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June 4, 2013 4:02 PM   Subscribe

Am I crazy to be considering abandoning a successful career to enter the Foreign Service?

I'm just shy of 30 and a successful lawyer -- or as successful as someone five years out of law school can plausibly be these days. I work a well-paying job at a fairly prestigious firm where it is quite difficult to get hired, and have reasonable partnership prospects. My co-workers and bosses are awesome. I'm generally pretty content (if not genuinely fulfilled or totally in love with the work), which puts me in the very fortunate minority of law school grads. I am acutely aware of how lucky I am.

The Foreign Service is something I've thought about off and on since college and finally decided to apply for last year. Improbably, I've made it far enough where I'm now on the verge of getting an offer. I think I really want to do it. The job sounds exciting and fun, like exactly the sort of non-financially-suicidal adventure I've been looking for; there's nothing tying me down; I think putting myself in some different cultural settings and outside my comfort zone would be good for me at this point in my life. I think the work is important and have high hopes that it would be fulfilling.

But of course there are risks. I haven't lived abroad since I was a small child; I certainly have never lived in the third world. I can't be 100% sure how I'll react to being semi-permanently away from my current group family and friends. I don't think it will happen, but it certainly isn't outside the realm of possibility that eight months from now I find myself in Kazakhstan bitterly regretting my decision to leave my comfortable job that I liked well enough.

As those familiar with the legal field know, it's hard to diverge from the prescribed career path and then swerve right back onto it. I could probably find another legal job a few years down the line if it didn't work out, but one this "good"? I doubt it.

Of course at the end of the day, only I can do the cost-benefit analysis for myself. But I am unbelievably torn, and I wanted a quick sanity check from the hive mind. Is it nuts to abandon a safe, intellectually demanding job where my work is valued and I'm generally respected for an exciting adventure that also happens to be an entry-level position in a massive bureaucracy with a ton of uncertainty? If I were your friend who came to you with this, would you tell him he was out of his mind?
posted by eugenen to Work & Money (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
But of course there are risks. I haven't lived abroad since I was a small child; I certainly have never lived in the third world. I can't be 100% sure how I'll react to being semi-permanently away from my current group family and friends. I don't think it will happen, but it certainly isn't outside the realm of possibility that eight months from now I find myself in Kazakhstan bitterly regretting my decision to leave my comfortable job that I liked well enough.

These are normal risks. Go ahead.

I'm stuck in the profession and envy you.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:07 PM on June 4, 2013

Depends on what are the reasons you are considering the foreign service, and what are your long term goals in life. Impossible to answer without knowing that. What do you want to be looking back at when you are 50, 60, or 70 years old? Wealth accumulation? Social status? A wealth of cultural experiences? Foreign language learning?
posted by Dansaman at 4:07 PM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I did it and it works for me. YMMV and all that. feel free to contact me with any questions
posted by Gringos Without Borders at 4:09 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Which track are you applying for and do you have any suspicions about where you're likely to be posted? I don't know if your first post can be a hardship post, but that's another thing to think about. If something sounds "exciting and fun," find someone with first-hand experience to talk to. Sadly, the FSOs in my acquaintance are recent, but I could point you to a person who might have someone older and more experienced for you to talk to.

But other than that, yeah, go for it.
posted by Nomyte at 4:28 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

The risks are normal and your decisions are normal-- I assume you've paid off your loans or paid them down to the point where they're relatively nominal after several years in a law firm. Now is the time when plenty of young lawyers in your position "cash out" for positions in the Departments of Justice, State, or go into the Foreign Service.

As Dansaman points out, though, you should think about what your goals down the road are. Do you foresee yourself being relatively well-to-do? Then you might need to look into how you can swing back into private practice after a stint in the Foreign Service. The Foreign Service is also less sexy than it seems: you may have to do a stint stamping passports.

