Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.
Compared to other government agencies like, say, the FBI or CIA, the Foreign Service doesn’t get a whole lot of attention. But becoming a Foreign Service Officer, also known as a diplomat, is a job you really should consider if you’re a man who enjoys travel and learning about other cultures, is looking for adventure, and, as the State Department puts it, “you’re passionate about public service” and have a desire to “promote peace, support prosperity, and protect American citizens while advancing the interests of the U.S. abroad.” Your assignments can take you to any of the 265 American embassies around the world, where you may be attending a swanky treaty event in Europe or fighting human trafficking in Africa. To learn more about this globe-trotting job, today we turn to Shawn Kobb, a diplomat currently working in Kabul, Afghanistan. If you’re interested in becoming a diplomat yourself, be sure to check out his website, Foreign Service Test, where he offers tips on passing the rigorous exam that’s part of the process of being picked for the job.
1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc.).
I was born in 1977 and grew up in a small town in northern Indiana. I went to Manchester University and studied Communications and Theater. In 2006 I joined the U.S. Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer, more commonly referred to as a diplomat. The Foreign Service has a wide variety of duties, but in short we are the face of the U.S. government around the world. We staff embassies and consulates in nearly every country of the world and provide assistance to American citizens overseas. I have lived and worked in Ukraine, the Bahamas, Washington, D.C., and right now I’m spending a year in Kabul, Afghanistan.
2. Why did you want to become a diplomat? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?
I’m not really sure where I first heard about the Foreign Service. I know after 9/11 I started looking more at government jobs. I also had a passion for travel that was first sparked by a trip I took in college to Europe. Also, despite being a small school, Manchester University has always pulled in a lot of international students and I loved talking to them, learning about their culture. Finally, in 2004 I took the first part of the Foreign Service test. I found out I passed that portion while checking my email at an internet cafe in Bangkok as my wife and I were backpacking around the world.
3. What’s the best way to prepare yourself to join the Foreign Service? What should you major in and what kinds of experiences and skills should you seek?
To be honest, the sort of degree you go after doesn’t make much difference. There is no educational requirement for the Foreign Service. You have to be able to pass the multi-part Foreign Service exam, though, and that requires a wealth of knowledge on many different subjects, particularly history, government, economics, geography, English, and popular culture. The best way to prepare is to be a well-rounded student and take classes in a variety of subjects.
4. What is the process for applying to the Foreign Service?
There are several portions to the test and each must be passed before you can move along to the next step. First there is the written test which is much like any standardized test and includes an essay portion. If you pass that you will submit a resume and a set of personal narratives explaining your background and experiences. If you pass that portion you are invited to the dreaded oral assessment. This is a mix of interviews, case management exercises, and a group exercise along with other applicants where you play the role of embassy officers and have to solve a problem together while observed. Your passing score from the oral assessment determines your place on the register (the list the State Department pulls from)…that is assuming you also passed the medical and security checks.
5. What is the Foreign Service Officer test like? How should you prepare for it?
The written test is best described as a mix of the SATs and the television game show Jeopardy. You can’t just be a big book nerd and hope to pass because while one question may be about the export goods of Brazil, the next might be about the 1991 World Series or the comic strip Dilbert.
The oral assessment is easier to prepare for, but much more challenging. Fortunately, there are websites, forums, and even in-person practice sessions conducted by the State Department to help.
6. How competitive is it to be selected as a Foreign Service Officer? What characteristics and background are they looking for in making their selections? Do you need to know a foreign language?
Some have claimed the Foreign Service test is one of the toughest exams around. I haven’t taken that many so I can’t really say, but it is challenging. I don’t know the exact pass rates, but I would guess around 30-40% pass the written and maybe 20-30% pass the oral assessment. I think what the State Department is really looking for is the right combination of knowledge and interpersonal skills. The Foreign Service is strange in that we both work and live with our colleagues overseas. If you are in a country like Yemen or Mozambique, it may be difficult to make friends in the local community so your co-workers are all you have.
Foreign language skills are a bonus and can help boost your scores if you pass the exams, but they don’t allow you to sneak in without taking the test. The State Department runs its own mini-university that teaches more than 80 foreign languages. I have been trained in Russian and will study German for my next assignment.
7. If you are selected, do you get any choice in where you are assigned to serve? Do you get a choice in what kind of job you’ll be doing?
For your first two tours you are considered an entry level officer and have your assignment directed. Still, you have a lot of say in where you go and it is rare that people are sent somewhere they are completely opposed to. After that you are tenured and commissioned by the President and bid on assignments. It is somewhat like applying for a new job every two or three years. You study the list of vacancies and then start lobbying to get the embassy to select you. The list of jobs includes not only the location, but also the type of position it is.
