IMPORTANT – Deadline for State Department Internships

You don’t want to miss the Oct 17 application deadline for unpaid student internships over Summer 2015


Half the interns will serve at the State Department in Washington, DC, while the other half will serve overseas in some of the 270 U.S. embassies, consulates, and missions.  It’s not clear how many internships there are, but get your application before the October 17 deadline to be considered.


Important reminder: begin the process to secure your security clearance ASAP.  This is the hurdle that trips up many hoping to work for the USG. 


The information about the internship program can be found here at USAJOBs or via Internship Applications.

As I’ve said before there is no better way to see if the Foreign Service is right for you than to work for 10 weeks as an intern.  Even better, since these internships are over the summer you will very likely be filling in for an FSO who will be on leave or transferring.  I’ve relied on interns as political officers over the summer in my overseas posts.  In Washington, it’s not unheard of for interns to assume the duties of desk officer in a regional bureau or program officer in a functional bureau.

Good luck!








Management 101: Don’t Let the Shit Float Up

Tips on How to Get Promoted in the Foreign Service.  If you can live with yourself…


More often than not, these guys (and most were men) did nothing of the sort.  And when I got back to Washington, first serving as a DAS in a functional bureau and later in a regional bureau, I was thrown under the bus by my so-called protective bosses.

I’d ask, “What happened to backing up my decisions, taking the heat for my decisions or arguments in meetings?”  The manager would typically stammer, hem and haw, and say something on the order of, “you’re in the big leagues now.  It means taking ownership for your decisions.  Trust me it won’t reflect badly on you.  In this building, no one makes decisions so someone who does is eventually valued.”

Bullshit.  The State Department has a thousand ways for the managers to cover their asses, and only one way to make a decision.  It’s easy to duck your responsibility — write an action memo to your boss or better still to your boss’s boss.  Pushing them to make the decisions.  As you’d expect, most of those came back with copious notes and no decision or the third box.  The first box is “yes,” the second box is “no,” and the third box is the principal’s response, which in so many words was “Don’t expect a decision on this from me.  Either send it to the Deputy Secretary or rewrite it to make it ‘less committal’ or better still spike it.”

No sour grapes (well, maybe a few), no unhappy camper, no respect within the building (but tons outside, where decision makers are actually admired)  To be honest, Washington, or at least the State Department runs more on non-decisions than true “yes” or “no” decisions…  Or wait until the crisis happens and then someone has to make decisions, usually at the highest level.  It is the essence of Edmund Burke’s conservatism.

In the Foreign Service, you will get promoted if you stay away from decision making..  You will get promoted if you don’t/don’t make waves.  You will be nailed and beaten down if you disagree with the higher-ups, even if they haven’t made a decision. You make a decision on something it’s your ass flapping in the wind.

Trust me, and forgive me my bitterness.  I still consider working as a Foreign Service officer the best job in the world, and certainly in the U.S. government.  It’s just with the passage of time, I see things more clearly.  And occasionally, just a few times, it irks me.

Pick your assignments carefully; pick your bosses very carefully  But that’s the subject of my next post.

Cheers and good luck,

Tom Hanks’s Great New Writing App (iPad only for now)

Okay, I haven’t written in a long time, but I wanted you to be aware of a new writing app that the Apple Store released yesterday.

And you know how I go on and on about how important writing is to pass the Foreign Service Exam and to boost your career once you get in….

So it turns out that Actor Tom Hanks apparently has a thing for old manual typewriters. Who knew?  Et voila, he’s created an iPad app — Hanx typewriter — mimicking the typewriters of old, click-clack, ding, and carriage return.

Will it help you pass the FSOT?  That, I don’t know. But if you find your writing energy slipping, this could be just the thing to get you back into the writing spirit.  Chin the writing spirit, something to recharge your batteries, then this is it.

Check it out…

And keep writing!






Preparing for the FSOT – Part Two

Can you prepare for the Foreign Service Exam?  It’s such a quirky, weird exam that wants to see if you know subjects ranging from Voltaire and Kant to Windows 7 and PERT charts.  How can one really study such varied and disparate subjects.

