Beyond the Civil Services Exam... life in the Indian Foreign Service - ForumIAS

Beyond the Civil Services Exam... life in the Indian Foreign Service

A brief, well sort of, account of my time in the Indian Foreign Service so far

The Indian Foreign Service (IFS) used to be the most coveted service until the late 1980s. So prestigious was the service, that only among the top 20 to 30 rank holders of the Civil Services Exam would be selected, while many people desirous of the IFS had to make peace with the IAS. By the 1990s this trend saw a reversal and the IFS fell from grace in the eyes of the UPSC aspirant, all the while remaining an enigma.

When I first developed an interest in attempting the Civil Services Exam, my natural choice was the Foreign Service because I had been a student of International Relations, wrote decent (and spoke broken) French and was generally fascinated by other cultures and ways of life. My mother always marvelled at my ability to steer away from difficult situations because of what she said was my "diplomatic personality", while my father went a step further and believed that I was well suited to be a career diplomat. 

Having been a topper in Political Science from the University of Delhi gave me the much needed confidence in my analytical abilities, so essential for cracking the CSE, but CSAT (which wasn't just a qualifying paper in 2014) was my Waterloo. I knew that if I didn't crack this exam, it would be because of my weak skills in Math. And that is exactly what happened when I first attempted the exam in 2013. 

I was obviously demotivated, but when you hit rock bottom, there is nothing else left to do but pull yourself back up. So I started from scratch. I practised logic and reasoning, 10th-12th standard Math, and obviously prepared well for General Studies.

And then it happened.

I cleared the Prelims, and then I knew nothing could stop me. Writing the Mains exam was smoother than I had imagined, and when I appeared for the Personality Test on 27 April 2015, I was sure I would crack the exam.

But I was realistic. I was prepared to get a rank around 350-400 and was quite content getting one of the Revenue Services.

But to my pleasant surprise, I stood at an All India Rank of 96. What had been a dream, had come true. I made it to the IFS. Needless to say, my life changed and I felt as if I was finally on my way towards fulfilling my destiny. But I'm not going to mull over all that historical determinism. Instead, I'm going to tell you about what life has been like in these 4 years. That is, after all, the point of this post.

My journey began in the hill station of Mussoorie, at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. This was the first time I went there and the fact that over 300 other Officer Trainees were also going to attend the Foundation Course with me, was an overwhelming yet humbling feeling. In the 100 days I spent there, my life was a rollercoaster. I made new friends, discovered new things about myself, felt free and responsible at the same time, and of course, met my the man who was to become my husband. Those were perhaps the most hectic 100 days of my life but the company and camaraderie made it bearable.

Before I knew it, I was back in Delhi and starting the next phase of training, the professional training at the Foreign Service Institute. Classes on international relations and India’s foreign policy, alongside various attachments with functional divisions of the Ministry of External Affairs formed the core of this training period. From time to time we also ended up travelling. We started with our mission attachment for which I went to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Here we saw how our Embassies and Consulates function. We also had attachments with the three armed forces, where we spent one week with each force, to understand the terrain in which they operate. We then had a three week long Bharat Darshan and the last bit of travelling came in the form of the State and District attachment where we saw closely how state and district administrations work. Each OT presented a dissertation on his/her experience during their state attachment which was assessed by former diplomats and external examiners. With this, the 6 month long FSI training phase ended and we went on to do our desk attachment at MEA.

For those who don’t know, after joining the IFS, each officer is allotted a Compulsory Foreign Language (CFL) depending on their rank and preference. Usually this includes all UN languages, German, Japanese and occasionally Portuguese, Korean, Persian, among others. And no, English is not a foreign language. It is an Indian language because it is one of our main official languages. I include this disclaimer because some people actually have asked me if one can opt for English as their CFL.

Since I opted for French as my CFL, I was to leave on language training only in September. This gave me 3 whole months at the Americas Division where I did different kinds of things, from singing off on RTI queries, to facilitating US and Canadian visas for emergency cases, to even clearing official and diplomatic visas for high ranking US officials. It was a wonderful feeling and a great learning experience. I also got the chance to attend the India-US Strategic and Commercial Dialogue in 2016 and got the chance to see how these meetings are organised and conducted.

In  mid-September 2016 I then left for Paris where I began my CFL training. Since I already had some knowledge of French, having studied it for a long time, I was able to start the training at a higher level, instead of starting from scratch. I worked in the Press, Information and Culture wing of the Embassy of India, Paris and had the chance to compere many Embassy events, that too in French. I even got the chance to travel to another city in France, Avignon, to attend one such event to represent the Embassy.

Soon after, I was shifted to the Political wing of the Embassy and this exposed me to very different type of work. I had to prepare reports, read up on things, present analyses on French political developments, for example. I attended many think tank events and reported them back to the Embassy and MEA, and even received appreciation for my work.

By the time I was supposed to appear for my CFL exam, I was quite proficient in the language and was encouraged by MEA to appear for the interpreter’s entrance exam for the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, Monterey, California. I wrote the CFL exam in November 2017, the entrance exam in March 2018 and by the end of April 2018 I had been selected to pursue the MA in Translation and Interpretation at MIIS. 

Why, you may wonder. You see, the MEA has, for many years now, been training its diplomats to become Chinese interpreters for our Prime Minister and other ministers. For the first time, the Ministry decided that they also want to train other CFL speakers. Thus, I am one of the first two officers to be pursuing this course in French. The advantage of doing the course is that it solidifies my language specialisation, and I get to live and understand the United States at an early stage of my career.

Through all of this, I have also had the chance to work on several visits, like PM’s visit to Paris 2017, World Economic Forum Davos 2018, EAM’s visit to Paris 2018 and the more recent one in Houston, Texas where the Howdy Modi event took place.

My professional life has certainly seen an upswing and I have drawn great satisfaction from my experiences. But the best part is the fact that the job has allowed me to maintain a healthy work-life balance too. Given that my husband is in the IAS and cannot be posted with me, I have nevertheless been able to visit India at least thrice a year to spend time with family. Apart from this, I have also had the chance to travel a lot in Europe while I was poste in Paris, and then here in the US as well. 

If you look at it, this post looks like a long one, but believe me, this is just a gist of 4 fantabulous years in service. I will soon be posting my articles from my blog for easier access. 

These posts will deal with my preparation strategy, book lists, time management, reading the newspaper, FAQs about the CSE and the IFS, and more importantly, I will share in great detail posts about my travels and general life lessons. Be warned, though, that I appeared for the CSE 5 years ago and some of this stuff may not be up to date, but it will definitely provide some direction (and solace, I hope) to those looking for a UPSC specific compass.

Stay tuned and watch this space.

Until then, check out the blog maybe? ;-)


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