Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Blog XXX (30): The History Ph.D. as a Foreign Service Officer

Aaron P. Forsberg earned his Ph.D. in history from the University of Texas at Austin. He entered the Foreign Service in March of 2001 and has served in Qatar, Thailand, Washington, D.C., and Japan. Prior to entering the Foreign Service, he taught history in the University of Maryland system and worked as a translator for the Tokyo office of the law firm White & Case LLP. He is author of America and the Japanese Miracle (2000). The opinions expressed herein are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the views of the United States Department of State or the U.S. Government.

What's it like to train as a historian specializing in a certain field and then go to work as the ultimate generalist, a diplomat? In our increasingly specialized world, it's certainly a counterintuitive career move. When you’re riding in a jeep bouncing down a one-lane road somewhere in Timor-Leste off to yet another camp for internally displaced persons, for example, your first thought probably won't be how working on that Ph.D. in history prepared you for a career in foreign affairs. Yet as a Foreign Service Officer working for the Department of State, it is precisely post-conflict spots like the former East Timor and other assignments on the periphery far removed from what you studied that provide opportunities for a graduate education to pay off professionally early on. Speaking from my own experience, this blog entry describes a Foreign Service career with students of history in mind. To provide some useful context, I also touch on other careers in international relations.

Who among you should consider a career in the Foreign Service? Obviously, if the idea of representing the United States overseas is at all alluring, you should consider it. There's a certain exhilaration to being in the thick of the action. For students of foreign policy especially, a basic question to consider is whether to be an observer or a participant. The common assumption is that by choosing to train in history you have already chosen the former. That need not be the case. (Full disclosure: I was inclined toward a career in international relations beginning in high school, but jumped at the opportunity to earn a doctorate in history straight out of college because I welcomed the intellectual workout and thought it might prepare me to compete with Washington's policy wonks.) As I searched archives for documents on postwar U.S.-Japanese relations while turning my dissertation into a book, the policy fray beckoned so I decided to register for the Foreign Service Officer Test.

The particulars of the Foreign Service Officer selection process vary somewhat each year, but at its core it consists of an online exam and an oral interview. If you pass the online exam and complete all of the related submissions satisfactorily, you will be invited to take the all-day oral assessment, usually held in Washington, at your own expense. If you pass the oral, then your name is placed on a rank-ordered register for hiring. You must also undergo medical, security clearance, and suitability reviews. Hiring plans and budgetary resources (or the lack thereof) drive much of the process. I had to wait to take the test because one consequence of the budget battles of the mid-1990s was that the Department did not hire for a while. Then, starting even before 9/11, the Department hired aggressively for a period. We appear to be in another hiring surge. The selection and review process has shortened considerably in recent years, but it still takes several months at a bare minimum, so in that respect it is not unlike an academic job-search. You can learn more about the FSO selection process here:
http://careers.state.gov/officer/index.html

When discussing the Foreign Service, the word "generalist" deserves special emphasis. It is the word used to describe the officer career track that can lead upward to appointment as an ambassador or other high position. Like the military, assignments last for specified periods and the promotion system is up-or-out. As a Foreign Service generalist, you will work at many different jobs over the course of your career. When registering for the Foreign Service exam you must specify what "career track" you prefer (political, economic, public diplomacy, management or consular), but you will not always serve in that career track. You will acquire topical and regional experience, and you will become extraordinarily knowledgeable about issues you cover that are in play. But the press of events will often determine those issues, and they will change along with your assignments. With rare exceptions, diplomats do not plow the same fields year after year.

Moving from the academy to the Foreign Service thus entails leaving a world emphasizing depth and continuity for one where breadth and flexibility get you noticed. In other words, a graduate education is potentially useful not for certifying an area of expertise, but for how it enables you to stand out as a generalist in some way. The specifics will vary depending upon you, your past course of study, and your future assignments.

Not all government careers relating to foreign affairs entail such a stark shift in paradigm from specialist to generalist. There are many analyst and other positions at departments and agencies (including Civil Service positions at State) that require advanced degrees in the social sciences. The expertise sought tends to be clearly defined and the employment is position-specific (meaning that you will not move to another position unless you apply for it). Likewise, professional staff positions on Congressional committees also tend to be somewhat specialized. Career staffers play a vital role in policy-making, and working for a committee represents an attractive career opportunity. Non-governmental organizations also hire Ph.D.s, often for director-level positions with administrative responsibility. More Ph.D.s than you might expect live and work in Washington.

