So, What is the Foreign Service, Exactly?

70fc5-img_2784The following post comes from my husband M. and sheds some light on a question we often get from family and friends: So, what is the Foreign Service, exactly? If you are curious about this faction of the State Department or perhaps have an interest in becoming a Foreign Service Officer yourself, this article is for you.

It’s rare to find an American outside of Washington, D.C. who is familiar with the Foreign Service. Unlike the CIA and the FBI, the Foreign Service gets little attention in the media and is largely invisible to many Americans. After three years of service, I’ve tried to develop a succinct response to the frequently asked What do you do? question: I’m a Foreign Service Officer, or diplomat, working for the U.S. government and I’m stationed at various embassies around the world. The Foreign Service is the diplomatic branch of the U.S. Department of State, which protects American citizens while maintaining diplomatic relations and advancing U.S. interests abroad.

So, what does that really mean, and how does one become a Foreign Service Officer (FSO)?

First, a little background:

There are about are about 13,000 people working in the Foreign Service, but there are only about 7,000 “generalist” FSOs, which is what I am. These officers work almost exclusively overseas or in Washington, DC. Much like the military, FSO generalists change jobs every two to three years and can have a vast array of responsibilities during their careers – hence, the word generalist. For example, an FSO might process immigrant visas in Shanghai for two years, then transfer to Poland to work on economic policy in Warsaw. After that, he or she might move to Argentina and manage Fulbright Scholarships in the public affairs office of the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires.

Flexibility is crucial to Foreign Service work and life, as FSOs must constantly learn new systems and languages, meet new people, adjust to different environments, and, of course, move often and live outside the country. But, if you’re a curious person and have an interest in public service, a career in the Foreign Service might be just the thing for you.

Here’s a little more information about getting started:

Career Tracks

When you begin the application process to become an FSO, you need to choose a career track. You can serve in many roles throughout your career, but your career track determines your area of specialization. There are five tracks from which to choose: consular, management, political, economic, and public diplomacy. The State Department has a good explanation of all the tracks on its website. My career track is public diplomacy. I chose it because it fits well with my skill set and personality; however, if later on in my career I find that I might prefer another career track, it is possible to change.

The Application Process

Once you have decided upon a career track, you are ready to begin the application process. It can be a bit daunting and you have to have some patience, but ultimately, it’s probably one of the fairest ways to get hired. Neither your résumé nor your personal or professional connections can really help you. Rather, your candidacy will be assessed based on several tests that evaluate your skills against thirteen dimensions that reflect State’s ideal officer. There are a lot of online tools that go into greater detail about the process.

Step 1: The Written Test

Once you register online and choose a career track, then you need to register for the Foreign Service exam. It is an online test which takes about three hours to complete and covers a wide range of topics.

There is a general knowledge section that is similar to playing Trivial Pursuit, with questions about geography, literature, and history. It’s difficult to study for this, but reading the newspaper, being up-to-date on current events, and having a strong general sense of the world around you all help tremendously.

The second portion of the exam tests your ability in English. Reviewing grammar can bolster your score, but if you can read and write well (two very important components of the job), this section is a breeze.

The third portion of the exam covers biographic information. You would think this would be the easiest part because it’s all about you, but I personally found this section to be a bit challenging. It measures your interests, behaviors, and activities against the thirteen dimensions. For example, leadership is one of the thirteen dimensions. A question might ask you to detail a moment when you demonstrated leadership. There are 70 questions in total and you have a limited amount of time in which to answer them, so it’s important that you review your past experiences well l and think of examples if when you have demonstrated those thirteen dimensions.

For the final part of the exam, you must write an essay in 30 minutes. You are given a topic and you must respond. You’re not judged on your opinion, but rather how you formulate your response and structure your argument.

Step 2: The Personal Narrative

If there is one mysterious part of the Foreign Service application process, it’s the personal narrative. Composed of five short answer questions, the personal narrative portion requires you to describe the knowledge and abilities you would bring to the table if you were to be hired. Responses may be up to 1,300 characters and are scored by a panel. If you score highly enough, another panel will review your entire file (written exam score, essay, initial application, etc.). If not, you’ll need to go back and take the written test again the following year. As I recall, you get at least a few weeks to answer the personal narrative questions and you need to include a person who can verify the information in the essay. For example, if you tell a story about teaching baseball at an orphanage in an African village to demonstrate the Oral Communication dimension, you need to provide a contact who will verify the story. I doubt the panel checks the veracity of every essay, but you should be truthful and not invent stories.

Step 3: The Oral Assessment

Though there are a lot of hoops to jump through in order to get hired, the biggest by far is the oral assessment. It’s an intensive day-long session that entails a group activity, a one-on-one interview, and a written exercise. There are a lot of resources on the Internet about the oral assessment. I got pretty lucky and passed the first time I took it, though many people take it several times before they pass. Make sure you know the format inside and out (join the Yahoo! Group and read online), so that you’re not surprised by anything; take time to prepare how to demonstrate your qualities and skill sets clearly and efficiently; in the group activity, understand that the point of the exercise is not necessarily to win, but to demonstrate how to play nicely- diplomatically- with others; and lastly, just relax and be a normal person, not a robot.

You’ve Passed the Exam… Now You Need a Job

Once you get through all of the exams and evaluations, you’re almost to the finish line of getting hired. You’ll need to get medically cleared, so that involves some tests. In addition, you’ll need to pass a security clearance. This isn’t an issue for most people, but it’s incredibly important to be honest about everything about your past. If all goes well, then you will be placed on a list with other eligible candidates who are in your career track. Each candidate is ranked according to his or her score from the oral assessment. If you have the same score as another candidate, whoever has been on the list longer will be ranked higher. Every three to four months, the State Department hires a certain number of employees based on their rank on the list. You have 18 months to move up the list and get hired. If you are not hired during that time, your opportunity expires and you have to complete the entire process again, from the beginning. I know, it doesn’t sound fair, but that’s how it works.

Interested in a Foreign Service Career? Visit the State Department’s Foreign Service web page to learn more and get started with your application. If you have any questions, feel free to write them in the comment box below. I’d be more than happy to answer them.

2 thoughts on “So, What is the Foreign Service, Exactly?

  1. Matt,
    Am I too old to be a foreign service guy?
    They don’t discriminate do they?
    Thanks for the update on your journey and the hoops you have made.
    Your big fan,
    Bob with a B


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