Are You Too Old to Join the Foreign Service?

Absolutely Not!

A reader asked me earlier this week whether he was too old to enter the Foreign Service.  He’s 48, an international  lawyer, and has lived most of his career overseas, including stints in the Middle East and Europe.  He wanted to know if he was too old to join the Foreign Service.

No. The only regulation is that Foreign Service officers must retire at age 65.  Unlike the Civil Service, where staff members can work forever (and at least one I know is 85 and still going strong), FSOs have to hang up their tailcoats and top hats when they reach their mid-60s.

I have worked with many junior officers (JOs) in their 40s and 50s.   Most were skilled and professional.  Many joined the State Department as a second career.  They shared the wanderlust of the typical FSO and decided the opportunity to travel while doing interesting and important work would be ideal.  So don’t be surprised when you enter the service to meet “retired” teachers, lawyers, military officers, civil servants, and so forth. 

In my A-100 class, there was a 59-year-old former school teacher from the Pacific Northwest.  The youngest was 22 and fresh out of college.  The 59-year-old served 6 years and retired at 65.

One Thing to Consider

I did caution the lawyer with whom I spoke that joining the Foreign Service can be tough for second-career folks, especially those who’ve had successful and big careers before.  The Foreign Service generally doesn’t know or care what you did before, and assigns all entry level officers the same way, usually to a visa hell hole where you’re issuing and denying non-immigrant visas (NIVs).  Mostly denying.  So the middle-age entry level officers used to managing dozens or hundreds and making  $100m deals are going to be shocked at working some of the least attractive (aka crappiest) Foreign Service jobs during their first tour.

But most, if they can get over themselves and learn the ways of the Foreign Service, will adapt and likely flourish.  Their skills will be evident and used by the section chief or even the Ambassador who will include them in key meetings as notetakers or staff aides. 

Every ELO regardless of age is impatient to rise in rank and take on greater responsibilities.  Perhaps the inability to wait is even greater among older officers since they will likely have less time in the Foreign Service.  But don’t underestimate your bosses, they will see it and ask you to do more.  There’s always plenty of work.

This goes for younger officers, too.  If you have skills in a certain area — marketing, writing, management, computers, etc — offer up your services.   It’ll make the visa line bearable and you will get noticed.  had a background in journalism so second tour in Zambia I helped the economics section to report on wildlife management, HIV/AIDS, and other issues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. I want to thank you for addressing the age issue. I am currently in search of a new career. Interesting enough I wanted to join the Foreign Service after college, but life took me in a different direction. I have no regrets about this because I was lucky enough to work in different industries like finance, immigration law, business, and education. I am now ready to embrace my passion and I hope I am able to join the FS soon.

    • Marlabetz–

      Thanks for writing. With your experience — I peeked at your LinkedIn profile — you would make a great Foreign Service Officer.

      Let me know if you have any other questions.

      Good luck,

      Bill

      • Marlabetz–

        Don’t sell yourself short. You should take the Foreign Service Exam. I wasn’t blowing smoke when I said that you would make a good Foreign Service Officer.

        Anyway, the key to many of the Foreign Service Specialist jobs is doing well on the Oral Assessment. I’ve known a bunch of folks who were qualified, even over-qualified, to be an Office Management Specialist and they didn’t get an offer. On paper, they were great, but they must have made mistakes during the oral exam.

        As you know, the Oral Assessment comes after you submit your application and receive an invitation to travel to Washington, so first things first:

        The Written Application is based off of the job notice on USAJobs. It sounds like you’ve gone through it, but it never hurts to review it again, especially when you’re sitting down to complete the Supplementary Questionnaire.

        Basically, they are asking you to draw on your personal experiences and situations at work but also in your personal life, including examples from any volunteering you’ve done at church, a local hospital or a non-governmental organization.

        The panel that will grade your application will want to see innovation, hard work and motivation. If you have experience living overseas that will score you points. Again, it’s important more to draw on something that is personal to you. They will read hundreds of applications that will list how they re-organized a company’s filing system or how you put in hours of overtime to help you boss complete her PowerPoint Presentation.

        Simply put, they want to hear what Marlabetz has handled with innovation and skill. I saw on your LinkedIn profile that you’ve run your own business. There have got to be a ton of examples not only of meeting payroll, of organizing work teams, of dealing with tough employees, etc. These are the things that would stand out on your application. It’s not that you’re boss, although that’s impressive, but rather that you found successful ways to deal with these gnarly issues. This is important because these are the sorts of problems that you will face in the Foreign Service and take it from me, many OMS’s do a lousy job at working with the local staff, either talking down to them or worse screaming at them. (Yes, I’ve witnessed that. Enough said.)

