Foreign service officer Usha Pitts offers career advice to Bloustein students

March 10, 2017

by Paul Hislip, Communications intern (Class of 2018)

The Bloustein School recently hosted Usha Pitts, a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State who delivered a presentation about working in the field of diplomacy—the good, the bad, and everything in between—to graduate students.

Ms. Pitts noted that there are four ways to work the State Department: interns, contractors, civil servants, and Foreign Service Officers (diplomats). Her presentation focused on Foreign Service Officers, though she noted that the State Department would soon be hiring many contractors under the Consular Fellows Program in March. Consular Fellows are hired for their language skills in Spanish, Arabic, Russian, and Mandarin Chinese. Ms. Pitts recommended the Consular Fellows Program as a good way for graduating seniors and other young professionals to gain experience abroad, especially as they will need more than just a good education to land a job in the State Department, United Nations, or international NGO.

She began with a discussion of the typical career progression of a Foreign Service Officer (FSO), most of whom start their career around the age of 30. An FSO enters the field working the visa window at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate abroad, “and in 30 years, you may rise to the level of Ambassador.” Ms. Pitts said that while it may not initially seem like a very glamorous job, FSOs get the experience of living in another country. Nor are entry-level FSOs confined to desk work; while visa work does make up the majority of a new FSO’s daily tasks, young diplomats also have the responsibility of helping out Americans in trouble, and are the ones on the front lines when disaster strikes. For example, if a war or natural disaster occurs in a foreign country, Embassy staff will help evacuate American citizens. And while some of these situations may sound scary, it is important to know and understand what the job entails.

An FSO’s job is not all crises; most of the day-to-day work revolves around promoting U.S. interests, whether these interests are commercial, political, or cultural. An FSO can work on long-term projects, like supporting public schools or protecting human rights, or short-term ones, like setting up meetings for a visiting Congressperson. After a few years of working in the lower levels of the job, FSOs really get to start on their selected career track, which can be anything from economics to politics to public diplomacy. Ms. Pitts commented that it is very rare that an FSO gets a “good job in a good place,” but rather, “the best job you have will be in the hardest place you live.” For example, Ms. Pitts spent two years at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba, where living conditions under the Castro regime were tough, but her job tracking the Cuban economy was fascinating.

Ms. Pitts also went over the process of taking the test to become an FSO, which is open to any U.S. citizen over the age of 20. There are three components to the Foreign Service Officer Test: a written test focused on general knowledge, a take-home assignment of six essays called the Personal Narratives, and finally, several months later, an oral assessment in Washington. Roughly 5% of the 15,000 candidates who sign up for the test make it through to the end of the process, after which their names are put on a hiring list according to the career track they selected (economic, political, public diplomacy, consular, or management). She noted that she first took the Foreign Service Exam at the age of 22 but didn’t pass until the age of 28. She recommends that people take the test as soon as they know they are interested because it is good practice for the future. That said, most people join the Peace Corps or spend a few years traveling, studying, volunteering, or working before they are ready to successfully complete all three steps of the test.

Ms. Pitts gave a few strategies for making it through the testing process. She noted that most applicants get stuck on the Personal Narratives, so encouraged potential FSOs to read and write every single day. Other tips included “doing things or going places that make you uncomfortable,” in order to force yourself to confront challenges, solve problems, speak with strangers, and generally develop the character traits you will need to succeed in a competitive international career. Ms. Pitts quoted author Neale Donald Walsch, who said, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

Bloustein Students can go to careers.state.gov to find more information about the Foreign Service Officer Test, the Consular Fellows Program, and State Department internships. They can also see Ms. Pitts’s upcoming public presentations and writing workshops by clicking on “Recruitment Events” and searching under “New York” or “New Jersey.” They can also follow her on Facebook at DIRNYMetro, or email her at DIRNewYorkMetro@state.gov.

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