Saturday, September 03, 2011

Thinking of being an OMS?

Life as an Office Management Specialist (OMS) – Five weeks in:
Let me start by saying that there have been few jobs in my life where every moment I was at work, I was actually earning my kibble, and I mean every moment, bathroom breaks and lunch aside, of course. Bartending on busy weekend nights; working at ski school during Christmas break; sale weekends at Mills Horse and Tack; the day shift in Everett PD Records and now here, Embassy Bogota. My previous job was more feast and famine, with busy times followed by days where we just kept the home fires burning and I had to dig up projects or work to do. But being an OMS at one of the largest embassies in the world is a whole different story.
I’ve taken the 12 Dimensions, the criteria upon which new Foreign Service Specialist applicants are judged, and have added my own definitions. First, the real ones:
And now how these dimensions translate into real life:
1.    Composure: The ability not to break into tears or hysterical nervous laughter when your co-worker or supervisor tells you that they’ve added a side trip to a remote city for that VIP visitor, “while he’s here,” and all the flight, hotel, motorpool and in-country travel clearances will need to be made. It’s 3:30 on Friday and he needs to leave on Monday morning. You then get three “out of office” replies to your go-to people in the travel section.
2.    Cultural Adaptability: The ability not to feel like a total fool when you walk into a store and the shop folks greet you with phrases that you only recognize as greetings from their context, despite months of language training and countless hours of homework. Add to this, the ability to gracefully exit when you realize, after 15 minutes of browsing through the clothing racks, that this is a maternity store.
3.    Experience and Motivation: It really helps if you WANT to feel out of sorts, uncomfortable and lost, at least for a little while. Either you’ve had this type of experience in the past – and liked it – or your motivation to serve the USG overrides the (hopefully) passing sense of “what have I done?” There should be some little corner of you that harbors an adrenaline junkie who can hit the ground running and thrive on things being not how you’re used to them.
4.    Information Integration and Analysis: Being able to remember how to use eight different new programs for travel, time and attendance, personnel evaluations, supply ordering, high side, low side, combinations, passwords, swipe card codes, plus the usual Microsoft suite of office software.
5.    Initiative and Leadership: Not ignoring/deleting that e-mail that says they’re looking for volunteers who are willing to give up their lunch hour for the next week to solicit donations in the embassy cafeteria for cause de jour that the Ambassador is standing behind.
6.    Judgment: Even though you’ve been working all week on Big Project #1, when Bigger Project #2 is suddenly thrust upon you and it’s full of yucky details you’re uncertain how to do – knowing that it truly is the new priority and Big Project #1 will have to be back-burnered temporarily. Sprinkle in lots of easy tasks that you can complete in “just a second” to get them out of your inbox and continue to reshuffle the priority deck when Even Bigger Project #3 walks through the door. The ability to know whose requests need immediate attention, and what can stew a bit.
7.    Objectivity and Integrity: Without these, you probably won’t get past the security clearance.
8.    Oral Communication: You will be working with some really, really smart people. Being able to express yourself in complete, coherent and somewhat intelligent sentences will be necessary to gain respect from coworkers and colleagues you will meet while representing the US. Oh, and do this in a foreign language, too, please.
9.    Planning and Organizing: This is my favorite dimension and perhaps one of the most important. Your email inbox will fill up every day with messages you’ve been copied on. You’ll need to discern: does this really apply to me now? What about tomorrow? Where will you find it in three weeks when someone says, “but I sent you a message with her phone number; can you find it for me? I need to call her NOW.” Remember that your email inbox has a strict size limit; you can’t keep it all. You’ll need to devise a system of sub-files for people, projects, miscellaneous, future stuff, might be important but I’m not sure stuff and then stuff you’ve deleted stuff. Same goes for the paper files, and remember that in two years – it will all have to make sense to the person who will take your place.
10. Resourcefulness: Oh boy is this one important. Fortunately, everyone realizes that we’re all new here and two or even three years in one place is barely enough time to become fluent in your work. Therefore you need to know who to turn to for what. This will usually be the locally engaged staff who are truly the skeleton of the embassy. Who is your friendly go-to for technical issues (like when the $#@#$ printer is doing “that thing” again!), or who in motorpool has a sense of humor when you have to cancel/change the van schedule one more time. Or who knows how to use that blasted new program that has been foisted upon you? How do you order (and design) business cards for the new officer? How do you get a cash advance for an invitational traveler? How do you procure interpretation services and equipment for a conference of 300 guests… by next week?
11. Working With Others: Can you be solution person, not problem person? Can you say, “sure – I’ll figure it out!” to the A-type coworker who has overextended his/herself… again? Can you avoid the temptations of office gossip? Can you be friendly at 0704 in the van to the embassy with that person who just drives you nuts?  What if your supervisor is one of the infamous “screamers” who we’ve been warned still lurk front offices worldwide? Are you willing to make and bond with some really amazing new people, only to have to move on in two years?
12. Written Communication: So much of our work is done through email now; can you express yourself clearly, politely and succinctly without sounding brusque or rude? Can you figure out the necessary business pleasantries in your new country’s language? And finally, can you write a stellar self-evaluation for your annual review that demonstrates everything you’ve done from the above list so that you can perhaps be considered for tenure or promotion? So that you’ll have more responsibility and more things to do at your next post….