        Again Marlabetz’s own personal experiences in these six categories are critical:

        1. Solving a Practical Problem;
        2. Managing Office Duties;
        3. Organizing Your Own Work;
        4. Handling Conflicting Priorities;
        5. Using Computers and Office Technology, and;
        6. Mixing Easily with Other People.

        Above all, in the funnier or more innovative your answers, the better you’ll score. By funny, I don’t mean “ha, ha” funny (although that’s not bad if it demonstrates something about you.) It’s likely to be more ironic and self-effacing that taught you lessons. Trust me, the panel after reading hundreds of fairly dull, straightforward applications will push yours to the top if you give them something to laugh about.

        It’s the same thing on your Narrative Autobiography. Show Marlabetz to the panel. Get them to see you as a real person with great experiences (lived overseas, ran your own business, have seen poverty in parts of Florida, have a burning desire to serve your country and to join the Foreign Service (the frontline of our country’s defenses). Don’t feel you have to use up the maximum of three pages. Short and punchy answers to
        discuss your:
        1) personal background;

        2) general comments on your work experience (you seem like an entrepreneur and you won’t go wrong discussing the setbacks (and successes) you found in starting up your own business and how that would help you as an OMS;

        3) personal interests, hobbies, and travel (if you like dancing or singing or writing, you could talk about things you’ve done along those lines and how you would love to set up a club at your first post for people at the embassy as well as locals. You want to show how you would try to contribute to the embassy community as well as inviting locals to participate), and motivation for joining the Foreign Service as an Office Management Specialist. (If you have family in the military, you could describe their sacrifices and how it is motivating you to give back to your country. Or your skill at cross-cultural relations that you’d like to use overseas.)

        I hate the expression, but it fits here — you’ve got think out of the box. Your compelling enough based on your work experience alone, but I know you have wonderful stories to tell and examples to provide.

        Finally, make sure your writing is clear, succinct and brief. They will score you on this. I recently wrote a post about writing for FSOs Check it out.

        My advice is to do a first draft, what Annie Lamott calls “Shitty first drafts.” Find a copy of her writing book “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,” in which she lays down the immutable law of writing that all first drafts are terrible, but a necessary process. In short, you’ve got to get your ideas on paper so that when you rewrite, you’ll prune and toss stuff and make your draft sing. Read it out loud after a few drafts.

        Better still read it out loud to someone else. Ask them to be harsh and critical. That way you’ll improve it. I always like the advice of reading it to an enemy because unlike a family member or close friend, they’ll rip it to shreds. On second thought, don’t go to an enemy, they’ll trash your work and leave you bleeding on the floor just because they don’t like you. Instead, underscore to everyone reading it that you want it to be the best possible and it’s a learning experience for you so they should be ruthless in their edits.

        Another lesson — humility goes a long way in the Foreign Service. So does hard work.

        Marlabetz, I know you can crush this, so sit down either with a cup of good Cuban coffee or a nice glass of wine and write your “shitty first draft,” knowing that you’re on your way to writing a superb application.

        Best of luck and write me back when they invite you to the Oral Assessment up in DC. We can discuss how to approach that hurdle when you get to it.

        Best,

        Bill

  2. Bill,

    I’m a recent college graduate…..and 57 years old. I was told about the OMS opening by a favorite professor the other day, and after reading the post on USAjobs decided to apply. I have experienced some “age resistance” in the private sector and was concerned this might be an issue with the Foreign Service. However, after reading your post I feel like my chances are as good as anyone’s. Thanks for the post!

    • Gary–

      You should definitely apply for it. The only age requirement is that you get sworn in before you turn 60. Of course, the mandatory retirement age for all State Department Foreign Service personnel — officers and specialists — is 65.

      Unfortunately, unless you submitted your application last night, the deadline was yesterday for those interested in OMS slots. This might be a benefit for you. Rather than rushing through the application process, you can take your time and do a good job on your essays. I responded to another OMS applicant with a fairly lengthy comment below that I should turn into a post.

      Many of my blog posts should also be helpful for you or any other person interested in a specialist job, if only to get a better handle on the Foreign Service.

      Good luck,

      Bill

  3. Bill,

    Thank you. I applied on the first day of the posting.

    As I was checking my status this morning I noticed that I have been deemed “eligible”. I have no idea what that implies. However, I do know it’s better than rejected.

