Foreign Service Aspirations
August 8, 2006 1:57 PM   Subscribe

Security Clearance/Foreign Service-filter: I'm thinking of a career in the Foreign Service when I get out of college (T-minus 4 years), which I am just now entering. While metafilter has had questions about this before, but my situation is am bit different (so I'm hoping the Foreign Service mefites from those threads can chime in). The most important distinction is that I'm looking to be a Security Engineering Officer, or in some other sort of engineering related role (which falls under "Management" I believe) not a diplomat. Much more after the jump...

I'll be studying Electrical Engineering at the University of Kentucky starting next week. I'm interested in the job mainly because of the travel, cultural, linguistic, and straight out 'adventure' aspects of it. Moving around constantly in potentially dangerous places is a feature, not a bug, for me - and seemingly something hard to come by with an engineering background. From the description it sounds as though I'd be foiling nefarious foreign agents and their dastardly schemes to compromise network security and plant bugging devices in embassies. Is the job anywhere near that cool? Or will I just be an IT lacky who happens to travel? (although that would only slightly curb my enthusiasm, I'd prefer a job where I acutally dealt with "real" EE sorts of tasks).

I'm taking German in college and I can speak Dutch nearly fluently, though it seems from reading other threads that the foreign service is not particularly interested in your past lingusitic experience. I plan on studying abroad in Germany at some point - they wouldn't have any problem with that, would they? A lot of the background checking I've read about seems to allude to connections with foreign nationals being problematic, which in my case is an issue because...

I'm also a citizen of Belgium (in addition to the U.S., where I was born), through my mother, who is a resident alien (not naturalized). I currently have a Belgian passport, which I have traveled on (only in western Europe), but am completely willing to stop doing that. Would I have to relinquish my citizenship, or simply be willing to at any time? My mother currently works for the Belgian Embassy in DC. Will any of this prevent me from getting the requisite Top Secret clearance? What sorts of things should I avoid in the coming years to make the clearance process as painless as possible?

My family lives in the DC area, and would have no problem taking a summer internship position in DC. Would this help me down the line in getting a Foreign Service job? It seems I can't do one until the summer after sophomore year.

What sorts of things should I read/study in college to be prepared for the written/oral examinations? Reading the NYT/Washington Post every day seems like the obvious place to start, but what of the reading list is actually worthwhile? If I start now, I could probably get through a lot of it, and it seems like interesting subject matter anyway.

What sort of grades are they looking for?

Which of these books on the lifestyle is best for my situation (they seem mostly geared toward the aspiring diplomat and his/her family).

Any and all general comments welcome.
posted by phrontist to Work & Money (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
1. the Foreign Service Exam is actually pretty easy. I would recommend skimming some of the practice books before taking it though.

2. the 2nd round of the Foreign Service process is harder -- not everyone makes it through that, for sure! There isn't much you can for that. Most people get to this stage a few times before getting through it. There is less competition in your area though.

3. Try to learn some stranger languages. Try getting a FLAS to study something in the summertime. Seriously... it pays off. German and Dutch speakers are a dime a dozen. I'd suggest Turkish or Kurmanji with your existing German skills. The Foreign Service doesn't really care what you already know though. They just care that you can learn a language.

4. Don't commit crimes.

5. Don't do drugs 1 year before your interview (early fall after you take the exam).

6. Don't avoid foreign nationals, but know that any contact that you have with them will be discussed at length.

7. If your mom isn't a citizen it could be a SNAG, but not something that will be more than a discussion point.

That's about it.

PS, my 2 cents on your life -- you have EU citizenship. Why the heck are you paying to go to university in the US? You can go to school in the UK for a few thousand bucks a year!?!?!?!?!?!?!??!?!!?!?!?!!??!?!?!?!!

And PPS, with your skill set, don't worry about the Foreign Service. You should be thinking about the CIA.

PPPS, I have a friend of a friend who is that IT guy for Europe. It isn't very glamorous.
posted by k8t at 2:42 PM on August 8, 2006

Oh, and while you should try to do well in university, other than graduate programs, no one cares about your university grades. No one.
posted by k8t at 2:45 PM on August 8, 2006

Response by poster: You should be thinking about the CIA.