I would plan both a career path and an exit strategy. I would also think hard about what your material needs/expectations are down the road and how you plan to get there. But you're definitely not crazy. You're doing something pretty cool and interesting for someone in your position.
posted by deanc at 4:38 PM on June 4, 2013

I have some friends who left the law world for the Foreign Service. They all seem very happy in their choice. That said, I don't know that just because this is the right choice for some attorneys means it's the right choice for all attorneys.

It also sounds like you're thinking of this in a really short-term way. You say that this is an adventure that would be really good for you right now, but in my understanding the process of joining the foreign service is a long one. My friends who did this also ended up working/training in DC for a period of time before actually going abroad. Will you still want to do this in two years when you finally step off a plane in Country X? Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years? 20 years?
posted by Sara C. at 4:39 PM on June 4, 2013

A friend of a friend left a high power firm in NYC to go to Afghanistan and help write its constitution. Not the foreign service, but a) how cool is that and b) that was a decade ago and he may never come back, because (I know; I lived abroad for six years) it's hard to be a temporary expat (unless, I suppose, you hate your post). If you were 20ish I'd say do it in a heartbeat. Thirty is when most people are starting to settle down.

The friend whose friend is/was in Afghanistan also applied to the Foreign Service. I asked him the same question you're asking, same country! What if it's Kazakhstan?

On the one hand, the correct answer to the question Should I do this once-in-a-lifetime thing? is yes. On the other, you may nevertheless wonder if a more ordinary life would have been a happier one.
posted by seemoreglass at 4:48 PM on June 4, 2013

Given how long the odds are for even the most qualified applicants (only single-digit percentages emerge from the exam!), you might as well take the exam and think about it if you are selected to continue. It is, after all, free.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 4:48 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone for the thoughtful answers. I promise not to threadsit, but just to address a couple points quickly:

(1) I don't have loans.

(2) I applied for the consular "cone", as it seemed like the most hands-on and experiential track that didn't involve lots of writing memos that disappear into a black hole.

(3) Man, I wish I were someone with an easy answer to "where do you see yourself in 20 years," but unfortunately I'm not. Part of what makes this so hard is that "big-city lawyer" and "deputy chief of mission in Indonesia" (if I should be so lucky) both sound pretty good.

(4) I'm actually past all of the exams and the security clearance and am high enough on the register that I'm like 90% sure I'm going to get an actual no-shit offer to join sometime this month. Which is why I'm suddenly panicking.

Seemoreglass, the last line of your answer is the problem in a nutshell. Brutal! GWB, I may me-mail you. Thanks again.
posted by eugenen at 4:57 PM on June 4, 2013

I'd say yes, but only if I was sure I loved the track I was getting. Consular officers have a very different life from political and diplomatic types.

Also, the lifestyle is rather brutal on families, particularly if you get posted to a no-dependents location. Being an FSO can be a heck of a lot like being in the military in this regard.
posted by SMPA at 5:12 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm an FSO and regularly wonder if I might have been happier sticking with my old career and living near family and long-time friends. I also regularly wonder if I could ever have done anything as cool as some of the things I've done had I stayed home, and why I ever considered turning the Foreign Service down. I believe very nearly every FSO does the same, and can practically guarantee you that you will have weeks that go each way should you choose to join.

In any case, should you want the further opinions of a mid-level officer on the issue, feel free to holler.
posted by Pseudonaut at 5:28 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mid-level Consular Officer here. Do iiiiiiiiitttt!!! The Foreign Service is full of former lawyers and young people and 95% of them are just loving life. Memail me if you'd like to chat further on email or Skype.
posted by whitewall at 6:49 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I certainly have never lived in the third world.

Eh, that shouldn't stop you. FSO's get a ton of support from the embassy dealing with day-to-day life. I mean, you'll still know you're in a developing country, for sure, but the experience is very different from what folks without that support system have. Of course, the trade-off there is that it can make it much harder to have a deep, genuine cultural exchange. Not impossible by any means, but more difficult. (IANAFSO, but I've worked and socialized with plenty of them while living in Burkina Faso.)

