How to Become a USAID Foreign Service Officer

Concept illustration of hiring the best candidate. The graphic s

As all government employees are aware, unless one is fortunate enough to fall under a “special hiring authority”, the Federal hiring process is often long, opaque, and sometimes painful. I was hired for my Federal position as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) and was fortunate enough to be hired under the special authority that makes it easier to hire RPCVs. I simply sent in my resume to a job I saw on a listserv, was interviewed a month later, and hired the following month. It isn’t so easy for Foreign Service Officers. FSO positions require much more selectivity than run-of-the-mill bureaucrat jobs. Below is a rough timeline of H’s yearlong application process–and this does not yet include additional training or even mission placement. This is just to get hired. Disclaimer: This is what I remember from our conversations about the process. I’m probably leaving stuff out, but still…it’s a long, long process.

  • December 2015: Initial Application–H’s FSO Contracting backstop (career track) was advertised on USAJobs and I think she was notified internally that a posting went out online. From my recollection the job was posted for 30 days.
  • January 2016: Referred to the Selection Committee–A month after she applied, H’s application cleared some “pre-hurdles” and her status on USAJobs indicated that her application was referred to the Selection Committee, who looked at what was left of the 1,000 or so people who applied to determine if they were good candidates to be interviewed.
  • January 2016: Received Interview Date–She received her interview date pretty quickly. Fortunately she had ample time to prepare. She got together with some coworkers on the weekends who also applied and they all practiced general potential interview questions and practiced discussing technical parts of their jobs.
  • End of March 2016: Interview–this was slated to be an all-day interview. H reported to USAID at 9am with 3 other Contracting Officer candidates and finished up at 4pm. The “interview” was broken up into 3 parts, each of which lasted up to a few hours. First up was a technical writing piece where she had an hour to review some information and then write a memo about it. This is something that she does as a normal part of her job, but writing these memos apparently normally takes significantly more than an hour to write. Next was a “group work” piece where she and the other candidates had to discuss the information that they all wrote the memo about and come to a consensus on a way forward. They then had to present it to the interview board, who was watching the “consensus discussion” the entire time, looking for (I’m guessing) technical knowledge, leadership, critical thinking, and teamwork skills. Last was a panel interview, one vs the interview board. I don’t know what they asked her or if they threw her any curveballs, but she did well enough on this and the other two parts to pass. However, we didn’t find out for 2-3 agonizing weeks.
  • A note on interview scoring (this is what I’ve pieced together from H’s conversations with people and may not be entirely factual, at least in every instance): From what I understand and what H has gathered from this process, USAID determines what the minimum interview score will be for an interviewee to be successful and the number of people they are able to hire each time an FSO position is advertised. Anyone who scores below that minimum at the conclusion of their day-long interview will not be hired. For those who score above that minimum, only a predetermined number of interviewees would receive an offer. This means that if 10 of the 20 interviewees passed the minimum score, they would all be offered a position if they had determined that they would hire at least 10 people. If they only want to hire 10 people and 12 people passed the interview, the bottom two scores would not receive an offer even though they also passed the minimum interview score. Furthermore, each of the three pieces of the interview is individually scored and must meet the same minimum score individually to receive an offer. So in theory, you could pass the overall cumulative interview score, but if you scored really low in one part and really high in another, the low score in just 1/3 of the interview would disqualify you. For example, if the overall minimum score was 4.5/5 and someone received a 3.5, 5, and 5 on the three parts of the interview for an average of 4.5, which is an overall passing score, their 3.5 score would take them out of the running since it was lower than the 4.5 minimum that they had to score in each part of the interview. Lastly, if you are proficient in a language, you can be assessed by the Foreign Service Institute and, if you receive at least a 3/5, you get an additional .15 added to your overall score, which could make the difference between making it in or not. H was assessed in French and received a 5/5 score, so she was able to get the extra .15 added to her score, but she was told in her debrief after she found out her results that it wouldn’t have mattered because she had already passed the minimum score for the interview before the .15 was added.
  • Mid-April 2016: Received notification of successful interview–Yay! Now what?
