That being said, here is how I executed my plan B:
Becoming a Foreign Service Officer
- Step 1: Choose a Career Track
The sexiest cones are generally considered to be the most competitive, political being at the top of the list. Political is followed closely by public diplomacy and economic, with consular and management bringing up the rear. After researching the statistics and the descriptions themselves, I chose the consular cone. I'm not going to lie to you, my selection was partially based upon what I thought I would enjoy, but was to a large degree based upon which cone I thought would give me the best chance for an invite. State discourages this consideration as part of one's cone selection process because switching cones later on is very difficult. However, there has been a glut of management candidates since the economy took a nose dive, and I am certain this method of hedging bets is the reason.
As for my more noble criteria for selecting consular, I decided that, as a lawyer, I am in an excellent position to protect American citizens abroad. Consular officers in certain capacities must familiarize themselves with local laws so that when Americans get themselves into trouble abroad, as they invariably do, the consular officer will know the proper legal recourse to protect them. As a result, consular officers have some of the best stories. The drearier side of consular is handling visa applications. Consular officers, especially junior ones, work visa applicant lines at post, interviewing foreign visa applicants daily, one after another, to determine whether granting a visa would be a national security risk. This work is notoriously unexciting. The flip side of this is that most every newly minted FSO, regardless of cone, is required to do a visa line tour. Therefore, consular officers aren't necessarily any worse off than political ones. I would imagine that such tours are also useful for perfecting language skills.
Another consideration I took into account is that there are no hard and fast rules regarding bidding. In other words, it's pretty easy to take out-of-cone tours. I am not privy to the repercussions of taking too many out-of-cone tours, but I have heard that there can be fallout when it comes to promotions. Nonetheless, the selection of one's cone doesn't necessarily lock one down for the rest of their career. So, even though I would readily accept paying my dues with a few visa tours, I don't worry too much about doing visa interviews for the next 25 years.
- Step 2: Register for the Test
The FSOT takes about 3 hours to complete. It consists of a general knowledge section, a biographical section and an English grammar section, all of which are multiple choice. A final section consists of an essay on a specific topic. The general knowledge section exemplifies the well-roundedness for which State is looking. Covered subjects include, but are not limited to, geography, American/world culture(s), legal/legislative history, American history, world history, computer literacy and management theory. Basically, State is looking for FSO's with a broad understanding of a variety of subjects and an understanding of how to work as a team.
When your test results come back 3-6 weeks later, you have the right to make a freedom of information act request for a breakdown of your scores. On June 30, 2010, I received an email informing me that I'd passed the FSOT. I sent in a FOIA request to determine how close it had been.
After you pass the FSOT:
- Step 4:
Submit Personal Narrative
In July of 2010, I spent the first two weeks of my allotted three working long hours at the firm and weighing which experiences to plug into my answers at night. On July 19, 2010, the day my narratives were due, I finished the final edits and submitted them. I wrote about living and working in Mexico, being in the courtroom, dealing with the cultural adjustment of moving to the south and the fortitude required of a young associate in a law firm. I hoped at the time it was enough for an invite, although back then, I took comfort in the general consensus among candidates that the QEP, mysterious as it was, left the culling of candidates to the oral assessment panels.
After you pass the QEP:
- Step 5: Take the Oral Assessment
I happened to be switching law firms at the time, so I pushed back my start date at the new firm to account for a D.C. trip. I made arrangements to stay with a friend in D.C. Then I studied the so-called "13 dimensions" of what a foreign service officer should be, divining autobiographical examples of how I had exemplified each dimension at one time or another. I did not join a study group or practice group exercises, although this may be helpful for some. For me it was mostly about studying the nature of the OA and what the examiners were looking for, going into the OA with that understanding and trying to RELAX about it. I was relieved to get it all over with. I was also relieved to pass!!! I returned from D.C. to my wife as a conquering hero. Now it was time to wait some more.
