Archives for May 2013

Preparing for American History on the FSOT

Do you need a quick brush-up on your American history?  Here is the way to get back up to speed.  This U.S. history version takes the same style as my previous post on Economics prep:

History of the United States – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Other categories:





Spring 2014 Internships Available at State; Apply Before July 1

As I’ve mentioned previously, a State Department internship is a great way to see if the Foreign Service or Civil Service is right for you.

These internships are targeted at undergraduate and graduate students who are interested in Foreign Service or Civil Service positions with the State Department.  Those interested in Foreign Service jobs can work at an embassy overseas and learn from U.S. diplomats on the job.  You will likely be asked to contribute or write cables and reports.  You could also participate in meetings with host country officials and foreign diplomats.

For those interested in work in the State Department, there are positions open in many Bureaus.  This internship will give you a firsthand look at how the State Department operates in Washington, working with our embassies overseas, handling multilateral and bilateral issues and understanding the work of the dedicated Civil Service experts. 

If you’re interested, you can find the notice at  Follow the instructions there.  You should also visit State’s website for careers for additional information on the Spring 2014 Student Internship Program (unpaid).

Of course, there is no guarantee of future employment, but especially for civil servants the key to finding a job at State or anywhere in the Federal Government is to get your foot in the door.  From there, through networking and building contacts, you could end up with a full-time position.

An important tip is that if you’re interested, apply as quickly as possible. Although there are more than six months before the internships become available, the vetting process takes a long time, especially background checks for your security clearance.  In my experience, it is the security clearance process that is the biggest hurdle, not because it’s complicated but because there are too few investigators making the checks.

Your application is due July 1, 2013.

Good luck!




Can You Change if You Pick the Wrong Career Track?

Yes and No.  Technically, you can switch “cones” (FS Speak for career tracks) during your Foreign Service career.  The Foreign Service use to call the delightful process “Conal Rectification.”  Bureaucratese at it’s best…

Anyway, in responding to a question from a reader earlier in the week, I realized that my earlier post wasn’t complete.  This fellow felt so trapped by the process he was delaying his registration for the June Foreign Service Exam while he debated which career track was right for him (Political, Economic or Public Diplomacy).

I agree with him that it’s a big decision.  In my day, you got your written scores broken down by career track (except for PD, which was still under the US Information Agency), and as I recall the higher your score the more likely you’d get a job offer.  You still had to pass the oral exam, medical tests and security clearance, but the cone choice was farther along in the process.  Unlike today, it gave you a rational reason to pick a cone.

Now, of course, you’re selecting a career track as part of the first step of registering for the FSOT.  Some, perhaps many, applicants don’t have a clue about the differences between cones.  And why should you?  You could be lucky and have a friend or family member who’s been an FSO or you’ve reached out to form a network of FSO mentors.  The correspondent fit the latter category, and I guess I became a member of his network.

Anyway, I’ve included my response below.  I hope it helps:


It’s a tough decision.  The Department made a bad choice in forcing the career track decision before you actually take the FSOT.  How is a newcomer going to know what type of work they want to do.

Anyway, here’s my advice:

1) Reach out to the nearest diplomat-in-residence to ask your questions.   Also, if you know any other active duty or retired FSOs, post the questions to them. The more FSOs you talk the better you will understand the career tracks and the better your decision will be;

 2) Read all of the advice on Careers.State.Gov.  It really is an excellent website.

 3) Don’t count on being able to switch career tracks after you join in the Foreign Service, especially moving into the Political career track.  I came in as a consular officer because I like managing people and helping Americans.  My background was as a journalist and editor and the consular “cone” began to chafe during my second tour in Zambia, where I was head of the consular section.  Fortunately I had a compassionate DCM who took pity on me and began to throw parts of econ and political portfolios to me, including health (HIV/AIDS) and environmental issues like wildlife poaching and that sort of thing.  I still liked consular work but I wanted more writing and analysis.

