Sunday, September 25, 2011

How Did I get Here, Again? (or: Every Last Little Bit You Wanted To Know But Never Found Twenty Minutes To Sit Down And Read All At Once.)

***Fair Warning, this post is long, detailed, and likely tedious for those not interested or involved in this story. It’s around 2000 words, or 6-7 pages of text. It is intended to explain my entire Foreign Service Journey, from application for the written test to the first day of A-100. I write it because this is what I know well, and because I read every one of these I could find while applying***


In 2007, my wife and I lived in Ankara, Turkey and taught English at a University there. We enjoyed living abroad, and liked the excitement and challenges it brought us, but we didn’t love the job. While there, we met a U.S. Diplomat and his partner who had recently moved to Ankara from a post in Malta. Over dinner we discussed life in the Foreign Service and what sort of experience, temperament and goals an ideal Foreign Service Officer would exhibit. I decided right there that this was the job for me, and the more I’ve learned about the U.S. Diplomatic Corps the more my suspicions have been confirmed.

The Foreign Service is a branch of the U.S. State Department tasked with exercising American interests abroad. An Ambassador is a Diplomat who serves with the Foreign Service, but there are many important jobs outside of the Ambassador. A new Foreign Service Officer (FSO) is asked, before they even begin the long application process, to choose which of 5 areas they wish to specialize in: Management, Politics, Public Diplomacy, Economics, or Consular. I chose Public Diplomacy (PD) because it focuses largely on the positive influence of American culture abroad, and I am a true believer in the importance of “Soft Power” in foreign relations. I wrote my Masters Thesis on the subject, and I would love to spend my career exploring its implications in theory and in practice. Plus, PD officers get paid to go to jazz festivals in Kathmandu and gallery openings in Dubai. Sign me up.

The first step of the process is the register for the written test, or FSWE. I registered for the test on September 6th, 2009. I was 25 years old, I lived in a rickety apartment in a rickety town, and I honestly had no idea what lay in store for me. 2 years later I’m still wrestling with the implications of that decision, though I can happily say I’m at the end of this long road.

The Written Test

In October of 2009 I took the written test along with 5 other folks in complete silence at a testing center adjacent to an airplane hangar in Denver, CO. Every year, over 30,000 people around the world take the FSWE, and fewer than 2% of them secure a position with the Foreign Service. It’s more selective than any University I know, though less selective than American Idol. Take that for what you will.

The written test consists of four parts whose specifics are governed by an NDA: English Expression, Biographical Information, Job Knowledge, and a timed essay. The Job Knowledge section of the test has become somewhat famous, but I feel most folks on this board would have little trouble with it. Some American history, some political theory, some economics, and a smattering of truly random knowledge to ensure folks don’t just study from a guide and sneak by. I felt good about the test, and rightfully so. Three weeks after completing it, I received an email informing me that I had passed.

Passing the FSWE moved you to the next step, wherein you submit to the Quality Evaluation Panel (QEP) written answers of 750 words or less to five biographical questions they provide. This is a famously cloudy process, and the guidelines for what constitute an acceptable answer are viciously unclear. Thankfully, questions and answers aren’t governed by an NDA, and I had a chance to read many passing answers I found online to help guide me. Those resources clearly helped, as two months after I submitted my answers I got word that they had been accepted, and I was shuffled along to the next step. Of the 10 people I studied with in the Denver area, I was the only passer. It surprised no one more than me, as I had little more than enthusiasm and excitement to recommend me.

The Oral Assessment

The third and final examination in the process is called the Oral Assessment, or OA. While the written test is held at centers all over the world, and the QEP is submitted online, the Oral Assessment (OA) is held only in the State Department annex in Washington D.C., and candidates are expected to arrange for their own travel and accommodations. My wife an I booked tickets, got an incredibly nice room at the Mandarin Oriental (to calm my nerves), ironed my best suit and got ready for the last and hardest step. I got maybe three hours of sleep the night before, but I was so wired on caffeine, adrenaline and presciption amphetamines the day of that I could barely feel my own fingers, let alone feel tired. I had spent hours a day for months preparing for the OA -- reading management books, writing practice memos, studying with an international group of test-takers on Skype -- and I had 8 hours to prove I was worth it.

The test has three sections: Case Management, Group Exercise, and Structured Interview. Since I present and speak well, I did well on the group exercise and the structured interview. Unfortunately, I did not pass the case management section, largely due to my lack of managerial experience. Fortunately, my score was still high enough that I, along with 4 other people from the 20 or so who took the test that day, passed the test. I was pleased that two of my fellow passers were individuals I had studied with on Skype, confirming that my decision to kill myself preparing was a good one.

The test is scored out of 7 points, with a 5.3 being the minimum passing score. No one to my knowledge has ever scored a 7.0, and even a 6.0 is exceedingly rare. I eked by with a 5.3, shook some hands, and thrummed like a plucked string all evening.

