Interview with Sahar Ghadhban, Canadian Foreign Service Officer in Russia

Careers for Globetrotters: Meet Sahar Ghadhban - Foreign Service Officer in Canada & Russia

Sahar is the third profile in our new Careers for Globetrotters column. She tells about the seven-year path she took from her first internship in Algeria to getting hired as a foreign service officer. Find out why quitting her job at Global Affairs was the best thing she could have done to get her dream job, what she did after she didn’t pass her first post-secondary public service exam, and what it takes to get paid to learn Russian.

The series of video interviews with Sahar Ghadhban may be found here.

What organization do you work for and what is your role there?

I work for Global Affairs Canada, and I'm currently on language learning placement. I am a foreign service officer, and I've been posted to Moscow, Russia since the end of August. Some of these postings require language learning, and so I have been doing that since July 2016. I will do that until August and will move to Russia for the next three years.

How did you get to where you are now? Tell us about your career trajectory.

Well, I studied at the University of Montreal in Political Science and Communications. And I kind of had a broad idea of what I wanted to do. After I graduated, I decided I wanted to do an internship in one of our government missions abroad. I knocked on some doors - it was my personal initiative - and I ended up working at the Canadian Embassy in Algeria, back in 2008.

After that experience, I actually wrote the post-secondary public service exam but I was not successful. So I decided to pursue a master's degree at the University of Ottawa in Public and International Affairs, from 2009 until 2011. While I was studying, I undertook another internship through my program, this time at the Embassy of Canada in Syria. This was back in 2010, before the war. I was working in the political section, covering the human rights file, which was a very interesting experience.

Before graduating, I had the opportunity to work for the Canadian Mission to the UN in Geneva, and that was my first experience in a multilateral environment. I covered humanitarian affairs issues. So that takes me to the end of 2011. I graduated from the University of Ottawa and I was looking for a job, and it was the worst time ever because the government was not hiring. So, I actually tapped into my network, and I was able to get what we call a "casual contract" - a six-week contract which led to a determinate contract. At the end of 2013, I had the opportunity to work for the UNDP, which is the UN Development Agency, in Tunisia.

Meanwhile, I applied again for the competition to become a foreign service officer and this time I was successful. So, I returned to Ottawa in 2015, and this is how I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs.

So, I would say my journey to get here involved a lot of unpaid internships, a lot of short stints in the department, and one international experience at the UN, before finally - seven years later - I became a foreign service officer. It was about seven years. So, it wasn't a direct path!

Your first internship was with the Canadian embassy in Algeria. How did you go about getting that?

Back in the day, there used to be paid internships that were managed by Global Affairs Canada. Back in 2005, when I applied, the funding no longer existed. It was a personal initiative, as I said—basically trying to find the embassy contacts online and then I sent them an email expressing my interest. I was their first intern, but they were willing to welcome for three months and I worked in the political section. I was definitely aware that it was an unpaid internship, but the way I looked at it was just like my studies: it was an investment for my career. Not everybody is willing to do that. It was definitely a personal choice but for me, I just saw it as an investment and that it would pay off in the long run. And, it did!

My second internship was through the University of Ottawa, which has an internship program. So because I was prepared, I was sent to the masters. So that was a little bit easier because everything was kind of organized for you to hit for the insurance, those are the little things that we need to also think of. And that was also through the University of Iowa.

Why Algeria of all countries?

I was actually born there, so I know the country, I knew the political situation, and it would be cheap for me to live there. It was easier for me to live in a familiar environment for that first experience.

And it was also easier for me to sell, saying, well, I'll be there for a few months and you don't have to worry about me, I speak the language. So, it was definitely easier for them to say, okay, you can come for such a short period of time. If you don't know the country, it's just so hard. By the time you get used to it, you're about to leave! So my familiarity was kind of a selling point. When you don't have that much experience, it is important to sell yourself to the employer, and think about what you can contribute to the organization. Even if an internship is unpaid, they still have to allocate resources, they still have to train you. It's time-consuming, and they want to make sure that it's worth their time and their money.

