ForeignServiceExam.org Primer: How to Pick your Career Path (Part 2)

I’ve promised to produce a primer for applicants taking the FSOT in Jan-Feb 2017.  One of the first steps you take is to choose your career track, also known as your cone.  It’s a big choice as it will be how you are judged, how you are promoted, and how you spend your 20+ years in the Foreign Service.  Perhaps, most importantly, once you select your career track, there’s no changing. (well, okay, not quite, but it is pretty important).

When the Written Exam Was Actually Written

In 1985, circa the Dark Ages, when I took the “written” FSOT, it really was a written exam with answer sheets, N0. 2 pencils, and stern admonitions not to mark outside the ovals.  My score was rated across the four cones — Political, Economic, Consular, Administrative (now Management) — and as I recall you could pick any cone to secure a place on one of the career track registers. Most but not all applicants selected the cone in which they scored highest.  (Until 1999, PD officers worked for the U.S. Information Service, a separate agency.)

I selected Consular, which was my highest score, and after more than two years I got an offer.  Yes, the process was ridiculously long back in the old days.  It has speeded up considerably.

Today, the five career tracks open to Foreign Service Officers (FSO) are:

  • Consular
  • Economic
  • Management
  • Political (the one nearly everyone aspired to join back in my day. It’s probably still the case.)
  • Public Diplomacy
Picking your Career Track

State insists that you pick your career track before you take the Foreign Service Exam.  Many (most?) applicants have no idea what an FSO does much less in his or her career track.  We may not like it, but we have to accept it.  “Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die” and all that.

For all the Department’s shortsightedness on coning and other issues, they do provide you with a huge amount of online material to help you make the career track decision — quizzes, video interviews, descriptions of the various cones, and even an infographic detailing what officers do in their tracks

I encourage you to read everything on the Careers.State.Gov site.  You will find additional insight through online discussions, especially at the Yahoo Group – Becoming a Foreign Service Officer. This is an excellent resource and can help you in deciding your career track and other questions as you continue through the selection process.  Or it could make your head explode because there is just so much information and not all of it correct.

After you’ve reviewed this information, and you still have doubts or questions about your cone, take the Department’s quiz,  Which Career Track is Right for You? , to help you winnow down your choices.

Diplomat-in-Residence: A Great Resource

When you complete the quiz and have an idea of the track you lack it’s time to reach out to real FSOs and ask them questions. They are the Diplomats-in-Residence, 16 or so FSOs and Specialists the Department has assigned around the country to answer questions and to drum up interest in the Foreign Service as a career.

They provide an excellent way to nail down your career track. As you might guess, the quality of these sources varies, but I’ve known many of top-flight FSOs who have served as Diplomats-in-Residence. Although the Department may frown on my advice, I do recommend that you reach out not just to the DIR in your region, but any other who by cone, sex, or minority status may help you not only with your choice of career tracks, but also whether the Foreign Service would be a good fit for you.

DIRs are located at universities and colleges throughout the United States, but every candidate can and should make use of them.

Can I Change My Career Track When (or After) I Join?

No!  Err, maybe…

If you show up at A-100 demanding a change in cone, the answer from the State Department will be “no.”  The Department tries to cushion the blow by saying that FSOs throughout their careers serve in out-of-cone assignments throughout their careers and the higher you the less your career track matters.  For instance, I was a consular track officer, but in my final 12 years in the Foreign Service, I was in multifunctional (sic) jobs — twice as a DCM and twice as a Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS).

The Department doesn’t want you to get your hopes up, but in truth a few mid-level FSOs do change career tracks. Openings in the tracks do open up, but if you think you can join the Political track, you’re dreaming.

Seriously,  there are lateral transfers between Consular and Management, and even some Political and Economic FSOs who grow tired of working the cocktail/reception circuit and decide to join the Consular and Management tracks, which have a more “9-5” schedule.

So, no, if you are a Management or Consular or PD Officer, you will not find a way to join the Political ranks because there are no/no vacancies at mid-level.  Similarly, the Economic track only rarely seeks mid-level FSOs, and you be so far behind in competing with your new peers for promotion, it’s probably not a wise career move.  I don’t have a lot of information on the Public Diplomacy career track, but it is very attractive at the junior and mid-level ranks because the cone features work as an Information Officer (spokesperson), Cultural Affairs Officer (exchanges, cultural activities, spending money to preserve important historical sites) or the  Public Affairs Officer, the big kahuna who manages the mission’s entire Public Diplomacy program.  I don’t see many PD Officers leaving their career track.

