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.

Ivy League Applicants Still Have Edge on the FSOT

ForeignServiceExam.org has learned that graduates of Ivy League schools pass the FSOT at a higher rate than other applicants.   Exam officials are probably scratching their heads after spending spent enormous time and money to recraft the Foreign Service Exam — at least the first (or written) test — to make it more diversity friendly.

This reminds me of rogue CIA agent Philip Agee’s remarks in his book, [easyazon_link identifier=”055324311X” locale=”US” tag=”foreignserv06-20″]Inside the Company: CIA Diary[/easyazon_link]how in the Agency in the 1960s and 1970s sought more applicants from the Midwest, eschewing the Ivy League

So why do Ivy Leaguers pass more than graduates of other schools?  I think it’s pretty clear:
  • Ivy League applicants study a Liberal Arts curriculum that the new FSOT — even in its revised form  — continues to focus on;
  • Most Ivy League colleges still insist on clear and succinct writing;
  • Ivy Leaguers have secured admission to the cream of U.S. universities on the basis of test scores and essays.   Someone admitted to Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth has mastered the art of test-taking and completing admission applications with interesting, innovative essays;
  • Finally, FSOT applicants from Ivy League schools are a group that follows the news and probably has for years; that is, they read the NY Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal since they were young.

I will not say that Ivy League graduates are smarter.  Of course, many are brilliant and qualified to serve in the Foreign Service, but you can compete against anyone — if you prepare.

So Why Aren’t There More Ivy Leaguers in the Foreign Service

However, on an anecdotal note, in my last years in the Foreign Service (circa 2006-12) at Main State, I didn’t run into a lot of Ivy League Entry Level Officers (ELO). As I recall, many were from state universities and small liberal arts colleges. Among Civil Servants, there were a large number with master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins (SAIS) and American University.

Why so few from the Ivy League?  I see two reasons: 1) the Board of Examiners may have knocked out Ivy Leaguers in the (arbitrary) Personal Narrative or Suitability Review Panel phases of the exam process, or 2) most of the Ivy League graduates who pass Part 1 of the FSOT end up not joining the State Department. Unwilling to put up with the 12+ month wait and the uncertainty of passing all sections of the test, they opt to take jobs on Wall Street, with international consulting firms or other corporations that could get them overseas.

Again, I bring up this Ivy League edge not to freak you out, but to underline again the importance of preparing for the exam, especially devoting sufficient time to your writing.

P.S.  I went to the University of Chicago.

P.P.S Philip Agee died in 2008 in Havana, and up to his death remained one of the CIA’s fiercest critics.  He was a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.  You can learn more about Agree here and here

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are You Too Old to Join the Foreign Service?

Absolutely Not!

A reader asked me earlier this week whether he was too old to enter the Foreign Service.  He’s 48, an international  lawyer, and has lived most of his career overseas, including stints in the Middle East and Europe.  He wanted to know if he was too old to join the Foreign Service.

No. The only regulation is that Foreign Service officers must retire at age 65.  Unlike the Civil Service, where staff members can work forever (and at least one I know is 85 and still going strong), FSOs have to hang up their tailcoats and top hats when they reach their mid-60s.

I have worked with many junior officers (JOs) in their 40s and 50s.   Most were skilled and professional.  Many joined the State Department as a second career.  They shared the wanderlust of the typical FSO and decided the opportunity to travel while doing interesting and important work would be ideal.  So don’t be surprised when you enter the service to meet “retired” teachers, lawyers, military officers, civil servants, and so forth. 

In my A-100 class, there was a 59-year-old former school teacher from the Pacific Northwest.  The youngest was 22 and fresh out of college.  The 59-year-old served 6 years and retired at 65.

One Thing to Consider

I did caution the lawyer with whom I spoke that joining the Foreign Service can be tough for second-career folks, especially those who’ve had successful and big careers before.  The Foreign Service generally doesn’t know or care what you did before, and assigns all entry level officers the same way, usually to a visa hell hole where you’re issuing and denying non-immigrant visas (NIVs).  Mostly denying.  So the middle-age entry level officers used to managing dozens or hundreds and making  $100m deals are going to be shocked at working some of the least attractive (aka crappiest) Foreign Service jobs during their first tour.

But most, if they can get over themselves and learn the ways of the Foreign Service, will adapt and likely flourish.  Their skills will be evident and used by the section chief or even the Ambassador who will include them in key meetings as notetakers or staff aides. 

Every ELO regardless of age is impatient to rise in rank and take on greater responsibilities.  Perhaps the inability to wait is even greater among older officers since they will likely have less time in the Foreign Service.  But don’t underestimate your bosses, they will see it and ask you to do more.  There’s always plenty of work.

This goes for younger officers, too.  If you have skills in a certain area — marketing, writing, management, computers, etc — offer up your services.   It’ll make the visa line bearable and you will get noticed.  had a background in journalism so second tour in Zambia I helped the economics section to report on wildlife management, HIV/AIDS, and other issues.