So that was my starting point. It was within my comfort zone—and then, slowly but surely I was able to get out of my comfort zone. That's also very important if you want to do work internationally.

I think it's good to have some areas of expertise, but at some point, you want to kind of develop your network and develop your experience. You have to broaden your horizons and this is one reason why I chose to learn Russian and to get a post in Moscow as opposed to, you know, going back to the countries that I've been to or to regions that I'm more familiar with.

Can you tell us more about the post-secondary public service exam?

So the post-secondary campaigns are launched every year around September, and you have to apply for it. You have to have at least a post-secondary degree before applying, and then you're invited to write an exam.

The exam is three components, and all the details are actually on the Public Service website, so I'm not going to get into the details. But just to give an idea of the exam of one component is communication, whether in French or English. And one component is judgment. They want to make sure that they're recruiting people who have excellent judgment. Global Affairs is looking not so much for specific knowledge, but for people who have excellent judgment. This exam is the first step, and it is very competitive because sometimes there are 10,000 applicants, especially if the competition has not been run for a while.

If you're successful—and you have to actually have a really high score—you get invited to the second step which is the interview. It is a one-on-one interview and an interview in a group. For me, it was an internal competition, because I was working in the department at that time. So, it was a little bit different but equally competitive because everybody had experience in the department but they were looking to become a foreign service officer as opposed to a civil servant, or trying to switch streams. But, the process for the internal competition is pretty much the same steps.

It is a highly competitive competition, as I said. It used to be that if you spoke just English or French, then you would go on language training. But now, because they have so many applicants who are bilingual, they are able to choose those who already speak French in English and sometimes even a third language. The department is always looking for people who speak Mandarin, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese—languages that require a lot of language training. So, for those who do have those languages, it is definitely an asset.

When you look back, what do you think got you the position?

That's a good question. I think it's hard to answer because I work with obviously very competent colleagues! For me, when I did the interview the second time around, I was actually living in Tunisia and working for the UN. That was definitely considered an asset. I was living abroad, and that international experience just tells them that you're ready to go anywhere. You have proven that you can live in very challenging environments. Also, my languages: I speak French, English and Arabic, so that was definitely an asset.

The interview is also really important. Some people are very scared of these interviews, myself included. But, I actually prepared really well for the interview—and there is a way of preparing for these interviews. How well you score at the interview is important, because at the end of the day it is a big bureaucracy, and they rely on the scores. Of course, if you speak Spanish or another language, or if you have relevant experience it's always good—but, if you can't get through the interview process then you won't get in.

So I think it's a little bit of both relevant experience and a strong interview. But I've always been sure that this is what I wanted to do. At the time I graduated, it was very unlikely because as I said Global Affairs was not recruiting foreign service officers—but I just kept going. I had this goal in mind, and knowing that it's a very competitive environment, I was ready to take chances. For example, I quit my job at Department of Foreign Affairs as a "term employee" to get experience at the UN, and that's a decision I made because it would open more doors for me.

I think people should always keep in mind that they have to kind of live outside of their comfort zone in order to succeed in this type of environment. It's not a linear trajectory. You have to keep that in mind, and accept that life will take you in many directions so you have to be super flexible and adaptable. Those are also skills that the department is looking for.

You mentioned that there are ways of practising for the foreign service officer interview. Can you tell us about that?

In the interview, basically, the department is assessing a set of skills. One of them, as I mentioned, is judgment; others are interpersonal skills, communication, initiative. The interview is about six or seven questions, and for each question, you have to demonstrate how you have these skills. So, it's not about your knowledge. You could have studied engineering at school—or maybe you were a doctor and now want to become a foreign service officer. It doesn't really matter what background you have because the interview is based on situational questions as opposed to knowledge-based questions. So, know that those are the skills that you'll be assessed against, and draw from your previous experience to try to demonstrate how you actually have those skills.

What are some of the challenges working for the Foreign Service?

I joined the foreign service back in 2015. I did a short stint in the Maghreb division; then I was off to New York for four months, working with the Kenyan mission to the UN; then back to headquarters for another five months, before starting my language training. In a short period of time, I've had four managers. I've had four experiences.

