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For Former Military Members Looking to Join the Foreign Service

According to the USAF Force Management website, a Reduction in Force (RIF) means that a lot of officers should consider the possibility of a new career after separating from the military. If that's you, let me suggest joining the US Foreign Service. Most likely, you know very little about what we do or where you would fit in, but it's a pretty good deal (some might say it's even better than active duty!), so let me help explain it for you.

For starters, don't get hung up on the title "Foreign Service Officer (FSO)" vs "Foreign Service Specialist (FSS)" as a direct comparison between military officer and enlisted. There isn't a perfect fit using military terms, but for purposes of discussion, the two professional classifications are most similar to "FSO ~ commissioned officer" and  "FSS ~ Limited-Duty Officer/Warrant Officer" when it comes to certain authorities, knowledge and expertise. That's why FSOs are grouped in "generalist cones" and the Specialists are, well, specialized. I've gone through both application processes and after two years (and counting) in the Foreign Service as a Foreign Service Construction Engineer (FSCE), I'd like to pass on the following knowledge. 

The first thing to decide upon is whether you are going FSO or FSS, as they have two different processes. There are 8 steps to become and FSO, and 7 different steps to become an FSS. Here are two handy process infographics:
Ok, so now you know that there are two paths to follow, how do you determine which one to pursue?
  1. As a Civil Engineering Officer, (AFSC 32E), I had diverse administrative and operational duties in roles as Readiness flight commander, Squadron Executive Officer, RED HORSE Engineer, Maintenance Engineering Section Chief, and Design flight, and AFSOC Staff (A5/8/9). If you like the memo/PowerPoint/briefing important folks aspect of those jobs, you'll like the FSO track (they also get language training). If you're like me and really just want to get in there and get the job done, seriously consider the FSS tracks (Language training is much more rare, but happens occasionally).
  2. Most Air Force officers should be able to take the FSOT and qualify for the FSO management cone, but some of the mission support folks should also apply for specialist tracks. Note: The FSS application process is significantly different from (and I'd say easier than) the FSO application process. Bonus: Both options will give you Veteran's preference if you qualify.
  3. Concerned about the benefits and stuff like that? I've got the low down on that too. Don't just consider the published salary range because there is some math going on in the pay schedules that you might not be aware of. You have the published base pay, then you have locality pay (overseas is roughly 16% more and DC is around 24% more). When you apply to the Foreign Service, your military base pay will be the number that the Department of State will aim to match. They will not include your housing allowance because your Foreign Service housing is paid for overseas (this only sucks in the rare occasion your first assignment is in DC).

    And you don't just get COLA overseas, you also get Hardship and Danger Pay differentials, which are percentages based on your base pay. My next assignment is Jeddah, Saudi Arabia which currently has a COLA of 10%, Danger Pay of 15%, and Hardship Pay of 15% along with two R&R trips to London or the US (State pays for the tickets). For reference, Jeddah has an Ikea and many other Western/European amenities, so it's not like we'll be roughing it. If you're good at math, that's a 40% increase of the published base pay and you get free housing. How sweet is that?
  4. What about your federal service time and promotion opportunities? You can immediately get credit for military years of service for leave accrual & also buy back your years for retirement purposes. If you didn't know, you can retire from the Foreign Service when you have both 20 years of service and are at least 50 years old. Not much worse than the military. Promotions are also merit based, up-or-out, but the promotion rate in the Foreign Service varies by specialty and cone. I'm told that as an FSCE, I will likely move from FS-4 (an O-3 equivalent) to FS-1 (an O-6) equivalent, in roughly 10 years and have a much better shot at moving into the Senior Foreign Service (FE-OC & FE-MC ranks) than I would have making Brigadier or Major General (O-7 & O-8, respectively).
  5. Life in General. There are lots of Foreign Service blogs that cover different aspects of the job and life abroad (with and without family). Just like the military, it's a lifestyle. But now you're not limited to just Germany, England, Italy, Japan, and Korea. The State Department is in the top tier of the best government agencies to work for, and they really take care of the family. There are lots of classes and training available at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) for Eligible Family Members (EFM), aka "dependents", as well as many opportunites for spouses to work at post (varies by location). You even get access to American commissaries overseas (many embassies have one)!
If I've got your attention, your next step should be to read a few of my other blog posts...specifically this one about The Foreign Service Specialist Application Timeline

Here's a link to some recommended Books about the Foreign Service on Amazon.

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