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Jobs That Let You See the World: Foreign Service Officer

Brianne Miers - May 11, 2016
The Fairmont Le Château Frontenac
Miles McAlpin in Brooklyn
Natalie at the Bifengxia Panda Reserve

Since my current job keeps me pretty rooted in one place, I recently interviewed a series of professionals in diverse careers whose jobs let them earn a living and see the world at the same time — the goal is to provide some information and inspiration to all the cubicle dwellers out there who are feeling restless. 

My third interview is an extra-special one because it’s with my close friend, former coworker and favorite travel buddy, Natalie. Yesterday Natalie celebrated six years in the Foreign Service. She has been based in Washington, D.C., since late last summer, after have served in both Uruguay and China.

Name: Natalie Wilkins

Job: Foreign Service Officer, U.S. Department of State

What motivated you to pursue this career? How did you find the job you’re in now?

Growing up, I loved to travel and learn about other countries. I also always was a bit of the diplomat in my family – compromising and negotiating conflicts. I studied international relations way back in college, always thinking I would work overseas but I wasn’t really motivated to pursue an international career until after I turned 30 and asked myself, “What am I waiting for?” So I signed up to take the Foreign Service exam and fortunately made it through the multiple steps of the test.

What are the perks of this career?

Rather than just getting to travel to many parts of the world, working for the Foreign Service lets you actually live in a different foreign country every two to four years. You get to understand more fully the local culture and what daily life is like for the people who live there. You learn about the political and economic situation and how it affects people.

The State Department provides fantastic language training – and how many careers pay you to learn a foreign language?! My work as a public diplomacy officer also lets me do all kinds of educational and cultural programs to bring together people from the United States and the country I’m in, which is an amazing opportunity. I’m not going to lie, having access to the U.S. postal system at the embassies is also a huge perk for ordering familiar products online!

Natalie and Tom visiting the Atacama Desert

Natalie and her husband, Tom, visiting the Atacama Desert in Chile

What are some of the challenges?

Many Foreign Service officers work in very difficult and sometimes dangerous places. More routine challenges, though, are dealing with culture shock, learning the local language, and maybe most of all missing your family and friends back home. You often can’t be there for the birthdays and milestones you would normally enjoy if you lived closer to them. You’ll even miss the little stuff – like going with friends to that great new restaurant that just opened in your home town. Sometimes it’s hard to accept that life just goes on without you.

You also need to have a supportive spouse who is willing to give up on having their own consistent career in order to follow you. There are many tandem couples who both work as diplomats, but getting assignments together can also be challenging.

Do you have any advice for others considering this career?

The Foreign Service exam is difficult, and it’s a long process to get in but if it’s what you want to do, don’t give up! Many great Foreign Service officers took the test many times before getting in. You also have to be very flexible. Officers agree to be worldwide available, which means you need to be willing to go work any place that you are needed. That said, officers do have a fair amount of say in which assignments they seek, especially after they are further into their careers. This is one of the most unique and rewarding careers I can imagine, so go for it!

What’s one lesson that you’ve learned in all of your work-related travels?

Moving to a new country can be exhausting but I think it’s important to try to accept as many invitations as possible when you first arrive. Getting out there at the beginning helps you get to know the place and meet new friends. If you turn down too many invitations, you’ll stop receiving them. You can always be more selective once you’re settled in.

U.S. Embassy Montevideo's election night party in 2012

Natalie and Tom working U.S. Embassy Montevideo’s election night party in 2012 (photo credit: U.S. Embassy, see more of the Embassy’s photos on Flickr)

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

The Foreign Service has career tracks for a wide range of professional interests – including political and economic, management, consular, and public diplomacy officers, as well as specialists in diplomatic security, medical officers, office managers, engineers and IT specialists. You can learn more about the options at http://www.state.gov/careers/.

Banner image: Natalie volunteering at the Bifengxia Panda Reserve in Sichuan Province, China

2 comments

  1. I was an FSO who spent three decades in this profession before my retirement. My service included postings in Zagreb, Belgrade, Prague, Dar Es Salaam, Port Louis, Paris, and Brussels. I treasure my time in this career, but it is one which inevitably posed serious challenges, not the least of which were to my family members. All our children were born overseas. The enthusiasms of an active, inquiring, idealistic, even naive mindset will generally carry those who choose this life safely through challenging periods of major adjustment. This routinely applies to all family members. It is not for the faint of heart. Stress is all too normal, and only slightly reduced by the knowledge that adult professional goals and achievements are worthwhile. It is an amalgam of exotic pleasures and tedium, interspersed with occasional danger and loss. It will test all those who undertake it. My whole family made extraordinary acquaintances and lifelong friends. Interminable cocktail parties and airplane flights are survivable drudgery. Sking in the Alps, mongooses in the garden, baby tigers from the local zoo at children’s birthday parties, and very handy coral reefs are only occasional extras.

    1. Thank you, George, for your insightful comment and for sharing your experiences. If you ever write a book, I’ll read it!

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