Archives for 2013

Foreign Service Exam: The Most Important Language

Folks, I hear from a fair number of people and see questions on the various forums about the Foreign Service Exam. One of the top questions is how do your abilities in foreign languages help you get into the Foreign Service. Unfortunately, except for a slight bump on the registers at the end of the selection process, they don’t help you on the Foreign Service Exam.

What is the critical language to master for the FSOT?  English. Hands down.

I’ve talked about this in previous posts —  How to Improve Your Writing 30 Days and Suggestions on Writing Your Personal Narrative — but the Foreign Service relishes and promotes on your ability to write. There are agencies in town wedded to PowerPoint and other trickster ways to avoid ideas in a narrative. The State Department still lives or dies by the written word.

We’re all familiar with George Kennan’s “The Long Telegram,” a 5,500-word treatise on why we should not deal with Stalin and the Soviet government . I’m not sure that anyone at State would read such a long cable today, but he followed it up with a shorter article in Foreign Affairs, published as the work of “X.” Both of these served to shape what we came to know as our containment policy towards the Soviet Union.

I’m not pushing you to write lengthy cables that probably won’t be read.  I’m simply arguing that writing has not/not gone out of fashion in Foggy Bottom.  The flourishes of Kennan’s writing likely wouldn’t be appreciated today either. Short, crisp, and factual writing is of critical once in your in the Foreign Service, and it’s equally important to pass the Foreign Service Exam.

Don’t underestimate English’s importance on the test. The Examiners want to hear about you, your experiences and perhaps more importantly how you learned through trial and error and occasionally falling on your face. Humility goes a long way in your FSOT writing, especially in the Personal Narrative section.

So while your skills in a foreign language — hard languages, in particular — will go a long way in your careers. You need to master English to pass the test.

As I recommended in my previous posts, there are a number of good books out there to help with your writing.  Below is one of the best.  It’s honest, straightforward and a quick read. Take another look, if you haven’t already.

Bon courage,


Apologies for My Absence

Sorry for my long absence. I’ve started working on a telecoms start-up — — and it has sucked up all of my time. But in a good way.

We at Vanu-Africa (all five of us!) have the passion to provide access to cell phone and data service to rural Africa. In addition, the technology will provide internet wi-fi and battery charging stations. The equipment we use is completely green, can help provide jobs, and open up rural Africa like never before.

Up to now, all African countries have leapfrogged over landlines and embraced the cellular telephone. While Smartphones only make up about 20 percent of the market, more African countries are upgrading to 4g and LTE networks. In fact, in 2013, the number of cellphones in Africa (admittedly a larger population) has surpassed the number of cellphones in the United States. Mobile banking, telemedicine, literacy and other education programs are ramping up.

But in spite of these recent gains, rural Africans have been left behind. Carriers have balked at installing cell towers outside of metropolitan areas because of the expense (~$250k plus recurrent costs for diesel generators and fuel) and what they perceive as a marginal rate of return. Under government pressure and subsidies, carriers in Tanzania and a few other countries are pushing out into this large, if still untested, market that makes up at least 50 percent of Africa’s growing population.

And that’s where Vanu Africa comes in with a couple of solar panels, lithium ion-batteries and a 50-foot pole to provide access up to 1,200 subscribers and a signal that can reach up to three kilometers.

The heart of this technology is the CompactRan. Developed by Vanu Bose (the son of Amr Bose who founded and ran the Bose Audio company), the CRan is literally a network in a box that weighs 15 lbs. and draws only 50 watts of power.  This is no crazy untested machine; in fact, Vanu is installing them in rural Vermont to improve services there.

I will be writing more about the FSOT, so please stay tuned…

Best, Bill

Foreign Service Exam: First Conference Call; Here’s the Link

Thirty-five callers joined the first conference call last night, Thursday, September 26.  The call lasted about nearly two hours minutes, and the questions were excellent, ranging from how will the sequester affect hiring in FY2014 to how is the culture inside the Foreign Service.

You can find the recording here —

I am sending the MP3 file out for transcription, and I’ll try to provide a Table of Contents or Index to make it easy to search.

