We are choosing a lighter topic for this evening for three reasons.
First, we are sick, stricken down with some local bug that appears to be tougher than our domestics. Second, our HHE has arrived! (Our books! Our TV! Our couch! Remember our toaster ?! Our games! Ohhhh, it's our towels!!!) We are currently in box hell, but gladdened by the presence of things which remind us of home. And, third, because so many have asked that we discuss this topic in comments and in email.
Okay, here goes: An Insider's Look at Becoming an FSO
The Foreign Service exists pursuant to statute and should not be confused with the regular federal Civil Service. The FS, which consists of FSO's (Foreign Service Officers) and FSS's (Foreign Service Specialists) has its own rules, pay scales, entry requirements and job requirements. Basically, if you're interested in working for the Federal Government in general, or the State Department in particular, in Washington, D.C., you should consider the Civil Service. Our CS colleagues do important work and are an important part of the overall team.
, you want to work overseas, right? Iraq, Syria, the joys of Sri Lanka, they're all for you. In that case, the CS isn't for you. While some CS personnel work overseas, the chances are slim that any given worker will get the opportunity. If you want to get overseas, if you want to be a U.S. diplomat, then you have to go through that special process that marks us all.The Foreign Service Written Exam
The FSWE is the first step, and it's given a number of times a year. Check careers.state.gov
for the next scheduled exam. It's given in a number of locations, including at most embassies and consulates abroad. So, if you happen to be, for example, a dual U.S./German national, you can take the FSWE at Embassy Berlin. For most of us, however, the test site will be a local community college or university. Currently, all registration for the exam is done on-line. Sign up, and you'll soon receive a confirmation showing your test location and time. Congratulations, you've taken the first step.
The FSWE touches upon a number of subjects and is not the easiest test in the world. Fortunately, State provides a low-cost study guide for those of us not born to inherent genius. Some topics, however, are more prominent than others. The successful FSWE taker should have a good working knowledge of U.S. history, both political and cultural, the structure and theory of the U.S. Government, diplomatic history, and, significantly and often overlooked, current management theory. If one were to spend a good eight months with the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, a basic USG textbook and a good modern management practices text, one would be in a very good position indeed to pass the exam.
The FSWE also contains a very critical essay portion that tests the taker's ability to express himself in English. Typically, a few topics are presented for the examinee to choose from. The taker must choose one, and then argue pro or con. For example, (and pursuant to the mandatory non-disclosure agreement we cannot discuss actual topics) the taker may be asked to argue pro or con the topic "the U.S. military should be deployed on the U.S.-Mexico border to stem the flow of illegal immigration." The side you take is not important. What is important is the ability to organize your thoughts and communicate them clearly in an essay format using good English.
The day of the FSWE is also important for another reason. It's the time when you choose what "cone" you want to be. Technically, the term "cone" is no longer used (we're not sure why, but we think it's probably because it's an ugly, ugly word), but everyone still uses it. There are five cones: political, economic, consular, public diplomacy and administration. We'll get into the strategic merits of choosing each as it relates to helping or hurting your chances of getting in below, but for now all you need to know is that your cone really doesn't matter, at least at first. In the past this was not so, but after the influx of more than 2,000 new Junior Officers thanks to the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative there is no longer any real need for JO's to do mid-level work. Therefore, today's JO's can look forward to consular work and a lot of it.
Political guys do a lot of the work common people assume diplomats do: write reports on developments, keep an eye on host country activities, help advance U.S. foreign policy in that country, and be in contact with local political, cultural, educational and social leaders. Econ guys focus on trade relations, labor conditions, environmental rules and also helping our colleagues at Commerce's Foreign Commerical Service. Consular folks handle immigrant and non-immigrant visa issues, American citizen services overseas and, interestingly, help take down fraud in the host country. PD is just what is says: public relations. They deal with the host country's press and do extensive polling to keep USG abreast about what the Whoevers thought of the latest Whoever foreign aid plan that was just rushed through Congress. Admin guys (formerly called Management) run the show. They run the actual physical plant of an embassy or consulate, managing everything from the local guard force to the housing pool to doing the contracting for copier repair services.