But I do believe that you can study for the FSOT.  And pass it.

My previous advice hasn’t changed — find the areas that you need help and focus your study there.  And just as important practice writing every day (seriously).

But in February the Board of Examiners has recently given applicants a wonderful present.  If you haven’t checked out the website in awhile, go there right now.  The gift is a full-length practice test, compliments of a Midwestern HR firm, Campion Consulting.

The State Department encourages you to take this test in one sitting when you are rested and won’t be disturbed.  The Examiners want you to prepare for the Exam ahead of time.   This is where I disagree.  To prepare as efficiently as possible, you should take the test without studying.  This will pinpoint your weaknesses.  When you review your results you’ll know whether you need to bone up on economics or British literature or the Cold War.

The Department also gives you a reading list to help you in studying.  Of course, the State Department cannot endorse these texts, and some of them are weak, but nevertheless it’s a good starting place.

I would also add the following books on general knowledge and on writing:







Full-Length FSOT Online Now

The State Department has recently announced that they’ve made available a full-length Foreign Service Exam online.  This is a great way to time yourself and avoid running late on the various sections.  You’ll receive your score after completing the test as well as an “estimate of your probability of passing an actual FSOT.”  Don’t worry about the passing probability, it’s probably a gimmick and inaccurate, but use the test score to show you where you’re weak and you need to study more.  No essays or Biographical Information Questionnaire or Written Essay(s) on this test.

Based your results on the practice Foreign Service Exam, the program will provide you with suggestions on study materials to improve your score.  Meantime, here’s a preliminary list from the practice FSOT

At the same time, the Human Resources announced they have switched FSOT administrators from ACT to Pearson VUE. It’s unclear why they opted to quit ACT, but presumably it was the result of a bidding process.  State insists that the transition will be seamless, and ACT will continue to take in FSOT registrations until March 14, when the registration process changes.

Apparently Pearson VUE will not go live until April 28.  Register here to receive an email informing you when Pearson VUE is stood up to receive registrations.

Pearson VUE will contact all applicants who completed their registrations on ACT with instructions on how to create a new registration profile.  With this new account, you then log in to select your test date and site.

So, plain and simple:

  • you can register on ACT until March 14;
  • after March 14, neither ACT nor Pearson VUE will accept registrations.  Consider it a dead period;
  • in late April, Pearson VUE will go live and accept new registrations; and,
  • if you had registered on ACT, Pearson VUE will contact you to re-register on their system and pick your test date and site.

As always, good luck.







New Requirement in the Oral Assessment

The State Department announced today that a three to four minute “Ambassador’s Debrief” will be added to the FSOT for each applicant right after the Oral Assessment’s discussion exercise.  The change will come into force March 3.

No great surprise and nothing to lose sleep over.  You will be doing a lot of this in your Foreign Service career, and probably do it now as a student or employee.

In short, immediately after the discussion section, you will be expected to brief two assessors, one of whom will act as ambassador, on the group’s decision and the rationale.  You can take notes during the discussion, but you won’t have access to the notes for your briefing.

I believe that since there’s only a little time to brief — four minutes — you’d be best served by first going over the facts — who, what, where, when.  After the decision, you should handle the “why.”  The rationale.  First, discuss how the group arrived at the decision, highlight the alternative options (a key piece of info for any boss in the Foreign Service), and describe any dissenting views.

A change in the Assessment, especially adding an exercise, is always something to take notice of.  But really you should be able to handle this easily, and it will give still another way for the assessors to see how well you brief, answer questions and think on your feet.

The Foreign Service says that you should practice your “oral briefing skills.”  Duh.  But honestly this is only a minor change.  You’ll sit through the whole discussion session and follow the formula — decision, rationale, dissenting (or interesting views) — and you won’t go wrong.  Give the facts, and when the “ambassador” asks you questions — did you agree with the decision, why the decision doesn’t seem sensible, etc — hit him or her with your opinions.

