The Waiting Is The Hardest Part

I just emailed the final bit of paperwork, at least for now, for my application for the Foreign Service of the United States State Department. For those who don’t know what that is, it’s the diplomatic corps of the United States. That’s right, I am hoping to become a representative of America.

Some have wondered what the process is, so I thought I’d use this blog to walk you through it and maybe answer some questions. To start, you sign up to take the written test, which is given a few times a year. The requirements to sign up are:

  • A U.S. citizen on the date the candidate submits the registration package
  • At least 20 years old and no older than 59 years of age on the day the candidate submits the registration
  • At least 21 years old and not yet 60 on the day the candidate is appointed as a Foreign Service Officer
  • Available for worldwide assignments, including Washington, D.C.

The next one is in June 2016. For some people this is a difficult test, quizzing you on your knowledge of U.S. history. world events, basic economics, management theory, and the like. I have taken it three times and passed it each time. The first time was in Sept 2001, shortly after 9/11, and I wanted to see if I could do it. I was invited to take the oral exams then, but I didn’t pursue a career then. I went overseas another way.

The second time was in 2013, while I was in Bogotá. I passed that one, too, but Foggy Bottom had made an addition to the process by requiring a series of mini-essays called personal narratives that are submitted to the Quality Evaluation Panel (QEP). This was changed to get a total picture of Foreign Service candidates, rather than just a bunch of underemployed history majors. It allowed the panel to look at the experience of candidates who had passed the test and make a determination to invite them to take the Orals. I passed the QEP and was invited to Washington in mid-2014, but I had taken a job in New York at The Daily Beast, and decided to concentrate on that.

After I left the Beast in July 2015, I took the written test a third time, passed it, and committed to taking the oral examination in Washington on Feb. 16. There’s not a lot I can tell you about the orals, because I signed an NDA, but I can tell you it’s devilishly difficult. It’s all day, starting at 7 a.m., in an office building near Foggy Bottom. You are tested against “13 Dimensions” the State Department has determined are vital for its diplomats. (They’re pretty good traits to have as a human being, really.)

The orals consist of three parts: the group exercise, the structured interview and the dreaded case management. The group exercise is meant to test how well you work with people, absorb, digest and present information, and oral communication. This is usually the most fun part of the day, as you get to do a little role-playing and interact with some really outstanding people.

After the group exercise, I went into the structured interview, which is pretty much like a job interview. They ask you about your motivations, ask how you would react in certain situations and probe your background. I didn’t think I did well on this part, but apparently I did better than I thought.

Finally, there’s the case management. This is a monster, with essentially a huge file of memos and emails dumped on you and you’re given 90 minutes to plow through it all, figure out the problem and then write a two-page memo that outlines some recommendations and alternatives. I thought, as a journalist used to writing under deadline, this would be my strongest part of the exam. Nope. Crashed and burned on this one.

However, my performance in the other two sections was strong enough to put me over the edge, and I passed the oral exam on my first try. You’re scored on each section on a scale from 1 to 7, and then all three section scores are tallied and weighted. You need an overall 5.25 to pass. Only seven out of 17 people taking it that day passed, and I was the only non-government candidate who did. Everyone else was either military, ex-military, or already an employee of the State Department.

So, I passed. Great. Now what? Well, I got a “conditional” offer of employment. What that means is I then had to fill out the security clearance form listing all the details of my life and my friends’ lives for the last 10 years. Since this involved a great deal of overseas travel, most people I’ve spoken to say my security clearance could take up to year to complete.

Then, I had to complete a medical clearance form, which involved my doctor shaking his head and clucking over how much the government wants to know about my LDL levels and hemoglobin. He then took about a quart of blood, hooked me up to an EKG machine and sent me off to get a chest x-ray. (All’s good, by the way.)

I'm just a billSo that brings me to today. I finished the security form a week ago and emailed my medical forms today. Now, I wait. What happens normally is that once people pass their security clearance check and the medical check, they are then evaluated by the Suitability Review Panel, which looks over everything and decides if you’re really State Department material. You can wipe out at this point and have to start the whole thing over again, like the sad Bill who got vetoed. If you pass, you’re then placed on a dynamic register based on your total score, derived from your oral exam, with possible veteran and language bonus points. It’s dynamic in the sense that if you have a score of 5.4, which is not bad, but not super great, people who score higher than you will be placed further ahead in line. And those slots are filled from the top as budget, attrition and need arise. It’s a complicated process and there’s no way to predict how deep into the bench the hiring process might go.

So you stay on that register and you wait some more. But only for 18 months. If you’re not offered a slot in an A-100 class within that time, you’re dropped from the roster and you have to start the whole process over again.

So that’s where I’m at right now: Waiting on clearances, the Suitability Review Panel and then Congress to appropriate enough funds to cover the yearly attrition of the Foreign Service. That means I probably have a couple of years before this whole process will have played out, one way or another. I may never get the call to represent the U.S. as a diplomat.

But that’s OK! I’m now done with the stuff I have to actively do, other than answer any questions the investigators may have, and now I can get back to looking for work, freelancing and obsessing over the 2016 presidential race.

Other questions? Contact me and I’ll try to answer them as best I can.


Image courtesy of Chris Allbritton

3 Comments on “The Waiting Is The Hardest Part

  1. Some people have to re-invent themselves to keep growing. I think you’ve probably always known your potential, just had to work at working and growing while getting there. Have followed you since the first B2, feeling privileged to share in your
    explorations (both within and without).
    The fact that you would choose, would want to serve in the Foreign Service makes me respect the State Department all the more. The insights I gained from reading your coverage from various countries make me think you would be well suited in this work. I remember the sense of community I got from your reportings from Iraq, the support you gave to those with (was it Reuters?) in Pakistan, the way you conveyed what you found during your stay in Colombia without judging or sermonizing…
    I know you have others who have followed your journeys who will also welcome this new direction.
    Thank you for sharing the news with us (yes I have a mouse in my pocket) and hope to hear more soon.
    Very best wishes in all your endeavors!

    • Dear Lynda– Thanks very much for your kind note. I do feel this is a bit of a natural evolution, given where journalism has gone in the 14 years since I started I appreciate your note of support.

  2. Very interesting and informative. Much good luck to you.