Monday, February 20, 2012

The Other Path: To Consular?

To be an OMS or to be a Consular Officer? Discussion Part Two.

As promised, the other side of the coin. Perhaps it's the Gemini in me that makes me want to look around at what else might be out there, or perhaps it just takes me a longer-than-average time to get something right. I'm not sure which is the case here, but I find myself looking around the restaurant for a nicer table often - just ask my husband. So now, I'm comfortably ensconced in a nice job, lovely post, cool apartment - truly no complaints - and yet I'm getting excited looking forward to another change.

Let me back the story up a bit, for those who came in late. (For those who already know the story - go fix yourself a snack and scroll down a bit when you return.)

In 2009 I decided that I was going to be a Consular Officer. My husband and I attended a recruiting fair in Seattle and listened to active and retired members of the FS speak, both Specialists and Generalists, and I was instantly hooked. We drove home that afternoon sketching out plans for my FSOT preparation, which started the very next morning. I applied in the Consular cone and dove head-first into researching the life and job.

Why Consular and not Political or Public Diplomacy, or something else? Because after hearing the job descriptions and reading first-person accounts of what the work entailed, I saw it as a mix between law enforcement and customer service. This combination matched my professional background and personal interest perfectly. So I took the FSOT that year and passed, but unfortunately was not invited to the (dreaded) oral assessment in DC. Drat.

Meanwhile, the OMS option opened and it also seemed to fit me well, so I applied. I was invited to the oral assessment and within months was en route to orientation in DC. But still running in the background was this goal to become a Consular Officer. I had taken the FSOT again, passed, and this time, within days of receiving an invite to become an OMS, I was invited to the oral assessment in DC.

Blah blah blah... I passed the oral assessment in May 2011 and now have a valid Consular Officer candidacy. A second career path to explore. The one I wanted to begin with.

What to do? 

First, let me also explain that once one has passed all the hurdles and clearances (medical and security), their name is placed on a hiring register in rank order of their oral assessment score. It will live on this register for 18 months and not a day longer. Within that time, one's position on the register will rise and fall depending on how other candidates do on their oral assessments, how many points they receive for language skills or veteran's preference points. When I passed my oral assessment, I received a 5.4 score. It takes a 5.25 (rounded to 5.3) to pass, so I didn't exactly sail over the hurdle. I kinda' leaped and dragged a toe as I did so. In this difficult economy, the State Department is cutting back on hiring to the point of basically hiring to attrition. Meaning to the rate that people are quitting or retiring, instead of the big hiring surge that rode many people to new FS careers not long ago. This makes the process all the more competitive for those of us on the registers, and only the higher scores seem to be getting invitations to come aboard.

However, I have a slight advantage: as I am currently overseas on government orders, I am able to freeze, or defer, my candidacy for a maximum of two years. My 18-month clock is not currently ticking. I decided to be an OMS for one full tour before reigniting my candidacy. This would also give me the chance to increase my Spanish skills to - ojala - and pass the Spanish phone test . This test is offered to candidates to determine if they are eligible to receive extra language points. I need to achieve a level 3 to pass, and I was trained and tested at FSI to a level 2. See my dilemma?

What's so great about being a Consular Officer anyway that I'm not happy just being an OMS? Here are the pros and cons as I see them so far:


I feel I would be contributing more as a Consular Officer. Am I contributing little as an OMS? No, but this just feels like the work would be more in the diplomatic line, more direct representation of the US to the rest of the world. I'd like to be a more visible face of the US to the general public, and as an OMS it is more limited.

I loved my previous job in law enforcement (civilian position - I wasn't a cop) and this seems like it would be much the same. As described on State's official website a Consular Officer must "explain/uphold U.S. immigration policy in a professional, fair and compassionate manner." I can do that! I want to do that!

There's also the American Citizen Service (ACS) side of being a Consular Officer where I'd be assisting Americans in need abroad. I'd be helping people who have bad luck, people who do dumb things, people who are criminals and should rightly be locked up - true, but also Americans who lose their passports on vacation, or who have a child abroad, or who retire overseas and want help getting their social security payments. There are certainly as many ACS scenarios to attend to as there are Americans abroad and this sounds like it will provide an endless source of variety and challenge for the restless mind.

Training!  Starting with ConGen at FSI, complete with mock visa interview windows and a jail cell with rubber rats to practice prison visits, I'd receive lots of training at first, and ongoing, on immigration/visa law and ACS services.  I love training!

In the last entry I talked about the pay scale and how as an OMS I would top-out as an FS-03 after starting as an FS-07. However, FS Officers start a few rungs up the ladder, depending on previous experience, and after two tours it would not be unheard of to be promoted to an FS-03. I'm not only in this for the money, but everyone has a retirement to think about, not to mention the tabbies to keep well fed.

Did I mention "CD" (corps diplomatic) plates on the Ranger instead of the "AT" (administrative/technical) that we currently sport? What does this mean: free airport parking in Bogota, for one. Okay, that's a trivial point, but it's still true. That's why I put it last.


People love to complain about "working the line" and what a drag it is. By that, I mean the visa interview line. At a visa mill such as Bogota, Consular Officers conduct 100-120 interviews every day. They have to be quick, yet thorough. They have to tell the nice people that they really don't need to see the shopping bag full of documents they brought, and could they please just respond directly to the questions posed to them in a kind and polite, yet firm and efficient, manner. They need to make important judgments about whether or not the person in front of them is coming to the US with the intention of violating US immigration law, or worse.

This can be stressful; this can be monotonous. Fortunately, I'm innately interested in other people's lives, so I think this will also be interesting. Friends in Consular have warned me that this is interesting... for about three months. I still think I'll like it.

More thoughts, neither PRO nor CON:

On my Statement of Interest (a required part of the oral assessment), I wrote about my last job and how I learned a lot about customer service, specifically:

"It was a different type of customer service, the type where you occasionally had to say not to uphold a policy or procedure. It wasn't 'the customer is always right,' and it taught me that I can still serve people well even when not giving them the answer they had hoped for." 

I really meant that, and I think it'll be a worthy personal challenge to put my money where my mouth is, shall we say, and find that balance between law enforcement and customer service. I'm ready!

So, it doesn't sound like there is much deciding to do, does it?
Yes, I'm fairly certain that I've convinced myself of the right path, and not just because it's a new path. What is holding me back is purely the state of hiring in the coming year and whether or not I can nudge myself up the register with Spanish points.

For all aspiring OMSes out there, please don't feel as if I'm discounting the value of our profession. I just feel that the other side of the coin is shinier for me. If it doesn't work out for me - I'll be happily OMSing to the next post and perhaps I'll see you out there. You'll recognize me; I'll be the one at the lunch table asking the Consular Officers for the latest good story.

Thanks for listening.


  1. So if you are deferring, once you are tenured why don't you apply through the Mustang program?

  2. Hello again Mike,
    As it stands now, I've already passed all the hurdles to switch over to being an FSO. The deferral just means that my time on the register isn't currently ticking away. The Mustang Program (once I'm tenured) would be a good way to go if I don't get hired this time around, but it's not easy. There still is the application process and then the oral assessment to get through.