A Traveler In The Foreign Service: 10 Tips On How To Get Into The Foreign Service

departure board airline trainFor those with incurably itchy feet and an interest in serving their country, the State Department’s Foreign Service is a great career option. As a Foreign Service Officer (FSO), you’ll spend the bulk of your career overseas, moving in 1-4 year increments and you’ll actually get paid to learn languages. You’re also signing up for worldwide availability and could be sent to a war zone without your family for a year, but that’s all part of the bargain.

With the next Foreign Service written exam window fast approaching (February 2-9, registration deadline is January 30, register here), I continue to get quite a few – got any tips on how I can join the Foreign Service – emails from FS hopefuls. Here are some tips from an ex-FSO on how to navigate the whole byzantine process.

10. Don’t Bother Cramming for the Written Exam

This isn’t the answer you wanted to hear is it? Everyone wants to cram for this test but it’s simply not possible. You can spend $29 on an official study guide but there is no real way to study for the multiple choice job knowledge section of the test because the questions are so varied. State wants to hire broadly informed, well-rounded people, so there are questions about computers and technology, management and economics, world and U.S. history, sports, music, basically you name it. (And if you need help deciding which cone to choose, buy Inside a U.S. Embassy to learn about what FSOs do, but bear in mind that many of the participants in those book chose to describe what their most interesting day was like rather than what a typical day is like, so bear that in mind as you read this book.)9. Set a Long Term Goal to be a Bit Less Clueless about Current Events

The State Department has a pretty good reading list but again, you can’t expect to cram. My best suggestion is to subscribe to The New York Times and the Economist for a good year at least, read them closely and you’ll be amazed by how much you learn. Even if you’re reading a story about what happened in the Congo last week, good reporters provide historical context to events, and that sort of background will help you on the exam.

8. Go Beyond Hola and Gracias

I know that if you’re reading this column you are probably hoping for quick and dirty suggestions, but here’s the best long term advice I can give you. If you can become proficient in a difficult language, say Russian, Mandarin, Arabic, Farsi, etc, you’ll have a huge leg-up on getting into the Foreign Service. These days, there are very few openings and too many candidates, so the extra points you can add to your score will likely push you off of the list of eligible hires and into A-100, which is the introductory class for new hires.

7. Don’t Try to be James Joyce on the Essay

The point of the essay isn’t to try to use big words or to write War & Peace. Try to make your argument short and to the point with concrete examples. Adding in a lot of fluff will cost you points. Read William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” for tips on improving your writing skills.

6. Don’t Forget the Time you Mentored That Bolivian Exchange Student at Band Camp

In the biographic section, you’ll be asked to cite examples of how you’ve handled various situations and how much exposure you’ve had to foreign cultures and foreign nationals. Think about the jobs you’ve had and specific examples of your accomplishments and tricky situations you’ve handled. And if you’ve spent time overseas or have had significant contact with foreigners here in the U.S., be ready to write about it.

5. Boast but don’t be a Complete Lying Bastard

Since I went through the FS selection process, they’ve added a new step in between passing the written exam and being invited to the Oral Assessment – the personal narrative. The point of this exercise is to test your writing skills and to evaluate your work experience. You’ll be asked to brag about what you’ve done and will have to list someone who can verify your claims. I doubt that the reviewers have time to call all the verifiers, but believe me, the panelists have a good B.S. detector, so don’t try to claim that you invented a cure for cancer.

4. Try not to be Really Annoying at the Oral Assessment

I took the Oral Assessment twice before joining the FS and noticed that on both occasions the people who were very in-your-face aggressive didn’t make the cut. In the portion of the day when you’re interacting with your fellow FS hopefuls, be collegial and don’t act like you have to outshine them. There is no quota for who will pass each day – everyone can fail or everyone can pass, so don’t try to dominate the proceedings or make anyone else look bad – it will backfire. And keep in mind the 13 qualities/dimensions the State is looking for.

3. Stop Smoking Crack

If you make it this far, you’ll need to get through the medical and security clearances. During your background investigation, an investigator will interview you and others who may or may not know you well (neighbors, friends, colleagues, bosses) about your use of drugs and alcohol, among other things. A lot of candidates get nervous about this if they are or were recreational drug users and really, really nervous about this if they are or were junkies.

I told my investigator the truth – that I’d never taken any illegal drugs – and it seemed like he didn’t believe me. Having taken drugs, especially soft drugs in limited quantities in the past, isn’t a bar on getting a security clearance.