Consider this an extemporaneous portion of FSOT.

Good luck and crush it.















The Debriefing (a new component added effective March 3, 2014) 

The Ambassador’s debrief simulates a situation frequently experienced by FSOs. Following the conclusion of the group’s discussion, each candidate will have three to four minutes privately to brief two assessors on the results of the group’s deliberations. One of these assessors will play the role of the Ambassador and ask the candidate several follow-up questions, while the second assessor will escort the candidate from the group exercise room to the interview room. Both assessors remain in the room for the duration of the conversation. Since the dynamics of each group will vary, a candidate’s ability to prepare for the debrief will be limited. However, candidates may find it useful to practice oral briefing skills. It will also be critical that candidates fully understand the group’s final decision and the rationale that led to that decision. Although candidates may take notes during the presentation and discussion phases, these notes will not be available during the Ambassador’s debrief.

Consular Work

I wrote this response to someone who emailed me about the Consular Track.  I was a Consular officer during my career, I tried to give her an idea from what I experienced in the field.  

I joined the Foreign Service as a consular officer in 1988. I worked in consular sections in Guayaquil (Ecuador) and Lusaka (Zambia). As I hoped, they were very different experiences. Guayaquil had a huge visa volume in Nonimmigrant and Immigrant visas. In NIVs, a typical day involved interviewing 100 applicants. In IVs, there were fewer, maybe around 10, but they were also more complicated, and had it not been for the skilled and experienced locally employed staff, I would have been lost.

Guayaquil had about four or five consular officers, and we rotated as the chief of each section for 6-12 months. I particularly enjoyed the work in American Citizens Services, helping AmCits in various ways, from renewing their passports to visiting them in prison. It was a lot of fun and responsibility for a 20-something. Sometimes scary, too, wandering through the prison yard of a Third World country surrounded by thieves, drug dealers and murderers. Most of the American prisoners were in jail because they deserved to be in jail. If they hadn’t been locked up in Ecuador, they would have been locked up in the United States. Still, they were basically a good lot and I enjoyed getting out of the office to visit them.

I chose Lusaka for my second post because it was such a small consular section, but it could be something I controlled completely. It also got me a seat at the weekly country team meeting, chaired by the Ambassador. As the only FSO, helped again by able LES’s. I handled NIVs (10-20 a day), IVs (3-5 per week) and the myriad ACS cases, including the typical sort of crazy cases. In one, we heard about two elderly AmCit sisters — Madeline and Ruth — who had fallen sick in a faraway corner of Zambia. They had come to Africa to travel on their Social Security checks in part to see the continent, but also to “help the heathen.” Ruth had died quickly of an apparent case of cerebral malaria in Luapula Province.

Madeline was desperately sick and survived because of two Dutch volunteers who cared for her 24/7. She was admitted at a rural hospital whose heyday was probably in the 1950s. The windows were broken, the building was falling apart and it hadn’t been cleaned and painted for 10+ years. The pharmacy had aspirin but not much else. Somehow the Dutchies had scrounged up quinine and IV drips and kept her alive, and, slowly, miraculously, Madeline survived and got better.

We had brought a body bag and coffin from the Embassy to bury Ruth. Embassy workers strapped the coffin to the top of the Land Cruiser. My LES, Jacob, had warned me that we’d have trouble finding a driver. It was a typical African experience. A coffin on the roof was going to bring bad luck. In the end, only 1 driver out of 15 stepped forward, and he admitted later that he did it because they doubled the overtime rate to entice a driver. He too believed it was bad luck, but was a born-again Christian with four children who needed school uniforms.

