Many Updates!

Last I posted, I had yet to leave for A-100. Three months later, here I am!

The reason for the hiatus is that there are many rules and regulations associated with what I can post online about my new career. While we found out early on that many regulations existed, I decided to wait until I had a good grasp of our policies before continuing this venture.

I am now officially a Foreign Service Officer at the Department of State! I attended 6 weeks of orientation called A-100, where we learn a massive amount of information about our new agency. There is an old saying at State, that learning in A-100 is like trying to drink water from a fire hose. I can attest to its truth. Still, I do feel far better prepared for the coming months as I get ready to ship out. I’ve also been lucky to meet an incredible cohort of classmates in the “Lucky” 170th A-100 class. There will be plenty of fun to be had when I get to visit them all over the world.

To that point, I received my assignment! As many already know, I’ll be headed to Kolkata in India this May to do a Consular post! I spoke a bit about the duties of a Consular Officer in my previous post, so I’ll refer you there for more details. While I am officially a Political Officer, all FSOs are required to do one of their first two tours in a Consular position. Most of us do it for our first tour, so it isn’t a big surprise.

I’ve been doing a bit of research about Kolkata (or ‘Cal’ as the cool kids call it), and it sounds fantastic. As the former capital of the British Raj, it boasts gorgeous architecture throughout the city. Additionally, Bengal is famous for its artists, poets, musicians, and filmmakers. I’ll be heading there in May, so start making travel plans!

Stoppin’ more Family Feuds than Richard Dawson

In the last few weeks, I’ve been looking at the three questions I figure people ask when considering the Foreign Service: “What is it?”, “Do I want to do it?”, and “Am I qualified?” I’ve asked the latter two, now onto the first: “What is the Foreign Service?”1

The Foreign Service is the diplomatic corps of the United States federal government. While there are several different types of Foreign Service Officers (Foreign Agricultural Service, USAID, and the Foreign Commercial Service), I’m going to talk about Foreign Service Officers with the Department of State. To be even more specific, DoS Foreign Service Officers are split into Generalists and Specialists, and I’m only going to talk about the Generalists. This is simply because I have not researched them nearly as much as I have Generalists since that is where I applied. If you’re looking for more information about other Foreign Service careers, you can check out “Career Diplomacy: Life and Work in the U.S. Foreign Service“.2

Foreign Service Generalists apply to be in one of 5 different “cones”, or areas of focus. Quick descriptions directly from the DoS website:

  • Consular Officers   facilitate adoptions, help evacuate Americans, and combat fraud to protect our borders and fight human trafficking. Consular Officers touch people’s lives in important ways, often reassuring families in crisis.
  • Management Officers   are resourceful, creative, action-oriented “go to” leaders responsible for all embassy operations from real estate to people to budget.
  • Public Diplomacy Officers   engage, inform, and influence opinion leaders, local non-governmental groups, the next generation of leaders, academics, think tanks, government officials, and the full range of civil society in order to promote mutual understanding and support for U.S policy goals.
  • Economic Officers   work with foreign governments and other USG agencies on technology, science, economic, trade, energy, and environmental issues both domestically and overseas.
  • Political Officers   analyze host country political events and must be able to negotiate and communicate effectively with all levels of foreign government officials.

Consular Officers

Consular Officers handle the needs of American citizens abroad, as well as people wanting to come to the United States. So, if you’re an Armenian looking to go to Disneyland, you’re going to be going to a Consular Officer for your visa. Locked up in a Cambodian prison? First, stop reading this blog, think more about how to get out of prison and less about career choices after your release. Second, get in touch with a Consular Officer at the Embassy.

Leslie at Consul-At-Arms explains why she chose the Consular Cone3:

I initially chose Consular because I wanted to be able to help my fellow citizens abroad.  Consular work has not only provided me with ample opportunities to successfully fulfill that ambition but, post-9/11, to materially contribute to national security through the visa process.
Consular officers (similar to MGT cone) also have opportunities to manage/lead people and resources much earlier than do Political or Econ cone officers.

To speak to her last point, Consular Officers will often very early in their careers be running entire departments of Visa services. They also respond to the myriad of crises that befall American citizens. As I’ve been researching the Foreign Service, one phrase keeps coming up about Consular Officers: “They always have the best stories”.

Management Officers:
The Management cone is the most usefully self-descriptive of the cones. Officers who chose the cone manage the day-to-day functioning of our embassies and consulates overseas. Their responsibilities can include budgets, housing, motor pools, and security.