The key factors will be: when did you do it, what drugs did you take, how often and were there any adverse actions as a result – did you miss work, make an ill conceived pass at your boss, bludgeon someone with a rusty hatchet, that sort of thing. If you tell them that you are still taking drugs, especially hard ones, you are probably toast, so put down the crack pipe and everything else well before you start this process.

2. Bake Some Brownies for your Enemies

The investigator is also going to talk to current and former neighbors and bosses or colleagues where you’ve worked or studied. You’ll be asked to list contacts and you can hope and pray they won’t talk to the people who think you’re pond scum, but there’s no way to completely control the process. If you think they might run into a neighbor that was bitten by your pit bull or a colleague you stole a girlfriend from, now is the time for a charm offensive.

1. Join the Yahoo Group FSWE- Foreign Service Written Exam

Even if you make it through the Oral Assessment and the clearance procedure, you might languish on the list of eligible hires for a very long time. Remember that it’s very possible, and in some years it’s actually likely that you will remain on the list for 18 months, never get the job offer and have to go back to square one.

In order to maintain your sanity, join the FSWE Yahoo Group to become part of a community of likeminded people who share information and experiences. Aside from the message board, they also have some really useful tables that will help you put your scores in perspective and plenty of tips on how to navigate the whole process.

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A Traveler In The Foreign Service: I Was Once An ‘Ilegal Immigrant’ In China (Part 2 of 2)

urumqi airport aviation hotelRead Part One of This Story

The Urumqi Airport Aviation Hotel had a huge bug zapper behind the reception desk that gave off a piercing blue glow. I was handed a room key and a glossy brochure that brightened my mood considerably.

“Built in 1974, Airport Hotel locates in Urumqi ariartion airport that today is over 6000 meters! It joints the terminil building by a bridge. It is such a perfect hotel to choose if you traveling by air!..To have a tasteful meal here is dream here. According to your requirement, Airport Hotel restaurant might prepare you all kinds of local delicious…Other hotel services include beauty center, taxi, tour trip, Shopping, and complete checking in procedure arranging conference.”

My first meal in China was something of a blind man’s banquet. The Airport Hotel Restaurant had no English speakers or menu, so I had to resort to circling dishes listed in my Lonely Planet phrase book.chinese foodI pointed to the Chinese characters next to five or six dishes but my waitresses kept shaking her head and eventually walked away. I was convinced that the warm Liquan beer I was drinking was all I was going to get, but just as I was about to get up to leave, she and two other servers arrived with five steaming entrees, a bowl of soup and a plate of cooked peanuts.

I was thoroughly confused but since Xinjiang Airlines was paying, I didn’t bother to send anything back. The Airport Hotel felt a bit like a very strange college dormitory in that most of the guests kept their doors open and had their television sets blaring. There were three channels – all showing a badminton match between Indonesia and Denmark.

My room had an assortment of odd signs, each containing various warnings. My favorite was one on top of the TV that read: “Don’t touch it yourself!”

heavenly lake tianchiHow does one pass a weekend under de-facto house arrest in Xinjiang province? I decided to take a day trip to what the Chinese call Heavenly Lake – two hours to the east. Tianchi, (Heavenly Lake) is a majestically serene lake flanked by the 5,445-meter high Mt. Bogda, known as the Peak of God. The excursion and a relaxing Sunday spent chatting with novice English speakers at an Urumqi park helped me forget that I was a passport-less illegal immigrant, at least for the weekend.

On Monday morning, I rose early and sat in the lobby of the hotel, listening to the hum of the blue bug zapper as I waited for my parole hearing, which was scheduled for 9 a.m. I waited impatiently until about 10, when I received a call from a woman at Xinjiang Airlines who told me to call her Holly.

“Dayveed, we have problem” she said. “So sorry but we must come toomahwoaw. The cahmandeeng offisah not heya today, call back toomahwoaw.”

“Holly, I want my passport back TODAY!” I pleaded. “I want out of here, I’ve got to get to Shanghai! I’ll pay the damn fine! Please get me out of here.”

“Today is not paw-see-bull!” she said.

I slammed the phone down and went out to find a phone card to call the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Trying to find the number and figuring out the local phone system took some doing but the call produced immediate dividends when I got through to a local Chinese employee at the embassy who promised to look into the mater and then called me back a half hour later.

“Mee-stah Sem-eee-nah-rah, the Chinese said they’ll be there in 10 minutes,” she said.

