Saturday, June 25, 2011

Whatever's cooking on the back burner smells delicious!

So I discovered the foreign service officer position at State like so many people before me and decided I wanted in.  At the time, it was just another job application to go along with the other nets I casted upon the shrinking sea of job openings.  The foreign service selection process is a testament to the nature of the work.  That is to say, every step is a reminder that one is seeking employment with a government agency.  One must resign oneself to a methodical process that doesn't treat anyone particularly specially, that proceeds based upon an objective rubric, and that is painfully slow.  It is also worth mentioning that the process is extremely selective.  While the careers site at State ( is the best place to go for an overview, I will take you through my experiences at each step.  I chose the above title for this post because a choice to pursue a career in the foreign service is a highly speculative one.  1-2% of initial applicants eventually become FSO's, so the odds are not in one's favor.  The smart money says to put one's candidacy on the back burner and to concentrate upon job opportunities with more immediate and tangible benefits.  Joining the foreign service is a romantic notion and it's exciting to think about, but it's got to be a plan B.

That being said, here is how I executed my plan B:

Becoming a Foreign Service Officer

There are five different versions, or "cones," of foreign service officer.  State asks candidates to select their cone at the very beginning of the process.  The cone serves as a general job description.  Ostensibly, the cone one selects dictates the kinds of job one will do upon entering the service, although it is not uncommon for FSO's to take posts that are out of their designated cone.  It is also not unheard of for FSO's to switch cones, although it is not a simple task to do so.  The five cones are political (intelligence gathering), public diplomacy (public relations), economic (commercial and economic interests), consular (border security and citizen protection abroad) and management (running U.S. facilities abroad, i.e. making embassies and consulates work in foreign lands). 

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.
In January 2010, when I clicked through the registration link at the State Department website, it took about 45 minutes to complete the online registration for the foreign service officer test (FSOT).  State asked me for my educational background, for my work history, for my language ability and for my overseas experience.  These considerations don't factor into whether State lets one take the FSOT, but may factor into whether one who passes the FSOT will be invited to D.C. for the oral assessment.
The FSOT is offered a couple of times a year.  In late January 2010, State emailed me an invite to register for the February FSOT.  Due to my legal workload at the time, I didn't bother.  I received another email invite for the June 2010 FSOT did register.  The testing center I selected was horrible.  The center was located in the downtown area of my city where the staff was slow and inefficient in registering the test takers, the computer systems were run-down, and the environment was stressful and distracting.  What made my experience there especially disconcerting was that the network crashed 90 minutes into the test.  Everybody's data was lost, so we were all invited to come back in a few days to retake the test from the beginning.  I took the opportunity to register for the test at a different location, a new community college campus 45 minutes away from the original testing center.  I relate this story to you to warn potential candidates to research testing sites if you are given the option.  A newer, well-run facility with up-to-date equipment can save you some stress.

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:
If one passes the FSOT, the next phase of candidacy consists of completing personal narrative questions and submitting them in an online form.  These are 5-6 essay questions about your life experiences.  While some might be tempted to embellish answers, State asks for references for verification purposes.  The candidate has about three weeks to complete these narrative questions, which are then submitted along with the rest of the candidate application to the Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP).  The inner workings of this phase of the selection process are a mystery to the candidate community.  As recently as last year, this step was seen as a mere formality for those who passed the FSOT.  However, recently the QEP seems to serve as State's gatekeeper to reduce the ranks of candidates invited to D.C. for the oral assessment.  As nearly as I can tell, the QEP examines the entire candidate file against a rubric that changes depending on the needs of the service.  If the candidate is competitive enough and matches what the ranks of the foreign service require at the time, the panel extends an invite.  Since the budget shenanigans in Congress began in the winter of 2010/2011, the QEP has gotten more and more difficult to pass.

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:
Any given candidate who's made it past the QEP will likely tell you that the Oral Assessment is, by far, the most stressful and intimidating step in the candidacy process.  They will also likely tell you they were lucky to get that far.  This is how I felt.  In early September, I received an email inviting me to schedule an appointment to come to D.C. for my oral assessment.  On September 29, 2010, I scheduled my FSOA for November 15, 2010.  This gave me a few months to prepare.  I read over the description of the OA process with nervous anticipation.  It has three parts.  A group exercise, a writing exercise and a structured interview.  The candidate only has control over the latter two phases.  The group exercise is dependant upon the people in one's group.  Candidates here must roll the dice and hope that everybody in the group "gets it" that the point is not to "win" so much as it is to get consensus and to work together. 

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:
The joy of passing the oral assessment quickly fades when the candidate is faced with the spectre of the dual-headed beast that is completing clearances and obsessing about register rankings.  I'll explain both, although the latter is of greater import after the former is complete.

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.
No one will tell you when your file is complete passed on to the final suitability panel.  My wife and I both got emails from the medical folks letting us know we were worldwide available medically in March 2011 (yes, it took that long, despite the fact that we're both perfectly healthy).  Security clearance is completed and passed on in secret, however.  In fact, I assumed my background investigation was ongoing until March 6, 2011, I got a letter in the mail.  In the letter, State congratulated me for being placed on the register in early March and informed me I could reside there for a mere 18 months.
So now that the waiting is over, your efforts are rewarded for being a stellar candidate who tested so well, is of sound mind and body; and in whom the country can trust with its secrets by placing you on your conical register, ranked against all of the other stellar candidates.  And you get to wait some more.  This is where I currently reside.

Other Considerations:
If you've been in the military, you also get a bonus.  I'm not terribly familiar with exactly how this works, but the bump to your OA score can be as much as 0.175.
The one exception is that the candidate may, if they have not already done so, study for and attempt to pass a telephonic language proficiency test.  These can be helpful as State will award a 0.17 point bonus for most languages.  So-called "critical needs" and "super critical needs" languages give the candidate a 0.4 or 0.5 point bonus, but to accept these points the candidate must agree to do at least one of their first two tours in a country that speaks these languages. 

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.
State will accommodate candidates with minor disabilities to the extent it can, but if there is any major threat to one's ability to work anywhere in the world, including places with limited medical facilities, a disability may prove fatal to one's candidacy.  State is reasonably accommodating when it can be, however.  For instance, there was a case litigated a few years ago wherein State was forced to admit an HIV positive FSO into its ranks.  The rule of thumb appears to be that if a condition is reasonably treatable abroad, accommodations will be made.  Folks requiring chronic or in any way cumbersome treatment are likely to be deemed medically unsuitable.
I'm not sure why State puts this on their process page.  The job description as well as every disclaimer and every questionnaire for every step of the process underscores the Foreign Service's requirement for worldwide availability.  Still, an unwillingness to be flexible or to undergo a challenging post or two over the years should give a potential candidate pause.  The idea of becoming an FSO may be exciting and romantic, but it's still going to be work. 

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.

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