Falling somewhere in the middle of the generalist-expert spectrum are the academics or policy specialists--often employed at think tanks and public affairs schools--who fill appointed positions at all levels in every administration, from cabinet secretaries to the special assistants to ambassadors at large embassies. There is no set of requirements for landing such a position, but as with so many things political Washington is the focus of attention. The logical starting point for academics is to become an authority on a policy-relevant issue through publications and networking, but there's an undeniable element of serendipity. One possible hook is a fellowship or grant to study something or somewhere that has policy relevance. Such a life requires vigorous self-promotion and active participation in the public discussion of your issue (read: media exposure). Besides becoming known, part of the job involves cultivating sponsors on Capitol Hill and in the administration (or up-and-coming players who will attain high office in the future).

So, what can a Ph.D. do for you? While an advanced degree is not required for entry into the Foreign Service, all of that reading you did for major and minor exams should prepare you reasonably well to pass the written sections of the Foreign Service Officer Test. The job knowledge component contains questions about American history, political institutions, the Constitution, literature and culture. You will also need to be familiar with economics, geography, communication, and management, among other subjects (for more detail, consult the Department's website link noted above). Experience grading papers and dealing with editors may also help to prepare you for the English expression and usage test component of the written exam. The degree itself may also land you a slightly higher starting salary compared to someone starting with a B.A. or M.A., but that is not the main thing it can do for you.

The real value of a graduate education is the training in analyzing complex issues, whether political, economic, social, or some combination of various factors. Being accustomed to bringing a high degree of analytical rigor to problems and having read widely contributes to making a person a quick study--a capable generalist. In practical terms, this means being able to make sense of particular or specialized issues and their connection to policy, probing in depth as necessary, and then explain them in comprehensible terms to others. This is true whether you are working overseas or in Washington. Proficiency in a hard foreign language acquired before, or as part of, your graduate study can also serve you very well.

Obviously you don't need a graduate education to be able to differentiate the what from the so-what in most instances. But some foreign policy issues are very complex and history generally looms larger for most peoples than it does for Americans, both on the macro level and on the level of institutional memory. I believe that my training in history and economics has enabled me to deal with some issues far more effectively than if I did not have such background. It is not just the knowledge I picked up along the way, it is the sense for what questions to ask, or what to read, or whom I should seek to consult regarding some aspect of the problem. One of the first things I do in a new assignment is to trace the history of the issues I'm covering to discover who follows them and knows them well. Like the best historical writing, standout political or economic reporting draws its strength from its sources. I have also found that in much of the world high-level bureaucrats and senior political leaders have studied abroad, often at the graduate level. Raising the subject of graduate school life in conversation is a natural way to build rapport.

Returning to the example of Timor, the young democracy's implosion in 2006 only four years after regaining its independence raised basic questions about state formation and the requirements for stability. One of the obvious sources of instability was the rivalry among leaders at the top, which quickly I learned had roots extending back as far as the declaration of independence from Portugal in 1975 and subsequent invasion by Indonesian military forces. As the desk officer in Washington covering the country, my job was to make sense of what was happening and take the lead in finding a way to assist the Timorese pick up the pieces and make a go of it again. (We did not have an ambassador in country for about nine months from late 2006 to mid-2007.) While I had studied decolonization and was broadly familiar with the problems of newly independent states, Timor-Leste was new to me and traveling in country the times I did was very different from making a trip to the archives. It was an exciting assignment involving engagement on fundamental issues in a very challenging particular context as I described in a 2007 article for State magazine (pp. 20-27 in the PDF file available here:
http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/82626.pdf. Without discounting the difficulty of the long-term development challenges ahead, Timor’s peaceful elections and the launch of a popular new government that year enabled the country to move beyond the crisis. It's often said that the Foreign Service is not a job but a lifestyle, so I would be remiss if I did not touch on the adjustments you will need to make if you join. Three deserve separate mention. First, writing. Turnaround in the Department is fast and the style concise. The rhythm, the pace and the purpose all differ from the sort of writing one may do elsewhere. With a little humility and willingness to learn, however, this adjustment need not be difficult. That is not to understate its importance, however. Particularly for political and economic work, you are what you write, a point historians should grasp intuitively. I still recall an afternoon at the National Archives when I was reviewing some Department of State files from the early 1950s containing memos by George Kennan. I had always wondered why Kennan attracted as much notice as he did, because his writings seemed to me to give expression to views that many others shared. As I leafed through dozens and dozens of memos that afternoon, I got it. The clarity, temerity, and persuasive power of Kennan's writing set him apart from his colleagues.