    You have a relaxed writing style, and that makes it a pleasure to read your posts. That, and the obvious passion you have for this kind of work make it evident why you were accepted into the service.

    I have crawled your site completely and found a great deal of useful information. To quote a famous Governor, “I’ll be back”. (Please excuse the bad cliche)

    Gary

    • Gary–

      Thanks for your response and your kind words. Yes, I do have a lot of passion about the Foreign Service. It’s really a great life — if you can avoid working at State in Washington!

      On being deemed “eligible,” II have no idea except to say that it’s better than “ineligible.” I’m glad you got your application in to DC for this round. You’ll be called for the interview in a month or two. There’s always a desperate need for competent OMS’s in the Foreign Service, but sometimes things slow down over the summer, which is the time when many Foreign Service staff are transferring posts.

      Keep me posted on how your application is going.

      Best regards,

      Bill

  4. Nelsa collins says:

    Please sorry for the typos. I meant to say I find your page/blog to be very helpful. Am now preparing for my Oral Assessment next Month and will appreciate every help on how to ace it. Thank you again.

  5. Theresa says:

    I will turn 60 in two weeks. I hold a BFA in Fine Art and an MA in Art History. Haven’t worked in ten years. I am interested in a career in Foreign Service. Am I nuts?

    • Theresa–

      The mandatory retirement age for all Foreign Service Officers is 65. There is no age limit for Civil Service Officers. I had a classmate, a retired school teacher, in my entering class who was 58. She completed training went overseas for a couple of tours and retired at 65. She was an excellent FSO!

      That said, the Department seems unlikely to hire someone who is just starting the application phase of entry. Typically, the two exams — ‘written’ and oral assessment — as well as the medical and security clearances can take up to 18 months or longer.

      ‘Before the age of 60’ seems like the cutoff, according to the Foreign Service careers website But what have you got to lose in trying. The exam is free. Why not go for it? If you decide to do it, please let me know how it goes.

      Best,
      Bill

  6. Hello there!

    My concern is actually on the opposite end of the spectrum. Instead of being afraid of being to old, I’m concerned about being too young. I am currently 22, and will graduate with an International Studies degree in summer of 2018. Experience wise, I served for 2 years in Colombia for my church, picking up Spanish and lots of visa work with the Colombian government.

    Maybe you could share what you have seen from young applicants? Under 25s… is it usually Ivy League types that squeeze in, or something of the sort?

    Thank you for your help

    Alex

    • Good question. The average age of FSOs entering the Foreign Service still hovers around 30-31 so that means there are older folks but a fair number of young people, like you. Yes, 20-somethings fresh out of university do make it in. I would think you have a lot going for with your missionary work overseas. Spanish is good, but visa work not so much.

      I’ve seen a range of 20-somethings in the Foreign Service who attended a range of colleges and universities. Sure, there were a lot of Ivy (and Georgetown SFS) grads, but an equal number of state schools as well as smaller liberal arts colleges.

      I’ve heard anecdotally that Ivy League graduates still pass the FSOT more than another graduates. Thus, the non-transparent hurdles — Personal Narrative, the review panel, etc — will likely try to reduce those numbers and increase the numbers of other grads, usually minorities underrepresented in the FS, including Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans.

      Good luck,
      Bill

    • Sorry, WordPress ate my reply… The average age of FSOs entering the State Department still hovers around 30-31, which means the Department is accepting a fair number of oldsters and a good number of 20-somethings into the FS. I think that with your overseas experience, you have a leg up on other applicants. The Department used to send all first-tour FSOs overseas because they wanted to see who could survive and thrive outside of the United States.

      I worked with a lot of Ivy League (and Georgetown SFS) grads, some of whom left the FS after one or two tours to pursue advanced degrees in business, law, etc. At the same time, I’ve worked with a number of graduates from state schools and small liberal arts colleges.

      Anecdotally, I’ve heard that Ivy League grads still perform better on the FSOT and a disproportionate number of Ivies advance. Still, there are the non-transparent parts of the process — the personal narrative and review panel — that probably winnow out the Ivy grads. The Department continues to boost the numbers of minority groups who are underrepresented in the Foreign Service, especially Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans.

      I don’t know if women are still considered a minority in the Foreign Service. I believe the percentage of FS women is now roughly 40%, a lot better than when I entered the Department in 1988. Or in previous decades when a woman was forced to resign if she married!!