It is not for everybody. You always have to kind of start over. And, every time, it's a bit scary. I always ask myself: why do I do this to myself?—but it's something that I actually like. But, it's not for everybody and a lot of people who are actually interested in international relations or foreign affairs really have to ask themselves, are they actually just interested in studying these issues or talking about politics in Canada? Or, are they actually really ready to live abroad? It takes a different kind of personality, and it's not for everybody. And a lot of people join the Foreign Service and realize that it's not for them.

So, I think you always have to ask yourself the right questions. When we're young we might want to have an international career and travel the world, and learn new languages. But I think, as we grow older, we ask ourselves if this is really what we want to do. It's good to start from a young age and say, do I really want to do that: moving every three years, or five years, moving around or moving my family. I think this is where your willingness to adapt and to be flexible is actually tested every time along the way.

I can't really think of just one particular moment, but during the Foreign Service I've done so many sorts of things abroad, and was on my own and had to take care of everything. The conditions are not always great sometimes, you know. You arrive at night, and nobody's greeting you at the airport—all these little things. Even if you don't know the country and you don't speak the language. you have to be able to to get where you want and to make it to your final destination.

So what’s an average day or week like for you, as a member of the Foreign Service?

Right now, I am on language training full day. So, my day is pretty much going to class or to school every morning, and I have six hours one-on-one with a teacher, trying to speak Russian. And an hour and a half in the evening, doing homework and revision. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad. It's very intensive, and it's definitely not for everybody. I'm still enjoying it, but there are some days where, you know, I don't know if I'll get there. We have to get to "level three", which is like professional proficiency, by the end of the year, so it's not your regular nine-to-five job. Maybe Russian is more difficult than other languages, but it's definitely challenging.

Again, not every Foreign Service officer will actually have to go through language training, it really depends on the posting. Some of them just require that you know French or English—and, actually, with French and English, you can work in a lot of countries so that's pretty good for Canadians.

This is actually my day-to-day routine until the end of August and I'll be going on immersion as well in St. Petersburg, which is part of my language training. And actually I always encourage people early on in their career if they are interested in learning a new language, I think it's a great opportunity. You don't really get that very often in your lifetime, to be paid to learn a language. So, I think it's great and it will open many, many doors for sure.

Give us some examples of professional challenges you had to overcome.

Working with Global Affairs Canada abroad was challenging but at least I was working in a familiar environment—working with Canadians and locally engaged staff. So, it was not as difficult as working at the UN.

The UN was my most challenging experience, because you arrive in an environment where you actually work with people from everywhere in the world; you are no longer working with Canadians. You have to adapt to a new way of working. In Tunisia, it was definitely more formal. We worked in French and we used "vous" all the time—which we don't use here in Canada. You kind of have to pick up on these things really quickly and early on, and there are definitely sometimes some tensions between international staff and the local staff, everybody had a way to communicate, everyone had a vision of what the UN is and it did create a lot of tension, I would say—definitely more than I anticipated! So I think that was the most challenging thing, but it was definitely very interesting to be able to navigate that. I think this is one example where, if you've had previous international experience, you can tap into that experience and say, well, you know this is a new environment and I have to adapt. Sometimes, it doesn't come naturally because we have the mentality that "this is how we do it in Canada", and things work really well in Canada. But, I definitely had to adapt and adjust to a new way of working.

That was my experience with the UN. Also, working for the UN, you're basically on your own, so you have to find your own housing and everything. Nothing is done for you, and you have to be ready for that. I was on my own, so it wasn't as difficult or challenging as it would be if I was moving my family and my kids. I definitely saw that with my other colleagues.

