shake it off
Yesterday was handshake day: the end of two months of nerve-wrecking lobbying for those Foreign Service Officers who received onward assignments and the beginning of the second round of stressful scrambling for those who did not. D knew well in advance of the formal announcements that he would be without a handshake, a first in his FS tenure that significantly raises the likelihood that next summer he will have a career but no job to go with it.
Of course, this was also the first time D’s bidding was constrained by our recently acquired tandem status. In effect, D was pursuing jobs at only one post, and a highly popular one at that. There were several positions that were open, but only one at which he had a realistic shot, and though D made the candidate short list, he landed nowhere near the top of it.
D played all the cards he could think of, networking aggressively, calling in high-level references, looking up hiring managers on social media to identify colleagues they had in common. It was not enough to overcome the underlying bidding math: D had never served in Asia and there were plenty of qualified candidates within the bureau who had — and had much better connections as a result. With a couple dozen bidders on each position, landing a job in Manila was always going to be an uphill climb.
Several colleagues have written to express dismay that our tandem status had not carried more weight. Sadly, the Department has become less accommodating to FSO couples in recent years. That there are now more tandems (roughly 15% of the Foreign Service) also does not help with our particular predicament. D had had several positive interviews, but hiring managers had also told him that there were other tandem couples gunning for the same jobs. There are no special snowflakes in the State Department; the bureaucracy grinds on without a care. That this setback was entirely expected is, perhaps, the most disappointing aspect of the situation and points to a larger problem that will dog us throughout our tandem career.
It is demoralizing to have multiple doors metaphorically slammed in one’s face, to be told that one is not competitive for jobs for which one is initially assured one is eminently qualified. Perspective helps. Only 35-40% of bidders secure a handshake in the first round, so D has plenty of company in what one similarly-situated colleague termed the “sad puppy club.” That D had been offered positions he sought on the first go in both of his previous two mid-level bidding attempts had shielded us from the harsh realities of the FS assignments process, which — frankly — seems broken. One colleague, for example, confided that this was the first time she had received a first-round handshake in five tries.
Still, it is still too early for panic mode. Handshakes sometimes fall through, people curtail, additional jobs open up, so it is possible a Manila position might still materialize. And if one does not — as appears likely at this stage — there may be other opportunities. For now, we have to wait a couple of days for the dust to settle, shake off the disappointment, and renew our apparently quixotic quest to serve together.