I have big news. Or rather, news that could potentially turn into big news, if I’m lucky.
You’ve probably noticed I didn’t blog this past weekend. There is a reason: on Saturday, six years after deciding I wanted to do it, I finally took the Foreign Service Officer Test (shortened to FSOT because who wants to type that long name out all the time?).
Wait, the Foreign Service what?
The FSOT is a written, computer-based exam that everyone has to pass in order to become a Foreign Service Officer (FSO). That’s the fancy, official name for diplomats serving the United States. The test is divided into four sections: Job Knowledge, Biographical, English Expression, and Essays. I found the Essay Section the hardest, followed by the Biographical. I’m pretty sure I did okay on English Expression (though time will tell, once I receive my results). Job Knowledge is basically a lot of random knowledge about US history, government, world affairs, and stuff like communications, management, and math (!). Considering how I could have studied a lot more than I did, I didn’t find that section to be too terrible.
How does one join the Foreign Service? And why would someone want to?
The why is the easy question to answer. Basically, you get paid to live around the world, learn languages, move to cool places and see all sorts of things. Oh, and did I mention that most housing abroad is paid for? As in, it does not come out of your salary. Sounds like a good deal to me: an exciting job in exciting places that’s decently paid. Sign me up!
As for the how… that’s actually quite difficult to explain. Here’s what happens:
- First, you have to register for the FSOT. You submit a massive registration package online. I submitted mine so long ago that I really don’t remember what they ask for. Then, you register for a test date. The test is offered three times a year—February, June, and October—and a candidate can retake the test only after a year elapses. From what I’ve heard, it doesn’t have to be 365 days exactly—as in, if I fail, I’ll be eligible for next year’s February test window, even if I take it on February 5 as opposed to February 7, as I did this year.
- But let’s not be so negative. Let’s assume that you do pass the test, with flying colors. After that comes the Personal Narrative Questions. These trip a lot of people up. In about 200 words, you have to answer questions posed that will give insight into your personality and potential. The State Department loves the 13 Dimensions (link is to a PDF document), so you want to explain, as much as possible, how you exemplify these. I haven’t actually been through this step yet, but everyone on the internet says: 13 dimensions, 13 dimensions, 13 dimensions. So if I do make it to this step, I’m definitely going to write my answers with that in mind!
- Once you pass the PNQ’s, it’s time for the Oral Assessment. This takes place in Washington, D.C. and involves a group exercise, some sort of interview, and writing some sort of case memo. From what I’ve heard, the problem with it is even if you’re not stressed initially, you sometimes get grouped up with people who are totally freaking out, which can affect your performance as well. But no matter. Honestly, I think it sounds fun—but that’s why I’m pursuing this career.
- Hooray, you made it past the Oral Assessment! Now you go on the Register. The Register is sort of complicated. First, it continually changes. If someone gets a higher score on the oral assessment than you do, but they take it a month after you, you get bumped down on the list in favor of them. Luckily, there are some things you can do to improve your standing on the Register. First, languages: if you speak certain languages, you get huge bonus points. Russian used to be one of those. Of course, the State Department removed it (grrr!) before I could take the exam or even come close to this stage, so now Russian doesn’t confer a huge bonus. But it still gives you some points (0.17, if I remember correctly) and some points are better than zero points. Most languages give 0.17 points and to get these points added to your score, you have an oral exam over the telephone.
- There is another thing that impacts your standing on the register. Remember in Step 1, when I talked about registering? I neglected to mention something very important: choosing the career track. FSO’s have five career tracks: political, economic, public diplomacy, management, and consular. No one seems to know for sure, but the order I listed them in is roughly their order of popularity. People are certain that political is the most popular. That means candidates on the political track are at a disadvantage from the start. To be called off the Register, they automatically need higher scores, because they’re competing with a larger group of people. Here’s an annoying thing about the Register and why you want to increase your score as much as possible: if you aren’t called off the Register in eighteen months, you’re kicked off and have to start the entire process all over again. So even if you jump through all these hoops successfully, you’re still not guaranteed a job at the end. Kind of depressing, I suppose. Personally, odds are I’ll make it off the register because I picked the consular track.* The Foreign Service is always in need of consular officers, so that works in my favor. 🙂
- If you get called off the Register, you have a medical check, a background check, and all that good stuff. If you pass that—and from what I’ve heard, most people do—you get to go to Foreign Service boot camp. It lasts six weeks and is called the A-100 Class, after the number of the room it used to be held in. At the conclusion of this, you put in your bid: I’m not sure how the process works, but I think they give you a list of open jobs around the world and you have to rank them in order of what you want. The graduation ceremony for A-100 is called “Flag Day” and apparently, everyone gets a flag of the country they’re going to. Depending on when they start and whether you speak the required language, you might have some language training before shipping out. The first two tours are two years apiece and typically involve consular work, whether you’re on the consular track or not.
- And that’s pretty much it. There are a few other things: you get tenured after five years. Basically, if they don’t think you’re a good fit, you could be asked to leave after two tours. From what I’ve heard, it’s pretty hard to be denied tenure, as the people who get to this stage are motivated and truly do want to be FSO’s. I think you have to learn one foreign language in order to qualify for tenure, but don’t quote me on that.
It is a lot of steps, but luckily there are a ton of resources on the internet. There are a couple of Yahoo groups devoted to helping people join the Foreign Service. In fact, I studied off some flashcards one of the members posted.
So you’re going to join?
I’m certainly trying to. I’m not sure if I passed the FSOT or not and I won’t know for a couple of weeks. If I didn’t pass, I’m going to spend a lot of time studying and take it again in February 2016. I do hope I’ve passed, as I’d love to see what the infamous PNQ’s are like. (I’ve heard they can be rather dreadful.) Even if I do breeze through every step successfully, I probably wouldn’t be hired until the end of this year or so. As you can see, it’s quite a long process. It’s something I’ve dreamed about for a long time, though, ever since the State Department showed up on my college campus to talk to us about it. One of my fondest memories from college is the time I had dinner with a former ambassador to Romania. He was our diplomat-in-residence for our region at the time and one of the divisions at my school sponsored a dinner with him for a small group of students.
So watch out, dear readers. In a couple years’ time, I could be writing this blog from somewhere random. Like Uruguay or Mexico or maybe even Russia.
*Note: I want to emphasize that I did not choose the consular track just because it’s the least popular. I chose it because I truly thought the work sounded appealing. I didn’t want to write cables all the time the way political and economic officers do, and though public diplomacy sounds fun for a finite period of time, I wouldn’t want to make a whole career out of it. I also considered the management track, but ultimately decided on consular. And though political officers do make up the majority of ambassadors, consular officers are also well-represented.