If you just have a jonesing for travel to interesting places, but aren't sure you want to live full time overseas or leave law altogether, you could try working for DOS's OIG, or USAID's. But I'm just throwing that out there in case your reservations get the better of you; FWIW this random internet stranger doesn't think you're nuts for wanting to do foreign service.
posted by solotoro at 7:34 PM on June 4, 2013

I did an electronic engineering degree, worked as one for 6 months, joined the Royal Air Force and was a military pilot for 6 years, did a Petroleum Engineering degree and joined the oil industry for a while, quit that and spent a year travelling round South America with a rucksack on the bus, then did an Energy Economics Masters degree, and travelled round North America for a year with a tent and an old banger. Now I consult while I build a zero energy house, and am building up a Social Enterprise in early years development (I ran a nursery for a bit in exchange for accommodation while studying and it was fascinating). But I may not do that, and I can't wait to see what I'll be doing next decade.

The enabling factors for me are having (1) some sellable skills, (2) very low mass i.e. no non-discretionary financial obligations and possessions and (3) reasonable tolerance for ambiguity. I met a chap in his 70's on the Colombian Caribbean coast who had mastered the combination. He was working his way up to Anchorage on a Honda Gold Wing motorbike, having recently sold the yacht he lived on for 40 years. He had a "successful career" as an architect in his 20's and considers that period of his life to be before he started living. "Did you have a lot of money?" I asked. "No", he answered, "I had a lot of time. When I needed a new sail, I moored up for a while in a former British colony and designed a bit of road or a school to pay for it". The combination lets us flip from top quartile living to bottom quartile and back at will, which creates enormous freedom to explore in this very, very short life.

I think you'd be crazy to forgo seeing what's next for the sake of "a successful career".
posted by falcon at 10:57 AM on June 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm an FSO (specialist actually) and am probably closer to Pseudonaut's opinion - occasionally I wonder if I made the right decision, but most days I think I have to coolest job in the world. However, SMPA has an excellent point - the Foreign Service lifestyle can be pretty tough on families. Besides the more well-known hardships and unaccompanied tours FSOs endure, spousal employment is a major (if not the biggest) morale issue in the FS. I'm guessing that you're single, but just something to keep in mind.

That being said, joining the FS has proven to be an excellent move for me, and has opened doors I never would've even considered before. I say go for it - you only live once, and you can always go back to the private sector later if you get tired of the FS lifestyle.
posted by photo guy at 3:01 PM on June 5, 2013

Part of what makes this so hard is that "big-city lawyer" and "deputy chief of mission in Indonesia" (if I should be so lucky) both sound pretty good.

See, when it comes to "where do you see yourself in 20 years?", "managing partner of a law firm" sounds awesome to me, while "mid level functionary in the Foreign Service bureaucracy" sounds like the living death.

The consular track sounds like something that would work well for you, given your background as a lawyer. But, once again-- exit strategy. Think about how to retool yourself as a lawyer specializing in immigration and expatriate issues and an expert of consular law and affairs after you've had enough.

When I was in high school, the foreign service seemed glamorous and interesting. In reality, its early history was dominated by a core of FSOs from wealthy backgrounds with trust funds (John Kerry's father was an FSO) who could afford the low salaries while possessing the social capital to work both with State Department officials and foreign governments. This has definitely changed, but now it seems to serve as a large civil service bureaucracy where the employees are treated as interchangeable parts to be reassigned and rearranged at will, and the career ladder is long and slow.

This was a great description of things:
Consular officers do a thankless job and there aren't enough of them, so people in every other cone have to spend at least two years on a consular post. You stamp passports and deny entry to suspicious people. Least exciting work, but also the easiest way into the service b/c it has the lowest passing grade on the oral exam. You can't change your cone once you enter the service, so stop thinking the administrative and/or consular cones will offer a back door into politics or economics. If you're really interested in a meaty foreign policy job, go work at the Commerce department or at the House or Senate foreign relations committees. State does not make any policy, it only enforces it. You aren't going to change the world in a hugely significant way by being in the service.
posted by deanc at 8:32 AM on June 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

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