I regretted that I hadn’t figured out how to call the embassy even sooner, and weeks later, I realized that the embassy’s intervention came less than 48 hours before the U.S. House of Representatives voted on granting China permanent normal trade relations. The Chinese were on their best behavior once I got the embassy involved.

Ten minutes later “Holly” and a colleague of hers from the airline, Miss Yang, arrived and greeted me nonchalantly. And five minutes at that, two Chinese soldiers arrived at the hotel.

“You must pay 1,000 yuan now,” Holly instructed, before pausing to add, “please.”

My de-facto captors wrote up a myriad of reports on a “Fancy Lion” notebook that had a cute image of a kitty on it. I was given no less than 5 receipts to sign, so if the penalty was a bribe they were going to have a serious paper trail to cover up.

I paid the fine and before the soldiers left I showed them an article in that morning’s English language, China Daily, a state controlled newspaper, which stated that the government had set the poverty level at 635 yuan per year ($76).

“So you see,” I said, “you have fined me more than one year’s wages for a Chinese worker, all for arriving here one week late on a perfectly good visa.”

The group studied the article for a few moments and then Holly interpreted the response of one of the stern faced officials.

“Yes, but he says that you are not a Chinese peasant,” she said. “You are American, and you have much more money. We think this is not very expensive for you.”

chinese visaThey handed back my glorious looking passport, which had never looked so resplendent. I was granted a 24-hour visa, and the girls from Xinjiang Airline agreed to accompany me downtown to extend it.

The visa office had a sign in English that was engraved on the wall, “strictly enforce the law – enthusiastically serve the people.” I was sold on the former but needed convincing on the latter as I plunked down another $40 for a month-long visa. As the three of us walked out into a steady rain, Holly tried to console me before saying goodbye.

“You know, we are trying to change but it takes long time,” she said. “Maybe the next time you come China, things will be easier for you.”

When my girlfriend arrived in Shanghai, I was there waiting for her with a bouquet of flowers and an outstretched fan with her name stenciled in Chinese characters on it. We were married the following year and shortly thereafter I joined the U.S. Foreign Service and found myself interviewing visa applicants on a daily basis. I never told anyone that I was once an illegal immigrant myself.

Read Part One of This Story Here

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[Photo credit: Avixyx, Dayou X, on Flickr]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: I Was Once An ‘Illegal Immigrant’ In China (Part 1 of 2)

chinese soldier with maoAfter three months of arduous solo travel along the Silk Road, I was ready to cross my final frontier. I’d been forced to deviate from my plan to travel overland from Cairo to Shanghai, and was on a Xinjiang Airlines flight from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, to the Chinese city of Urumchi when a moment of terror washed over me.

While leafing through all of the exotic visas in my passport, I began to recount in my mind all the border shakedowns I’d experienced on the trip. I had been denied entry at the Syrian, Kazakh and Azerbaijani borders, was hit up for bribes at the Moldovan, Turkmen and Georgian frontiers and had almost been refused the privilege of leaving Uzbekistan.

You hear a lot about how we live in an increasingly connected, borderless world where everyone speaks English, believes in free market capitalism and has minty fresh Dentyne breath. But on this trip, taken right after the turn of the millennium, I had encountered a big continent whose borders were patrolled by avaricious officials who washed their uniforms in Barf® brand detergent, ate horse meat pizzas and definitely did not speak English or take American Express.chinese visaRelieved that I was about to navigate the last hurdle with officialdom on a difficult trip, my reverie turned to panic when I discovered a line on my Chinese visa that I hadn’t noticed before. It read:

Enter before 00.05.11

barf detergentIt was May 19, and my heart began to race as I tried to figure out if the enter-by date referred to November 5 or May 11. I realized that I’d been granted the visa at the Chinese consulate in Chicago on February 11, before the start of the trip, and figured that I must have only been given 90 days to enter the country.

I’d never been to China before but knew that authorities there aren’t exactly renowned for their flexibility. Would they detain me? Deport me? Fine me? I had no idea but I was due to meet my girlfriend, Jen, in Shanghai in two weeks. My plan was to spend the fortnight crossing the country by train, with plenty of stops along the way.

The Bishkek-Urumqi flight left only once a week and if I was repatriated to Kyrgyzstan, how would I make it? I had already put our relationship on rocky ground by taking off for four months and feared that if I wasn’t in Shanghai when she arrived, we’d be finished.

