My husband (G) and I have just moved to the DC area from Austin, Texas. I have recently joined the foreign service, and training started in April 2016! This blog is about that adventure.
What is a foreign service officer?
A foreign service officer (FSO) is a diplomat. The mission of an FSO is to promote peace, support prosperity, and protect American citizens while advancing the interests of the U.S. abroad.
But what does that mean? What are you going to be doing?
I will work for the U.S. Department of State in one of the 270+ embassies, consulates and other diplomatic missions around the world, changing locations every couple of years. I am in the management career track, which means that I will (eventually) be responsible for embassy operations.
But first, I have to learn how to be a diplomat! And for that, they are sending me to the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, VA with around 90 other very excited people. Training lasts anywhere from 12 weeks to a year, depending on where I am posted, which job I will be doing and whether I have to learn a new language.
Do you get to pick where you go?
One of the conditions of this job is to have worldwide availability. For my first tour or two, the post I will get depends wholly on the needs of the Foreign Service. For future tours, it’s a bidding process.
How did you end up here? Do you have a degree in international relations or something?
The foreign service says they take people from all walks of life, and I’m no exception. My past job titles include budget analyst for a state legislative agency, hostess at a restaurant, financial director of an NGO, G.O. at Club Med, and staff photographer at a daily newspaper. I do happen to have a master’s degree, but it’s not in international relations, and having a degree is NOT a requirement to apply to the foreign service.
How many foreign languages do you speak?
It’s also not a requirement to know a foreign language going into the foreign service, however it is a requirement to get tenure after the first five years – so if you don’t know one already, you have to learn one. I speak French (grâce à mon époux!) and I used to speak Spanish (no es muy bueno ahora). I hope to learn many other languages in the foreign service!
Hey, this all sounds cool. I want to do this, too!
That’s awesome! The first step to becoming a foreign service officer is to take the written exam, the Foreign Service Officer Test, which is essentially a combination of trivial pursuit and the SATs. It’s free to take, and is offered three times a year in cities all over the U.S. as well as in certain embassies and consulates overseas. I took it once in Paris!
If you pass the FSOT, then you are asked to submit several personal narrative essays to a review panel, which considers your application and personal narratives and decides whether or not you advance to the next step.
If you pass this review panel, you receive an invite to the oral assessment. For the oral assessment, you travel to Washington, D.C. (or possibly one or two other locations around the U.S.) on your own dime and take part in a day-long marathon job interview where they assess you based upon the 13 dimensions.
If you are successful at the oral assessment, you are then offered a conditional offer of employment, pending medical and top secret security clearances. If you obtain those, there is one more review panel that looks at your complete file to determine whether or not you are a suitable candidate – things such as criminal conduct, poor job performance, lack of financial responsibility, conduct that exhibits poor discretion or a history of substance abuse could make you unsuitable for employment.
If you pass the suitability review, you are added to the register for your career track based on your oral assessment score, plus any bonus points for passing separate foreign language tests or for being a veteran.
Invitations to each A-100 class are based roughly on the number of available jobs that will be opening up. If there are, say, 10 spots available in your career track, and you are one of the first ten people on the register, you get an invitation! If you are ranked lower on the register, you wait until you move up. The register is dynamic, so if someone passes everything above after you, but they have a higher score, they will be ranked ahead of you. If you stay on the register for 18 months without an invitation, you are removed and you have to start again from the beginning. 5 paragraphs ago.
Needless to say, this recruitment process requires patience. I think in the absolute best-case scenario, if you passed every step on the first try and had never traveled abroad and had zero foreign friends (thus shortening the time for your top secret security clearance), it would still take about a year from the time you pass the first test to the day you step foot in the orientation. By the time I start orientation, my timeline will have taken 22 months, and this was just the result of the third time I took the written test (third time’s a charm!).