This is going to be a long post – are you ready?
Yes, you read that correctly: The Foreign Service is plan B. This post is directed to all of the Foreign Service Hopefuls who find my blog by googling ‘fsot score breakdown’ or ‘foreign service security clearance’ or any of the numerous foreign service related search terms that people use to find this website on a daily basis. In order to maintain your sanity, you should delegate a career in the Foreign Service to ‘Plan B.’
No Double Standards at Muttering Behind the Hardline wrote a great series of posts on the how’s and why’s of his entry into the Foreign Service, as did Digger from Life After Jerusalem . And they both, especially NDS, made it look sooooo easy (although I’m sure it wasn’t). However, this has not be a short, or easy road for me.
I’ve wanted to join the State Department as a Foreign Service Officer since I first learned about the career while I was still in college (more than ten years ago). I didn’t take the FSOT right away because I wanted to have a little fun, get some experience, and decide if I wanted to go to grad school (I didn’t). I lived in San Diego a few more years, traveled a lot, then moved to the DC area. My thinking in moving here was that I could find some great job that would work while I made my way into the Foreign Service to start an awesome career. That was in 2004.
I didn’t feel prepared to take the test in 2005, but I did find a job, and I started to date a really really great guy (who was on board with the whole Foreign Service thing). In April 2006, I took the Foreign Service Written Exam (the old one) for the first time. I didn’t pass. 2007 was the year that they revamped the test, and the first time they offered the new FSOT was September. Chad and I got married in September, so I didn’t take it. I also didn’t take the test in January or March – I ended up waiting until July of 2008.
Here’s a relevant side note: Chad and I met while working for the same company, in different departments. The job was all right, but nothing fantastic. I had harbored hopes that I could take and pass all of the FSOT and get us both out of there and really ‘start our lives.’ That didn’t work, and Chad’s job situation, and the management he was under started to go bad, then got worse and worse. At the time, I felt very guilty for not passing the Foreign Service Exam. I felt that since I had said that a life with me would include Adventures in Far Off Lands, I wasn’t holding up to some bargain that I created in my own mind. Of course, Adventures in Far Off Lands was not the reason Chad asked me to marry him, so I was being very silly. However, when I used to think about how far I still had to go, I felt a little guilty.
So combine the disappointment of not passing the first time, with intense desire to become a Foreign Service Officer, add all of the hard work I put into studying, then throw in a dash of misplaced guilt. Oh, and don’t forget to factor in the slow decline of the company I used to work for. It’s enough to make a lady crazy. Luckily, I am a notorious planner and I plan for things very far in advance. I took six months to plan for Chad’s Awesome 30th Birthday Trip to New York, and it paid off. So I distracted myself with alternate plans. Some examples over the years:
- Get a Masters in Urban Planning (another thing I believe to be very important)
- Join the Peace Corps as a couple
- Work for the Census
- Write an awesome children’s book (I may still do this)
Move to Hawaii and raise goats.Wait, that’s our retirement plan.
And I was serious about all of them. There are so many moving parts involved in the process of becoming a Foreign Service Officer and we don’t have control over most of them. Almost every step of the way, there is an outside factor that can determine whether your candidacy continues. For example:
The Written Exam and QEP You could do well on all sections, but State only needs to pass 1,000 people and you’re person 1,005, so you don’t pass.
The Oral Exam… Actually, this one is all you. At the end of this very long day, your score is your own responsibility.
Medical Clearance Who knows, you might be sick and not know it (though I really hope not!).
Security Clearance While your security clearance looks at your life, and is there for your responsibility, you have no control over how long it takes before you receive your clearance. Mine took nine months. If it had taken 3 months, I would have started an A-100 last year.
Register Position As I said before, your score is up to you and your score and register date determine your placement. However, other people’s scores and dates have a major impact on your rank on the register. If enough people have a higher Oral Assessment score or can pass a language test, they’re going to be higher than you, and you may not get the call within the 18 month deadline.
The entire process often feels like a giant emotional and intellectual roller coaster. I imagine that the career itself feels much the same way. The point I hope that I’m able to make with this post is that an obsession with this process has the potential to make you crazy and negatively impact your life.
We did not put our life on hold. Chad found a new job in December of 2007 – a job that is paying for the degree program he started at UVA in the fall of 2008 (he graduates next May!). I dealt with some medical issues and had other things to do. Then, I found out that I passed the written exam, then the QEP. So I started to study for the FSOA with the understanding that I could fail and have to start the process all over again. I kept applying for a new job, and a month after I passed the FSOA, I started a new position. I’ve been very lucky, and very happy to work at Halfaker and Associates for this past year, and I could have been for a while.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, Plan B turned into Plan A and we are very excited. After a two year candidacy, I can still hardly believe that it’s actually happening. I know that there are people who get through this whole process in under a year. I also know that there are people who spend a lot more time than I did to get to this point. Finally, I know plenty of people who aren’t here yet, but want to be. This post is especially for you. I didn’t write this to discourage anyone from throwing their hat in the Foreign Service ring. I will not tell people to give up a goal to serve their country. But if you start this process, you should be fully aware that you may never become a Foreign Service Officer.
So don’t forget to live your life. Get married. Buy (or sell) the house. Apply for a new job. Start the degree program. Have a baby (sorry mom’s, not me). Move to Morocco or Shanghai or Provence or Santiago or New York or Portland or wherever you want to go. Adopt a pet (alas, also not me). Remember that Plan B is there, but follow Plan A or Plan D or whichever letter you happen to be on, until Plan B turns into Plan NOW (or Plan 60 days from now). Your sanity may thank you.
DisclaimerAll views and opinions expressed on this website are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. State Department (they have their own website...).
- Douglas on Preparing for the Foreign Service Oral Assessment: Part II
- Anuradha Shastry (@runneranu) on The Foreign Service is Plan B
- Anuradha Shastry (@runneranu) on Studying for the FSOT (how I did it)
- kristel on My Statement of Interest for the Foreign Service
- Joel on FSOT Score Breakdown