As our plane touched down in Urumqi, a city of more than 2 million residents about 4,000 kilometers northwest of Shanghai, a panel above my head came unhinged and dangled from the ceiling in what seemed like a bad omen.

urumqi airportAll of the other passengers pushed and shoved as we made our way toward the passport control except for me. I was in no hurry to meet my fate. I tried to analyze the faces of the Chinese officials at the end of each scrum, but couldn’t decide which way to go as they all looked equally severe and uncompromising.

I felt nauseated when my turn arrived and the uniformed official leafed through my passport, pausing for only a moment to glance at my Chinese visa.

“Weah is yo vee-sah?” he asked, in English.

I pointed out my Chinese visa but he shook his head dismissively.

“This is failed vee-sah”, he said. “I must speak my leader.”

My heart sank as I was escorted away from the passport control area a few minutes later, after the crowds had gone home. A uniformed officer named Akbar, who could not have been more than 21, told me to sit down on the luggage conveyer belt, as there were no other seats.

Akbar, was an ethnic Uighur – a Muslim, Turkic people that once dominated Xinxiang province but now make up less than half its population. He was the lone Uighur working in the airport and said he would serve as my interpreter.

The Chinese are notorious for squashing any notions of independence amongst the Uighurs of Xinxiang, so as I waited to learn my fate I tried to not so subtlety win him over to my side by creating an us against them mentality.

“Is it hard for you, being the only Uighur working here?” I asked, rather clumsily.

“No, we are equal in the army and we are a national protected minority!” he said, defensively.

“But I read that there were some Uighur politicians that were arrested recently,” I said.

“Where did you read this?” he asked.

“In America,” I said.

“And you believe these things?” he asked, looking disgusted.

It was just my luck – I’d been set up with an Uncle Tom Uighur. Just as I was pulling out my photo album of shots from back home as we sat together on the empty airport’s lone luggage belt, three of his colleagues joined us.

The crew looked at my shots of friends, family and Chicago street scenes with rapt attention. I pointed to a photo of my girlfriend and mentioned that I was meeting her in Shanghai and thus would really, really prefer not to be deported.

chinese soldiersAfter what seemed like hours, a gang of more important and nastier looking soldiers beckoned us. The Uncle Tom Uighur and I were led into a room that had cheap folding chairs along the perimeter of its four walls. We sat down and I did a quick head count. There were eleven uniformed officers, all training their eyes on me, the American with the “failed vee-sah.”

One of the officers read me the riot act, in Chinese, and the Uncle Tom Uighur interpreted.

“You have violated our border by trying to enter with a failed visa,” he said. “You cannot enter China with this visa – you are an illegal immigrant.”

I took in what he said along with the flurry of angry sounding Mandarin that filled the room.

“Wait a minute,” I interjected. “I’m not an immigrant; I’m just here for a visit.”

He ignored me and continued.

“You must write down what you have done, and admit that you agree with what I have just said,” he said.

I was elated. It sounded like all they wanted was a confession. If a Cultural Revolution style self-criticism was all they wanted, I was happy to comply.

“What exactly do you want me to write?” I asked, eager to cooperate.

He relayed my question to the others in the room and several of them chimed in, but Akbar’s interpretation skills seemed to be lacking. I could tell by the look on his face that he was confused.

“You must admit to your crime,” he said.

Knowing full well that neither he, nor anyone else would fully understand my confession anyway, I decided to have fun with it.

Dear Xinxiang Frontier Border Control Authority,

“I David Seminara, who arrived on flight 718 from Bishkek, fully admit to the grievous crime of arriving in China a week late. I fully recognize the serious nature of my transgression, and its implications on China’s 1.2 billion citizens, who have no doubt been waiting with baited breath for my arrival. I am sorry if my delayed arrival has in any way jeopardized either Chinese national security or Sino American relations.”

The khaki uniformed guards began passing around the confession and it seemed to please them.

“Now you must sign your name,” Akbar said, thrusting my absurd confession back at me.

I was just about to sign when the thought occurred to me that once I signed a confession they could impose any penalty they liked. Maybe I’d seen too many American movies, but I didn’t want to sign it.

“I’m not signing it until you tell me what the penalty is,” I said.

My refusal seemed to touch off a storm of indignation in the room.

“You must sign, you have a failed visa!” Akbar yelled.

“First I want to know what the penalty is,” I repeated.

The group began to loudly confer for several minutes, and to me, they sounded like thieves arguing over how to split their booty.

“You must pay 1000 yuan ($125) and also you must buy a new visa,” Akbar said.

urumqi airportIn retrospect, the amount of the fine doesn’t seem exorbitant, but at the time, a dorm bed in a Chinese youth hostel cost just 10 yuan, and I was traveling on a razor thin budget, so it seemed like a king’s ransom. I assumed that it was negotiable.