After passing the test, a candidate undergoes additional review to ensure that their background, character and constitution are in line with the requirements of the foreign service. A medical review ensures that you’re healthy enough to serve anywhere in the world, including places with limited access to refrigeration and power, a security review ensures that you’re suitable for the required Top Secret clearance, and a “Final Suitability” review makes sure that nothing was missed during the 6 month process of testing. One candidate famously sailed through all sections, only to be stymied and eventually declined by the suitability review panel for large gambling debts. He cleared up the problem, tried again the next year, and did not pass. I, however, did pass. On June 24th, 2010, I joined 145 other names on “The Register”. I was #146.

The Register

Here’s the interesting part of this whole story: From September 2009 to June 2010, all of the above transpired. I went from no one of interest, to someone who was cleared and proved eligible for a job with the U.S. Foreign Service. The problem was, I would never actually get the job with my score.

The FS, being a division of the U.S. Department of State, is bound by a Federal Budget. We have not passed a Federal Budget in 2 years, so hiring is severely constrained. Of those 30,000+ who took the test, State only has resources to train maybe 600 a year. Those 600 will be drawn equally from all 5 cones (Diplomacy, Political, etc.) so every cone sees about 120 applicants a year who get a job. That’s 10 applicants per month. State tests candidates 5 days a week, and even though the test is famously difficult, more than 10 like minded people a month pass. Ergo, the register sorts the wheat from the chaff.

For months, I watched my 5.3 wallow at the bottom of the list. New testers with a 5.3 were placed below me, but new testers with a 5.4 or above leapfrogged me, since the list is ordered by both score and date added. The list grew and grew, from 140 to 160 to 200 to 250. Every class they called the top 20 or so off the list, and between classes the list would grow by 30 or 40 names. I started at #145, and six months later I’d actually moved down about 20 spots.

No one since 2003 has gotten a job offer with my score that I could find, which was a depressing thought. Even more depressing is the thought that, in order to keep the registers from stretching into the thousands, State has capped the amount of time you can wait for an offer at 18 months. That means that, no matter your score, after 18 months of waiting for an offer and not receiving one you are removed from the list and asked to start over from the very beginning. That’s two years of work, gone in the ticking of a box. Thankfully, there are ways to avoid that fate.

The Language Points

Extra points are awarded to military veterans, depending on the length of their service, and to speakers of certain languages. Veterans preference was out of the picture for me, and my Spanish was at a roughly “Taco Bell” level of fluency, but hey! Look at all the points the give you for Turkish!

To the State Department, languages come in three flavors: World, Critical Need, and Super Critical Need. World languages like French, Spanish, Japanese and Swahili earn a candidate .17 extra points, and are either commonly spoken by Americans, commonly learned alongside English by natives, or useful for communicating with only a small group of people. Critical Need languages like Russian, Turkish, Urdu, Hindi and Persian/Dari are worth .4, and are generally more difficult, more obscure, and critical for communication with a larger group. Currently only Mandarin and Modern Standard Arabic qualify as “Super Critical”, though they award a hefty bonus of .5.

In March of 2011, after 6 months of self-guided study, Skype tutoring lessons, and every available Rosetta Stone course, I tested in Turkish. I failed. No reason was given as to why, I was simply informed that I had not made the cutoff. This was a surprise to me, as I had worked very hard, and lived in Turkey for a whole year. I wasn’t advanced, but I truly felt I spoke well enough to satisfy State’s requirements. Well tough shit, they disagreed, and they won.

With my expiration date 9 months away, and my next available language testing date 6 months away, I enrolled in a Turkish immersion course in Madison, WI and plowed ahead. Well, that’s kind of a lie. First I got a little choked up, I bargained with God, I drank a little too much and I rather made a fool of myself storming around like a spoiled child forced to sit through someone else's birthday party. That lasted for three or four days, then I pulled myself together and did the stuff I just said.

More Skype lessons, more study, and two unpleasant months in the Wisconsin swamps speaking to only 6 other souls all day later, I registered to take the test again. This time, I passed. My meager 5.3 became a mighty 5.7, and I snagged spot #12 of #184 on he Public Diplomacy register. So long as the government pulled itself together between now and Christmas I'd be a made man. Nothing much happens in Washington in November, right? What's that, everyone hates each other and won't show up to work until after November? Hell.

The Call

Lack of a firm Federal Budget has rather put hiring into a tailspin, and State has finite training resources as is. I needed to get an offer before Christmas Eve, or I would be the sucker who landed on the wrong "chutes and ladders" square -- the one near the end that takes you all the way back to the beginning. Since offers are made two months out, that meant I needed a November class (which everyone agreed was cancelled), a January class (which was 4 months away, enough time for other candidates to get ahead of me), or a February class (which I don't think exists). Imagine my surprise, then, when I got an offer to join the November 7th Foreign Service Junior Officer Class. I felt as happy as puppies look.

I sent emails to study partners, called relatives, lost all interest in my new apartment, and wrote this increasingly self absorbed missive. Then I linked the hell out of it to drive some traffic to my now-relevant blog, and hopefully give folks a handy way of keeping up with what will no doubt be fun developments. And here you are.

The Prestige

The journey here has taught me a lot about myself. It’s been the most challenging experience of my life, and it’s forced me to work harder than I imagined possible and wait longer than I imagined reasonable. I got a Masters Degree, learned a foreign language, made friends all over the world, and proved I had at least two years worth of patience in me. I don't honestly know what challenges and hardships the job will hold for my wife and I, but the journey has been illustrative.