I peeled the following quote from DiploGrad, explaining one person’s decision to choose that cone:

I selected the Management Cone because I have experience managing a multi-million dollar transportation operation during my time in college. I found the experience to be very rewarding, I liked being in charge, making decisions and helping others with their problems. I had plenty of practice thinking quickly on my feet, under pressure, and managing conflicting needs with limited resources.

Management Officers are the glue that holds a post together. A mid-level Management Officer might be responsible for supporting over 1,000 staff, depending on where they are assigned. According to the Department of state4:

As a management officer, you need the same skills as good managers in multinational corporations, but you employ those skills in different settings, often difficult and always challenging. You and your team are responsible for developing, maintaining and improving a full range of management services to support our nation’s goals in your country of assignment.

Public Diplomacy Officers:

Those who choose the Public Diplomacy cone handle the communications and public relations aspects of the State Department. They run the programs that connect host country nationals with American culture and ideas. They also manage the message of the U.S. overseas, speaking to the press about whatever crisis or opportunity crops up at their post.

Pulled from a Fast Company article, FSO Suzanne Philion on why she chose Public Diplomacy:

I was always interested in journalism. When I was in grad school, I wanted to be the next Christiane Amanpour, but after I did an internship at CNN, I realized I wanted to be on the other side of the camera, in a position to craft the content. The public-diplomacy “cone” allows us the unique opportunity to connect with a huge variety of people in any given country, including youth, journalists, civil society, the private sector, and academics.

Public Diplomacy Officers start out working on cultural exchange programs or being contacts for reporters looking for information from their post. Eventually, they can manage larger global exchange programs, and serve as an adviser to the ambassador on the embassy’s external communication.

Economic Officers:

Officers who choose the Economic cone serve the economic interests of the U.S. overseas. They develop networks of contacts in the business community of the host country and are expected to be experts in whatever facets of U.S. Economic policy they are assigned.

Larry at Beau Geste, Mon Ami has a great description:

In Rome I am an Economic Officer. Economic Officers and Political Officers are known as ‘reporting’ officers and that pretty much describes the job we do. We each have assigned areas of responsibility that we study, research and then report on back to Washington. These areas are called our portfolios and we are expected to become the local experts on the various topics in them. We are also required to interact with our appropriate counterparts in the Italian government on these topics….


…My workload evolves something like this: someone in Washington becomes interested, curious or concerned about some aspect of Italian policy on a topic in my portfolio and ‘tasks’ me with either getting information from or delivering a message to an appropriate contact. Often I am called upon to request the Government of Italy to support a position we’ve taken or intend to take in our own foreign policy. Official communications of this nature between governments are known as demarches and I’ve done a ton of them. For example, we are encouraging our European allies to increase their aid to Somalia and because Italy’s aid to developing nations is part of my portfolio, I am tasked with bringing our request to rank appropriate contacts in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Economic Development. After a few days have passed, I go back to my contacts for their response, reaction or reply to our request. Then I draft a cable with that response and send it to Washington.


Later, an Economic Officer will manage junior officers that do the above reporting, and will also serve as the point person for the ambassador for information on economic issues in the host country.

Political Cone:

Which brings us to the cone that I chose, the Political Cone.  Political Officers are similar to the Economic Officers described above, except their purview is of course, the political sphere. Political Officers are assigned a portfolio of issues that they need to study and analyze. They make appropriate contacts accordingly in the host country government, in local political parties, and with relevant NGOs and businesses. Just as Economic Officers, they spend a lot of time writing reports for individuals in Washington who need information about the place their posted.

From the now-defunct Hegemonist:

Political officers manage the U.S. bilateral political relationship. They maintain contacts among members of the host government, opposition parties, and civil society. They report back to Washington on the various goings on in the host government. Political officers are at the forefront in issues like democratization, national security, political-military affairs, women’s rights, and the day-to-day machinations of governments all over the world. As the State Department continues to become just one of a number of government agencies at embassies, political officers have also become facilitators and continue to serve as resident experts on governmental workings.


Entry Level. Entry level political officers generally write congressionally-mandated reports. You see, congress requires the state department to report on things like human rights and trafficking in persons from each country in the world. In the vast majority of countries, these issues aren’t the most important bilateral issue, and they’re assigned to the new guy. Most new officers will also have a minor reporting area in their portfolios.


After Tenure. Tenured officers are generally assigned portfolios in internal politics, international relations, or other areas. The ideal Washington job for a political officer is serving on a country
desk, State’s basic unit of policy formulation.


So that’s essentially what a Foreign Service Generalist does.




