the diplomatic community

“Are you smarter than a US diplomat?” asks the Christian Science Monitor. “Take our Foreign Service Exam.”

Here it is.

In related news, I’ve spent some time lately poking around on the Internet investigating what it takes to join other countries’ diplomatic corps, and also what life is like for diplomats once they get in. As you may recall, a flood of Israeli diplomats went on strike recently protesting their low wages (below the poverty line). Apparently they also had to pay their own way to and from post, and other things we US diplomats fortunately don’t have to worry about. Update: it looks like they got the raise they were asking for.

While investigating the Canadian foreign service, I found this interesting. There is a testing process to get in which doesn’t seem entirely different from the system we have in the US. There’s a written test and the most qualified candidates move on to an interview phase. Those who make it through that are subject to background checks and put into a pool of successful candidates which sounds an awful lot like the Register we all know and love.

When you join the Canadian foreign service, you must speak both English and French. If you don’t, you will be on a sort of probation and receive language training for up to 12 months while making 80% of your normal salary. If you can’t hack it after that, you’re out.

Entry level officers will spend up to three years in Ottawa receiving training. Much of that will be on-the-job training and some of it may be at temporary assignments overseas. That’s very different from A-100 students who, after four weeks on the job, find out on flag day that they are leaving for, say, Bahrain in two months.

ASFA wrote an interesting article (warning, PDF) on this subject a few years back.

If any of our Canadian friends read this (and according to Google Analytics, 11 of you do), let me know if I’ve over-simplified or just plain screwed up any of my facts. And anybody else, perhaps those of you who have actually been to post, I’d love to hear about any interesting differences between American and other foreign services you’ve learned of while mingling with your counterparts in the diplomatic community.

Oh, and for the record, that test up there from the Christian Science Monitor? I totally passed.

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9 Responses to the diplomatic community

  1. Emily says:

    A friend recently finished the French language course and is now doing the “on the job training” component of the Canadian foreign service with Immigration Canada – our equivalent of an NIV and IV (including refugees, asylees, etc.) officer. His “on the job” training includes time in both Ottawa offices and two overseas missions in Africa.

    It was surprising for me to learn that, although he passed the 10-month French course with flying colors, he has little hope of ever serving in a Francophone country, since there are so many native French speakers in the Canadian foreign service.

    It’s also interesting that, despite great “on the job” training, they get little to no language training besides the initial French (or English). Overseas they are legally required to use official translators to conduct interviews for liability reasons, as I understand it.

  2. Al says:

    The most interesting thing I have really seen in Belize is (a) how much larger our service is than other countries; (b) how we have lots of other agencies at post that other countries don’t seem to have; and (c) that we are one of the only countries that appoints political ambassadors instead of career diplomats.

  3. Amanda says:

    I met a Canadian diplomat last year and he gave me the impression that the diplomatic corps and the consular corps were separate (meaning, you were either a Consular Officer or you weren’t).

    I think this is a fun topic– we certainly have the most options and the best benefits (Congress’ latest witchhunt notwithstanding!)

    I also talked to some locals and they thought it was interesting to compare the experience of applying for visas. Most agreed that regardless of the reputation the Americans have, getting a visa from the Spanish or French is significantly less pleasant and efficient!

  4. Meaghan says:

    Hi, I’m a Canadian management and consular officer currently on my preliminary french training. Our system is currently split into the FS and MCO streams – FSOs do trade and political policy; whereas MCOs manage missions, do consular work, develop security policy, oversee LES staffing, etc. From what I understand, there have been talks of merging the two streams, but it’s currently still split.

    FSOs tend to spend more time in Ottawa before a first post, whereas I believe about half of the MCOs from last year’s recruitment are already overseas (which is a good sign for me!), due to a lack of recruitment in previous years. After I finish French, I’ll have a few months of classroom training, followed by one or more developmental assignments at headquarters and abroad before being eligible for posting, but I may be able to go as early as fall 2012, depending on timing.