After an okay tour in DC, I bid on a Pol/Econ slot in Mali, one of the toughest places to serve in the Foreign Service.  I say that because I thought it wasn’t going to be high on anyone’s bid list.  Indeed, there was only one other bidder on the position.  She didn’t want to go to Mali — but she was a political officer. Normally, the assignments panel would automatically place her in the position.  Luckily, the head of junior assignments was (is) a great guy.  He saw how much I wanted the job, had the background and the French.  He went pleaded my case before the panel.  The assignment went to a “shoot out” (sorry for the FS lingo; you’ll learn it quickly when you join.) between me and the political officer.  Again, the junior assignments guy was very persuasive, and I squeaked by.  Remember, however, that I had to fight like crazy to serve in one of the least glamorous posts in the world.

There is a formal process for switching cones, which does work between Consular and Management cones, and even with the more sought after tracks, like PD and Econ.  However, it’s virtually impossible to switch into the Political career track.  At least in my 25 years, I never heard about someone successfully shifting career tracks into Political.

The Political career track remains the Holy Grail of the Foreign Service. Most people aspiring to join the Foreign Service want to serve as a political officer.  In my 25 years in the Service, I never heard of someone successfully switching into the Political cone.  So if you’re eager to become a political officer, put it down as your choice when you register.

The Economics and Public Diplomacy career tracks are less sought after, although PD is growing in popularity.  There is some movement between these two cones.  Likewise at entry and mid levels, there are a lot of Political/Economic jobs that Economic officers can bid on and compete with Political officers.  (Anyone wanting to switch into the Consular or Management career tracks usually has no difficulty.  It doesn’t happen that much).

Now on your specific questions:

— you should take the June test, even if you’re still not sure.  Pick a career track and sit for the exam.  I can’t tell you which one, but it’s time to make a choice.  My own career was a bit haphazard — the plus for consular is that you get promoted faster and manage a lot more people.  When I reached -02 I took a DCM job at a small African mission.  A DCM job is mixture of all of the cones, and it was a fantastic experience. Some FSOs say that the DCM job is the best in the Foreign Service.  My last year I was the chargé, basically the acting ambassador.  Next tour, I went to Uganda, and again was chargé for the last year.  By the time I retired last year, I went for 12 years without a consular post.  Everyone’s career in the Foreign Service ends up being so different.

— on the environment jobs, yes, it can and should make up a lot of what an Econ officer does, but sadly it was my experience that it was frequently overlooked in favor of micro- and macro-economic issues.  There are regional officer positions that focus entirely on environmental concerns.  Surprisingly, those jobs don’t attract a lot of bidders, probably because FSOs are concerned that such a job won’t help them get promoted.  An interested PD or Pol  (or Consular or Management) officer could have a good shot.  They are typically at the -02 or -01 levels.

If you have any other questions, please let me know.  Good luck.









Mea Culpa


I screwed up

In my last post, I recommended you buy The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well and set up an account n   The website would motivate you to write at least 750 words (three pages) as practice.

However, I visited earlier in the week and discovered that as of May 1, the site is now asking for $5.00/month to use the website.

While I still think the site is excellent, kudos to Buster and Kellianne Benson who created it, I don’t expect you to pay $5.00 a month.

I have found a great  substitute — — which is still in Beta and free.  They count your words, give you a pleasant full display for writing, but they don’t have the kick you in the ass” reminders or passion that has.  Still, either use QuietWrite or use Word; the point is to practice.






How to Improve Your Writing in 30 Days

Just in Time for the June FSOT — Two Things to Bump Up Your Drafting Prowess and Another That Could Be Your Secret Weapon (A hint: Think Wiki and I’m not talking about Wikipedia…)

The results are not pretty. According to FSOs, the weakest skill among ELOs is writing.  ELOs handicapped with an academic style — ponderous, pompous, and slow — are met with eye-rolling and shaking heads.  In fact, FS managers prefer those with poor or no drafting skills than someone with an affected and long-winded style.  As I’ve mentioned before, there is a distinct  style to Foreign Service writing — short, straightforward, some style, a little funny and sexy.  Your subject lines and summary had better sing, if you want to get your stuff read in the region and back in Washington.  And that is the goal.  Regardless of career track, trust me, you want to get read…

Writing is the currency in the Foreign Service

I can’t emphasize how important writing is to the State Department.  It’s simple — the better you write, the better you’ll do in the Foreign Service.  If you want to be a political, economic or public diplomacy, you’d better write your ass off and get up to speed now.  Management and consular officers will also be judged by their writing.  Hell, everyone is judged by his or her writing.  

