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

If 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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[Photo credit: The US Army on Flickr]