Now, do all the above in a new country, time zone, climate, language, culture, food supply, sometimes with or without family support. I recommend the following exercise: run full speed towards a target about 100 yards away. At 96 yards, a whistle will blow and you’ll have to stop, turn and run as fast as you can the other direction. Then, after only 25 yards, there’s that whistle again and you stop, turn and run a third direction still not knowing if you’ll ever  know the relief and relish of reaching a finish line and a job well done. Lather, rinse, repeat. This job is not for the faint of heart and the USG is certainly getting their money’s worth!


  1. LOL -- thank you for giving me a perspective what is out there for me very soon. I do have some ideas for some of the questions you hypothetically posed...

  2. It is rare to find a blog from an FSS and even more refreshing that your blog reflects the life of an OMS. I applied for the OMS position this year and have read more and more blogs to learn about life abroad and gain more perspectives on the job of an OMS itself. I look forward to reading through more of your adventures!

  3. First of all, I'm thrilled to have found your blog. Thanks for all of your helpful insight, as I'm currently awaiting security clearance to become an OMS.

    I've read that you have recently switched from FSS to FSO — congrats! I've also passed the FSOT, but if I don't pass the narratives this time around, is it possible to take the FSOT again down the road (while employed as an OMS)? I've heard that the Mustang program hasn't gained much traction, and I'm worried about career longevity. How often do you see the switch from FSS to FSO?

    1. I'm glad my experiences could be of help to you Roya2016. To answer your questions: I did as you did - meaning applied for the two jobs at the same time (OMS and FSO) and did not make it through the narrative portion the first time around either. However, I did make it all the way through the process as an FSO the second time, and even took the orals while I was in language training to go to my first OMS posting. This is not a very common way to do it, but certainly possible. So yes, you can take the FSOT again even while you're working as an OMS. Depending on where you're posted, your Embassy might host the FSOT, or you could take it regionally somewhere else. I have to disagree with you about the Mustang program not gaining much traction, however. I have three OMS friends who are now FSOs through Mustang. One must be tenured first as an OMS and it shouldn't be considered a shortcut, as the standards are still rigorous. Career longevity depends completely on the person, really. Of my original class of 12 OMS: 5.5 yrs later, two are now FSOs, one left the service but then regretted it and is hoping to get re-hired and the rest are all happily out in the world working. They are two very different jobs and so one is not better than another - just depends on what fits YOU. Best of luck with the hiring process!

  4. Tabbies In Tow,
    First let me comment that I love how you have taken those adorable cats around the world with you!
    Secondly, I am applying to the OMS route and wanted to know if you have any tips for the application and interview process? I think this position would be a great fit for me. I appreciate your sense of humor and love reading your blogs. Any advice would be much appreciated!

    1. Hello Jennifer,
      I recommend that you check if the OMS Yahoo Hopefuls group is still thriving or not - I learned so much from that group about the whole process. And of course check out for any "what's the process?" info. It's been 6 years since I took the OMS orals, but you can find my best advice on this link:
      Good luck!

  5. Tabbies,
    I'm thankful to have found your blog.
    Question on OMS starting pay scale (that I haven't been able to locate elsewhere). With 18 years of qualifying service would you expect a person to start at FP-7 step 14? or some lower step? Also, what is the standard timing for promotion to a higher grade?

    1. Hello Jon, thank you for the kind words. To answer: there isn't a separate OMS pay scale, but rather the Foreign Service pay scale which you can find here: As you noted, OMSes start as FP-07s, and the step where someone starts depends on a review of your qualifications at time of hire. It sounds like you certainly have a lot of experience, but the HR folks do the calculations and come up with the actual number. Regarding promotions, there is an administrative promotion to FP-06 and the rest are competitive. I wrote a bit about this in a posting called "The Road Branches: OMS or Consular". I did just see that we now have one spot - like the star on top of the Christmas tree - for an FP-02 OMS. Not exactly ripping open the ceiling - but a start. Best of luck to you.

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. Great blog you have there! Have been invited to the OA’s late Feb and have been all over your site. I came across a statement, which I thought I’d post here. Diplopundit states the following:

    “OMSs are treated unlike any other group in the state department. OMSs often serve without diplomatic title which makes them ineligible for benefits like the issuance of diplomatic license plates and VAT reimbursement.”

    What’s your take on this? Thank you!!

  8. Hmmm... I can only answer to my own experience, which is now 6-7 years old. When I was an OMS I had an "AT" diplomatic license plate as opposed to a "CD" plate. (Administrative/Technical vs. Corps Diplomatic is how I recall the difference). The only difference I encountered - in Bogota at least - was that we had to pay to park at the airport instead of using the diplomatic parking lot. However, it was NOT just OMSes that had "AT" plates, it depends on the position you occupy. I noticed other specialists with "AT" plates, but couldn't draw a hard line as to who had which. Although the memory is a bit foggy - I'm pretty sure we got VAT refunds when I was an OMS also. Don't carve that in stone, but I don't have any memory of anyone telling us no in that respect. I'm suspect of the quote above that OMSes are treated differently from any other group. I don't know how they'd be singled out from the herd of HR Specialists, Financial Managers or even Facilities Managers. But again, this is just my instinct and it all depends on international conventions about who makes the dip list and who is admin/tech.
    Good luck to you!