Monday, April 19, 2010

If you can't beat 'em, Tandem?

Always a hot topic in the foreign service community, spousal employment continues to be a significant concern for Foreign Service Officers and their families. Diplopundit and Ryan and Lori recently posted about an article in the Summer 2009 issue of  FLO Direct News, which states that "nearly two-thirds [of adult family members] expressed an interest in working, while only a third was successful in finding employment." In addition, "many positions filled by family members inside the Mission tend to be clerical in nature and therefore widely viewed by the approximately 75% of family members with degrees (of whom about half have advanced degrees) as not very challenging or interesting." In their blog, Ryan and Lori wonder how often a FSO chooses to leave the Foreign Service because his or her spouse cannot maintain a professional career. I have an additional question: how difficult is it to be a tandem couple in the Foreign Service?

A tandem couple is a term used to describe two Foreign Service employees who are married to each other. Because my husband is the son of a retired GSO, we were familiar with the concept before my husband decided to pursue a careeer in the Foreign Service. However, when my husband started his application process I decided against applying for several reasons: 1) I was busy working 2) I was concerned about the complications of bidding on posts as a tandem, and 3) I was unwilling to entertain the possibility of being separated. As detailed in this article written by an Officer married to a Specialist, the possibility of being separated is very real. However, being a tandem couple may not be as difficult as it seems.

In our short time as members of the Foreign Service community we have met several tandem couples, an experience that is most certainly related to our assignment to the Philippines. Embassy Manila is quite large and thus, very accommodating for tandem couples looking for two job openings in the same location. Although it may be unavoidable that small posts may not commonly have two job openings at the same time, there are plenty of large posts in the world, and separation may not be absolute.

In addition, the post assignment process is complicated, but not arbitrary. Although the Needs of the Service are paramount, the State Department makes a significant effort to accommodate its Officers' preferences. Officers are not always assigned to their high and medium rated posts, but the Service does not ignore the wishes of its diplomats and their families. In fact, it makes every effort to keep tandem couples together, and encourages qualified spouses to apply. After all, the Needs of the Service are better met by a two for one deal.

It's been a little over two months since I left my job behind in Florida, and although I am enjoying Project Relax, I've been on vacation long enough to know that I will eventually want to return to professional life. Being well aware of the limitations of maintaining a professional (paid) career as the spouse of an FSO, my thoughts turn to the possibility of being an FSO myself, especially since the responsibilities of a consular officer fit well with social work skills. However, I would like to have more information about the reality of being a tandem couple before settling on it as a goal.


  1. Diane,

    That is exactly the choice I made. I was quite happy as an archaeologist, but when my wife joined the FS (particularly given the way same-sex partners were treated at the time), my choices were basically no career (and in most cases, no visas for anything but one-month visits) or spending our careers apart. So I decided to join the service.

    As I hope you can tell by me trying to recruit others, it is not a decision I regret. Yes, there are challenges to bidding tandem, but I think it is worth the effort for us to both have meaningful stable work (we don't have kids and while I love hanging out with my dog, I think that might get old).

    You are right that working with tandems is in the interests of the service. We save on housing costs for starters (two employees but only one residence), to say nothing of the cost of recruitment and training you save by keeping two people in the service.

    There is, of course, no gurantee you will get assigned together, but it seems to me that the Department does try.

  2. I just wrote you a long response, which of course blogspot ate. A shorter version is that this is the decision I made and I do not regret it. Feel free to email me at if I can answer any questions.

  3. Thanks for sharing, Digger. Have you and your wife ever been assigned to different posts? Do you feel you have been limited to only going to very large embassies, and if yes, has that ever been a problem? Any thoughts on cone choice? My husband is in PD but I would choose consular. I appreciate your help!

  4. I think choosing different cones is a must. Otherwise, you will find it harder and harder to get posted together. We actually have yet to serve in a large embassy. She served in Azerbaijan before I joined, which is fairly small, and we served in Jerusalem together. Then we came back to DC together and will be heading to Estonia (which is small). Timing ends up being everything. You can get jobs at small posts if they come open at the right time. Obviously, it is easier at larger posts. And while we have not been posted apart, I know some who have and some who haven't. It is all about timing, and about being the kind of officer people want to work with. If you are both strong officers with good references, you will have an easier time I think.

  5. It's Friday, and that means that the Weekly State Department Blog Roundup is up - and you're on it!

    Here is the link:

    (If I quoted your text or used your photo(s) and you would rather I had not, please let me know. Please also be sure to check the link(s) that I put up to you, in order to verify that they work properly. If you would rather that I had not referenced you, and/or do not want me to reference you in the future, please also contact me.)