Careers in Foreign Service Speech Inspires Students

Drew Kaplan ’20, Opinion Editor


Linda Specht ‘82, P ‘20, described work in the foreign service as the “perfect career for the professionally ADD” but stated it was “not for ideological purists,” in a presentation to students on Tuesday, Feb. 6.

Specht, whose career with the State Department spans 29 years, explained that the diversity of topics a liberal arts education allows students to explore prepares them for a career in foreign service. Although she began her college career at Dickinson, she transferred to Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland after studying abroad there her junior year.

Specht admitted that she was not sure of her plans when she first entered college. “The great thing about foreign service is that is a career where there are multiple ways in, and people do it as a second career,” said Specht.

Specht also explained that candidates need to be in good health, as advanced medical care may not be available to diplomats. Her final warning to students was that career advancement is slow, and those in it advise on policy, but do not create it. “It’s a skillset that you gradually acquire over a lifetime,” said Specht, “This is not a career for ideological purists.” She explained that publicly, all are expected to support the administration’s policies, though private dissent is permitted.  “You never are just yourself” said Specht, “I disagreed with our invasion of Iraq.” She also cautioned that top secret security clearance is required for the job. “Once you’re in the career, you need to be a straight arrow … no matter what you do, it’s not private.”

She explained that foreign service requires experience in all fields for different tasks, as much work is done internally, rather than through contractors. However, she explained that the application process “is long, complicated, and frustrating.” Consisting of a written and an oral portion, Specht explained that the written exam has a ten percent pass rate, and that she, personally, failed multiple times. She explained that a perfect application is not required, and that the service considers an applicant’s academic record, work experience, performance on the oral and written exams, and languages spoken, when determining who to hire.

Specht, who has served in Suriname, Papua New Guinea, Cameroon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Argentina and Nicaragua, said that the greatest advantage of joining the service is that “You get to reinvent yourself every two to three years” due to changing assignments. However, she noted that the work is physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging. Although the government does consider the country preferences of applicants, assignments will not necessarily correspond. She explained that, despite her entering with knowledge of Spanish, her first assignment was to Suriname, which, although in South America, is a Dutch speaking country.

Students were intrigued by the talk. Maclane Speer, ’20 said “I thought it was an unbelievable opportunity to be presented with the experiences and knowledge of someone who’s career is so distinguished and specialized. It heavily influenced my thinking about my own future career and what I want to get out of working internationally.”

Chuling Huang ’19 said the talk was “mind-opening and help[ed] me appreciate the value of liberal arts education.”

Ian White ’19 said he thought Specht was “very informative on what a career would be like. It definitely helped me think about next steps I would have to take.”

Corson Ellis ’20 added that he thought “it was a really interesting look at part of the government that we sometimes don’t hear too much about.”

Approximately thirty students attended the presentation on Tuesday, Feb. 6.