The coming weeks and months will thrust me into a world I only understand academically. Formal business attire in 100 degree heat, parties populated by people who know more than me about everything, countries where nodding your head means no, posts where cereal is only available in warm months and then it's twenty bucks a box ... the list goes on. I hope only that I can approach it with fresh eyes, an open mind, sound judgment, and a sense of aplomb.

The world holds many wonderful things, and this is how I intend to see them and share them with you. If you keep reading, I'll keep writing. I just won't write another one of these.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A New Chapter

There are a number of days in my life that I remember so well that I know the date.  I was married on May 20th, and ten days later on the 30th my wife and I celebrated her birthday.  Every year in early April I celebrate the day I was born, and in late April I remember (but do not celebrate, mind you, background investigator) a counterculture holiday my alma mater, the University of Colorado, is particularly fond of.  

I also remember March 29th, 2010, the day I passed the Foreign Service Oral Exams.  I remember it well enough to not even have to look it up, which I can't always say about the dates above.  This year, I would have celebrated December 24th with my family, not only as the eve of Christmas, but as the end of a long and difficult dream.  You see, I would have expired off the register on December 24th.  

I would have, that is, if September 23rd weren't the day I got an invitation to the Nov. 7th A-100 class.

More excitement to follow, friends, but the TL:DR is this:

I got the call. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Keeping Spirits High (or how to maintain morale in and out of post)

If my individual case is typical, and according to unofficial statistics it is, the time between taking the FSOT and actually getting to A-100 is about two years. Two years is also the typical length of an overseas posting (unless you're a rockstar in a hardship post.) I'm not intimating that applying for the FS is really akin to being in the FS, but I imagine the two year carousel of document filing, anxious preparation, and endless waiting can only be considered "excellent practice".

There are, of course, differences. My buddy Jerrod in Abuja would likely give almost anything to go out and grab a few slices of NYC pizza for lunch, as I did today. Lots of fine folks in the FS suffer through spotty internet access, vegetables that need to be bleached before consumption, rampant pollution, serious security concerns, and bloggy tigers.

Those same folks also have enhanced access to travel, intellectual stimulation, an excellent international community of friends and coworkers, and the pride and honor that comes with serving the interests of one's country. Much as I like pizza and internet (and I like those things a LOT), what I'm really excited about are the real things. Even close to the finish line, as I imagine myself to be now, I find myself struggling to maintain my enthusiasm and excitement for the dream job.

So, with that in mind, a big shout out to Beau Geste, Mon Ami is in order. The man is truly unflappable, and seems to find earnest joy and incomparable humor in everything he does. Blogs like his keep me fresh and excited, and I can't get enough of them.

So I ask you, dear readers: who do you read when you need a little "pick-me-up"? Whose stories excite your sense of wonder?

Thanks as always-

Thursday, September 8, 2011

And now a flurry of questions

So now I have all sorts of questions. After contacting everyone, letting folks know the good news, and drinking to excess at my local "Old Chicagos", the question lingers... When do I go?

FSOWannabe kindly suggested that I may well be eligible for the next class, but there's really not much info as to when that class might be. Ms. Walton is predictably tight-lipped, but so far as I can tell there might not be a November class. Hopefully there's a January or February, because I expire off the register this Christmas Eve. To expire with a 5.7 after two years of work would really seem unjust, but it's not impossible.

So what do you think, blogosphere? Is there a shot of no classes until March? Should I go ahead and unpack some of these boxes?

- Valdysses

Location:My bedroom, restlessly thinking.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

You know what this is?

That's Lokum.  It's the first thing Turks made with refined sugar.  More commonly, it's called 

Turkish Delight

That's right, friends, after a long, patient wait with me all the work finally paid off.  I've passed my Turkish test, accepted my points, and currently sit at roughly 14 of 181 on the PD register with a 5.7

So here's an updated timeline for all you loyal readers and good friends.  Jerrod and Joe, make sure Abuja doesn't fill up too soon.  I hear there's a vacancy opening up...

Friday, September 2, 2011

Here we go again!

So friends, here we are again.  Two months in Turkish immersion, countless hours of private instruction, and a little (prescribed) amphetamines later, I've taken my last shot at the FSI Turkish test this morning.  It's a little nerve-wracking, to say the least, but if I pass I have three months on the register to get a call with a 5.7.  Hopefully they're still holding classes out in Foggy Bottom (or crystal city, or L'Enfant Plaza, or wherever A-100 is actually held).

I feel more optimistic this time around, even though we didn't get to all the (possible) parts of the test and it was still only 15 minutes or so.  I didn't run into a question I couldn't answer, I led the discussion, and I already tested at an Intermediate Mid level three weeks ago.  More importantly, I want this job more than anything in the world, and I think I would be fantastic at it.  I've spent two years (this month) working on this application, and I'll spend two more if that's what it takes.  I'd just vaingloriously prefer to get in before I'm 30.  There's always the Genius Bar if it doesn't pan out, though, right?

Here goes nothing, friends.  See you on the other side!