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April 2013

When the dream job is no longer a dream job...

For many Americans, including myself, a career in the U.S. Foreign Service is a "dream job." Visions of working and traveling to exotic locations, getting paid to learn languages, experiencing new cultures, promoting U.S. foreign policy and being on the front lines of diplomacy and security are just some reasons why people join the Foreign Service. But at the end of the day, it's still a job. So for a few people, the "dream" part of the job ends up not being all it's cracked up to be.  Yet attrition in the Foreign Service is a topic that is rarely discussed.

Traditionally, the Foreign Service has an annual attrition rate of about 3%. ´╗┐According to Hoover and Diplomat-in-Residence instructors, the Foreign Service has the lowest attrition rate of any government agency; 97% of A-100 graduates will receive tenure within 3-5 years. So what about the other 3%? 

 My A-100 class recently celebrated our third anniversary in the Foreign Service. We started A-100 with 93 students.  Since then, at least six of my classmates have since left the FS.  The reasons for resigning an FSO commission are as varied as FSOs themselves, but reasons are often common to any occupation: job unsatisfaction, long hours for low pay, wanting to start a family or spend more time with family, etc. 

But there are also several issues specific to the Foreign Service and military careers: living far from home for years or decades at a time; homesickness; spouse or family unhappiness; lack of spousal employment opportunities; inability to find a spouse/significant-other who will embrace the FS lifestyle; low pay compared to comparable jobs in the private sector; disillusionment; disagreement with U.S. foreign policy; and even "equal footing" - having to start at the "bottom of the rung" alongside recent college graduates, even if you have 20 years of professional experience.

This is probably a good time to mention that I have no intention of leaving!  I look forward to a long and propserous 20+ year career in the Foreign Service!  This issue only came up because my classmates and I are now up for tenure, and that got me thinking about attrition.

As I Googled the topic, I was suprised at the lack of information about attrition or blogs from former FSOs & FSSs on why they resigned. The few blogs I did find were, well, whiny.  Most of the information I have is anectodal, most of which I cannot share due to privacy restrictions.  So I would be curious for readers to respond to the following two questions:

1. If you left the FS, or if you considered leaving the FS, why? Do you have any regrets? (Judging by the number of FSOs I know who left the FS, then later returned, I would guess that the grass is not always greener on the other side!).

2. What does it take to survive a long career in the Foreign Service? (Off the top of my head: resilience, resourcefulness, independence, being a team-player, supportive family & friends back home in the States, and most of all, a supportive spouse who will be ready to drop his or her career & life to follow you anywhere -- as long as it's not an unaccompanied post!).