Friday, January 15, 2010

A 12-Step Program for Becoming a Foreign Service Officer

Disclaimer: The following information is based on my experience and what I understand to be true. Some information has been distilled from many months of reading tips and hints and suggestions from Yahoo! groups (more about these below), and to those whose advice appears here, thank you. Some information here may no longer be accurate, so specific questions about any portion of this process should be directed to the Department of State. After more than one year in the process (at this time), it seems that, while the skeletal process is basically the same for everyone, the specific parts often differ in practice for each individual, based on the circumstances of each person's life. In addition, the order of the outline below and the particular testing methods change from time to time. The process as described was accurate based on the time frame 2009 to early 2010.

A brief introduction

One's life may follow an infinite number of paths, and there seems to be no particular path that might be more pertinent to becoming a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) than another. Some applicants come to it straight out of college; some are lawyers, some are ex-military, some come from industry or business. Some are former Peace Corps Volunteers. For fifteen years, I was a high school social studies teacher. Previous career notwithstanding, the choice to serve the United States in this manner should not be taken lightly, for just as in politics or baseball, the process is a marathon, not a sprint. No matter your past vocation, there is one thing you absolutely must possess: patience.

You will be tested and tested and tested, but the one area that will be tested more than any other will be your patience. Having something constructive to keep your mind off the unknown of the long and winding road ahead of you will make this process much easier on your blood pressure and your psyche. Learn a language, take up a craft, write the Great American Novel, train for a marathon or delve deeper into work (or process this journey by creating a blog and writing about it), one way or another you will need something to do with your time other than obsess about where you are in the process or whether or not you've passed your security clearance. Along with patience, this is a must.

Also, before launching into this adventure, know that at any point in the following process you may be jettisoned from the path to becoming an FSO. Failure in any step means, if you have your little heart set on becoming an FSO, you'll have to start all over, back at Step #1.

Finally, if you are serious about joining the foreign service, you must agree to the following three conditions as set out by the Department of State:

  1. Flexibility. Candidates must be willing to work outside their chosen field, if required by the needs of the Department.

  2. Public support of US government policies, regardless of personal views.

  3. Worldwide availability. Candidates will have input as to where they would like to serve once approved as a Foreign Service Officer, and the Department will attempt to work with Officers' needs and desires, but the needs of the Department may trump any personal desire to serve in a particular location.

Make Yourself Into A Foreign Service Officer In Just 12 Easy Steps!!

Step 1: Deciding to be a Foreign Service Officer
Essentially there are four different types of careers at United States Embassies, Consulates and other Missions around the world: Ambassador, Foreign Service Officers, Foreign Service Specialists, and Foreign Service Nationals. (Of course there are other career options, but these seem the most relevant to this blog post.)

Ambassadors are appointed by the president, and generally come after a long and (hopefully) distinguished career. Surprising to me was that 70% of Ambassadors are career FSOs, and only 30% are political appointments. Of course it's generally the case that those political appointments are sent to our strongest allies or to those nations perceived as most crucial to US foreign policy, but still.

Foreign Service Specialists are professionals who supply technical, support or administrative services at our missions overseas, and Foreign Service Nationals are the backbone of embassy operations - people from the nation in question hired by the US mission who serve as the institutional memory and provide continuity as US-based staff come and go over time. (See the Department of State's website for more information.)

Foreign Service Officers are known as generalists, and fall into one of five career tracks (fka 'cones'). Significantly, if you choose to pursue a career in the foreign service, you must choose a track at the very beginning of the process, and there is no option for altering this choice later on (although it is true that most FSOs will serve part of their time outside their area of specialty, based on the needs of the Department of State).

FSOs are the diplomatic corps representing the US around the world in something like 260 missions (embassies, consulates and other diplomatic missions around the world). The five career tracks are:

Consular - Consular Officers protect Americans abroad and strengthen border security. They are charged with processing visa applicants abroad and helping Americans who need assistance in foreign countries, in both emergency and non-emergency situations (such as lost passports or natural disaster situations).