A good while after taking the exam, you'll receive a letter from the company the Department contracts with the do the grading. Most people will be thanked and told to try again next time. For a select few, you will receive an invitation to the next stage.The Foreign Service Oral Assessment
This is the great unknown in the process since, thanks to the non-disclosure agreements, specifics cannot be discussed. What we can say is that you'll be invited to a nearby city that has a big Federal Building (like, say San Francisco or Chicago) for a full day of testing that starts frightfully early. Some unlucky souls will be required for reasons known only to one person whose identity shall never be known to fly to Washington, D.C. for the exam. From our experience, the farther you live from Washington, the likelier it is you'll have to shell out the bucks to fly and stay there. All expenses at this point are the responsibility of the applicant.
The testing process stuck us as fair, interesting and, when it came right down to it, a lot of fun. At the end, all the FSOs who administer the exam call the applicant into a room. There, you are either told "thanks, but try again next time" or you move on to the next stage.The Conditional Job Offer
If you leave the oral assessment with a thick bundle of information in your hands, and you're like us, you'll walk away thinking you've made it, you're in, you're good to go, you've got to buy a pair of striped pants!
None of this is true. The conditional offer is what is says: conditional. And, man, is it conditional upon a lot of things. First, you have to get a Class One Medical Clearance. What this means is that your physician has to perform every test known to man on you and then declare that you are fit to be dumped in Chad and, having been so dumped, there is a better than even chance you won't drop dead.
Second, you have to get a security clearance. This process is largely opaque, but rest assured they will talk to your neighbors, your co-workers, your high school teachers and just about anyone else they can get a hold of in making their decision. We've found Diplomatic Security to be pretty fair minded. The bare fact that you have a Chinese wife whose family has a soft spot for Mao, or that you are a dual-national alone will not disqualify you. (It's sure, though, that you will be "precluded," that is, banned, from serving in any nation state you or your spouse have significant family ties to.) This part of the process is maddening because unlike with the Med Clearance you have no control over how long it will take. Some people get their clearances in 4 months, others in a year and 4 months.
But the big part of "conditional" is that Uncle Sam won't take you unless he needs you. Which brings us to the next step.The Register
Once your clearances are in order, you'll be placed on the dreaded Register. Your place on the Register depends on both your overall exams scores and the calendar date on which you entered the Register. There is a separate Register for each cone. Typically, the political and the economic Register are the most competitive, with consular and admin being less so, though this is not always so nor is it always to a significant degree.
What really makes one's time on the Register fun are the variables. Since people's clearances are being finished all the time, the fact that you were 12 out of 145 today means next to nothing since 14 people with higher scores than you can enter the Register a few seconds after you got your last update. There are two important variables as well: language ability and the veteran's preference. Vets are given points, increasing their scores and, thus, their place on the Register. But by far and away the most significant are the language bonuses.
They don't take your word for it. If you want a language bonus, you'll test by phone with FSI professionals, and they'll decide. Your bonus depends on your language. If you speak French or Spanish, it'll be modest. If you speak Japanese or Urdu, it will be very, very significant. The bonus is often the decision-making factor, but it carries a heavy price: if you get one, you must bid on posts where your language is spoken. So, for example, if you take that French bonus, Haiti, the Cote d'Ivoire and Cameroon will
be on your list. (Paris and Montreal...probably not).
As the Department needs to hire, it plans new "A-100" (officer orientation) classes accordingly. Say, for example, the 133rd A-100 will need 13 political officers. The HR people start at the top of the political Register and call each one. When you get "the Call" (not to be confused with a different "the Call" that you can get during A-100 which means you're being posted somewhere you didn't bid on) you can either accept or defer. If you defer, you skip that intake and keep your place on the Register. This is extremely dangerous, as many comfortable on-top deferrers discovered when the Critical Needs Language bonuses were bumped without warning so high that they dropped like the proverbial rock in the rankings. Most deferrers are people who need another 3 months to finish that Ph.D. or that Dyn-Corp contract they are working on. We highly recommend not deferring. Ever
As we've hinted, the Register is always in flux and is a real roller coaster ride. We personally know people who went as high as 10 out of 165 one day who dropped to 42 out of 171 the next. You can stay on the register only for a proscribed period of time. If you drop off, you have to go through the whole process again to get back on. In fact, you can re-take the FSWE right away to attempt to boost your overall score; if you score lower you get to keep the better one.
All in all, you can expect to spend a year to two years in the process without ever really knowing for sure how it's going to end up. All we can say is: go for it!
But, please, don't quit your day job.