It seems to me the chances of travel are reduced significantly with the three letter agencies, and I'd be less able to enjoy the culture, but maybe that cloak and dagger stereotype is off.

my 2 cents on your life -- you have EU citizenship. Why the heck are you paying to go to university in the US? You can go to school in the UK for a few thousand bucks a year!?!?!?!?!?!?!??!?!!?!?!?!!??!?!?!?!!

My parents are more than willing to pay the difference to keep me within a weekend's drive, and if I'd done that it would be even harder to get a clearance :-)
posted by phrontist at 3:21 PM on August 8, 2006

I don't think that getting a degree in the UK would hurt you for clearance.

I know a lot of people who did BA, BS, MAs abroad with no problem.

You are very fortunate that you parents are so generous. I'd ask them to invest that money for their retirement and go abroad for your degree. It is cheaper, faster, and you can still get the 18,5 Stafford loans.
posted by k8t at 3:29 PM on August 8, 2006

I'm pretty sure you don't have to take the Foreign Service exam for the career track you're interested in. The qualifications and requirements for the job are pretty well spelled out on that web site you link to.

The jobs you're interested are probably pretty competitive, but I can't imagine they're quite as hard to get into as the Foreign Service.

There are lots of people who work for the Foreign Service who are naturalized US citizens from all over the world, so I don't see why dual citizenship by birth should be a problem. You might have to renounced your Belgian citizenship if you're hired (dual loyalties are frowned on). But that's just a guess, I don't really know.

You might also look into whether the United Nations, IMF or World Bank have similar career tracks.

Oh, and I pretty strongly disagree with k8t about the exam not being that difficult, but like I said -- you probably won't have to take it.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:23 PM on August 8, 2006

Response by poster: croutonsupafreak: I have no idea why, but I assumed any foreign service job meant I had to take the exam. You appear to be correct though...

Does this mean I wouldn't get all that free language training either? I'm kind of disappointed...
posted by phrontist at 4:30 PM on August 8, 2006

Crouton, IMHO it isn't that tough if you have high school level American history and layperson's knowledge of economics, geography, and political science. AND if you take a test strategically (predicting your answer before looking at the choices, knowing that one answer is going to be the opposite of the right answer, one will be a distortion of the right answer). It isn't like the GRE or GMAT or LSAT or something!

I skimmed through 2 study guides and had few problems.

And of the 50 or so people that I know who have taken the test, I don't know anyone who hasn't passed it.
posted by k8t at 4:31 PM on August 8, 2006

The person that I knew that did that job in a European American Embassy took the FSE.
posted by k8t at 4:32 PM on August 8, 2006

Hey, I didn't pass it!

Next time though...
posted by thirteenkiller at 6:44 PM on August 8, 2006

I passed the written exam, but not the oral. I have several friends who are Foreign Service officers, one of whom holds dual citizenship and was not asked to give it up. IT jobs are generally not FSO positions.
posted by candyland at 7:18 PM on August 8, 2006

I didn't pass it either! I wish I knew why. I'm not sure if it was because of my personal background answers (I didn't have enough experience with interpersonal work and management, I thought) or if my geography/American government responses were the downfall, or if it was something else entirely. Drat.
posted by cadge at 9:22 PM on August 8, 2006


I don't think you probably would get the same level of language training, though you'd still get to go foreign countries, and being there is the best way to learn.


Maybe the test's gotten easier post 9-11? I know that hiring at the State Department was cut significantly prior to 9-11, and a need for more Foreign Service officers was one of the things that the post-9-11 assessments determined.

I went to one of the best public high schools in the country as well as a farily respectable smallish college, and I didn't make it to the oral interview.

When I took the test in 2000, there were easy (to me) questions on how to work in an office and how to use a computer.

There were also geography questions that wanted the names of mountain ranges in Europe, rivers in Asia, and capitals of African countries. And there were at least a half dozen questions about Woodrow Wilson's affect on US policy. And there were a lot of really weird questions asking me to name all the books and magazines I'd read in the last year. None of that seemed easy to me. But I didn't get a study guide, either.

I passed the multiple choice, but it definitely seemed tough. And I didn't pass the essay section, though when I later read up on how that worked I realized that they cared less about developing a thesis and defending it will well-crafted English and more about following a formula. Oh well.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 5:09 PM on August 9, 2006

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