Economic - Economic Officers promote economic partnerships, development and fair trade. They analyze and explain economic conditions in the host country, and work to establish economic ties between the host country and the US. They also work to promote US business and economic interests.

Management - Management Officers run the embassies in practical areas like housing for FSOs and FSSs, running the motor pool and providing and coordinating the "nuts and bolts" that make an embassy work. They are responsible for managing property, financial and human resources of the embassy system.

Political - Political Officers analyze the political situation of the host country. They persuade government officials to support key US positions, promote US interests and advise US policymakers on significant developments abroad.

Public Diplomacy - Public Diplomacy Officers explain American values and policies, and also coordinate educational and cultural exchanges between the US and the host country. They tell America's story and strive to create mutual understanding.

More information about FSOs can be found at the Department of State's (DoS) website. In addition, DoS has a 50-item questionnaire that can help prospective candidates decide which track is right for them. Once you begin the process, a Board of Examiners (BEX) is ultimately responsible for assessing whether or not a candidate will be moved along in the process, eventually to become a Foreign Service Officer.

FSOs begin their careers as Entry Level Officers (ELOs, fka Junior Officers). After several tours (about 5 years or so in total), advancement to mid-level officer is possible, and after several more tours (another 5 - 10 years or so), FSOs rise to the level of senior officer for the last stage of their career in the foreign service.

The foreign service is an "Up-or-Out" system, which means officers must continue to advance within the ranks of FSOs or risk removal from the foreign service. Initially, to move from an ELO to a mid-level officer, FSOs must acquire tenure, achieved almost exclusively by becoming fluent in another language (more on this later).

Estimated time at this stage: as little as several hours researching the job responsibilities and benefits of being an FSO to several days or more of soul searching about making such a life-changing decision.

Step 2: Foreign Service Written Exam
After deciding this career is right for you and choosing a career track, the next step is to register for and take the Foreign Service Written Exam (alternately known as the Foreign Service Officer Test).

This test is administered around the country (and at some sites around the world), and is a standardized test much like an SAT or ACT. It will take about three hours, and is administered online at local community colleges and other sites.

It covers three broad areas: Job knowledge (basic structure and workings of US government; US and world history; culture; economics & finance; and world affairs, among other topics), English language expression (grammar, mechanics and so forth), and a biographic section which measures your work style, your communication style, and your approach to working with other cultures. In the job knowledge section, there is also an opportunity to write at least one in-depth essay on a randomly assigned topic.

The test is currently given three times a year, and when completed your score will indicate whether you advance to the next step or if you must start over. Your score on the multiple choice section must be over a specified level (a score of 154 or higher when I took it in February 2009) in order for your essay to be scored, and the essay must score at a level higher than 6 on a 12-point scale. Both the multiple choice and the essay must be passed to move on to Step 3.

Estimated time at this stage: Once you register, there will be up to several months of time until your test date. This will vary based on your choice of dates and locations, and registrants should consider how much time they might like to spend brushing up on the topics tested in the FSOT. Many resources are available to assist registrants, not least of which is a study guide offered through DoS and produced by ACT, Inc. Others include social networking websites such as Facebook and Yahoo! groups, which can be very helpful for the sharing of information about preparation and expectations (however, discussing the specifics of the test is strictly forbidden by DoS, and doing so will be grounds for dismissal from the process). Reading a wide variety of sources that discuss history and current affairs is also recommended.

Step 3: Personal Narratives / Qualifications Evaluation Panel
Once you've passed the FSOT, you will be sent an email directing you to submit Personal Narratives. Candidates are given no more than three weeks to write and submit five essays that explain not only "what you've done, but how you did it and what you learned" (DoS website).

