Fourth Tour Bidding, Part I

As I mentioned in September, towards the end of this past summer, I decided to cut out the third year of my tour and bid for my onward assignment.

When I arrived here in July 2020, I agreed within a month to a third year extension. Most mid-level Foreign Service assignments are already three years in length. Some higher hardship posts like Ciudad Juárez are only two-year assignments, the length of entry-level tours, but grant mid-level FSOs who extend a 15% pay bonus called Service Need Differential (SND) for each of the three years. FSOs must serve all three years to receive the money; the SND cannot be prorated. If you receive some portion of SND money and don’t serve the full term, you have to pay it back. At this particular post, you can even extend to four years, and many do. It’s not a bad gig, so close to the U.S. and if you can stick out three years, the financial incentive is great in addition to getting off the death march of moving every other year.

The Impact of Losing SND

When I extended, I was rock solid on my decision. I was confident in my boss and team, looked forward to the work, wasn’t so much a fan of our house but figured I’d live with it, and believed the pandemic would end at some point and we’d all be safe. In my case, SND should have been over $45,000 before taxes. Deciding to roll back the third year extension and forfeit the SND was a significant financial decision on my part. I hadn’t seen the circumstances coming on a number of levels that would necessitate that decision. If you read my blog post Suckerpunch it will give you a strong sense of some, but not all, of my reasoning. I both did and did not want to cut out the third year and lose all that money, which I’d planned to split between retirement, savings, and my niece’s college fund, but ultimately I didn’t feel I had a choice. More on that, perhaps, some other time.

When I was paneled back into my two-year tour of duty in August, literally days before I hit the road to California on a trip that would end up being nearly 2,900 miles, I felt both glad about my decision and stressed about the timing. Going back to a two-year assignment meant I would depart Post a year sooner, in the summer of 2022. As a result, I had just been launched into the Summer 2022 bid cycle, already informally underway for weeks.

Cruising around in El Paso before the bid season started ~ August 2021

Jumping Into Bidding

So, as a newly eligible bidder I needed to develop my strategy quickly. Thus far my strategy had been agonizing over what to do and lurking around on FSBid and TalentMap looking for some sign that a particular job could just be mine without the whole bidding rigamarole. Then my reassignment cable changing my Transfer Eligibility Date (TED) from July 2023 back to July 2022 came through. I had the triumphant feeling that I had taken the right action for me, followed by the realization that bidding was now real. I snapped out of my paralysis and got to work.

Other prospective Summer 2022 bidders who’d known when they were bidding for a long time had the jump on me. If they were smart, they had been presumably researching the Projected Vacancies lists, reaching out to incumbents to get information about positions that interested them, and probably lobbying decision-makers too. Although the formal cycle and official bid list didn’t open for another month, I felt totally behind.


First tour bidding
A-100: Week 1 in Review
A-100: Weeks 2 and 3 in Review
A-100: Weeks 4 and 5 in Review
Flag Day Announcement
Flag Day Recap

Second tour bidding
Second Tour Bidding
Flag Day Announcement… II

Third tour bidding
Third Tour Bidding, Part I
Third Tour Bidding, Part II
Third Tour Bidding, Part III
Flag Day Announcement… III

Formulating a Strategy

In some ways, I was very torn even late in the bid cycle about what I wanted. I told myself I was being flexible, and maybe that was part of it. There was something about each job I bid on I thought would allow me to develop as an officer, employ my talents in a useful way, and serve the mission.

But it would have been hard for someone to draw a commonality around all of my bids and say, This bidder only wants to serve in this cone, or in this region, or take a job that focuses on these types of languages. My interests were more diverse. Could I have seen myself in any of those places and doing any of those things? Genuinely, and not in a petty “anywhere but here” way? Absolutely. I actually discussed each one at length with V. I had written statements about all of them. I was excited about all of them.

And I think that’s OK. Where I was torn was: In the conflict I’m currently having about immunocompromised people slipping through the policy and societal cracks of the pandemic, where the Department recognizes everyone who is vaccinated to be at the same level of risk even though the CDC and our physicians clearly say we are not, do I really want to go right from this post to another overseas post where I might have the same challenges I’m having here? Would it be better to shoot for a domestic assignment where even though we won’t have paid housing, there is more of a chance to telework and/or stay away from people while the world figures this out? I went back and forth with that in an agonizing way, and the rules seemed to shift depending on how much I wanted something, as if I were trying to convince myself that other places would be, could be, different, although in my heart I suspected and feared they truly wouldn’t be.

So the jobs I bid essentially fell into two main categories, although you could subdivide and overlay them a few different ways if you wanted to get really detailed about it.

(1) Political-coned reporting jobs, mostly located in the EUR Bureau but particularly focused in the Balkans. I think all or almost all would have required a language component. For several of the positions (I think all except two) I was invited to interview, and the embassies next put forth a short list of their top candidates to the EUR Bureau in Washington for de-conflicting and decision.

