A Traveler in the Foreign Service: The list, the call, the flag- assignments in the Foreign Service

The most common question I get from people who have a passing interest in joining the Foreign Service is: how hard is to get posted to Rome, Paris, Prague, Sydney and other popular vacation destinations. The best way to get a feel for your chances is to have a look at the complete list of U.S. embassies and consulates abroad.

There are more than 200 posts in the Foreign Service and for every Prague there are at least ten places more like Karachi or Bujumbura. The largest U.S. embassy in the world is Baghdad, so your chances of donning a flak jacket by the Tigris over the course of a career are infinitely greater than enjoying a tour in Rome.

On the first day of my career in the Foreign Service, I was sitting in an auditorium next to my fiancée, and in the company of 94 other Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) and their families, waiting for the list. All incoming FSOs start their careers with a two-month long class called A-100, a sort of intro to diplomacy, and on the first day, everyone had already heard that the list was coming.

The list would contain all the jobs around the world we’d have to bid on, and I had butterflies in my stomach as I sat waiting to see ours.

“There are ninety-five jobs on this list- one for each of you,” said John Dinkelman, our course coordinator whom we came to know as “Dink.” “All of these jobs will be filled.”

Dink went on to proscribe the rules: each of us had to bid on twenty-five of the ninety-five jobs; near the end of the class, we’d have a Flag Day, in which we’d be given a flag, representing our assignment. The Career Development Officers (CDOs) would try to send us all to posts we had bid on, but if that wasn’t possible, they’d make what Dink referred to as the call. If you got the call, it meant that you were going someplace that wasn’t on your bid list.

When Dink finally passed the list out, I scanned through the listing of ninety-five jobs and felt a surge of excitement. Tblisi. Tashkent. Buenos Aires. Skopje. New Delhi. Guangzhou. The idea that I’d soon be living in one of these places seemed a bit surreal. But there were also some sobering spots on the list that I wasn’t keen on as well: Kingston, Port au Prince, Karachi, Tijuana, Addis Ababa and Dhaka to name a few.

Just prior to Flag Day, we were taken to a downscale “resort” in West Virginia for a retreat and it was fascinating to watch people kiss up to the three CDOs who would decide our fates. They were like rock stars for the weekend but I didn’t court them because I was afraid that it might backfire.

Most of my classmates had the good sense to compile their bid list based primarily on the jobs and their career interests. There are five career tracks in the Foreign Service, called “cones”- consular, economic, management, political and public diplomacy. FSOs enter the service as junior officers; the first two assignments are directed by the CDOs and one of the first two tours has to be consular.

But I wasn’t thinking about the list in terms of career tracks. For me, it was like a big travel brochure and I used Lonely Planet and other guidebooks to research the various posts. My first choice was Tashkent because I’d been to Uzbekistan the year before and had fallen in love with Bukhara. I’d later come to realize how silly this mindset was, but at the time I was blissfully unaware of the fact that what makes a place great to visit doesn’t necessarily make it a place you want to live in for 2-3 years.

In the days leading up to Flag Day, I lived in fear of getting the call, but thankfully it never came, and as we assembled in an auditorium at the Foreign Service Institute for the moment of truth- Flag Day- Dink told us he had good news.

“No one got the call, so you are all headed somewhere you bid on,” he said, standing at a podium next to a long table filled with dozens of flags from all over the world.

Dink started calling names and handing out flags and it was fascinating to see how people responded to their assignment. Most smiled, a few looked mildly disappointed, a couple jumped up and down on the way to the podium, as if they’d just been told to “come on down,” on The Price is Right, and one young woman was seen actually shedding tears shortly after being handed her flag. (Destination: Kingston, Jamaica)

A couple that met and fell in love during A-100 requested tandem assignments to the same post and the lovebirds were both handed Polish flags. (Never mind the fact that they broke up a few days later and approached the CDOs to request split assignments, which were granted.)

Dozens of names were called and a whole slew of posts I’d bid on fell by the wayside. Tashkent. Moscow. Stockholm. Buenos Aires. Almaty. Minsk. And then I heard my name called while Dink was clutching a flag that looked like….what the hell flag was that? For an excruciatingly long moment I heard my name and saw the flag but couldn’t figure out what country I was headed to. It looked like the flag of imperial Japan, but then Dink uttered the words.

“Consular assignment, Skopje, Macedonia,” he said.

Skopje was my sixth choice, so I was relatively pleased. My fiancé, Jen, was back in Chicago finishing up a graduate degree, so while everyone else celebrated or grieved in the auditorium, I snuck outside to make my own version of the call.

“Where are we going?” she asked, breathlessly.

“Skopje, Macedonia,” I said.

There was a very long period of silence while we both digested this news, until, finally, Jen spoke.

“Is that good or bad?”

I had no idea but knew we were about to find out.

(Note: The call has now gone the way of the typewriter. FSOs now have to bid on everything on their list.)

[Flickr image via Haysels]

Next: Stuck in an elevator- a perfect metaphor for life in a fishbowl.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.