Foreign Service Exam Primer for FSOT Feb 2017 (Part 1)

I’m going to give you the best advice I can on prepping and passing the Foreign Service Exam (aka FSOT).

It’s changed a bit since I took it in 1985 ?!  There’s more writing now, including the brutal Personal Narrative requirement. There’s also a final scrub that was probably there in the 1980s, but now they’ve institutionalized a physical panel, which I call the Star Chamber (aka Suitability Review Panel).

In spite of changes to the FSOT, I spent my career learning and understanding what the Foreign Service is looking for in new recruits.

Take the Practice Exam

So my first word of advice — if you want to take and pass the FSOT — is to register, read this State web page and take the practice test.  If you want to jump ahead directly to the exam, click here.  It will prompt you for your e-mail address, the one you used to register.  (If you didn’t register, no worries; you can take the practice test with any e-mail address)

Find Your Weaknesses, not your strengths

Your goal with the practice exam(s) is to identify your weaknesses. Those areas are where you need to study. For instance, if you’re strong in English grammar and expression, skip studying those subjects. If you’re strong in American history and economics, but are weaker in IT and English grammar, focus on IT and English grammar.

If you’re weak everywhere, well, it’s going to be a tougher slog for you.

If You Ace the Practice Test, Notify the State Department

If you’re strong in all areas.  Mazel Tov!  Bravo!  Call the State Department (202-647-1212) and tell them you aced the practice test. On second thought, don’t do that, the operators don’t have the best senses of humor.  They might take your name and forward it to the Board of Examiners….  Just kidding!

Seriously, if you aced the practice exam, don’t let it go to your head.  You should start to work on your writing.  Very few applicants have the writing skills that measure up to Foreign Service standards.   Everyone needs to practice his or her writing.  Trust me on that.

How to Pick Your Career Track

And, yes, I haven’t forgotten that you still need to pick your career track – Pol, Econ, PD, Cons, Mgmt — before you register.  Stay tuned I’ll get into it next in the Foreign Service Exam Primer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Presidents are Breaking the Foreign Service (?)

A recent Washington Post op-ed, penned by no less than Tom Pickering, a Foreign Service legend — a former Under Secretary for Political Affairs (P) and multiple times an  ambassador — questions a “new” habit of placing political appointees into high-level, even mid-level positions at State.  “The Foreign Service is being relegated to a secondary status,” according to Pickering and his co-authors.

The phenomenon of  “political” ambassadors is not new, and the percentage has hovered between 40 and 60 percent since Jimmy Carter’s days in the White House.  Most FSOs hate the patronage system, correctly pointing out that it decreases the number of chief of mission openings for career officers overseas and staffs missions with less qualified U.S. representatives. 

But I’m not so dead-set against political ambassadors.

I think there have been excellent White House-selected ambassadors — Mike Mansfield and Howard Baker to Japan.   Sure there are a lot of duds and junk car kings who jet off to Europe and farther afield with no greater qualifications than bundling  millions of campaign dollars for  President Obama.  But I myself had the opportunity to work with two recent political appointees in Africa — Alonso Lenhardt (Tanzania) and Don Gips (South Africa).  Both were top-notch, and in fact far superior to some of the career officers running missions on the continent.  I think allowing outsiders into the ranks prevents the inbreeding that dilutes effective relationships and policy.

Pickering and his co-authors highlight the dangers with stacking the upper ranks (Assistant Secretary or higher) and mid-level positions (Office Directors, Deputy Office Directors):  

  • Political appointees are short-term officials;
  • They are subject to partisan, personality specific pressures;
  • The patronage system “does not notably contribute to [State’s] long-term vitality
  • This situation spawns opportunism and political correctness, weakens esprit de corps within the service and emaciates institutional memory.

Heady prose, indeed.

In closing the op-ed, the authors also take a poke at the Civil Service employees at the State Department with a damning indictment.  The growth of the Civil Service system has hurt the , Foreign Service — “The department has distinctly different systems, and the result has been an increasingly fractious and dysfunctional corporate environment, draining energy and focus… if the [growth of the civil service] is not reversed, the United States will lose the invaluable contribution of people with overseas experience.”

Pickering’s recommendation — State’s “civil service personnel system must be adapted to conform more closely to the requirements of professional diplomacy.”  Ouch!

I have problems with this op-ed because 1) it seeks to build up the Foreign Service, by trashing political appointees and civil servants, and 2) it’s near hysterical tone weakens its arguments and makes FSOs sound like whiners.  These are chronic issues and a “Chicken Little” approach doesn’t provide the concrete steps on how to change the personnel system.  Or, frankly, whether it needs to be changed at all.

What do you think?  I welcome your comments.