Thanks again for the participation.  I’m planning to do another conference call or Webinar in the near future.  Sign up for my  monthly newsletter to stay abreast of conference calls and podcasts.

Cheers, Bill









Free Conference Call with 24-Year Veteran of the Foreign Service

Hi Folks–

I’m back again and am curious to know how many people are interested in joining me on a conference call to talk about the Foreign Service as a career.  I’m willing to field all questions, including those from anyone with questions about the October FSOT.

I have some free time later in the week, and I’d be willing to host the call for about an hour, maybe a little longer if people have a lot of questions.

Someone contacted me yesterday to ask if offered tutoring.  I begged off, but I would like to lend a hand to everyone.  If you have questions about life in the Foreign Service, how bad bosses State Department bosses really are, how do you decide on your career track before you have any idea what the different cones do…

This would be completely free with no obligation on your part.

Please let me know by posting a comment.  If there is sufficient interest, I may do some Webinars in the future.  For now, let’s see how a conference call goes.

Best regards,

Bill Fitzgerald









Changes to


Thanks very much for being patient while I — a determined, yet clumsy WordPresser — make some overdue changes to my blog.

I will be adding more photos, start a monthly newsletter and publishing more content.

Let me know what you think of the website’s new look.






Department of State: Internship Applications for Summer 2014


The State Department has opened its application season for internships — domestic and foreign — for Summer 2014.  As I’ve said before, an internship at an embassy abroad is the best way to see if you really do want to work as an FSO.  You will have 10 weeks serving in a various capacities in a foreign mission, frequently in a developing country.

When I was DCM in Uganda, we had excellent interns during my three years there, including some who went on to join the Foreign Service, the Civil Service working in the State Department as well as overseas development NGOs.

In Kampala, we treated the interns as if they were officers, well, because they were officers.  No joke.  We were typically shorthanded over the summer — transfer season and R&R trips — so we relied the interns to fill the vacant positions.  Most served in the political and economic sections, but we did have some in the consular, public diplomacy and management sections.  

We also put the interns up in embassy housing which was open awaiting new officers or those gone for the summer.  This helped to defray the costs for the interns.

Why defray the costs? Because these are unpaid internships for undergraduate and graduate students.  These days, there’s a lot of controversy surrounding unpaid internships, likening them to slavery, but if you’re serious about the Foreign Service or Civil Service you reall should take part in this program, which the Department correctly points out is the only way for an undergraduate or graduate student to work in a U.S. Mission abroad.

About half of those accepted serve in Washington, DC or other cities around the country and the other 50% serve at embassies or consulates overseas.

All travel expenses, e.g., airfare, visa, passport, etc., are borne by the intern.

There are a bunch of requirements — at least a 2.5 GPA, for instance — and you can find instructions here.

You must complete the online application on the USAJOBS website and in addition to your biographical and education data complete the following:

• Select up to two (2) bureaus or posts abroad
• Specify a country or countries
• Include a well-written Statement of Interest
• Provide all required documents

NOTE: A couple of words of advice

— if you want to go overseas as an intern, pick a larger post abroad so you can be sure they’ll have empty slots to fill (Not all missions host interns every year).  In Africa, for instance, I’d recommend picking Ghana or Senegal over Togo, Kenya or Uganda over Burundi.

— if you speak or are studying a foreign language, put it on your application.  If you have an interest in a country or region, put it on your application and weave it into your statement of interest.  (On writing, remember no boring, stuffy academic writing in your statement, go for active voice, power verbs, clarity and succinctness.)

FINALLY AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, file for your security clearance ASAP.  too many students get tripped up here.  You need a security clearance and that process takes months.  You need to be able to handle documents and information classified at the SECRET and CONFIDENTIAL levels.

Good luck, and as always let me know if you have any questions in the comment box.
















Foreign Service Exam: Don’t Try to Game the System, Just Take the Test

The Foreign Service Exam is a difficult test to pass.  Don’t make it any harder.  It’s difficult, even a waste of time, to try to game this test.

During the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen arguments put forward on forums that the State Department wants to build up the ranks of the Consular Corps or the Political Cone or the PD Career Track.  So, as the advice goes, it’s a good time to make Consular, Political, Public Diplomacy your choice of career track.