      The truth is there is preferential treatment towards minority groups who are underrepresented in the Foreign Service. Indeed, if you examine the map, many of the diplomats-in-residence are placed at universites with large minority populations — Univ of Oklahoma, Univ of New Mexico, Howard, Spelman, etc.

      Good luck,

      Bill

  7. monica iriarte says:

    Thank you so much for answering the age question.
    I’ve worked for the US embassy in Brazil for a couple of months as a Supervisor for American Citizen Services, however I had a family emergency and had to leave the country. My background is at county level in CA – (ombudsman, human trafficking issues, child abuse, critical incidents, grievances and Dept policy writing) I’ve been encouraged to go for the FSO position while in Brazil, however I didn’t know where to begin studying for the exams. A couple of years has gone by and I’m now in my late 40’s and I’m now contemplating on moving towards this direction.
    Again, thank you for your post!

  8. George Whitman says:

    Hi Bill,

    This may be a dumb question, but would taking a post as a Consular Agent be helpful on the path towards becoming a FSO?

    • George–
      Never a dumb question. The path to go from Consular Agent to FSO is not an easy one, in my experience. As a consular agent, you still have to take the written and oral tests. However, if you work as a civil servant at Main State, there is there is a program to streamline conversion to the Foreign Service — the Mustang program. Civil servants in this program skip the written and go straight to the oral exam. I have seen a number of excellent officers make the jump via the Mustang program.
      Best,
      Bill

  9. Bill I just stumbled onto your site and am enjoying reading this. I’m strongly drawn to the FS. I took the FSOT about 12 years ago-didn’t do well. Since then I’ve earned a MS degree and have gained significantly more professional experience. I’m thinking of taking the test again now at the ripe old age of 44. I will toot my own horn a bit: I have a killer work ethic. I’ve reveived several awards throughout my career for setting records for work completed, saving large amounts of money for the company, taking on additional responsibilities, etc. At my current job, I’ve often been contacted by managers and even managers in other divisions to flatter me with compliments about my work. I’ve also received cash awards for the above mentioned accomplishments. Now to point to my shortcomings: I am not a networker. I get along fine with most people but I’m quiet, reserved, prefer to just “lean forward in the foxhole” as an old commanding officer used to say (Army.) I will work until I drop but I’m not the “everyone’s friend” type. Just not a skill set I have. From my research of the FS, it seems like this could make it very unpleasant for me. Am I wrong? I’ve been in very difficult situations and in my military career, I’ve managed people who spoke no English at all. I’ve been thrown into situations, I’ve made big mistakes that required a lot of creativity and what I call “spit balling” to come up with solutions. If the FS only looks at aptitude, I have complete confidence that I would be an asset. But again, I lack the interpersonal skills. To bottom line things; I’ve spent most of my career working alone or working in very small groups. I’ve also moved a lot. Don’t mind moving, love being OCONUS. But I just tend to focus more on work. Any advice? Am I correct in assuming this lack of networking skills might be an impediment?

    • Matt–
      Thanks for the lengthy message. I’ve known plenty of ex-service members (some older than 44!) who’ve succeeded in the Foreign Service. With regard to your other point, I’ll be honest that lacking network skills could be an impediment, especially in the Political, Public Affairs, and Economic cones. It’s the bread-and-butter of those FSOs. It would likely be less of a problem in the Management and Consular cones, with less of a need to socialize. However, consular and management officers typically run large sections, so working alone or with just a few people is not in the cards.

      Sorry, I couldn’t be more helpful.

      Good luck,

      Bill

  10. Hey Bill!

    Thanks for all the useful information. I’m currently considering a new career, and thought about being a service officer. I noticed in one of the comments you wrote about being a journalist. Right now, I’m a tv news reporter in a top 35 market. This is my third year in the industry. What qualities do you think transferred to being a service officer?

    • Elaine–
      Good question. The skills I learned as a reporter that helped me most in the Foreign Service:
      1. Writing. Your ability to write clearly and succinctly without jargon or ‘acadamese’ helped me the most when I joined the State Department. No question;
      2. Ability to work under pressure and in a crisis. Many reporters are unflappable under pressure, be it deadline pressure or operating in a hostile environment. While I never served in a war zone, I worked in New York City, which was a pretty tough place back in the day.
      3. Skill of seeing both sides to a story. Readers back in the Department typically know whose “side” the United States supports in your host country, but to tell both or multiple sides to the crisis de jour underscores the importance of in-country reporting.
      Good luck. It’s a great job, perhaps less glamorous than what you’re doing now, but equally important.
      Bill

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