You know how sometimes it feels like a new celebrity has just appeared overnight, but then you read her story and it turns out she has been struggling for many years to “make it?”
I’m sympathizing with that celebrity right now as we tell people that B is joining the Foreign Service (the “FS” once you’re in the know…). While some of our friends know that it has been B’s goal for a number of years to join the FS, most people I tell have no idea. My announcement comes as a complete shock to them given our relatively “established” lives in Charlotte.
“So, B has accepted an offer to join the Foreign Service,” I say.
“WOW.” [typical reaction] “Did you guys just decide to do this?”
Here is where I hesitate. Should I tell the long story or the short one? They are both accurate, but does anyone really need to know just how long this has been in the background of our lives? I’m really not sure, but just in case you do want to know, here they are, short and long, long and short – both with same result: on August 25 our lives change and the world, literally, becomes our oyster…
Short story: Well, B took the Foreign Service Office Test (“FSOT”) [more on the absurd number of acronyms used by the FS of the USG in a later post…], in October last year. He passed and was invited to submit personal narratives, which he did, and then he was invited to take the FSOA (Foreign Service Oral Assessment), which he did on May 5. He passed that too and on June 5 was extended an offer to join the August 25 Foreign Service orientation class (or A-100). And there you have it. Simple, right? Or not…
Long story: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…or, more specifically, the train station in Hamburg, Germany in 2009 while we waiting for a train to Copenhagen…B got online and registered to take the FSOT. As part of that registration he had to pick a “cone.” The FS is made up of five cones: consular, economic, public diplomacy, political and management. Want to know what FSOs in each cone allegedly do? (I say allegedly because: (1) having not actually been part of the FS community yet, I have no idea if the descriptions are accurate; and (2) I’m a lawyer, what can I say…)
If you’re still with me and want to see the descriptions, look here. In 2009, when B took the test the first time, he registered in the political cone. If you don’t know B he is, notwithstanding a degree in engineering, a total political junkie. To give a recent example, we were sitting at the free breakfast at the Embassy Suites in Dublin, Ohio, when a man with an earpiece walks by. I assumed he was security for the golf tournament going on nearby and commented as such.
B looks past me, points (subtly, which he is not always known for) and says, “Don’t you know who that is?”
I look blankly at the man sitting at the table behind us. “No,” I say.
B, with incredulity straining his voice, “It’s John Boehner, the man who is two people away from being the most powerful person in the world.”
Meh, what can I say, I will not ever be interested in the political cone.
In any case, he wanted to be in the political cone and do political things, so that is how he registered.
In October 2009 he took the test, which, he tells me, is a bunch of multiple choice questions and a short essay question, for the first time. He passed. The congratulatory letter arrived and invited him to submit 1200 character (about 200 word) responses to 5 or 6 “personal narrative questions” (“PNQ”) which are evaluated by the Qualification Evaluation Panel (“QEP”).
The PNQ’s are supposed to give you an opportunity to describe your amazing abilities, through examples from your own life, at all things FS, like leadership, management and communication skills. B had about 3 weeks to draft these narratives and then submit them electronically. I’m pretty sure he hit “submit” at 2 weeks, 13 days, 23 hours and 59 minutes…it took that long to edit and polish the essays to fit in the space provided – and to cover the question asked.
Then, once again, we waited.
Who knows what the man (or woman) behind the FS curtain does at that point. I will say that, despite what some others may think, B had basically no “international” experience, so I don’t think that is necessary to getting through to the next stage. When we met in 2006 B had never been out of the US except a brief trip to Mexico. We’ve certainly traveled since then, but I think the most international thing B has done (so far) is marry a foreign national (that’s me), so don’t be discouraged if you are not a former Peace Corps volunteer who did an advanced degree in some exotic locale and speaks multiple languages – you’ve still got a chance.
In any case, eventually you either pass FS muster or you don’t and you get an invitation to attend the Oral Assessment (“OA”) in Washington, D.C. In 2009 B didn’t get an invite to the OA. In 2010 he went through it all again – this time in the Economic cone, and, again, didn’t get an invite to the OA. In 2011, notwithstanding our attempts that year to navigate the foreign land of parenthood, he registered in the economic cone and tried again. Still no go. In 2012, B switched to the management cone. Setting aside his political fascination, the fact is that he has been an engineer for 14 years and has a lot more practical experience “managing” things than doing anything political or economic.
In 2012 he got an invite to the OA. It was a big day. B flew up to D.C. on March 16, 2013 – missing our annual St. Patrick’s Day party – and took the OA. I flew up to surprise him and, thankfully (’cause it would have been a sad surprise otherwise), he passed. One day I’ll talk more about my understanding of the OA – certainly about the various sections and the 13 Dimensions that they are looking for…but for now, suffice it to say that we both breathed a huge sign of relief, and then went back to stressing about the next steps in the FS journey (odyssey more like it) about 24 hours later.
After all this, we’re barely halfway to the end of this crazy process. The passing score for the OA is 5.25, the highest score is 7. I’ve never seen a score over 6.1 (not to say there aren’t any, but there is a “shadow” register on Yahoo and I haven’t seen any “raw” score over 6.1). The first time B passed he got a 5.3.
After passing you, and your immediate family members (or “eligible family members” (“EFM”)), then have to go through medical clearances (the FSO candidate has to be “worldwide available” and her/his family needs to have a level of clearance so everyone knows where they can be posted) and the FSO has to go through a security clearance to be approved for a Top Secret security clearance.
Once you get through those steps, which can take from a few months to a year or more, then you are put on a “register” for your cone. FSO candidates are ranked on their respective registers by the score they got in the OA. You can only stay on the register for 18 months, although there are a couple of limited exceptions, but if you don’t get an offer in those 18-months you expire off the register and you have to start all over again…
So if you got a 6.1, you are likely going to be at the top of the list when you get put on the register and, basically, have your choice of when you ultimately join the FS. If you got a 5.3, you are, at least in the current hiring climate with the current budgets, likely not going to get an offer at all and will “time off” at the end of 18 months.
Thoroughly confused yet?
Let me add to the confusion… You can also get “bonus” points for scoring at a certain level in a foreign language (lower bonus points for a “world” language like Spanish or French, higher for languages like Mandarin and Farsi), and if you are a veteran. So someone with a 5.3 who speaks French and is a veteran would get an additional 3+ points taking them from the bottom of the register to close to the top. B had no bonus points, so in 2013 it looked like we would probably just watch B time off the register and spend our lives talking about “what ifs.”
October 2013 rolls around and B takes the FSOT again. He passes the PNQs again. He gets invited to the OA again. He schedules his OA for the same weekend as last year – St. Patrick’s Day itself this time, which falls on a Monday. Sunday night D.C. gets 7 inches of snow and the OA for that day is cancelled. B comes home and schedules a “make-up” OA on May 5. He takes the OA on May 5. He passes with a 5.7. This time we don’t have to go through medical and security clearance because our prior clearances from 2013 are still valid, so B goes on the register in mid-May and on June 5, while I am in the middle of defending a deposition, my phone vibrates with a message: “Just got an offer.”
And overnight a new FSO appears…