(2) Consular-coned officer jobs, some overseas, some domestic, some requiring a language and some not, some what the Bureau of Consular Affairs (known as CA) call consultative and some non-consultative. The former is where the embassy or consulate discuss with CA to decide the best candidate for the position, such as the section chief level at an overseas post, and the latter refers to jobs decided in Washington such as domestic assignments or overseas positions at the deputy chief level or below. [Edited to add: Note that domestic consular positions are technically consultative, just internally within CA though rather than with posts.]

Executing the Strategy

I had to approach my strategy for the first set of bids very differently than the second set. Consular bidding is very centralized in the Department. CA takes a heavy hand in the bidding process, providing a consultation to each consular bidder even though there can be hundreds each cycle, and deciding largely who it wants where with little input from posts except for in the more senior leadership positions overseas. Bidding in the other cones – political, public diplomacy, economic, and management – has a much more wild-west feel to it, at least to me. If you are bidding on political jobs, all of the communication is on you, the bidder, and there is a lot.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I wanted to bid on the deputy non-immigrant visa chief position at an embassy. It’s a non-consultative consular officer position. I would read the capsule description in the bidding software, check to make sure the timing of the position and any language training would make it a valid bid for me, and if so, I’d probably reach out to the incumbent with a brief courtesy email to introduce myself and ask any questions about the position. I might inquire whether it would be wise to also extend the courtesy of an e-introduction to the non-immigrant visa chief and consular section chief, but again, it would be a courtesy; both the incumbent and I know the position is non-consultative and CA is going to decide who gets the job. Post may get a big bee in its bonnet about a particular candidate, but it isn’t likely CA would take notice, unless, you know, one of the Washington deciders is closely connected with the ambassador or DCM – you just never know. It is the State Department after all. So then I as a bidder would lobby CA in my communication and consultations with them on where that position ranks in my choices as the bid cycle, usually 5-6 weeks long, goes on. Not such a big lift. CA will pick the successful candidate and issue the handshake on handshake day.

On the other hand, if I were also interested in bidding a mid-level political officer job at that same embassy, because let’s just say I was pulling out all the stops to get to that country or region and was considering all jobs, I would also contact the incumbent, but I would be asking about Post and Washington decision-makers. I would be trying to get an interview with Post and possibly successive interviews, I would be lobbying the desk officer, people in the bureau, talking to senior people and trying to find out who knows who – not being a pest, but really trying to get anyone in my network who is connected to decision-makers to put in a good word for me, particularly if I made it to the short list. In these jobs, posts have a lot more input.

Navigating Discomfort and the Time Black Hole

It probably bears mentioning that I loathe asking people to do things for me, and I find this particular aspect of the game unpleasant and murky to play. Even if you play it very well, the outcome of whether or not you actually get the job can be tied so little to your qualifications or merit to receive the assignment. I have heard so many people tell me they thought they were going to be the Bureau Leading Candidate and receive the BLC email (known as an “air kiss” and that a handshake is on the way), only to find out some ambassador’s favorite golden career officer from somewhere else was swooping in out of nowhere to take it. And sure, they might be awesome, or they might appear to have far less relevant or obvious qualifications to take it than you. Either way, it stings and makes you wonder how, or even if, you erred. In most cases you will never know.

In many regards this may sound familiar even to non-State Department people because job searching is brutal in general. But here is the difference between job searching and bidding: we already all work with these people! We have already all proven our ability to serve as FSOs. Being passed over to work with someone when you already do is a bit odd, but I do get it in the sense that even though we are Generalists and expected to be jacks of all trades, it doesn’t make sense that we would all equally be good at or interested in everything, especially at higher levels, and it does make sense for posts to try to form teams that fit together and function well. My favorite aspect of bidding is daydreaming about the possibilities of what each job and place could offer, and for me, that never gets old.

There is one thing that all FSOs seem to agree on about bidding, and that’s that bidding is an enormous and stressful drain of time and energy when we are already busy in our full-time jobs.

But there is one way to make it less stressful and time-consuming, and that’s to stay organized. The amount of detail involved with bidding and the consequences for mixing up names and details really requires more than an ad hoc, email inbox style of management.

As the bidder, you need to proactively manage the process and take the initiative to reach out, lobby, enter bids, be responsive to requests for information, keep track of your interviews, and not mix up the jobs. Both times I’ve undergone mid-level bidding, I’ve found it tremendously helpful to have an Excel spreadsheet to track all the details at-a-glance I can’t keep resurrecting from messages. I also keep corresponding digital folders for each Post and bid containing all the documents I have sent, like resumes or statements of interest, or things I have collected to read before an interview.

In my next post on fourth tour bidding, I will talk about how I stayed organized during the bidding process, how I prepared for interviews, why we decided to bid the places we did, and more about my thoughts generally on the lobbying process and how the Department makes decisions based on how it sees the “needs of the service.”

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