Essays are read and analyzed by a Qualifications Evaluation Panel, a team of current FSOs who judge PNs based on the following six precepts: Leadership, interpersonal skills, communication skills, management skills, intellectual skills and substantive knowledge. The QEP will use your FSOT scores, your application materials and your PNs to judge whether a candidate should continue in the process or not.

If your PNs are judged satisfactorily, you will receive another email indicating whether or not you will advance to Step 4, an invitation to the Oral Assessment.

Estimated time at this stage: Three weeks to complete PNs from time they are sent to candidates, and then another eight weeks or so before notification arrives.

Step 4: Oral Assessment
Once you've passed the Personal Narratives, you will receive an email inviting you to the Oral Assessment (OA). The email will provide all the details about how and when to register for the OA, which is held in Washington, DC at several locations (called Annex 1 and Annex 44), as well as in select cities in the United States (such as San Francisco or Chicago). The OA is not conducted overseas. You will have a corresponding window of time to participate in the OA based on the date you took the FSOT, which will be explained in your email. Your email letter from the Board of Examiners (BEX) will also explain, in more detail, what to expect from your OA.

The BEX makes clear that candidates for the foreign service are not competing against one another in the OA, but rather are given the opportunity to demonstrate what are known as "The 13 Dimensions": Composure, cultural adaptability, experience and motivation, information integration and analysis, initiative and leadership, judgment, objectivity and integrity, oral communication, planning and organization, quantitative analysis, resourcefulness, working with others, and written communication. Nothing else matters, and in the end all candidates may pass the OA, just as all candidates may fail the OA.

The OA is a day-long series of exercises that, broadly, has three parts: The Group Exercise, the Case Management and the Structured Interview. Typically each OA has 12 or fewer participants, and each candidate will be placed in several groups for each activity throughout the day. Expect to arrive by 700 am and to complete all aspects of the OA some time around 400 pm or 500 pm.

The Group Exercise (GE) itself has three parts: Preparation, Presentation & Discussion. Candidates will have about 30 minutes to read materials about a fictional country and prepare a presentation of no more than six minutes for the other candidates in the group, which will consist of about half of the larger group of 12.

Once the 30 minutes has passed, each candidate objectively presents the project to the group, which will take approximately another 30 minutes (six candidates present for about 5-6 minutes each). At the start of the presentation phase, a small group of assessors will enter the room to silently observe and carefully record what takes place, looking for evidence of the 13 Dimensions.

After all presentations, the discussion phase begins, which will take another 20-25 minutes. Candidates now advocate for their project, but ultimately must come to consensus based on instructions given by one of the assessors.

After the GE is complete, a short break of 20-30 minutes will be given, and then candidates will participate in one of the other two parts of the OA, either the Case Management (CM) or the Structured Interview (SI).

The Case Management is a 90 minute exercise where candidates are tasked to write a memo to a superior after analyzing a large amount of material evidence about some type of conflict. Writing takes place on a computer with Microsoft Word, and the evidence is presented in a large three-ring binder. This exercise is done individually in a small computer lab, but about half of the larger group will be working on the same activity at the same time.

After the next stage is complete (either the CM or the SI), there will be another break, and likely lunch. Assessment centers differ as to the rules and regulations regarding movement inside and outside of the building (for example, if you have your OA in Annex 1, you are restricted quite a bit, and are only allowed to use the restroom down the hall without an escort, and you are not allowed to leave the building at all during the day).

The final activity is the Structured Interview, which also has three separate parts, each about 20 minutes in length: Experience and Motivation Interview, Hypothetical Scenarios and the Past Behavior Interview. The SI is conducted by two assessors in a face-to-face interview setting.

The Experience and Motivation interview is much like a job interview anyone might have had in the past. The Hypothetical Scenarios test a candidates ability to use good judgment and think on his or her feet, and the Past Behavior Interview candidates are presented with five scenarios and asked to explain how they've dealt with such scenarios in their past.