I did have another short experience in Israel. I did a field trip with the University of Ottawa, with the Faculty of Law. I was basically going to Israel and to interview Palestinian women who live there. That was an interesting experience because it had nothing to do with diplomacy, and I was really on my own. I'd never travelled in Israel before. So, I arrived in this country and I had to find these women, and convince them to be interviewed—and I only had a month to do it. I travelled around the country and I did it—I figured out how to do it. You know, you just have to find a starting point and, it leads you to this person and then another person, etc. And this is when interpersonal skills are very very useful, because in a lot of countries things just doesn't work the way they do in Canada. It's very informal, and you have to be patient. You have to take the time to grow those connections, and I think that's really important. That's what I draw from my experience in Israel.

You mentioned having strong interpersonal skills. Can you talk to us about the soft skills that can help you in this field, and how you can go about developing those?

I think that on a daily basis, we're all trying to develop those skills! When we think of a diplomat, for instance, we always think of someone who's an extrovert—trying to meet people and create connections. But, not everybody who works in the department is an extrovert. So, for a lot of people, myself included, I have to work on those skills on a daily basis.

People don't come with a fixed skillset. It's something that you continue working on, and you also have to recognize your weaknesses and things that you can develop. I think it's important to focus on your career, your professional path. But sometimes what will get you the job is what you do on the side—like if you're an avid soccer player, you're like involved in a theatre troupe, anything that can actually make a difference. Because it is about connections and creating those connections.

Of course, I'm not talking about the post-secondary recruiting event because that's very much based on the interview and nothing else. I'm just talking about, you know, getting a job abroad and, for example, working for an NGO where there are so many opportunities. These things that you do on the side can become an asset. It's important to introduce yourself not just as a professional in international relations, but also as a human being! What could be your other contributions? I think that's something that people tend to put aside, but I think it's equally important.

You have a master’s degree. Is that necessary to succeed in this field? Are there certain degree subjects that will make you stand out?

I don't think a master's degree is necessary, but also it is definitely considered an asset. You can definitely join Global Affairs, or the Foreign Service, with a bachelor's degree. But, at the same time, they have so many applicants and a lot of people have a lot of experience and do have a master's degree. So, if all else is equal, they will go with the person who does have a master's.

I think there is an element of personal choice. For me, I didn't finish my bachelor's degree and go directly to start my master's degree. I took a year off and that was actually a good break. I wanted to kind of reflect on what I wanted to do, what are the next steps—and I worked during that time.

I would always encourage people to get a master's degree—that's just my personal opinion—but I think you also have to understand the reasons why you are doing a master's degree. A master's degree will not make you a foreign service officer, but maybe it will help you down the road. And in terms of what you could study at university, it does help if you're into international relations. The department is looking for any kind of background, but I think you have to kind of have a general idea of how the world works and not be completely disconnected! So, getting a degree in political science international relations, or even a law degree, can help a lot and open a lot of doors. You can also actually work for Global Affairs Canada as a lawyer as well, so that could be another opportunity.

I would encourage people definitely to get a master's degree just because it is highly, highly competitive and if you want to work for the UN, for instance, they only take people who have a master's degree. So if you want to be competitive not only in Canada but internationally, definitely, that's the road to take.

Are there specific hard skills that are in demand in the Canadian foreign service?

It's nice to have an area of expertise, but Canada has such a small foreign service, compared to say France or the UK. We're also looking for people who are generalists— people who can move from one region to another who, who speak Mandarin and are going to learn Spanish. So I think it's better for your career to actually develop many areas of expertise and to sell yourself as someone who is adaptable and who's willing to work in different countries in different areas, as opposed to one area. But, it does help to actually join the Foreign Service with one particular area of expertise, especially if it's something that is sought after—it's easier to sell yourself that way. So I think you have to find a balance between the need to be an expert, but the expertise cannot close doors in the future. The balance sometimes can a bit tricky to find, but it's definitely the right approach to take because it is such a small Foreign Service. It's the way to go. But, if you were a French diplomat or an American diplomat, maybe being more of a specialist is what you need. But for the Canadian foreign service, it's a bit different.

What are various fields and streams within this sector of international affairs?

As a foreign service officer, you can work in one of four streams. So there's the political stream: I'm a political foreign service officer. And there's a trade stream, so those are trade commissioners. Third, there are consular officers who actually provide services to Canadians abroad. And, finally, there are immigration officers so those people who actually process visas for people who want to immigrate to Canada or to visit Canada.