  • Mid- April 2016 to late June 2016: Reference checks–Time to hope that the people who said they would say good things about you still want to say good things about you. They’re top of the Christmas card list.
  • End of June 2016: Received pre-Employment Letter–There are many pages of documents to fill out and submit, and we had about one month to find time to get physicals done for the whole family at the State Department medical center, blood work (and re-work, more on that in a second), fill out pages of medical history information, etc. They’re making sure that we–and our toddler–are healthy enough to be considered for worldwide availability. This means that we are healthy enough to be placed anywhere in the world. I had some bad Indian food the night before my physical and blood work and had some pretty bad food poisoning the day of. I was required to fast from midnight until my 8am appointment so I couldn’t hydrate that morning. I nearly threw up in the Foggy Bottom metro station and stumbled down the street to my appointment. It was stifling hot and humid and I eventually vomited in some bushes down the street from the State medical office and chewed some gum to eliminate that taste from my mouth. That stick of gum caused my glucose levels to spike and I had to go back the following week for follow-up blood work (just to make sure, ya know). I had to lead an office-wide meeting that afternoon and all I wanted to do was go home and rehydrate. I also had the great privilege of holding our toddler while he had his blood taken. That was probably worse.
  • July 2016: Submit employment paperwork and entire family undergoes medical screenings, including blood work, medical history, and physicals. See above. Submit package to obtain Top Secret security clearance to USAID’s security department.
  • Early August 2016: Received notification that all family members have been medically cleared–Not a huge surprise, but our boy was cleared first and H was last (the doctor thought her neck looked “fat” and had her undergo thyroid screenings to make sure there weren’t any issues in that department. As we both suspected, her thyroid was just fine but her neck was officially offended). Another hurdle cleared, another box checked.
  • Mid-August 2016: Signed employment letter contingent on receiving TS clearance–I think it was around this time when someone in HR cc’d H’s supervisor on a pre-employment email despite H specifically asking them not to, because she wanted to wait until she was 100%, for sure, absolutely in. I guess it made that conversation easier because it was already out in the open and on the table.  The good news is that her supervisor supported her 100% and H is actually back in her old team and doing her old job while she awaits post assignment/travel orders.
  • End of August 2016: Received invitation for Orientation.
  • September 2016 – October 2016: FSO Orientation–Out of around 1,000 people who applied in December 2015, about 90 were interviewed and 20 were hired to be Contracting Officers for USAID. Five, including H, made it to Orientation, which consisted of 18 new FSOs from various backstops. S and I went to H’s graduation in October, which was at the USAID headquarters at the Ronald Reagan Building (RRB). I finally got to meet the other 17 new hires that she always told me so much about. I felt like I already knew many of them pretty well and just had to match a face to the name. As I read through their class “yearbook” that was handed out at graduation, it hit me again how interesting, super qualified, and well-traveled everyone was! Not that H isn’t all of those things, but it’s just pretty incredible to have so many like-minded amazing people in the same room. They maybe did or could make quite a bit more money in the private sector, so kudos to them for their public service and their future careers. It’s a popular thing these days to say nasty things about government employees, but we have known a few FSOs at State and now many at USAID and these folks are super competent and fascinating and some probably give up getting some pretty fat paychecks in order to serve their country in the foreign service.
  • End of November 2016: TS clearance granted!

But wait, there’s more! Or, there will be. We are still waiting on our options for posts. We have our personal list whittled down to our top 7 or 8, but it doesn’t seem like any of those places will be part of our options when it comes time to discuss our assignment.  Ultimately it isn’t our decision; the first tour is a “directed assignment”, which means the Agency slots you into a Mission where they need you the most to get you into the FSO system, then a year before your assignment ends in that post, you get to “bid” from a list of open positions around the world on your next post and will have more control over where you go.

In either assignment process, the Agency does its best to take into consideration our preferences, needs, family situation, etc. The level of conversation and input you have seems to depend on what your backstop is. Fortunately, the Contracting backstop team seems to be relatively transparent and it looks like we’ll be given a list of countries to discuss with the placement team for our first post.  The rumor is that a decision will be made by March (or, more specifically, “Between January and March”).

And that’s the FSO Hiring Process in 1200 words or more.

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