At the end of the day, the assessors will give everyone immediate feedback, unlike in other parts of the process. You will be given a score based on your performance during the day (which becomes important later if you pass), and everyone can breathe a sigh of relief. When all is said and done, you will know immediately if you have passed the OA and will advance to Step 5, or if you are all done. It's a pretty stressful day, and can really be emotional for many people, but when it's over, it's either over or it's just beginning.

If you don't pass, you may leave immediately and drown your sorrows or whatever, and if you do pass, you'll submit your security form, get finger printed, fill out a few more forms and then go out and celebrate your Conditional Offer of Employment - hopefully with your new compadres who have passed the OA with you.

To prepare for the OA, use the letter from the BEX which provides specific instruction, structure and examples for all parts of the day, join a Facebook group or a Yahoo! group, and/or start a study group in your town of others who are also taking the OA.

Estimated time at this stage: It may be several months from the time you register for the OA until the actual date, but once the OA day is over, you know your score and whether or not you've passed.

Step 5: Security
After passing the OA, a two-track clearance process begins - both security and medical.

FSOs are required to have Top Secret Security Clearance, and the process involved is unique to each individual based on a whole host of criteria. The Department of State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security and / or other agencies will conduct a personal interview with FSO candidates, employers and colleagues, and perhaps even with family and friends from many years earlier.

Some factors which seem to cause the security clearance process to take longer for some include: significant time living, working or going to school in foreign countries; having a foreign-born significant other or spouse; dual citizenship; criminal background; tax problems; drug or alcohol abuse, or some other addiction like gambling; and more. The DoS has several links explaining many aspects of the security clearance process. Access them starting with this site. Security clearance must be renewed every five years or so.

Estimated time for this stage: The security clearance process can take anywhere from six weeks to a year, depending on the complexity of a person's background. For boring old people like me (married for 20 years, no ugly divorce(s), same job for 15 years, lived in the same house for 15 years, no gambling/tax/alcohol problems, etc.), I passed the OA on September 28, 2009 and was awarded TS clearance on November 13, 2009, a period of just under seven weeks.

Step 6: Adjudication?
This step is used for further investigation purposes, based on the red flags raised by earlier investigators.

Some believe that the simple act of having a candidates file land on the desk of an adjudicator, even if it's only given a cursory glance, means your file has gone through adjudications. Others suggest that this doesn't constitute an actual additional investigation, and therefore doesn't really qualify as a proper adjudication.

Either way, something like 80% of candidate files wind up spending more than a few minutes in this stage, for some sort of specific reasons and / or flags. The remainder seem to just pass through with a breeze (I believe my file fits into the latter category).

Those on a Yahoo! group who have spent significant amounts of time in Adjudications (we're talking months) have even gone so far as to create a fictional place where it seems their file has gone called "Adjudicationville". Based on the length of their stay in Adjudicationville, some have claimed the title Mayor of said little town; others have different titles they give themselves. Still more claim to be members of Adjudicationville's most famous club, the "Limbo & Purgatory Club" (L & P Club), indicating their frustrations with the unknown reasons or amount of time spent and remaining in Adjudicationville. All is done with a sense of esprit des corps and camaraderie, and no small amount of good humor while waiting for what must seem like an interminable amount of time.

Estimated time at this stage: Could be one day, could be six months or more...

Step 7: Medical Clearance
Like the Security Clearance, the Medical Clearance will be different for everyone. All family members who will accompany the FSO must also have a medical clearance. The FSO must qualify medically for what is called "Worldwide Availability", also called "Class 1" or "Unrestricted Clearance." Simply put, this clearance means the FSO must be able to live and work in some difficult (if not outright dangerous) conditions and not have their health or safety compromised if medicine or treatment isn't available. Consequently, having certain medical conditions might disqualify a candidate for service. Family members or others accompanying the FSO need Class 2 medical clearance, or a "Limited Clearance."

Each situation will need to be examined on its own merits, and blanket statements about what will or will not meet the standards of worldwide availability are too difficult and complex to make in a forum such as this.