8. Speaking of which, what kinds of jobs are available?
I am a Foreign Service Generalist which means that they type of assignments I receive can vary from tour to tour. At the same time, we also have a focus. Mine is in management. I tend to do jobs that involve running the embassy from HR to logistics to finance. An embassy overseas is essentially a small to medium-sized business. In my current assignment in Afghanistan, I supervise more than 40 employees and have responsibility for more than $100 million in assets. In addition to management, we have people who work in political, economic, consular, and public diplomacy career tracks. There are also Foreign Service Specialists who have a particular skill set and they stick with them. They are generally in IT, medical, security, engineering, and other fields. The hiring mechanism for them is slightly different.
9. What are some of the unique challenges of being a diplomat?
One of the biggest challenges is also one of the greatest perks and that is living overseas. We move to a new country every few years so while that is exciting, it is also draining. I spend a lot of my life with my possessions in boxes, learning the quirks of a new country, and meeting all new co-workers. It is tough to maintain friendships, especially with those outside of the Foreign Service. We are also very poorly understood by the American public and do not receive much recognition for our efforts.
For every “cush” spot around the world, we probably have five that can be quite difficult to live in. All of our posts have a hardship rating assigned to them ranging from 0% up to 35%. This percentage also comes with a boost in pay. We have the same thing for danger. For instance, London would be 0% hardship and danger because the standard of living is high and it isn’t particularly dangerous (apart from typical big city danger). I’m currently in Kabul and we are 35% hardship, 35% danger — the top of the chart. This is because living here is hard due to isolation, terrible air quality, little infrastructure, lack of medical support, and other day-to-day living factors. We’re at the top for danger because, well, there are a lot of people who would like to kill me if they caught me walking down the street. I have two sets of body armor and I had to take courses in hostage awareness, surveillance detection, weapons familiarization, combat first aid, and counter-assault driving just to come here. When I was assigned to Kyiv, Ukraine we had additional hardship pay because of the danger of fallout radiation from Chernobyl. In the Bahamas…no hardship pay there.
10. What are some of the unique benefits of being a diplomat?
As I said, if you love to travel then the job is great. You can also be paid to learn a foreign language. Before heading off to my next assignment in Vienna, I will be in Washington, D.C. for seven months studying German full-time and being paid for it. We also receive free housing overseas and that is a great financial perk. Job security is also great and I’ve had a chance to experience a lot of fabulous events that most Americans can only dream of and have rubbed elbows with presidents, celebrities, and musicians.
11. What is the work/family/life balance like for you? Do diplomats’ families get to come live where they are assigned?
This is always a tricky question. In general, I think work/family balance is very good. Family members can travel along with you to most of our assignments around the world. A few of the more dangerous locations have restrictions and are considered unaccompanied tours. The State Department also pays for schooling of children, but some international schools are better than others and this must be taken into consideration when bidding for your assignments. It can be very difficult for your spouse to have a solid career due to the constant amount of moving.
12. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?
The biggest, most frustrating misconception is the fact that most Americans don’t even know we exist. Don’t ask how many times people have thought I’m in the French Foreign Legion. Also, the Foreign Service isn’t an intelligence agency and many people seem to think we’re spies for some reason. Those that do know we exist think we spend our time going to cocktail receptions and signing treaties. There is certainly a little bit of that, but most Foreign Service Officers are not assigned to Paris or Geneva. We’re in some of the roughest places of the world: Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, Papua New Guinea, East Timor. Although we are not engaged in combat, we often serve alongside our military colleagues and we almost always stay behind after they leave. The military has pulled out of Iraq, but there are still many Foreign Service Officers there working on development, women’s rights, business, infrastructure projects, etc. A colleague of mine here in Afghanistan was killed very recently by a suicide bomber as she attempted to deliver books to school children. The dangers we face are very real and I think all any of us want is a little recognition of that, particularly by some members of Congress who regularly disparage our work.
13. Any other advice, tips, commentary or anecdotes you’d like to share?
The U.S. Foreign Service is really more than just a job, it is a lifestyle. You can see the world and will have some of the best stories to share. I had the opportunity to listen to Magic Johnson tell stories about his rivalry with Larry Bird. I scoured the markets of Kyiv, Ukraine once for caffeine-free Diet Pepsi for a Secretary of State. I listened to a Haitian man seeking a U.S. visa explain to me that his fingerprints had fallen off during the earthquake and that must be why my computer said he had a criminal record.
I could go on and on with crazy and touching stories. If you are at all interested, I recommend taking the test. Even if it is on a whim. The test is free and if nothing else can give you great bragging rights if you pass.