  1. You might be wondering a fourth question: “Why did you answer these in reverse order?” There are two reasons. Firstly, I am not attempting to write an eHow article. This blog is intentionally subjective and I wanted readers to know more about my background and personality so they could take that into account when considering my observations moving forward. Secondly, I knew that I wanted to do a series of posts on the application process itself. Since that will largely flow from the answer to the question “What is the Foreign Service?”, I wanted this post to set the stage for the upcoming series.
  2. To be honest, if you pick up that book, you really don’t need to read the next several posts I make, since it does a much better job of describing the Foreign Service application process and what an officer should expect. If you’re considering a career as an FSO, you should definitely read it.
  3. I e-mailed for permission to use this quote, then didn’t wait for her response and decided that I’m not going to ask for permission to use attributed quotes for the rest of this post. Sorry everyone, my internet ethics crumbled pretty quickly here…
  4. Written in “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style second-person over on the DoS website.

An affinity for chrome horses and siamese cats

In my last post, I posed three questions that a Foreign Service applicant might ask herself when first considering a career at DoS: “What is it?”, “Do I want to do this?”, and “Am I qualified?”. I addressed the third question in the last post, today I’ll try to answer the second: why join the Foreign Service?

Of course, I’m at a marked disadvantage if I try answering the question for anyone else because I have spent zero days as a Foreign Service Officer 1. I don’t know for certain what life and work as an FSO is going to entail, so I’ll refrain from speculating why others may find the career appealing. My own reasons for joining however, are easier to articulate.

In 1993, Samuel P. Huntington published “The Clash of Civilizations?”2, an essay presenting his theory that international relations in the post-Cold War era will be driven by the clash of several distinct “civilizations”: the West, the East, the Muslim World, Sub-Saharan Africa, etc. In Huntington’s defense, this vision of interminable cultural strife was meant to be descriptive rather than aspirational, but it nonetheless suggests a world in which geographical ties bundled the regions of the world so tightly and separately that the relationships between them were inevitably adversarial. He believed that in an increasingly connected world, we would see more clearly how different our cultures were, and subsequently shrink into huddled regional blocs competing for ascendancy.

Whether or not this paradigm held true when it was written 19 years ago, it feels stodgy and dated today. As technology has broken down the communication barriers between nations, we have not withdrawn into regional cliques like a global high school cafeteria. Instead, the flow of ideas has hewn new bonds in art, science, political thought, and countless other fields where shared values have cut across cultural boundaries.

Like cross-cultural meme mash-ups!

I am not so naive as to think that the internet has cured us of tribalism and global conflict. I do however think that it has brought us closer to the peoples of the world struggling beyond our water’s edge. When nations narrate their wars to us over twitter, when the violent repression of peaceful protest is broadcast on YouTube, and when despots tremble at facebook revolutions, the challenges once hidden in the ‘world news’ section feel more present and personal. They now live in the same space that we do, and as such convey a sense of urgency and connectedness.

As Dr. King once presciently said:

Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.

In no way do I presume to personally have solutions to the problems that ail the world – joining the Foreign Service isn’t an exercise in egotism. Nor, obviously, is there global consensus on how to deal with most of the issues we face. The world’s marketplace of ideas teems with solutions to our ills, each competing for space and attention. Additionally, being a Foreign Service officer is not an arena where you are able to push your own personal foreign policy agenda. The role of an FSO is to act in the interests of the United States, as defined and demanded by our democratically elected officials.

And also to keep us out of land wars in Asia. Kamchatka is a curse!

My personal motivation for joining the Foreign Service stems from two related ideas: one more philosophical, one more personal3.

Philosophically, my thought process here starts with Aristotle and the telos, or aim and purpose, of human beings. I don’t agree with Aristotle about most things, but he posits that humans are essentially political creatures, and that to live a virtuous life, you must actively participate in decisions about the welfare of your fellow citizens and your society4. This isn’t to say that I believe anyone who doesn’t work in some sort of social or public service is living a life without virtue. But I do believe that it is important to find where your personal passion contributes on some level to a conversation about the direction of humanity. Whether it is volunteering at your child’s school, making sure your employees are satisfied, practicing medicine, or raising your family, my personal philosophy is that an ethical life involves being conscious about improving the wellness of other people5.

Through that lens, my passion is in international affairs and the way that different peoples interact with one another, so the Foreign Service feels like the ideal way to be a part of that conversation.

Which brings me to the more personal reason for joining the foreign service: I believe that this conversation is strengthened when it is joined by a diverse array of voices. This is not a trait unique to me, or to those of my political persuasion, but is an essential part of American character. Perhaps the best wholesale rejection of Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” was written over a century earlier in Emma Lazarus’s “New Colossus”, the sonnet at the foot of the Statue of Liberty.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Lazarus’s poem rejects the ethnocentric ideals of conquest and colonization. It defines American patriotism not as a triumph of a people, but as the triumph of inclusivity. The American Experiment is, at its heart, about the individual’s right to self-determination. It’s that idea that resonates with me personally, the idea that the world is better when it welcomes the voice of the tired, poor, huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.