Estimated time for this stage: Single individuals will, of course, not take as long as will a family of four or five. Each persons health history may also have a significant impact on the medical clearance process. Therefore, any estimate will have to take into account the particular characteristics and the makeup of each individual or family. In my case, my wife and kids all recieved worldwide availability in mid- to late-November, and my worldwide clearance was granted on December 24 after a minor surgery earlier in the month. All four family members were granted worldwide availability after about 12 weeks.

Step 8: Final Suitability
Once a candidate has been granted both TS security and medical clearances, the entire candidate file is forwarded to a team of three examiners (presumably all FSOs). They are responsible for poring over the file, looking for items that might have been given a red flag by a previous investigator indicating a need for possible further investigation. (The medical clearance doesn't actually need to be completed before your file heads off to Final Suitability, and isn't considered in a Final Suitability Review, but in a generalized timeline it fits better to list Final Suitability after both medical and security clearances.)

There is some debate about whether a Final Suitability Review might be used as a method to disqualify a candidate before a security clearance denial (if denial is likely either way), the logic being that a candidate would find it easier to pursue other employment with a denial of Final Suitability rather than denial of TS security, and therefore a negative Final Suitability Review would be more palatable to the candidate's future. Mostly this is speculation, but may have merit given past experiences of some candidates.

DoS states: "The most common grounds for a finding of unsuitability are a recent history of drug or alcohol abuse and delinquency in repaying debt or other evidence of financial irresponsibility."

Either way, a positive outcome in the Final Suitability Review will allow the candidate to move forward one more step.

Estimated time at this stage: There doesn't seem to be a standard time frame for this stage because so much is dependant on the medical and security clearances before it. In my case, I was granted security clearance in 11/13 and medical clearance on 12/24, and found myself having passed through Final Suitability and onto the Register by 1/5 with no mention of having been in Final Suitability, but presumably that's where my file was from 12/24 until 1/5, or about two weeks.

N.B.: If, after passing the FSOT, a candidate wishes to increase their OA score so as to assist in increasing their chances of actually receiving an unconditional offer of employment as an FSO, there are two options. The first is a Veteran's Preference bonus of 0.175 for those with qualifying military experience, the second is a Foreign Language bonus, which varies depending upon the language in question. For example, if a passing score in a world language such as French or Spanish is acheived through a telephone test, a bonus of 0.17 is awarded and added to a candidates' OA score. If a passing score is acheived for a Critical Needs Language such as Russian, Korean or Uzbek, or for a Super Critical Needs Language such as Mandarin, Hindu or Pashtu, a bonus is awarded of 0.4 (0.5 for Egyptian or Iraqi Arabic). These telephone tests (which can be taken any time after the FSOT) can help a candidate increase their score, which helps once a candidate reaches Step 9: The Register. Once a candidate reaches training (Step 11: A-100), they will be re-tested to verify the veracity (Stephen Colbert might use "truthiness") of the telephone test from earlier.

Step 9: Register
The Register is your last real step in the process before getting an unconditional offer. The trick is that you could - theoretically, anyway - sit on the register for as long as 18 months, and if this happens, you will then be removed from the register and have to start back at the beginning, if you so choose.

The register is a rank-ordered list of candidates, in each of the five career tracks, who are placed there according to two factors: Their OA score (and any bonus points) and the date upon which they were placed on the register.

For example, I scored a 5.3 on my OA, had no veterans preference bonus points and had no language bonus points. At the time I was placed on the register (January 2010), I was #83 out of a total list of 83 candidates in the Public Diplomacy (PD) track. Other PD candidates who passed the OA (and made it through all other steps) after me but with a higher score are placed ahead of me based on that score. Other PD candidates who passed the OA (and made it through all other steps) with the same or a lower score will be placed on the register behind me. This process is repeated for all five career tracks.

Your name moves up and down the register when new candidates are placed there, and when candidates currently on the register are called to the A-100 training class and have their names removed from the register.