Second, the operational aspects of any Foreign Service job are just as important as the policy element, sometimes more so. Whether arranging some aspect of the logistics of a presidential visit overseas or the mundane task of making sure that you have the keys to a meeting room so that negotiations can continue beyond their scheduled time, diplomats spend a lot of time attending to details that historians never mention. Effectiveness in completing such work is critical to both advancement and one's reputation; it's not optional or incidental.

Additionally, every Foreign Service Officer spends at least one year, and often two or more, doing consular work overseas, usually issuing visas or assisting American citizens in dealing with emergencies (I did my consular tour in Bangkok, Thailand). Even though some such duty will be in places you might not have ever thought of visiting, it will rank among the most memorable experiences of your career. It may not be immediately apparent, but the pace and style of decision-making required in entry-level consular work also serves as useful training for subsequent assignments dealing with policy issues, both overseas and in Washington. While Malcolm Gladwell does not discuss either consular work or diplomacy in Blink, the links he draws in that book between experience dealing with a matter and the accuracy with which we grasp the reality of the situation on first glance could easily apply to Foreign Service work. The point to highlight is that such operational work is no less real as far as a Foreign Service career than policy analysis, and your likely effectiveness in such capacity will be something the examiners consider during the selection process.

Finally, how much you like change and where you want to live are relevant questions to think about, because moving abroad is part of the Foreign Service experience. Everyone registering for the Foreign Service Officer Test should at least browse books like Realities of Foreign Service Life, by Patricia Linderman et al., which is readily available online. Regardless of your age or what you have done before, all generalists joining the Department begin at the entry level. Most assignments are for two or three years, and being worldwide available means that some of your assignments will be in places you might not have ever contemplated visiting. Qatar was certainly not on my radar screen until my first week of orientation. Over the course of a career most officers tend to focus on a region or two, but you don't have much control over where you go for your first assignment, and location is only one of many factors to consider when arranging subsequent assignments. Of all the jobs available, an ever-shrinking proportion is located in Western Europe, and everyone serves at one or more hardship posts sooner or later. Those who think moving to someplace new is exciting and challenging tend to thrive in careers that involve frequent moves. For me, getting paid to move and tackle something new every few years was in fact one of the chief attractions of this career. As with many things, it is a matter of degree. But you should consider where you fit on the spectrum between global nomad and person of place. A related issue is foreign language. One need not be a linguist to succeed in the Foreign Service, but proficiency in one or more foreign languages is essential for advancement and for enjoying life abroad to its fullest. Proficiency in a hard or rare language is one skill that former academics can and do leverage to stand out. If you don't come in with language, you will have the opportunity to receive training. Either way, learning and using a foreign language is part of living and working in the Foreign Service.

In closing, if you’ve gone to graduate school and are looking for a career outside of the university setting, the Foreign Service and other government careers are worth considering. This is not to understate the adjustment necessary. At times you will find yourself having to deal with problems and situations that are entirely new to you. While taking your Ph.D. to Washington may not be the typical move, the Foreign Service--and the Federal Government generally--cast a wider net in hiring than is commonly assumed. You will find that many of your colleagues have professional education or unique experiences upon which they draw at different points during their career. After successive tours dealing with Southeast Asia, I sought to put my Japanese language and Japan experience to use. I started working at the Embassy in Tokyo in July 2009, one month before the Democratic Party of Japan unseated the incumbent Liberal Democratic Party, which has been in power almost continuously since 1955. As someone who has researched and written about Japanese politics and foreign policy, it is hard to imagine a more interesting time to be assigned to Tokyo.

3 comments:

  1. Dear Dr.



    I'm a student in the lebanese university, History Department.
    I'm preparing M.A Thesis entitled " The political History of Japan

    between the two World Wars".


    Here in Lebanon I'm facing Lack of resources, so I created this
    blog seeking for your help in information for my thesis, then GOD
    Welling, my quest to earn PHD in Modern History.

    http://habib-japanesethesis.blogspot.com

    Any information will be appreciated, from my heart I thank you for your time.

    Regards








    --
    Habib al Badawi

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