“But the visa itself cost only $30,” I argued. “Why should the fine be $125?”

As Akbar interpreted my comment the room exploded in a cacophony of angry sounding Mandarin. My head began to swirl from all the menacing voices. I tried to haggle with them by pointing out that my visa hadn’t expired, claiming penury, and reiterating that I had to meet my girlfriend. I also showed them my plane ticket home, but they were unmoved. Visa applicants are supposed to apply in their home countries, but the Chinese law doesn’t account for people like me who leave the country and are gone for longer than three months before entering China.

I asked to see the amount of my fine in writing and this seemed to whip the room into an even more hostile lather.

“YOU MUST PAY OR GO BACK TO BISHKEK!!” Akbar shouted, clearly exhausted from the exertion of trying to interpret with multiple people talking at the same time.

Minutes later, someone produced a pamphlet, in English, that specified that fines for entering the country with an invalid visa ranged from 500-2000 yuan.

“Fine, how about I pay 500?” I asked, still hoping to save a few bucks.

At this, a young female officer, who had been silent until this point, spoke up, surprisingly, in English.

“Relations between our countries are not good now,” she said. “If a Chinese person tries to enter America with a failed visa he would be fined $500 and put in jail. You are an illegal immigrant – you must pay what we say!”

I asked to call the U.S. embassy in Beijing, but they claimed that the phone in the airport only worked for local calls. Exasperated, I offered to sign the confession and pay the fine, but Akbar and the gang weren’t done with me yet.

“You have to wait until Monday to get your new visa because the office in Urumqi is already closed today, and it is not open on the weekend,” he said.

urumqi airportIt was Friday afternoon at about 3 p.m. and I had no idea what they were going to do with me. The officers filed out of the interrogation room and I was told to sit back down on the conveyor belt. I had no idea who had my passport or what was going on until a portly man from Xinjiang Airlines approached us.

“We made a mistake allowing you to board the flight with a failed visa,” he explained, in English. “Since it was our fault, you will be our guest this weekend.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, suddenly wondering if perhaps my luck was turning.

“You will pay your fine and get a new visa on Monday but for the weekend, you will stay at the airport hotel and we will pay for your room and meals,” he said.

This sounded like a pretty good deal until I found out that the airport hotel was 40 km outside of town, in walking distance to nothing. I told them I’d pay for my own room in town, but they said it would be impossible for me to check in anywhere without a passport.

“Am I allowed to leave the city?” I asked. ” I planed to travel to the Heavenly Lake.”

“No, well, not really,” he said, clearly waffling.

I took that to mean that I was free to do as I pleased but without a passport, my options would be severely limited. As we walked out of the empty terminal toward the hotel, the reality of the situation began to sink in. I was spending my first night in China as a passport-less “illegal immigrant” under a kind of loose house arrest. What did the Chinese authorities have in store for me?

Read the final part to this story here

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[Photo credits: Ed-Meister, Upyernoz, Marc Van der Chijs, Isaac Mao, Eugene Kaspersky, Toasterhead, and Cornfed 1975 on Flickr]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Navigating The State Department’s Byzantine Foreign Service Selection Process

soldier navigatingIf you want to join the State Department’s Foreign Service, you need a solid resume, plenty of time on your hands and the patience of Job. When I joined the Foreign Service back in 2002, Colin Powell spearheaded the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative, which aimed to increase and streamline the hiring process. Ten years later, the Foreign Service selection process for generalists is even longer and more byzantine than it was before.

When I joined, the basic process was: take the written exam (next scheduled for February 2-9, 2013, register here), if you pass, move onto the oral assessment, if you pass that you got a conditional offer of employment, and if you made it past the medical exam and background investigation, you joined a rank ordered list of candidates, sorted by cone, and waited to be invited to join A-100, which is essentially a five-week welcome to the Foreign Service boot camp.Then and now, if you weren’t invited to an A-100 class within 18 months, you dropped off the list and had to go all the way back to step zero, taking the written exam again. These days, there is one additional step – those who pass the written exam are required to submit essays (referred to as a personal narrative) in which candidates are required to write essays, boasting about their skills and experience (with contacts listed to verify all your claims). This is another hurdle to jump through before one is invited to the oral assessment.