After you pass the Oral Assessment:
- Step 6: Clearances: Medical and Security
For those of us who couldn't get the online version of the background security clearance form, Standard Form 86 ("SF-86") to function properly, we were fingerprinted in Washington and asked to complete the form within 30 days. It is, for those of us with 10 years of education and work history behind us; multiple moves, and time spent abroad, like writing a masters thesis. It took me several evenings to complete. SF-86 gets sent off to diplomatic security so they can investigate your background in every city you've lived in, at every institution you've attended and with every foreign contact you've had. It takes time. As an associate with a new firm, the security check had the added level of stress having to decide whether to tell my new boss he may be contacted, and how I would break that to him. Part of the security clearance process will involve an investigator interview. It will also involve an investigator talking to most, if not all, of the people you list on your SF-86. I bit the bullet and disclosed to my boss that I was participating in this process. I think he understood the volitility of the job market and, even though it may have hurt my long-term prospects with the firm, I believe that honesty was the best policy. Ironically, the investigator never contacted my firm, accepting my offer letter and three months of pay stubs instead, so it was all a moot point, but in a way it was a relief that my secret was out.
Meanwhile, the medical side of you (and your family) must be assessed through various state-mandated diagnostic tests, all of which must be completed within a certain amount of time. My wife and I underwent multiple doctors visits (your local doctor will likely miss a few tests which State will insist upon), not to mention getting pregnant during the medical clearance process (which is awesome, by the way -- more about this development later).
As far as register ranking goes, the more astute candidates know where they are going to shake out on the register immediately after passing the oral assessment because the examiners tell the passing candidate their oral assessment score. Thereafter, when and if a candidate successfully gets their security and medical clearances, and after they make it through final suitability review, their OA score will be used to rank them against other folks on the register. There are five registers -- one for each cone. Folks with the highest OA scores are placed highest on the register and folks with the same score are ranked according to when they were added, with the folks having the most register "seniority" ranked highest among candidates with the same score. There is a very helpful Yahoo group comprised of OA passers that maintains a "shadow register" wherein candidates reveal their OA score, ranking and, if they are lucky, when they get the call. In consular, at the time I took the OA, my OA score of 5.5 pretty much guaranteed candidates would get the invite once they made it onto the register. However, when classes began getting cut or reduced in early 2011, and I still hadn't hit the register, I began getting nervous.
The most nerve-wracking thing about the post-OA waiting period is that there is very little the candidate can do but wait. When the call will come and how the logistics will work out can drive one batty unless they adopt the healthy attitude that even after the OA, the process is speculative. On most days, I do a pretty good job of suppressing my excitement, anticipation and anxiety over when, and if, I will get the call.
- Step 7: Final Review Panel
- Step 8: The Register
I was lucky enough to have a background in Spanish. It was my undergraduate minor, and I spent some time in Mexico. However, the test is extremely difficult for Western languages, because so many people speak them. State requires a level 3 proficiency on the ILR scale (feel free to google this). The rub is that failing a language test means one cannot take it again for six months. As a means of angling for the September 2011 class, I took the Spanish phone test this past Wednesday morning. I was extremely nervous, so I'm not sure how I did. I will find out this next week.
My wife and I have had some pretty intense discussions about what it'll mean for us to be a foreign service family. If she had any reservations about the idea, I would have nixed it immediately. I would recommend to anyone considering a candidacy to discuss it fully with their family. A career in the foreign service is a group effort as well as a group lifestyle commitment. If they adopt your excitement and commit to the lifestyle with you, i.e. if they can be as invested in it as you can, you're good to go. It is also good general relationship advice to respect the wishes of your loved ones. Raising a happy family is much more important than seeing the world, in my humble opinion. If my wife and I find this isn't for us, we have an agreement to seek greener pastures elsewhere.
So that's it in a nutshell. I sit on the register with my 5.5 and I'm hoping for language points and a shot at the September 2011 class. In the meantime, we're setting up the baby room and focusing our attention on my practice and my wife's teaching job at a local private school. If we happen to get the call, great, but in the meantime our attention belongs with the tangibles in our lives. With a daughter on the way this fall, that's pretty easy to do.