Foreign Service Officer discusses overseas opportunities for students

Oct. 13, 2014

Nick Beadleston
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Those looking for a career that mixes the romanticism of overseas travel with a concern for U.S. interests abroad may consider a career as a Foreign Service Officer.

Joanne Cummings, a second generation FSO currently stationed at the United States Air Force Academy, was on campus Sept. 26 to deliver a lecture on Middle Eastern history and politics.

The Scribe sat down with her to discuss her experience and advice for those with aspirations to join the Foreign Service.

“It’s constantly changing, its constantly developing, every couple of years you get to do something new,” said Cummings. “You can spend a few years in Rio de Janeiro and then you spend a few years in Kuala Lumpur.”

FSOs work primarily for the U.S. State Department, and can find themselves stationed at one of the more than 270 U.S. embassies, consulates and other diplomatic missions across the globe.

Their skill sets are organized into “cones”: consular, economic, management, political and public diplomacy.

Cummings has held numerous posts in the Middle East, including that of Economic Section Chief for the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Syria. Most recently she was stationed in Yemen, before which she also spent time serving as an advisor to senior military leaders in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now she is one of a number of Diplomats in Residence, FSOs stationed at academic institutions around the country who provide guidance to potential candidates. Cummings explained that becoming a FSO requires several levels of testing and screening. Step one is to pass the Foreign Service Officer Test. Unlike standardized testing, this exam requires candidates show up with much more than just a number two pencil. “

What the department is looking for is more a kind of person, than a specific batch of content knowledge,” Cummings said. “They really like people who have that life experience that they can demonstrate how they would respond to different kinds of situations.”

About 10 percent of people who take the written test pass it, according to Cummings. She further estimated only 10 percent of those that succeed go on to pass the oral exam board.

Unlike many careers, entry into Foreign Service is not determined by one’s level of schooling.

Cummings, who received her bachelors in history from the American University of Beirut and her masters in geography from The University of Texas at Austin, said FSO selection is an instance where experience trumps education.

“A minority of people who come in have a master’s degree in international relations,” she said. “It’s not that it’s a bad thing to do, it’s just that it’s not necessary.”

Cummings explained spending time abroad, whether in the military or with a nonprofit, increases a candidate’s chances of being selected.

“All of those give you the ability to say in a situation like that I would do this, and let me give you an example from my own life,” she said. “

What I find is that people who come in straight out of graduate school, straight out of college, they’re very smart, they may write really well, they might have good analytical skills all of which are hugely important,” said Cummings.

“But they tend to be more challenged in terms of how do you work on a team, how do you figure out the social dynamic of another country, because they’ve been focused on one way of looking at things.” The only prerequisite is that candidates are American citizens between the ages of 21 and 59. Cummings indicated that language skills, particularly Arabic and Farsi would greatly benefit a candidate.

Despite the difficulty of the written test, candidates can take it as many times as they want.

“I know ambassadors who have taken it five times before they passed,” said Cummings.

She also recommended reading The Economist Magazine cover to cover for more than six months to acquire an up-to-date understanding of world affairs.

Once candidates pass the written test, there is still the oral board and background and medical screenings before a final selection board makes a decision. If candidates are accepted, they are placed on a sliding scale list and await their first assignment.

But those looking to sit in the U.S. Capitol or in the French Riviera might want to reconsider their career choice.

“If you want to work in D.C., you should not be in the foreign service,” said Cummings. “If you go into the Foreign Service because you want to serve in Western Europe, they’re probably going to weed you out.”

She indicated after an FSO’s first few tours, during which they build critical skills, they are able to bid on specific assignments and locations based on their qualifications.

Those willing to serve and prove themselves in what many would consider less than desirable or dangerous locations will have a better chance of being stationed in posts of their choosing later in their career.

Despite the trials necessary to enter the Foreign Service and the challenges an FSO faces throughout their career, Cummings was adamant that the unique experiences are worth the sacrifice and effort.

“There’s nothing better, there’s nothing I would rather do.”

Those interested in careers with the Foreign Service can find more information online at, or they can contact Cummings at [email protected].