So You Wanna Join the FS?

Welcome future colleagues! I debated whether this page was absolutely necessary given the multitude of already-existing resources online about the FS process, but then I figured if you're reading my blog already I may as well make it easy for you. If you're looking to join the Foreign Service here are some things you might find useful:

A Sense of Adventure
Patience and Perseverance
The Official State Careers Site
Pickering and Rangel Fellowships
Boards and Forums
Further Reading

A Sense of Adventure: If you haven't heard it already, you will hear it, and often: the Foreign Service isn't a job, it's a lifestyle. Picking up and moving to the ends of the earth every 2-3 years can be thrilling but it can also be stressful, and it's not for everyone. FSOs are far more likely to find themselves living someplace obscure, remote, undeveloped, and/or dangerous than in places like Paris and Tokyo. On the other hand, they also have experiences you just can't get back home. Check out my post on worldwide availability to get a sample of the places FSOs serve. Sound like fun? Keep reading. 

Patience and Perseverance: Joining the FS is an incredibly long and frustrating process. The vast majority of those attempting it never make it. There are many, many steps, and failing just one sends you right back to the beginning. There is no save point. Luck and timing play a part too; being a government agency means State doesn't have total control over its hiring processes, so if Congress is in a budget-cutting mood there are just fewer slots to fill. If everything goes right - every stage passed on the first try, no major clearance delays, and a high enough score on the orals to be accepted to the first A-100 you're eligible for - getting from the written exam to your first day on the job will take at least a year. If something goes wrong it can take much longer; time elapsed from my first stab at the FSOT to my first day on the job: 4 years, 5 months.

I tell you this not to scare you off, but to give you a realistic view of what's ahead of you. It can be done! To shamelessly steal a phrase from ΓΌberpatriot Stephen Colbert, I am America, and so can you! Every year a few hundred people make it through the gauntlet. There are a few amazing stories of very lucky and talented people who take the test on a whim and just sort of stumble through the process all the way into A-100, but those are rare cases. Mostly you have to really, REALLY want it. Also, so far I've found that the frustrating bureaucracy of getting into the Foreign Service is very similar to the frustrating bureaucracy you'll sometimes encounter in the Foreign Service while trying to get your job done. If the testing process makes you throw up your hands in despair, be comforted: this may not be the job for you anyway.

The Official State Careers Site: http://www.careers.state.gov/ is obviously the first stop for basic information on what the FS is, what FSOs do, and the process of becoming one. Some features I like:
  • Quiz: Is the Foreign Service Right for You? This one's pretty much a no-brainer (hint: the "right" answers are all "yes") but worth looking at for the second part of the quiz, on the downsides of FS life. It's not all exotic travel and cocktail parties (and sometimes those are less fun that you'd think), and potential applicants need to think seriously about the drawbacks. There's no point in suffering through the hiring process if you won't like the job.
  • Quiz: Which Career Track is Right for You? The FS career tracks (also known, somewhat ridiculously, as "cones") are a big deal. You have to pick one at the very beginning of the application process, and that choice will determine the kind of work you spend the majority of your FS career doing. Some tracks have fewer applicants and thus give you a better chance of getting hired, but beware: it is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT to switch career tracks later on, so you'd better like the one you sign up for.
  • The Official Guide to the FSO Selection Process - all the details, straight from the horse's mouth.
  • Foreign Service Specialists - Generalists seem to get most of the press, but the FS needs doctors and sysadmins and security guys too. If you have particular technical skills you can join the Foreign Service as a specialist and spend your whole career doing what you do best. The process is a little different (and I don't know much about it) but you can get all the details from State of course.
  • Short-Term Programs - the State Department offers a variety shorter work experiences for those who want to get a sample of what working for the Department is really like before taking the plunge. These include student internships, recent graduate programs, the Presidential Management Fellow (PMF) program, and professional fellowships for those further on in their careers. Limited non-career appointments of a few years are also available for those with certain language and technical skills.

Pickering and Rangel Fellowships: In its continuing quest to make the Foreign Service more reflective of America as a whole, the State Department works with educational institutions to attract and train women, minority candidates, and those with financial need through the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Program and the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship. These programs offer help paying for relevant higher degrees, an internship at the State Department, and other professional development opportunities. These are great programs and I had never heard of them until after I joined the FS, so if you think you might be eligible you should definitely check them out.


Boards and Forums: More than ten years old and still going strong, the Yahoo FS Forums are members-only groups for wannabe FSOs at each stage of the process. They are great places to get the latest hiring news, read test-taking tips, access unofficial crowdsourced practice materials, and share your triumphs and frustrations with people who know exactly what you're going through. Can you pass the test without the Yahoo groups? Yes, of course. Are you shooting yourself in the foot if you don't take advantage of them? Also yes.
  • FSOT: For those prepping for the written exam
  • FSOA: For those who have passed the written and are prepping for the orals
  • A-100: For those who have passed the orals but not yet been hired
The Yahoo groups are also a good way to find or form study groups, which I highly recommend, especially for the orals. If you live in the Greater D.C. Metro Area you have no excuse not to join a group, as there are at least two or three meeting weekly. If you live overseas or in the middle of a cornfield in Nebraska a Skype group might be your best bet. A study group is a great way to get comfortable with the test format and get some friendly constructive criticism to polish up your skills. It also sets a regular time for you to devote to test prep, something I found really helpful to keep from putting it off until right before the test and trying to cram at the last minute.

There is also a subreddit that serves many of the same purposes as the Yahoo groups. It also features active participation from current FSOs if you're looking for additional insight about what serving in the FS is really like.

Further Reading: There are some books you can buy to tell you about the FS exam and what life is like in the Foreign Service, and they're perfectly adequate, but there are literally hundreds of FSOs and prospective FSOs blogging about the test, their jobs, their families, and their lives overseas, and you can read all their blogs for free from the comfort of your sofa, right now. The American Foreign Service Association has an extensive list of blogs, and I've got some over there to the right, but you should also check out Life After Jerusalem, where Digger keeps the most thorough and updated list of FS bloggers in the right-hand sidebar.