To me, the most ridiculous part of the whole process is the fact that State will expend the time and resources to vet candidates, put them on the list of eligible hires and then if 18 months passes, make them restart the whole process from scratch. Aside from the fact that this is a huge waste of people’s time, it’s also a huge waste of money. It costs a small fortune to conduct background investigations – anywhere from a few thousand dollars for people who have lived their whole lives in the U.S. in just 1 or 2 locations and have had only a couple jobs, to several thousand dollars for people who have moved a lot, had quite a few jobs and/or lived or traveled extensively outside the country.

After the candidate has already met all the requirements, and State has invested time, money and effort vetting them, what is the point of continuing to vet new people while those who are on the eligible list of hires too long are sent back to Go?

According to a Q & A on the State Department website, as of early 2011, there were more than 800 candidates on the list of eligible hires but State was only able to offer about 250 jobs that year due to the fact that few officers were quitting or retiring and funding to hire new officers lagged. That leaves an awful lot of people who thought they were about to join the Foreign Service very disappointed. Meanwhile, State continued to give the exam, bringing in even more candidates, most of whom would never be offered jobs.

So how long does the whole process take? In my case, I was in the Economic cone, and the entire process from when I registered to take the exam to the day I started A-100 was about two years. The process can vary and candidates who are proficient in hard languages can move faster. Historically, the State Department also has a greater need for management and consular cone officers, so they tend to move off the list much quicker than political, economic and public diplomacy coned officers in most cases.

If you want to see an example of how fast you might be able to enter the Foreign Service based on a best-case scenario, have a look at the timeline of an FSO that joined in 2011.

03/02/09 – registered for the FSOT (Foreign Service Officer Test)
06/08/09 – took the FSOT
07/01/09 – got the results from my FSOT: passed
07/16/09 – took the critical language test for Mandarin
07/20/09 – submitted my Personal Narrative essays
07/23/09 – got the results from my language test: passed
09/14/09 – passed QEP (Qualification Evaluation Panel) and invited to OA (Oral Assessment)
11/18/09 – went to DC for the OA: passed
12/16/09 – initial case interview for security clearance
12/30/09 – medical clearance granted
03/08/10 – Top Secret security clearance granted
03/12/10 – got on the Register and offer for May 10th A-100: accepted
03/23/10 – received the official appointment letter
05/03/10 – pack-out started and we moved into a hotel
05/04/10 – moving company came to haul away all of our stuff
05/08/10 – flew into DC and checked into our apartment
05/10/10 – in-processing at Main State
05/11/10 – A-100 began at FSI
06/07/10 – got our first assignment: Seoul, South Korea
09/07/10 – began Korean language training
02/07/11 – got our 2013 onward assignment: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
03/18/11 – passed Korean test and finished language training
03/30/11 – arrived in Seoul

That might sound like a huge rigmarole, but by Foreign Service standards, that’s a lightning fast candidacy, no doubt propelled in part by the fact that this individual was able to add either .25 or .38 to his oral assessment score. (For those unfamiliar with the scale, that’s a pretty substantial boost.)

In one way, it makes sense to have a somewhat lengthy process to join the Foreign Service. It’s not like any other job and you wouldn’t want someone to be able to join on a whim and find themselves shuffling off to Ulan Bator or Niamey before they know what they’ve gotten themselves into. And because of the huge number of people that take the written exam (a 2006 story in the New York Times asserted that between 17,000-20,000 people take the test each year, with only 25% passing, and a 2008 story said that about 12,000-15,000 take the exam) it’s understandable that you need a few steps to weed people out.

But the selection process is way too long and cumbersome. If someone is looking for a job, they want one soonish, not in a year, two years or three years. And even if they are successful, candidates have to handle a very delicate transition from whatever job they currently have, as Diplomatic Security officers insist on interviewing whomever your current boss is before you have any certainty that you are actually going to get the job.

In my case, this was incredibly awkward. My employer was very understanding but I was rendered a lame duck months before I actually quit and it was quite odd having to tell everyone in my office that I was “probably” about to join the Foreign Service but wasn’t ready to quit just yet. It’s kind of like telling someone that you plan to break up with them but you aren’t going to formally do it until you’re sure that the person you like better definitely wants you.

I would suggest a few changes to the process. First, make a serious effort to streamline how long the whole process takes. It’s true that the length of the process might weed out some people who aren’t serious about it, but you also end up losing good people that get other job offers. Second, I wouldn’t put people on the list of eligible hires unless there was a very strong likelihood that they’d be hired. Third, when there’s a glut of cleared candidates waiting to be hired from the list, I wouldn’t give the written exam as frequently, because there’s no point in simply creating a huge logjam of people just to maintain the pretext that State is hiring when it isn’t. Finally, I don’t think it’s necessary to interview people at someone’s current job in order to grant them a security clearance.

