and more countries will become dangerous to Americans. That sounds cool and adventurous at age 25, but try and imagine if you’d still be happy with it at age 45 with a spouse and two kids. What are your core obligations with a child who needs some extreme parenting as you leave your spouse at home alone with him for a year so you can be a placeholder for State’s commitment to be as macho as the military somewhere?
Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?
Understand that promotions and assignments are more and more opaque. State has recently determined that even promotion statistics cannot be released. Changes in Congress will almost certainly further limit pay and benefits. Your spouse will be un/underemployed most of his or her life. Your kids will change schools, for better or worse, every one, two or three years. Some schools will be good, some not so good, and you’ll have no choice unless you are willing to subvert your career choices to school choices, as in let’s go to Bogota because the schools are good even if the assignment otherwise stinks. The disparity among schools from country-to-country can mean your kids will end up repeating a grade to catch up. You’ll serve more places where you won’t speak the language and get less training as requirements grow without personnel growth. As you get up there, remember your boss, the politically-appointed ambassador (and more than one-third of them are), can arbitrarily be a real estate broker who donated big to the president’s campaign. Make sure all these conditions make sense to you now, and, if you can, as you imagine yourself 10, 15 and 20 years into the future.
It is a very unique person who can say “Yes” truthfully and after real soul-searching. Make sure the juice is worth the squeeze before you accept that job offer. Maybe take another look at Disney first; Mickey is more real than the bunk you are being fed by State’s hired professional recruitment agency.
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