If FSOs Need to Write Well; FSO Candidates Must Also

I believe that writing is the major part of your Foreign Service Exam grade.  The FSOT examiners — State or private — will scrub your essays and personnel narratives to see how well you meet the needs of the Service. The good news is that I’ve found three ways to get you up to snuff in 30 days. First, you need to buy this book and study it.  Incorporate its lessons into your writing.  Those who know me, understand that I think journalists and writers have a leg up on everybody else in the Foreign Service.  Why?  Professional writers have to write clearly and quickly, both skills prized in the Foreign Service.

I had hoped to find an online course to help improve your writig.  But I failed.  I couldn’t find anything good.  Sure, there are plenty of courses for creative writing, screenwriting, novel writing, even poetry writing, but none on straightforward expository writing.  If you know of one, please let me know.

So I discovered the next best thing: a book.  A great book.  This book if you study its lessons will help you improve in time for the June test.

The author, Paula LaRocque, is a writing consultant, blogger and most recently a novelist. She has years of experience in training others how to write.  Her clients have ranged from reporters and editors at the Associated Press to academia, business and governments.  She has lectured and taught on writing in North America as well as overseas.  Equally important, Paula is a professional writer herself — not just a teacher — and worked as an Assistant Managing Editor and columnist for The Dallas Morning News.  She’s the real deal, and her book is an excellent resource to hone your own writing.  Yes, some of you swear by The Elements of Style, another excellent resource, but LaRocque’s book is meatier and offers better instruction.   (Full disclosure: I do make some money if you buy through the Amazon link above.  I use this to  defray the costs of the blog.  I appreciate your help)

Besides reading about writing, I think the best way for you to improve your drafting is by doing it.  With no online courses to offer, I am recommending a website that I use —  This is a free website created by one Buster Benson who wants you to write 750 words per day.  He thinks everyone should do it.   I think it gives FSO candidates an enormous opportunity to get ready for the Foreign Service Exam.  Take a look at it.  Frankly, I can’t think of a better way to boost your writing skills than by sitting down and writing yourself.  This site encourages you to write 750 words, roughly 3 pages, every day on your interests, as a journal, or just a record of your mood.  I think that you can start for the first few days writing whatever pops in your head.

Write Three Pages a Day

After writing about anything, you should start pulling stories out of the daily news and rewriting them in the form of a State Department cable.  The more you practice writing, the more your prose will improve.  It’s excellent practice not only for the FSOT, but also for your job or class.  Check it out and let me know what you think.  (Note: I  make no money from this site, and I’m not even sure that the Buster makes anything.  If I knew him, I’d ask…)

Okay, that’s my advice.  I really believe you can dramatically improve your writing with just these two aids — Paula and Buster…


Wait, I mentioned a third, compliments of the US Army, Bradley Manning and Julian Assange.  Disgusting and treasonous, the release of tens of thousands of State Department cables (which to this day officials neither confirm or deny) offers you a treasure trove of Foreign Service writing.  Remember, however, when you pass the test and join the State Department frowns on staff accessing the Wikileaks files on the Internet at work.  In fact, I have never looked at them until a week ago, when I thought of Wikileaks as an opportunity for FSOT takers.  I have never looked at them, not even when they were first released — as many State colleagues had — so I don’t know if my own cables were released.  I hope not.

Meantime, all of you who enter the Foreign Service will bear the fallout of the Wikileaks disaster.  I can tell you that Wikileaks has meant our sources dried up.  Who wants to tell anything to an U.S. diplomat when their previous comments are out there for anyone to see.  Don’t underestimate our enemies and allies — they’ve pored over the cables.  As a result, foreign officials as well as private citizens were fired,  jailed, perhaps even executed.  At least one U.S. ambassador was kicked out of his country. A catastrophe.  Your efforts overseas to recruit sources and contacts will be much harder.  You may not want to look at the leaked cables, and I can understand.  But if you’re interested in State Department writing, good and bad, they are out there.  Just Google them.














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.







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.