Pictures from Senegal

Wednesday, June 16

Foreign Service

I knew nothing about the Foreign Service before coming to Senegal. I try to keep my eyes and ears out for career opportunities that will enable me to fulfill much desired dream of living the expat life… but apparently I don’t know the right kinds of people or I’m not paying enough attention. This is evident in the fact that I didn’t investigate the Peace Corps until my 20s and no one really knew about it even while I applied. But the point isn’t Peace Corps, it’s the Foreign Service.

To be in the Foreign Service means to be an officer of the US State Department. This is the type of job you get in order to work the US embassies around the world. As I understand it, the job rotates countries of assignment every two years and comes with fun list of benefits including: ample vacation time and allowances, housing and health care completely covered, free shipping of my possessions around the world, and access to language and culture instruction. But anyone who really knows me understands that the ability to change countries every so often without having to go through the hell finding a job- well that’s the attraction.

There are 5 different departments within the ranks of Foreign Service: the consular, public diplomacy, economic, political, and management. I can attempt to provide a basic description as I get them, but I probably won’t do them justice. A consular officer works with the Americans abroad as well as VISA applications and fraud. Public diplomacy officers work like the PR department promoting the US and its culture, whilst learning the culture of the host country. Economics officers study the host economy happenings and provide linkages between entrepreneurs foreign and domestic. Political officers do just as one would imagine, schmooze with important people and spread the word of America. And management officers, the path I’ve personally chosen, operate as though the embassy was its own corporation with functions of human resources, finance and accounting, purchasing and contracts, etc.

From the get-go one has to choose their department, or cone as the lingo goes. I picked management because it’s what comes naturally, what I enjoy doing, and generally (I’m told) what I’m good at. A little background never hurt anyone either. It is worth mentioning that I did have strong interests in both the economics and public diplomacy cones. Economics because of my degree and general love of business opportunities (hello, small enterprise development volunteer…) and public diplomacy because I do so much enjoy planning events and explaining why Americans are the way they are. But alas, I have to follow my niche. It helps to hear that one can apparently take a sabbatical on occasion to work outside their chosen cone for a rotation.

Now that I’ve chosen a hypothetical career path, it’s on to the actual application. The process, like most government jobs, is a doozey. First up is a 3 hour long test. Depending on the results (a simple pass/ fail is all you’ll hear) they’ll ask you to write some personal essays. If you happen to speak a language deemed critical (Chinese, Arabic, etc) then someone will call you for an over the phone language test. The results of your test, essays, and language are sent to a panel for judgment; probably something like an HR review meeting after a first round of interviews. If you advance from this stage, it’s on to an oral exam done in a group setting with other contestants and a judgment panel in DC. They say this is the hardest part as many have not survived this round. Though if you do, you’re almost done, for all your scores are combined and you’re plopped onto a hiring list. Then one waits to be called up to service. And once you are, or maybe before, there are a few weeks of orientation and training in DC before heading out to your lucky embassy. I’m told your first few rotations are probationary… but soon enough one can earn tenure and enjoy the jet setting ex-pat life for a long time. Ah… to be so lucky.

Ok, before I get too ahead of myself in day dreams, I’m still back at the beginning. Preparation for the test was only mildly hindered by my current location. Realizing my 6 brothers are a constant distraction, I excused myself to Dakar for 4 days of study either pool side- catching some rays- or in the air conditioned office. Things could’ve been worse.

I did quite a few practice exams with multiple subjects as the exam is a scattering of knowledge: world history and geography, US culture, mathematics, communications, US history, US government, computers and IT, and English grammar. All these categories are conveniently lobbed into one (except English grammar which has its own reading and response section) which makes it only mildly less daunting. Two other phases are incorporated into the tests which are a 30 min opinion essay and a psychology questionnaire. The essay is similar to those found in graduate program entry exams such as the GMAT or GRE, and are more a demonstration of your ability to compose an intelligent response in a short period of time versus your actual opinion on something. The psychology questions ask your friends’ opinions of yourself (which I personally find odd because I rarely ask my friends how they feel I handle various situations). They also ask for short responses to basic interview questions like: “list your previous jobs where answering the phone was an important task and how you handled this,” only the kicker was one had to do so in 200 characters or less; basically in two sentences.

So, I practiced all of that for 4 days. And by the end of the last day I felt burnt out, and admittedly stressed. Not that there was any need to be. The test is free to take (you’re only charged if you don’t show up) and since I still have a year and a half of Peace Corps service left, there is no rush. So why then am I doing this now? …Because if I don’t pass the test I can retake it- but not for another full year. And since the entire application process can take around a year (assuming I pass everything first time around- because if I don’t I’ll have to start all over again from scratch the next year) I figured I might as well get started now to maximize my time.

Anyway, test time came and apparently I and two other Peace Corps Volunteers were the only interested parties. So we sat at computer terminals in a training facility located next to the US embassy in downtown Dakar for 3 hours of fun. I’d heard a lot about how hard the exam is… but I didn’t necessarily agree. Perhaps I did a good job of studying. Perhaps I’m more intelligent than I give myself credit for. Either way, I walked out with a good feeling. Sure, I got a few questions wrong (was there really an upside to Pearl Harbor? Debatable) and I could’ve used 3 more minutes on my essay, but overall a good performance on my part.

Next up… waiting. I won’t know the results of my test for about 3 weeks. So let’s all cross our fingers that Uncle Sam gives me a stellar birthday present (3 weeks lands us very near July 2nd). My friends in town have all said they’ve prayed for me… though I’m sure they assumed I would be automatically assigned the US embassy in Senegal (I’ll have to explain it later, I’m sure, but why ruin a good thing now?). In any case, I’ll take what I can get as this story seems far from over.

1 comment:

  1. Best of luck to you.

    You have the order a bit skewed. If you pass the test, you do the qualifying essays. But the language test comes after you have passed the oral assessment. The oral assessment is scored from 1 to 7, with passing being a 5.25. Most people who pass score less than a 6. After you pass, you have the option to test in a language. Depending on the language, you can get between .17 and .5 added to your score. As you can imagine, when the range of passing scores is 5.25 to 6, adding .5 is significant.

    Once you pass, you get your medical and security clearances. Then you are added to the register in order of score and clearance completion date, and they make offers at beginning at the top of the list. So if you and I each have a total score of 5.7, but you got your clearances done the day before me, you will get an offer for A-100 (the orientation class) before I do.

    I am sure with your experience, you will get an offer to take the oral assessment. Best of luck to you on it. In the meantime, if you are interested, check out my blog at I have a list of more than 200 Foreign Service blogs that will give you a slice of just about any aspect of FS life that interests you.