For those of you looking to join the Foreign Service or for those who are already in the process of joining, I highly recommend you join the Yahoo Group FSOT (formerly FSWE). You’ll find a community of other candidates with useful message boards and loads of stats on who gets into the Foreign Service and why.

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A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Interview With A USDA Foreign Agricultural Service Diplomat

USDA FAS Foreign Service Officer Scott Sindelar embassy beijingThe U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) is very much an under-the-radar career opportunity for Americans who are interested in trade promotion and living overseas. Compared to the other Foreign Affairs Agencies, the FAS is quite small. At the moment, there are only 166 FAS Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) but they serve all over the world in 96 offices in embassies and consulates overseas in 74 different countries.

FAS officers provide reporting on overseas agricultural trends and U.S. agricultural export possibilities. They promote U.S. agricultural products and work on other issues such as food security. So far this year, we’ve interviewed a diplomatic courier and FSOs from the State Department, USAID but I wanted to talk to someone from the FAS to give readers a better understanding of what they do. Scott Sindelar, who is currently the FAS Minister Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, has been a member of USDA’s FAS since 1987, has served in China, Taiwan, Thailand and South Africa during his distinguished career. I spoke to Scott about how he joined the FAS, what the lifestyle has been like for his family and the pros and cons of the Foreign Service.What was your background before you joined USDA?

I joined USDA in 1987, so I’ve been here for more than 25 years. I’m 56. I grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis. I graduated from college in 1979 and I went to The Phillippines as a Peace Corps volunteer. I ended up staying four years. I moved back to Minnesota after that and there was some culture shock. Being in the Peace Corps back then was very different then what it is now.

There was no email, no Internet. We sent letters by regular mail. I was there for two years before I talked to my parents on the phone.

the philippinesDid you get married while you lived in The Philippines?

Yes, I did, in 1982.

Almost everyone I know who was in the Peace Corps got married while they were overseas.

I know, it happens all the time.

And how did you become a member of the FAS?

I went to graduate school and got a masters in agricultural economics at the University of Minnesota. I saw a poster there before I graduated about the Foreign Agricultural Service. The recruiter came through and I learned about the Foreign Service. I delayed about 18 months before interviewing – I worked at Auburn University – and then ended up at USDA.

Do you need a master’s to get into the FAS?

At that time, the minimum requirement was a master’s in agricultural economics and some overseas experience and if you had farm experience that was a plus. When I joined, in my class there were only a few people who had actually grown up on a farm. Now, you still need a master’s degree, but it can be in international business, development, marketing; it has to have some economics in it, but we’re casting our net wider now.

So a master’s in say, phys ed wouldn’t work?

No.

Does it help if you speak a foreign language?

It does.

shanghaiDid you go right overseas?

I was hired initially as a civil servant, then you can choose to move laterally into the Foreign Service, but you have to have at least 18 months working in Washington in a regular professional job as an economist or marketing person. If you choose to try out for the Foreign Service, that’s a rigorous process – there’s an examination, a series of oral interviews, and if you have foreign language capability, that’s where that comes in.

We had partnerships with different agricultural sectors – the American soybeans Association, the Wine Institute, the Washington Apple Commission. Those are non-profit trade association groups. Congress gives us money to work with these groups to do market development overseas. So my first job in Washington was assisting with that program, then I was a wheat analyst for a while.

I’m sorry, did you say wheat or weed?

Wheat!

And what countries have you served in?

I did Chinese language training for my first overseas assignment and went to Beijing. I served there from ’91-’95. In ’95, I went to Bangkok, and was there until ’99. Then I worked in Washington for three years and in 2002, I was assigned to Shanghai on a one-year gap assignment. Then I went to Tapei in 2003 through 2007. And in 2007, we moved to Pretoria, South Africa – I covered all of Southern Africa in that job and in 2010, I came back to Beijing where I am now a Minister Counselor.

You do four-year tours?

Typically. We’re assigned on a three-year tour with an automatic extension for a fourth year if we request it at the end of our first year.

old beijingChina is nothing at all like it was when you first arrived in 1990. It’s much easier to live in China as a Westerner now, I imagine?

I was in Beijing 20 years ago, I was in Shanghai ten years ago, so I’m back every ten years or so. But yes, compared to the way it was here in the early 1990s, it’s much easier to live here now in terms of the lifestyle. But it’s also a bit more complicated. China has grown up quite a bit – so there are traffic problems now.