En route to Luapula Province, we succeeded in scaring the bejesus out of scores of Zambians. In one gas station, everyone including the attendant fled when we pulled in. Emerson filled the tank and left the money on the pump. Finally, after at least 10 hours of driving — Zambia is a huge country — we arrived. I visited with the sister in the hospital and identified the sister in the “morgue,” which had seen better days. Bodies in the tropics don’t last long without refrigeration. Remember, I warned you. I understand they now take consular students to the Arlington morgue to get acclimated.  Ha, nice try…

We squared the death certificate with the hospital and police chief, and organized Ruth’s burial the following morning with an Anglican priest and gravediggers. We went out to look at the graveyard that had a huge new section, the mark of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that was killing thousands of Zambians every year. It was 1992 and tens of thousands more would die before ARVs became available. (That’s another story). , The following day, with Madeline’s permission, we buried Ruth in a small but dignified ceremony.

Madeline continued her recovery. The Dutch volunteers were saints and a couple of weeks later, Madeline flew down to Lusaka. We found her a room at the convent of a local order of Catholic sisters. She continued to grow stronger, and we finally helped her fly back to Kansas. She wrote to thank me six months later me. She said she had ruled out any more trips to Africa, but was interested in Mexico. No problem, I thought, she’s not in my consular district, a phrase you’ll use often as a consular officer overseas.

It’s true what they say — consular work can be dull at times — but it always gives you the best stories (and memories).

Back to your original question:

Consular Track officers usually are promoted quickly through the lower ranks, in part because consular work is mandatory for all new officers and consular officers start managing LES’s from their first tour and FSOs in their third or fourth tour.

— at the FS-03 level, you’re likely to be the NIV, IV or ACS unit chief at a medium-sized embassy. Or a deputy chief at a large embassy (Mexico City, Seoul, any of the PRC jobs, Colombia, etc). Or the lone officer at an isolated consular job, like Lusaka.

— at the FS-02 level, you’re the Consul General at a medium-sized embassies or the unit chief at a large embassy. Technically only an officer at the FS-01 level and higher should be referred to as Consul General, but it’s use is accepted in the Foreign Service.

— at the FS-01 level, you’re the CG at a larger post, but typically not the largest, which are typicallyreserved for Senior Foreign Service officers.

Remember, if you get tenure, you’re guaranteed a career of 20+ years and retirement at the FS-01 level, which is a pretty good deal.

Your overseas tours will be interspersed with stints in Washington, DC. Consular officers serve on country desks and regional or functional bureaus as well as in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, including offices handling visa, child protection, adoptions, passport and other ACS functions.

You’ll also need to put in time at the Foreign Service Institute for advanced consular and management/leadership training as well as language school.

I think there’s a multifunctional requirement now to be promoted into the Senior Foreign Service. Consular and Management officers are supposed to spend at least one tour in the more policy oriented tracks – Political, Economic or Public Diplomacy.

And occasionally, but not often enough, the Department nominates a SFS consular officer to be an Ambassador, usually at a small, fairly isolated place in South America or Africa.

So, I’ve given you both — the crazy, if sad, consular story and the path upward in the Consular Cone or Track. I hope it helps. You should also visit the and read about ACS and Visa issues. It won’t help you on the exam, but it will give you a better idea of the work you’ll do as a consular track officer.

My path was different, and yours will likely veer too. It all depends on what work you like. I enjoyed managing people as well as writing cables and analyzing politics, economics, social issues, etc.

As for me, I did back-to-back consular tours in Guayaquil and Lusaka, and then returned to Washington to work in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs focusing on African security issues.

Next, I went back overseas as the Political/Economic chief in Bamako. From Mali, I went to Hermosillo, a good-sized consular post in Mexico made even larger by the new Border Crossing Card program.

I left consular work again to serve as Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) in Lomé. After three years, I became DCM in Kampala. Following those tours, I returned as a Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) in the refugee bureau.

Three years later, the Assistant Secretary in African Affairs hired me to serve as DAS in the AF Bureau. After three years — a lifetime in Washington — I retired in 2012.

No one follows a predictable path in the Foreign Service. But that’s why it’s such a wonderful and exciting job. The world’s wide open, and if you don’t like your job you only have to wait a year or two to go to another.

Best of luck in taking the exams. Serving as an FSO is the best job in the Federal Government…


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