Sunday, October 8, 2023

Let's Talk about FSO Salaries

plant growing out of coins

Today I'm going to address a topic that is (unfortunately) still considered a bit taboo in American society: pay! (It's at the top of my mind since I've had a few recent conversations about it `with mentees joining the Foreign Service.) There are many, many reasons why people should not be ashamed to talk about their wages, though, foremost because pay transparency can lower pay inequities. When you join the Foreign Service as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO), you submit your education and work history to the Registrar's Office, which uses Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) 134A3 to calculate your starting grade and step. Your grade and step combination corresponds to a salary on the FSO Pay Scale, which is public. There are a lot of FSO benefits besides the salary, too, but this blog post will focus strictly on the salary.

Looking at SOP 134A3, it seems like the determination of an FSO's starting salary would be very simple and straightforward. You just start with your highest completed educational degree, add one step for each year of qualifying work experience, and see if you get an additional boost for salary matching. For example, I started with a Master's degree and some years of work experience, so I started as grade 5 and step 7 (FP05-07). By my own calculations, I had more than two years of relevant experience but State decided only two years would count toward my starting salary.

I thought I had I pushed back on their estimates, though when I went back through my old emails from six years ago I couldn't find any receipts. Regardless, I didn't receive any adjustment to my initial offered salary. I went back and re-read my offer letter, which stated in no uncertain terms: "Unlike the private sector, salaries in the federal serviceare not negotiated packages, but are set by published standards." State does have a salary review process that I highly recommend to any new hires who feel like their experience was undercounted. I've never heard of anyone having an offer rescinded or reduced because they requested a salary review, but I have heard of cases of people successfully arguing for higher starting pay.

It's also worth noting that the Department of State will try to do salary matching for new Foreign Service Officers, but they can't go higher than the Foreign Service pay scale allows. This means if you're applying for the Foreign Service and want to start at a higher salary, you should try and get the highest paid job possible before making the switch. I've heard of people transitioning from the nonprofit to the private sector before applying to the Foreign Service in part for this reason.

Your starting salary as an FSO is crucial because it sets the baseline for your entire career. Every promotion to a new grade and every step increase will be based off of that initial salary. That means those who start at a lower number will likely stay behind the average compensation of their peers for the rest of their career. Unfortunately, there is no option to adjust after you join. Even folks who later obtain a higher degree after joining won't have their salary adjusted to reflect that higher qualification. In the Foreign Service (unlike in some other careers), you can do the exact same work and get paid wildly different amounts.

I hope this post is helpful especially for folks who are applying now or who haven't accepted an offer yet. I'm strongly supportive of people coming in clear-eyed about what the compensation is for this career so they can make the best decisions for them and their unique situations. As I mentioned, there are plenty of other special benefits like moving around the world, living rent-free overseas, receiving a pension, and more, but at the end of the day none of those things are liquid, accessible cash. Best of luck!

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