So those are the main four streams, depending on what you're interested in. Someone interested in international trade, for example, may be more interested in working as a trade commissioner. The trade commissioner is like the contact between the host country and small Canadian companies who actually want to invest or do business in that specific country. As I said, consular officers provide assistance so if you're in trouble abroad or you lost your passport, those are the people who will be there to help you.

A political officer: it's actually very hard to describe what a political officer does, but we do meet a lot of people and we want to make sure that we want to know what's happening in that country... whatever is happening that could be of interest for Canada, or have an impact on Canada's interests. So, it's a lot of meeting people, attending receptions and, of course, there's a public affairs component to it so we are organizing visits and events. As a political officer, you're required to do all these things. So, if your prime minister is visiting, let's say Justin Trudeau was coming to Paris, I'd be working on his official visit and coordinating that. So, it's not always doing policy and writing intellectual reports—sometimes, for example, you have to just print those invitations and sent them out. So, you have to be willing to go from one thing to another and be equally inspired by doing both. That is what I like, because you never know what's going to happen. Your day really depends on what's happening in the country. So it's a very volatile environment, regardless of where you are.

 

Do you have tips for networking in this sector?

I guess there are different approaches to networking. I'm definitely still working on it myself! It's very hard for me to pick up the phone. I did it for my first internship, but it's definitely hard to pick up the phone and be like, "Oh, I'm interested in working for you or for your organization." But, I think you do have to do it at some point. Keep in mind that people are just so busy, so if they see an email from someone, say, a student who's interested in working or knowing more about or organization, it's very, very rare that they'll give a response. And so you have to keep in mind that you can't take it personally if people don't reply to your request.

I think the best way of networking is to actually attend events, because then you have a chance to meet people. Say, I don't know, there's an event about North Korea organized at the university, and you're interested in working on North Korea—you can actually meet experts or people who have the same kind of interests. I think that's a better way to approach people, because then there's a common interest and a face-to-face connection—as opposed to, you know, sending an email. These people get a lot of emails, so you won't really distinguish yourself if you just send emails. I think these events are actually very, very important. If you're there for the event, and then you can network, on the side. It has to be a little bit organic—it can't be like, "Oh, I want to work for the Department of Foreign Affairs", that never really works. Think about what do you have to offer, and what a person can often return.

So I think people are scared of networking, and with good reason because you do get turned down a lot! People are busy, and you have to keep that in mind. And sometimes... I am on LinkedIn and I get emails from people, and sometimes I don't really answer just because I personally can't offer them any positions. But if I met someone face-to-face, maybe I would actually be more willing to help out, and this is just maybe human nature! So, do it in a more organic way. That said, there are different approaches and this is definitely my approach.

 

There’s a Catch 22 in this sector, as far as needing experience to get a job and a job to get experience. Do you have any advice?

It is definitely a Catch-22. I think if I was talking to my younger sister, let's say, I would say don't lose sight of your objective. I think that's very, very important because you can get sidetracked. By the end, you want to get where you want to be. I think that it sounds a bit cliché to say that, but for me that was actually extremely important. I didn't know how to get there, but I knew I wanted to get there. So everything that I did was to actually kind of hoping to converge towards that goal. I think people are not willing to take a lot of risks, and I think that's very important. Things don't just happen, you have to be willing to take those risks. Sometimes it does pay off and sometimes it doesn't, and you'll learn from those mistakes. But, you also have to kind of get out of your comfort zone and think outside the box and be patient. It just doesn't happen overnight. For me, as I said, it all started in 2008 as an intern, but it did take me seven years to become a foreign service officer. Maybe if I'd had a bad day, and the interview didn't really go well then I wouldn't be a foreign service officer—so there's a lot of things that can go wrong!  But, you have to just believe in it and maybe be a bit idealistic. I think it's very important. This, for me, it's not just a job it's almost a passion. You have to be passionate about it, and your passion can take you very far if you believe in it.

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