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on the horizon

Initially, we thought we would hold off on the announcement and simply share our observations on the bidding process. After all, we still have nine months left in Moldova and, when training is taken into account, almost two years will pass before we arrive at our next post. However, various friends wrote to say that the suspense might literally kill them. We wouldn’t want that to happen, so it’s time to spill the beans.

flag boy

Bidding is arguably the most unpleasant part of the Foreign Service, worse even than the annual evaluation process. Updating resumes, writing cover letters, interviewing, networking — in short, going through all the motions of a regular job search despite already being employed and having no intention of changing employers. It doesn’t quite match the stress of looking for a job on the open market, of course: at the end of the day, everyone gets assigned somewhere.

This is why friends outside the Foreign Service, who have to weather the vicissitudes of a normal job search, sometimes scoff at stressed-out FSOs. As one friend recently put it, it’s like getting all worked up about the seat one gets at the dinner table when everyone knows that nobody is going to go hungry at mealtime. The point is, of course, that the seats do matter. Before being sworn into the Foreign Service, all new hires sign a pledge — not once, but several times throughout the selection process — to be available for service anywhere in the world. And while we all agree to this condition of our employment in America’s diplomatic corps, it is also fair to say that most FSOs would prefer to be assigned somewhere they can envision being happy rather than be obliged to serve somewhere they don’t want to be.

Conventional wisdom holds that third-tour bidding — when one transitions from directed entry-level assignments to the normal bidding cycle — is the toughest. One’s network is small, and frequently third-tour officers are competing for jobs with colleagues who have one or two more completed assignments under their belt. And while all of our more experienced colleagues told us not to worry, that something would work out and that subsequent bidding would be markedly easier, the same people also noted that this was the toughest bid cycle they remember seeing. Early in the bid season, the Department released its human resource projections, and the numbers looked dire — due to the recent expansion, there are now more officers than overseas jobs. In some specialties, including D’s, the ratio of officers to overseas jobs approached 2:1. And we’re talking about the total number of overseas positions, not just those that are traditionally considered desirable.

Those who do not receive overseas postings serve in domestic assignments, mostly in Washington DC. And of course, there are those who prefer to serve in DC. We debated about bidding on domestic positions, but decided that for this cycle, given Munchkin’s age, DC was not a viable option. Typically, FSOs gravitate towards two of six regional bureaus, choosing a “major” and a “minor,” and serve out the bulk of their careers alternating domestic assignments with overseas tours in their chosen bureaus. Because we did not want to pigeonhole ourselves into a particular regional bureau just yet, our bid list wound up being completely scattershot.

We bid on two jobs in Latin America, two in Europe, two in Africa, and three in Asia, two of them at the same post. Most were at big embassies because they offered the best opportunities for spousal employment. Two posts interviewed D right away; both interviews went well, but D could read through the lines that he was not competitive for either job. There were too many interested bidders and many of them had been in the Foreign Service a lot longer than us. The hiring coordinator at one post emailed D on a weekly basis for a month to say how excited he was about D’s interest in the position; it was the only job we bid for which D never got an interview.

Our list changed several times. At first, we were excited about one of the Latin America jobs, but once it became apparent that having never served in the region D was unlikely to be considered for either position, we shifted our focus elsewhere. At times, it felt like we were playing an odd dating game. We were trying to gauge each post’s level of interest without committing ourselves while the hiring coordinators were going through a similar calculus with their list of prospective candidates.

Two weeks before bids were due, we finalized our list. Even though most of the posts where D had expressed interest did not seem to reciprocate his enthusiasm, we decided against adding any more positions. We had looked through the entire bid list several times and there were no other places that tickled our fancy. If nothing worked out we would adjust accordingly, we decided; it didn’t pay to put down positions in which we were only marginally interested just for the sake of being assigned somewhere during the first handshake round. If we did not get an offer on handshake day, we would go back to square one and draw up a new list from the positions that remained unfilled.

We chose a top bid, and D leveled all his lobbying guns at the position, asking the Ambassador and several other high-ranking contacts he knew well to put in personal recommendations for him. The only problem was that our #1 had upwards of forty interested bidders, and even with the weight of the Ambassador’s recommendation behind him, the odds were not in our favor. We also settled on a second post we really liked — one that had fewer bidders, and one where D knew the incumbent he hoped to replace. 

One final peculiarity of the bidding process is that the people doing the interviewing do not do the hiring. All of D’s interactions were with his would-be supervisors at post, but it’s the bureaus back in Washington that make the ultimate decisions. D was heartened when the supervisor at the second post on our list called to say that D was his top candidate, but it would be weeks before we’d know for sure whether D would receive an offer for the position. Finally, a few days before official handshake offers could be extended, D received the so-called “air kiss” email — notice from the bureau that they intended to offer him the job if he confirmed that he would accept it. It felt a bit like a marriage proposal. Having received no encouraging news from our top post, D happily said “I do.”

So, to make a long story short: we’re excited to be heading back to Africa — to Kigali, Rwanda, to be precise. The job does not start until the summer of 2016 because D will first learn French in DC, which means that — unless the State Department changes its mind — for the first time in quite a long time we’ll be spending the better part of a year stateside. We’re thrilled.

The image we used appears on myriad websites. Near as we can tell, the original posting belongs to Bugiri.

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Yay! Do you know when you come back stateside yet? Hope you’re in Portland.

    November 14, 2014
    • Thanks, Whit! We’re still a few bureaucratic steps away from negotiating our transfer timing. That said, we arrived here in August 2013, so August 2015 is a reasonable assumption for when we can expect to return home. D’s training aside, we’ll have a few weeks of home leave, and there’s a good chance we’ll swing through Portland then. We’ll let you know :)

      November 16, 2014
  2. Lissa Robinovitz #

    Congratulations on getting your second choice post! I hope to see you during your time in the U.S.

    November 18, 2014

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