Back in 1990 most of the traffic was people on bikes, I imagine?

Absolutely. Bicycles and buses. It was nice. It was a bit of a hardship post because pollution was bad then and it’s bad now too. You couldn’t get a lot of the amenities then that we can get here now but the pace of life was different and it was still an older China, so the city itself was a little more interesting.

They hadn’t demolished all of the old hutongs then.

Right. Now we have lots of five-star hotels and wonderful restaurants but it’s not as exotic as it may have been at that time. If you’ve never been to China before though, it’s still exciting.

China doesn’t have the dual pricing system where foreigners pay more for things any more, right?

Oh yes, that’s gone. Even as diplomats, there are fewer restrictions on our travel now than there were 20 years ago. We used to have to get approval to go places. Almost anywhere. In order to go to Annhui Province, for example, we needed the permission of the local foreign affairs office and they would make the arrangements for our meetings. We couldn’t independently set up our own meetings. And they would accompany us on meetings too. Now, if we want to go look at the corn crop somewhere, we just go.

Not to Tibet though, right?

Places like Tibet are more problematic, or Xinxiang – places like that, they want to know what we are doing there.

How many FAS FSOs are there in China?

We have 12 FAS officers in China.

So there are only 166 FAS FSOs and 12 are in China?

We are the largest FAS post.

US Army IraqFAS operates 96 offices in embassies and consulates overseas in 74 different countries but do you have offices in the most dangerous places that are unaccompanied posts, like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq?

We serve in all those places.

The State Department has had a hard time staffing some of those posts. Is it the same at USDA?

My number two here did a tour in Iraq. We have a deputy director arriving in Shanghai next summer who served in Afghanistan. We haven’t had a problem staffing those hardship and unaccompanied posts as State has.

Is that mostly because of the hardship pay and danger pay incentives?

I’ll give people credit for wanting to serve in places like that. My deputy here wanted to go. It’s an opportunity and a challenge. And he was in Baghdad in 2002-3, a particularly tough time in Baghdad.

Do you have kids?

Yes, two boys. My oldest son is 24 and he lives in Washington, D.C., my youngest son is 18 and he will graduate from the International School in Beijing next spring.

How did your kids cope with all the transitions from one school and one country to the next?

We have a very good Foreign Service family and I’m proud and grateful for them. My wife has been working as an eligible family member for years. And that’s a great opportunity for spouses. She’s been able to work toward a pension and it’s been fulfilling for her. My kids have never complained about the lifestyle. They’ve usually been ready to move on to each next post and they’re excited to get to the next place.

Sometimes it’s hard to say goodbye to friends but they became accustomed to it.

And FAS FSOs get the same perks as State Department FSOs – free education for your children, free housing and so on, right?

Yes, it’s the same. We’re a Foreign Affairs Agency, so those benefits are the same.

bangkokHave the travel opportunities been a big selling point of this career choice for you?

Absolutely. Every place we’ve served in has been a hardship post, so we get R & R leave and have used that to travel. We probably never would have had the chance to travel to Australia and New Zealand, Vietnam, Cambodia. When we lived in Bangkok, we traveled all around Thailand.

What types of jobs has your wife been able to get at the various posts you’ve served in?

She’s mostly worked in consular jobs. She has tenured status as a civil servant at the State Department as well. But she’s also worked as a General Services Officer on procurement. She did some interesting work in Bangkok with extraditions. She’s had a fascinating time. Most spouses could make more if they stayed in the U.S., but if you balance the lifestyle out it makes it pretty attractive.

What’s been the most difficult part about this career choice for you?

Separation from the rest of your family and friends. The long distances can be challenging. We’ve missed I don’t know how many weddings, graduations, funerals. If you’re close to your extended family or you have a good network of friends in the U.S., that can be difficult. It’s easier today thanks to Skype and Facebook and the ease of communication, but it’s not the same was being there. You can’t always be there for Thanksgiving or Christmas. But if you have a family then your own nuclear family has an opportunity to grow stronger together.

And what’s the most rewarding aspect of the FAS for you?

The work gives you the opportunity to experience the world. Very few other careers do that. I’ve always felt that embassies are great communities; if you need support, you have your colleagues. If you want to get out and explore the country, you can do that.

Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service.”

[Photo credits: USDA, Jonathan Kos-Read Telmo32, US Army and Archangel Raphael on Flickr]