Estimated time at this stage: As long as 18 months from the date on your letter notifying you that you are, in fact, on the register.

Step 10: "The Call"
"The Call" is when you know you have a job with the foreign service. If you accept (generally it seems you have about four days to notify the Registrar of your decision), you will have about 30-60 days before you will have to report to training in Washington, DC. It's possible to get the call with less than a month before training starts, but that seems to be the exception, not the rule. At present (January 2010) it seems that the typical call comes about five weeks before the start of the next A-100 training course.

There is an option for what is known as "Do Not Contact" for those who do, indeed, get the call. For example, the call comes with one semester remaining in a Master's program and you need to finish out the program before going on to A-100, or you or a spouse is pregnant and the due date comes at a time that isn't so convenient for the start of A-100. There are dozens of reasons why a candidate might "go DNC," but it seems that candidates have one chance to do so before being dropped off the register and having to start over if they want this career.

Estimated time at this stage: really only about four days, unless the candidate were to go DNC.

Step 11: A-100
A-100 is the name for the initial period of training for newly minted FSOs. It takes its name from the room number in the original training building from back in the 1920s or thereabouts. This is the time when candidates will need to relocate (if necessary) to the Washington, DC area, and of course this decision includes much research about location, amenities and convenience to the training site, all of which is going to be unique to the individual FSO and his or her family.

This training period is a five-week training in Washington (seven weeks in years past) and is located at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington, VA. It is notable for several important days that occur: On day one all candidates are officially sworn in as Entry Level Foreign Service Officers (while official, this swearing in lacks ceremony and is done for the sole purpose of getting new FSOs on the payroll); in the first few days the all-important "bid list" is handed out to these new officers (the bid list is an itemized list of all known posts that will be open for bidding on by these new officers near the end of the A-100); and the coup de grace known as "Flag Day," which is the day that new officers find out where they will actually be going for their first post after continued training. Flag Day is filled with pomp and circumstance, typically includes speeches by some higher level DoS officials, and most significantly includes the reveal of the first post by producing table-top sized flags from around the world and then calling out the name of a new FSO, which is how the new officer discovers which post they will have. Of course there are "classes" held daily about State Department procedure, writing cables, practice in public speaking, and much, much more.

Each A-100 class has approximately 100 members, or about 20 from each of the five career tracks. New FSOs are in classes daily, learning the initial stages of their new career.

There is a lot more information to learn about this step, but as I'm still on the register, I don't know much more.

Estimated time at this stage: Five weeks

Step 12: ConGen and Language Training
Depending on how much time State has to train FSOs before they head off to the post received on Flag Day and your own personal skills and abilities (for example language ability), more training (one type is called ConGen) might be required. Most FSOs spend time at the FSI for about six weeks of ConGen, and may be in Washington for as long as another 44 weeks or so, depending, for example, on the language DoS wants the FSO to learn. I hear a key is to have training of all kinds completed before 365 days are up so that per diem pay remains untaxed.

Also lots more info about this stage that I do not yet know.

Estimated time at this stage: 4 weeks to 44 weeks, depending.

And Then: To Post (Finally!)

Estimated time: 1-4 years, depending.

This process may seem at times to be a bit capricious in nature, but like a teacher grading a students' work, there is a bit of subjectivity called professional judgment that can't really be quantified and objectified, and really exists only in the mind of the individual assessor. Your patience will be tested, and it helps if you have others to talk to that are in the same process as you. Find others in your area and meet regularly; join a Facebook group or one of the Yahoo! groups; do plenty of research at the library and online (several good resources include Inside a US Embassy, Career Diplomacy, and Realities of Foreign Service Life volumes I and II).

If you choose to attempt a run at being a Foreign Service Officer, you will also need to become intimately familiar with one particular, maddeningly overused phrase: "It Depends."

So that's all there is to it. See how easy it is?

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