In this post, I’ll give some background on my aspirations and timeline for joining the U.S. Foreign Service.
For almost a decade, I have wanted to join the Foreign Service and become a U.S. diplomat, specifically doing consular work. At first this goal sounded pretty far-fetched, even to me. I used to think that only political appointees or other well-connected folks could become diplomats. (Not true.) People who have known me for many years, if given ten adjectives to describe me, would not be likely to include “diplomatic” on their list. And I would probably have been inclined to agree, up until about eleven or twelve years ago.
The first concrete awareness I really remember having about the Foreign Service was during my Peace Corps service in Macedonia. In mid-2004 as my service was winding down, Peace Corps staff at post advised me that if I planned to do any traveling post-service, I should go to the U.S. embassy and obtain my own personal passport. When I’d joined Peace Corps in 2002 I hadn’t had a passport; my international travel had been limited to Mexico, where in the late 1990s and early 2000s you literally didn’t even need to show a driver’s license at many border crossings. Since Peace Corps issues all its Volunteers passports, I didn’t bother paying to obtain my own in addition.
As far as I know, every country where Peace Corps operates requires that Volunteers have work visas, and all of your in-service travel is conducted on your Peace Corps “no-fee” blue passport. So it wasn’t until I faced the prospect of my Peace Corps passport being cancelled at the end of my service that it seemed like a good idea to get my own blue passport. I came to realize that among my group of Volunteers, it was extremely unusual to not have a passport. I may have even been the only one.
So off I went to the embassy in the capital on a sunny day in June 2004, a four hour bus ride from my site. If I recall correctly, as a U.S. citizen I would have been in a special line for American Citizen Services, bypassing all the Macedonian citizens standing in the bright afternoon waiting patiently for their turn, hoping for affirmative adjudication of their tourist visa requests. I remember very little about my interaction with the consular officer who helped me, except that when he was asking me questions, he looked very deeply and directly at me. The interaction reminded me of one you might have with law enforcement, when you know you haven’t done anything wrong but you may feel a little nervous for the simple fact that you are being probed. He was not at all unkind or unprofessional, but exceedingly efficient and direct (which I appreciated).
It occurred to me at that point that he was providing me with a service as a citizen abroad, and for him it was a paid job. I hadn’t made any money in a couple of years, and the realization intrigued me. The embassy was filled with people bustling around and I wondered to myself, what kind of jobs are here, and how does one get such a job? If someone would have told me he was a consular officer, I probably would have replied, “A what?” Of course in my mind at that time, my interest was framed more in the context of, “How could I stay in Macedonia longer and make money?” And in the same way the thought passed through my mind, it passed back out again, as I was destined for a medical evacuation in short order. I finished my appointment and received my first personal passport a few days later. The expiration date of my shiny new passport was June 2014, which looked impossibly far in the future at that time. Predictably, we have now nearly arrived there.
(To digress a moment, in the fall of 2013 after my wedding and subsequent name change, I sent that passport together with my application for a new passport to the State Department, and included a handwritten note to please cancel and return the old passport to me as a souvenir. I explained that it had been issued at the close of my Peace Corps service and had sentimental value to me. A month or so later, it did come back with a hole punched through it, along with my new passport. In that moment, I felt the heart-bursting gratitude that happens when a human touch supersedes the bureaucratic process.)
Other concerns and endeavors took my attention for several years: medical problems, travel, graduate school in Australia, and relocating to Washington, DC for my first federal job at the Voice of America (VOA). But in the summer of 2010, one of my VOA front office colleagues told me that she had passed the Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT, colloquially known as “the written”). I had heard of it before, and knew it was considered some kind of smarty-pants test, but I was not totally sure what step it was in the process of actually becoming a Foreign Service Officer (FSO). She was a couple of years younger than me, and smart, but I’m not much for competition. Instead I began wondering, “If I took that test, would I pass?” I needed to find out.
So in some free time, I looked up the FSOT online and learned that passing the written indeed was the first step to becoming an FSO. After doing some reading about the five different career tracks (political, economic, consular, public diplomacy and management) I selected the consular track and registered for the next possible testing window, over three months away.
So what does a consular officer do?
Consular Officers don’t just stamp passports and issue visas. They also make judgments about foreign nationals who want to travel to the United States, facilitate adoptions, help evacuate Americans, combat fraud to protect our borders and fight human trafficking.