 The problem is the system doesn’t work that way.

Yes, the Department does make an attempt to estimate Foreign Service personnel needs, but it’s a snapshot at that moment.  I’m not convinced that because State HR believes there will be a shortage in Pol officers, for instance, they will increase the hiring numbers of political officers in one year’s time; that is, when you pass the written and oral tests.  Remember too that all career tracks are in a constant state of change — attrition at all levels, out-of-cone assignments (e.g., DCM jobs, Cons to Pol, staff assistants and so forth).  If the Department needs more political officers, are they really going to increase hiring for the Political career track in when you reach the register. I think not.  What they will do is take more poloffs who have already passed the exam and are on the registers right now.

In the end, stop overanalyzing the process, gaming the system and believing you have an edge. Ultimately, it comes down to you and the Exam so crack the books, work on your writing (you should be writing for 30 minutes every day) and get ready to take the FSOT.  


Another Database of International Jobs

Here’s another helpful job site for those seeking international jobs (you need to register, but it’s free)

This is in addition to the three sites I provided in yesterday’s post:


How to Find an Overseas (non-State Dept) Job

“Get a Job…”

 lyrics by Bruce Hornsby from The Way It Is


The great thing is that there are hundreds, thousands of international jobs that many of you can find right now.  The pay is good, the work satisfying and you will live overseas.  Plus you can do this faster than you can join the Foreign Service…

Sure, it helps to have a degree or two to get one of these international jobs, but there are plenty of entry level positions.  Some of the jobs are in the developed world, but many are located in emerging countries where opportunities abound.

A lot of the jobs focus on development, including health, social services, teaching and so on.  But others work in areas like good governance, democracy, human rights, refugees, conflict resolution, etc.  In other words, there are all types of jobs.

The following three websites are a great place to start your search:

Take a look at these and tell me what you think.  I’ll be adding individual organizations’  job listings in a coming post.  And then I’ll tell you about the easiest way to find a job overseas; it’s going to cost more and it’s not for the faint of heart, but I know scores of folks who scored a great job through this method.  Stay tuned.


What if You Can’t Pass the Foreign Service Exam?

The statistics are pretty bleak.  Amb. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the then-director general of the Foreign Service, told a Savannah audience in April the following startling fact:

  • in 2012, out of 22,000 applicants took the Foreign Service Exam, the State Department hired only 425 FSOs.

What does this mean?  Well, your chances of actually getting hired by the Foreign Service are pretty slim.  In short, you have a 1.9% chance of passing the exams and being offered a job.  Ouch.  It also means that it’s time for Plan B for most applicants.

Plan B is not something to be ashamed of…  We’ve all fallen back on Plan B in our lives.  I applied to Georgetown for undergraduate studies.  I didn’t get in (didn’t even get wait-listed!) so I decided to go to a school where I was accepted, the University of Chicago.  It was my Plan B school.

I want the features offered by a $2,500 a month 1-BR apartment in Washington, DC. I couldn’t cut the price so a I fell back on my Plan B, a $1,500 a month studio apartment in Washington, DC.  We fall back on our Plan B’s multiple times every day.

Of course, career choices are a big thing, a huge thing, really.  So falling back on your Plan B is the stuff of angst, pain and depression.  Okay, you can pick yourself up now.  And get on with your life.

But think about what you wanted from your Foreign Service career:

  • living overseas
  • an interesting and satisfying job
  • helping American citizens or people in general
  • advocating policy positions
  • a well-paying job with good benefits
  • the prestige of being a U.S. diplomat

Well, I would argue that except for the last tic you can — right now — apply for an international job that will give you all of the same lifestyle and benefits that you would earn as an FSO.

Think about it.  Yes, there is  a job out there for you that will get you out of the States, push you into a new culture, have you work with smart and funny and bright folks, and make decent, sometimes more money then you would in the ForeignHow Service.

What’s the catch?  Well, you’ve got to find these jobs and get off your butt and apply for these jobs.  And seriously there are thousands of such jobs around the world.

And I promise to help you find them.  This is for Katie helping me to get off my butt and write it.