Now that the waiting and guessing is over, I let a lot of friends and family know about the career change. Having received the same (very good) questions from a bunch of people, I thought I might start putting together a list of frequently asked questions and answers. Here’s the first installment.
What exactly is the foreign service? The United States Foreign Service is a portion of the State Department that provides diplomats for over 265 embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions in over 160 countries around the world. At the beginning of the application process, would-be foreign service officers must choose one of five career tracks:
• Consular: aid American citizens abroad and evaluate foreign citizen applications to visit or immigrate to the United States
• Economic: support American financial interests abroad
• Management: help manage the logistics of the local embassy, consulate, or diplomatic mission
• Public Diplomacy: support the embassy’s informational and cultural programs
• Political: develop and communicate information to form U.S. foreign policy, and implement policy originating from Washington.
I will be a Political Officer, but will likely do a Consular post for either my first or second tour.
How does one become a foreign service officer? You can see some of the details in the earlier posts as I navigated through the process, but here’s the quick-and-dirty summary of how State whittles down 20,000+ applicants to the hundreds that get through each year. Each of the following steps results a large percentage falling out of the process:
1. Application: An extensive online registration statement in which the candidate provides extensive information about experience, education, and work history. At this first stage, the candidate must declare one of the five career tracks.
2. Foreign Service Officers Test (FSOT): A proctored written exam with multiple choice, short answer, and essay sections covering job knowledge, English expression and usage, and biographic information.
3. Personal Narratives: A series of essays describing the candidate’s experience and background to be completed within three weeks of passing the FSOT. (Those that took the FSOT in or before November 2008 had to include these narratives in an application required before taking the FSOT). A Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP) reviews the narratives and, combined with other factors in the candidate’s file, to determine whether the candidate should move on to the oral assessment
4. Oral Assessment (FSOA): An all-day series of exercises and interviews held in Washington, DC, and selected other major U.S. cities. The FSOA tests the 13 dimensions State considers critical to the foreign service jobs. Unlike the prior steps, candidates receive immediate grading on the FSOA at the end of the day.
5. Medical Clearance: The candidate and the candidate’s family (spouse and dependent children) receive extensive medical testing to ensure that all can serve worldwide with significant health concerns.
6. Top Secret Security Clearance: An extensive background investigation going back ten years, and sometime longer, to identify any security concerns. Investigators will follow-up on all employers, friends, neighbors, foreign contacts, and a host of other leads. This process can take months and, sometimes, years, to complete.
7. Final Review Panel: One last review of the candidate’s entire file during which the panel may conclude the candidacy should be terminated.
8. Register: Once the candidate’s file passes the Final Review Panel, the candidate’s name will be posted on a register for the applicable career track, in order of the score received at the oral assessment (plus any bonus points for language fluency and/or military experience). As State builds a new class (a typical class has 60-100 new officers), the Registrar draw names in order from each register. A candidate’s name will remain on the register for 18 months. If the candidate does not receive an offer during that period, s/he must begin the process again from the beginning.
What happens next? The first order of business is training. Eight hours a day, five days a week, at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia. The initial A-100 course (named after the basement room where diplomats were originally trained) lasts seven weeks. There will then be additional training based on my first post assignment, both job specific and language. Language training can be anywhere from 3-9 months so my stay in DC could be close to one year.
Where are you going? It depends. This is the answer to just about all questions related to the foreign service. Flexibility is key. We sign on to be “worldwide available” which means literally anywhere (OK, not Somalia as we have no embassy, consulate or diplomatic mission there currently). During the first week of A-100 training, I will receive a bid list with about 100 open positions. I’ll have a week or two to research the posts and mark each with a high, medium, or low preference priority. Then it is up to the bureaucracy. At the end of week 5, all the new officers convene for “Flag Day.” In a formal ceremony each name is called one at a time and the officer is presented with a flag representing the country where s/he will be posted. Thus, stay tuned to the blog in early December.