    Regarding the first commenter’s points: it depends on the Francophone country as well as the particular post. I know several anglophones who have worked in Francophone countries, but it depends on the competition for it, and yes, if your friend is an FSO, they are likely facing a lot. Likewise, for 3rd (or 4th, or 5th…) languages it again depends on the specific post – certain positions abroad are classed as requiring a given proficiency in another language, and training is provided before departure, but yes, I believe that particularly for negotiating, we are required to leave the wording to translators (imagine the possible gaffs!).

  5. Andy says:

    Thanks for your input Meaghan! What kind of language proficiency is expected of you in French and how much influence do you have on where you are posted?

  6. Meaghan says:

    I will have to be bilingual. The GoC uses an “ABC” system, where C is the highest level, and evaluates written, reading, and oral proficiency, so I’ll be CCC (or “exempt,” which would indicate having the same proficiency as a native speaker).

    In terms of postings, you’re correct in that we can apply for up to 5 in a cycle. I have heard of people being asked to apply for particular posts, but I’ve never heard of anyone being sent somewhere that they didn’t want to go, which I guess is different from the States!

    It’s been really interesting to read about your experiences – it’s nice that there’s such a big blogging community among US FSOs! Both my partner and I really appreciate the window into the posting process, and how it impacts family members.

  7. Kate says:

    I hope I’m not too late to jump in here! I’m a Canadian Political/Economic FS (we actually have 3 streams of FSes, one stream does Immigration and is based out of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and two streams are based out of Foreign Affairs- one does political stuff and the other does trade/commericial) And of course Meghan has already mentioned the MCOs.

    The testing process is very similar to what I’ve gathered you USA folks do, but it’s nowhere near as transparent. We never know what our scores are, or where we sit in the priority list for being hired. You can’t, for example, get a 2.58 (or some other number), add some language points or military points, and move up in “the register”.

    We (unfortunately, in my mind) don’t have a system of directed posts (I think that’s what you call them?). We come into the department, work for a few years, and then bid off of a bid list every September [except for a few mid-year postings that come up as one-offs].

    The “up to 3 years” they quote is rather optimistic. There’s a huge backlog of officers right now as the GoC tries to sort out its shifting priorities for missions. For example, two years ago, there were only 7 non-Afghan FS01 and FS02 political spots open (our numbers go in reverse from yours- 1s and 2s are junior spots, 3s and 4s are more senior). So you could wind up at headquarters for 5-6 years if you are unlucky! On the other hand, you’re highly unlikely to wind up at a post that you didn’t want, since you’re the one who chooses the 5 posts that go onto your bid list.

    Language training, I gather, is slightly different than yours, but not much. We obviously have to have French and English. We tend to have either really short language training periods (1-2 months before you head off to post) or two years (Russian, Arabic, Japanese, Mandarin). We have our own version of FSI, called Bisson Campus, which is on the Quebec side of the river.

  8. Kate says:

    Shoot! I forgot one HUGE difference!

    My impression of the US Foreign Service (mostly via the blog community) is that Washington functions as an assignment like any other. For example, a diplomat might go Beijing-Bujumbura-Washington-Abu Dhabi-Paris.

    We don’t really work like that. Our is more of a ping-pong system- 2 or 3 years in one place, back to Ottawa for 2-3 years, and then back out again. So we might go: Beijing-Ottawa-London-Ottawa-Moscow-Ottawa.

    There are exceptions to this, mainly for MCOs and post-Afghanistan assignments. Some MCOs can do a more US-style posting schedule, cross-posting from one assignment to another, simply because there aren’t enough of them! For political officers, that’s next to unheard of. As an incentive for officers to go to Afghanistan though, they allowed officers coming out of Kabul or Kandhar to apply directly to other posts and have priority. So, as a political officer, you could do one year in Afghanistan and then head directly to four years in New York (for example).

  9. Sara Roy says:

    The Weekly State Department Roundup is out and you’re on it! Check it out here:

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