Consular Officers touch people’s lives in important ways, often reassuring families in crisis. As you learn new skills and enjoy outstanding benefits, you’ll handle diverse challenges such as child custody disputes, arrests, travel advisories, and emergencies, in addition to:
- Working with local officials to facilitate legitimate business, educational, and tourist travel, strengthen our border security, and protect Americans;
- Acquiring and applying expertise in local laws, culture, and economic and political conditions to make prompt, informed decisions affecting the lives of foreign citizens and Americans abroad;
- Helping U.S. citizens with family reunification, in medical emergencies, and evacuations;
- Visiting arrested Americans and ensuring access to legal counsel;
- Leading a multicultural and highly qualified staff in developing innovative practices to protect U.S. citizens and borders;
- Combining problem-solving and managerial skills with knowledge of U.S. and host country laws/procedures to find solutions to problems American citizens face abroad;
- Applying knowledge of host country and U.S. Immigration law/procedures to facilitate legitimate travel to the United States while applying appropriate measures to protect U.S. borders;
- Reporting to Washington on full range of consular issues, for instance, fraud trends, visa and passport workload, or delicate American citizen cases involving victims of crime or child abductions; and
- Monitoring security issues that threaten the safety of Americans abroad, and ensure Americans have access to timely, accurate information to make decisions concerning travel and activities.
All of this sounded terribly exciting to me. The more I pictured myself doing consular work at a new embassy every 2-3 years, the more excited I got. The small seed planted in 2004 was being watered and growing quickly. I started to prepare for the test.
I knew that in order to actually become an FSO I would need to pass not only the FSOT, but the Qualifications Evaluation Panel (QEP) which came afterwards, and receive an invitation to and pass the dreaded Foreign Service Oral Assessment (FSOA). And then I learned that even if I passed all of those steps, I would still have to pass medical and security clearances, as well as Final Suitability Review (FSR), at which point I would receive a conditional offer and my name would be added to a list of cleared candidates, known as “the register”. There is one register for each of the five career tracks. A candidate’s position on the register is rank-ordered, based on their FSOA score (between 5.25 and 7.0) and any bonus points for language proficiency or veteran’s preference. Candidates may only remain on the register for a window of 18 months, and if at the end of that time they have not yet received a job offer (to A-100 diplomat orientation class, formed several times per year as State Department hiring authority allows), their candidacy is terminated and if they wish to be considered they must begin again. From the very beginning. Meaning, the FSOT. Again.
This is all pretty stunning, right? Everyone kept asking me, “So you could get through all of that, taking up to a year, and then not even GET the job?” Grinning, I’d say, “That’s right.” I have heard that only 2-3% of candidates that register for the FSOT in a given year ever actually become FSOs. Rather than discouraging me, the 2-3% statistic invigorated me. Many people spend years trying to get in. I personally know a handful of people who have taken the FSOA multiple times before passing, and they are now great FSOs. There is no limit to how many times you can try, no limit to the number of candidacies you can start, as long as you are at least 21 years of age and no older than 60 on the day you enter A-100. I am absolutely determined to join the ranks of the Foreign Service, and it would be an honor and a privilege to serve my country in this way.
Read below for more information on my attempts thus far. I realize this is very inside baseball, so if you need a summary, the bottom line is that I am very close, but it’s not in the bag yet.
7/6/10 – Registered for FSOT
10/9/10 – Took FSOT
10/28/10 – Was notified I passed FSOT
11/16/10 – QEP personal narratives deadline
1/24/11 – Ended my candidacy to focus on my new job with Peace Corps
6/14/11 – Registered for FSOT
10/8/11 – Took FSOT
10/27/11 – Was notified I passed FSOT
11/16/11 – QEP personal narratives submitted
1/23/12 – Was notified I passed QEP
1/30/12 – Invited to schedule FSOA
5/18/12 – Passed FSOA with 5.5/7.0 score
10/22/12 – Security clearance granted
1/11/13 – Class A medical clearance granted
1/14/13 – Final Suitability Review completed
1/15/13 – Added to Consular Register
TBD – Job offer (A-100 class) – Hoping for an offer for either the June 30 or August 25 class before second candidacy terminates on July 14, 2014
Third Candidacy (my backup plan!)
1/21/14 – Registered for FSOT
2/2/14 – Took FSOT
2/27/14 – Was notified I passed FSOT
3/15/14 – QEP personal narratives submitted
TBD mid-to-late May – Expecting notification of QEP results
In my next post, I’ll delve more into each of these steps of the hiring process (FSOT, QEP and FSOA), explain what they are, and the strategies I employed to pass them.