On October 19, the day that bids were due, I hedged my bets by adding one more job to my bidlist. So the final tally on the list I submitted was 11 jobs in nine countries. Since a mid-level consular bidlist with four to six bids is apparently a safe bet, I thought I had given decision-makers plenty of options to work with. But October 29, the unthinkable happened: Handshake Day came and went without a handshake for me.
It was not a total surprise, because the Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) had emailed me a few days beforehand to say that I was not the leading candidate for any of the jobs I bid. The email also thanked me for my interest in bidding CA and wished me luck.
Wait, what? OK, well, fine. I bid some very desirable and competitive postings. Maybe one of those posts would extend an offer to their first choice candidate, who would say no, and then it would come to me.
There are lots of reasons CA could have chosen other bidders for a particular job, many of which could have little to do with me. Other bidders could have more tours under their belts, be trying to serve with a tandem officer spouse, having better timing or language skills already on board, or the Department could be trying to accommodate their child’s schooling needs. I did not feel like it was a comment on me as an officer and I wasn’t worried. Matches are often more about timing than anything else.
I started to hear then through multiple sources that there were more than three dozen mid-level consular bidders without consular handshakes this bidding cycle. (I don’t know officially if this is true or not.) More bidders than jobs?! I was not prepared to go on Leave Without Pay (LWOP) or bid on out-of-cone jobs (political, management, economic, or public diplomacy), so I settled in for the long haul of netting the right consular-coned job.
Although much ado is made about bidding cycle and deadlines, the reality is that the bid list is a dynamic, living database. Jobs get added and subtracted all the time based on the needs of the service.
People also break assignments before going to post all the time, even after being paneled into the job, and assignments re-open; I’ve seen it happen for medical reasons, family emergencies, accepting a “now” assignment elsewhere, and failure to obtain the language skills. I’ve even seen people curtail – voluntarily and involuntarily – overseas, or leave the Foreign Service altogether.
I spent a lot of time refreshing the database, watching jobs on my bid list get marked as “Handshake” and then disappear, and jobs I’d never heard of get added as “Open”. Many of the posts I knew big MED in Washington would never clear me to serve in.
I rearranged, and rearranged, and rearranged my bid list, developing new top choices and hoping to “catch” one of them.
Solid and amazing officers my senior reached out to tell me they were left an ‘unassigned bidder’ their first time bidding at mid-level, too, and that I should not be discouraged. They said that within a month or two, an amazing opportunity came up that they would have otherwise missed out on.
I also started to realize that some bidders bide their time during bidding and then catch opportunities that come up off-cycle as a point of strategy.
But that had not been my strategy. I had engaged fully in the bidding process, playing along with CA’s game since even before bids opened in mid-September. So I admit I was a little bummed and nervous about entering uncharted territory. What if the right job for me just slipped through the cracks of all the bureaucracy?
And I was sensitive to the optics of “being left behind” my colleagues who got first-round handshakes. The reality is that most of them are not coming from first world countries with restricted medical clearances, and can be a lot more flexible in where they go, so it is not totally a fair comparison.
I also got a little frustrated with the bureaucracy over the past couple of months. Suffice it to say that their priority is filling empty jobs. If you are expecting anyone to be as interested as you are in your career interests and trajectory, prepare to be disappointed. The opaqueness of the process can feel arbitrary, haphazard, or cold from an applicant perspective. Their jobs are also hard, though, and they have hundreds or thousands of people to deal with and place in jobs, under the time pressure of departing incumbents who also need onwards. It must feel thankless a lot of the time. When you can’t go and talk to Washington decision-makers in person, the feeling that you are just a number to be sorted is not altogether surprising.
But that doesn’t mean that there can’t still be an outcome you like. Yes, you have a job. But you also need an onward assignment. Weren’t you hired to solve problems?!
What to Do?
I tried to approach the situation with flexibility and optimism. (And some jokes about overstaying my Australian visa and refusing to vacate my residence in 2019.) You have to be ready to consider the unexpected, and look for the gems you may have not realized were hiding in plain sight. Or, if that sounds too optimistic, at least some of the unfilled jobs could offer perks and challenges that could help your professional growth in unexpected ways.
CA asked me to have MED scrub another 15+ posts to see if I could be cleared to serve at any of them. Unsurprisingly, MED delivered up a bunch of no, but also a narrow and somewhat unexpected window of yes!
I talked to my Career Development Officer (CDO) for advice. I even added bids on five domestic (Washington) jobs and got a couple of interview requests. I say “even” because serving in Washington is something I wanted to put off until my fourth or fifth tour.
My main consideration when thinking about a DC tour is finances: when you go to Washington for language or tradecraft training ahead of an overseas assignment, you go on orders which include per diem and housing. When you go to Washington as your assignment, you’re out of pocket for housing. I recently researched two bedroom apartments in Arlington near the metro system – starting at $3K per month! And plus, I already lived in Washington and northern VA from 2006-2015, so I feel like, for now at least, I’d like to stay overseas.
The Waiting Game
What has been difficult for me during the last couple of weeks is the waiting and the extra work burden of continued bidding, and trying to
find my way in the dark interpret something I have not been through before. Most importantly, directing positive energy towards negotiating post-Handshake Day bidding and hoping for a handshake I can accept.
I honestly thought that the most difficult thing about bidding was all the time-consuming WORK: the research, the lists, the outreach, the lobbying (ohmygerd, the lob-by-ing), putting together your materials, doing phone interviews, daydreaming and speculating endlessly about what may happen – and all while you are fully employed and busy with your real job and life!
But I was wrong. The worst part of bidding is not getting a handshake, and being left to wonder, half-jokingly, Is it me, or is it them? Watching messages pile up from well-intentioned colleagues wondering why you haven’t announced anything. Mentally reviewing everything you have sacrificed for the career and wishing that just this time, the Department could hug you back!
Luckily, my wait is now almost over, and soon I will be able to announce my third post. For me, third tour bidding has finally come to an end.