OpSec Blog was asked the following recently:
How do you reconcile your career ambitions as a Specialist with the de facto status of Specialists as “support staff.” Specialists don’t occupy the top positions at the State Department, nor do they ever (to my knowledge) become Ambassadors. Since the opportunities for Foreign Service Officers are so much more prestigious at the upper levels, why didn’t you switch?
I second his response .
OpSec also has a great post on 9 Things You Need to Accept as a Foreign Service Specialist
As an IRM specialist, I can say his post is pretty close to the mark with only a few differences.
"1. Generalists are, and always will be, your boss(es). "
True, if you're the only IRM staff person at a small post. But usually you'll have at least one IRM specialist supervising you during your first 1-7 years. A generalist boss will normally come into the picture after you get promoted and move into supervising other specialists. There are also several "prestigious" positions an IRM specialist can aspire to that don't involve becoming an Ambassador, such as overseeing all the IRM operations for a country's Embassy and Consulates, serving as Director in one of the many branches of IRM, or even the Chief Information Officer (CIO). Granted the CIO still reports to a Generalist but at that point you're now working daily with the "Front Office"
"3. The Generalists (and most of the Specialists) will have no idea what you do."
Nothing to add, I just thought it was amusing to hear Security Engineering Officers get asked about wireless home networks also. Now I don't feel as bad when someone asks me about locks and safes.
"7. Your rating officer will probably not be in your skill code."
I can't stress the importance of this enough. Each year, a reviewing officer and rating officer evaluate your performance in writing. Try praising someone if you don't understand the daily tasks involved in their job. This is a fact of life for an IRM specialist. But the solution is easily solved. The reviewer is often in your skill code and knows how to write about your technical accomplishments. So the rater can flesh out the non-technical side. I document my work throughout the year so I can pass this on to both the rater and reviewer when evaluations are due. I make sure each accomplishment falls into at least one of the precepts that are important to the promotion panel and I explain why. Your rater and reviewer will seriously appreciate this. It will save them time which allows them to focus the writing instead.
"8. You are geographically limited."
For IRM Specialists it's not really an issue. If a Consulate or Embassy uses a computer network, there usually an IRM staff person working there. There may be only one IRM specialist in some locations due to hardship posts, curtailing employees, etc. But I've only seen a handful of places where no full time IRM position was available. And in some cases a generalist picked up the duties where the IRM person normally would have.
So there you have it. Keeping those ideas in mind will help you understand how specialists serve in the technical/administrative functions that support others. I remain a specialist because I enjoy the work and know my experience benefits the department better than if I start over as a generalist. I repect and appreciate the work generalists do. It's just not the path I wanted to take and often the grass is not always greener.