The four horsepersons of the Rishpocalypse

Okay, I promise, that’s as grandiose as this blog will get.


  1. I’ll try and revisit this post in a year or two.
  2. I, of course, am not an academic, and may well be misunderstanding his theory. To get a better feel for it, you can see the full text and plenty of criticism of the piece over here:
  3. Although both are also both
  4. Again, I’m not a philosopher and may not be interpreting this correctly. In fact, this blog is making it more and more apparent that you really shouldn’t trust my authority on anything.
  5. I hope that doesn’t come off as preachy or self-congratulatory. There is a lot more behind my personal philosophy, most of which is evolving, misinformed, and probably contradictory; I don’t want to put that in a blog post because it would come off as nonsense.

Blog title explanation

I remember when I used a similar title for my Peace Corps blog, some folks figured I was just bad at spelling and thought that “decided” was spelled “desaided”. My last name is Desai, hence the portmanteau – desaided.

Baby you… got what I need…

When you start your Foreign Service application process, you agree to a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) to refrain from sharing specific information about the content of the various tests and questions that you are asked along the way. The intention is to keep folks from being able to game the Foreign Service process – the State Department wants the best candidates, not the people can most easily figure out how to pass a test. I agree with this policy wholeheartedly, but it means that I’ll have to be very careful about what I post to this blog – I expect the phrase “I don’t want to get into details and violate the NDA” to make a number of appearances in the coming weeks.

Biz Markie thinking about NDAs and strained references in blog post titles.

So, I’ll stick to the mechanics of the selection process, and my own personal experience going through it. If you’re looking for specific tips on passing the test, I’m sure a google search will serve you better.

Considering a career in the Foreign Service starts with the same three questions as any other job search: “What is it?”; “Do I want to do this?”; and “Am I qualified?”

I’ll save “What is it?” and “Do I want to do this?” for the next few posts, let’s look at what the Department of State wants from its applicants.

There are basically1 only two rigid requirements for becoming a Foreign Service Officer:

  1. You must be older than 21 and younger than 60 when you enter the Foreign Service
  2. You must be an American citizen

Beyond that, applicants are judged based on how well they demonstrate 13 characteristics that the Department of State has identified as essential for a career in the Foreign Service: composure, cultural adaptability, experience and motivation, information integration and analysis, initiative and leadership, judgment, objectivity and integrity, oral communication, planning and organizing, quantitative analysis, resourcefulness, working with others, and written communication. These 13 dimensions 2 (or 13 D’s in the parlance of applicants) are the bedrock of the selection process.

Consequently, you can see how language skills, international experience, education, and professional experience are great assets to a candidacy in demonstrating these abilities. However, no single résumé line – or lack thereof – is a bellwether for an applicant’s chance of success. There’s a great series of articles in a recent issue of the Foreign Service Journal – a monthly publication about the Foreign Service – that describe the latest crop of Foreign Service Officers3. I’ve pulled a snippet here about the makeup of one recent intake class:

150th A-100, 2010, class of 81:
This class was 60-percent men; maybe 10-percent minorities. Huge age range, from 22-59, with a median age of 35. Of the 81, about 15 people were over 40. Probably 30 percent had Ph.Ds.; 10 percent were lawyers; 40 percent were former Peace Corps Volunteers. Very bright, interesting cadre of professionals. Maybe only 10 percent lacked language proficiency. The second- and third-career officers were very interesting and diverse. All had concerns about how or whether their expertise would be used in the FS.

Where do I fit into this? I have a B.S. in Mathematics, served in the Peace Corps in Uganda, and have 3 years of experience working at a nonprofit community organization in Chicago. I also speak a few foreign languages (importantly Hindi, which is designated by DoS as a Super Critical Needs Language) which likely helped as well.

I don’t think that my résumé itself makes me qualified for the FS though.

Admit it, you were thinking it.

Beyond a list of your life experiences, a successful candidacy has to demonstrate how those experiences translate into the 13 D’s. It doesn’t matter that I served in the Peace Corps, it matters that my service forced me to learn to speak a local language so that I could effectively manage my soccer team, or that I had to learn how to adapt to communication challenges in an area without electricity. Having experiences that imply a certain skill set is not enough – you have to demonstrate that you have used those skills effectively.

I think most people figure that my qualifications for the Foreign Service stem from my Peace Corps service, and my fondness for travel. At heart though, I think I fit the profile of a Foreign Service Officer because my life has been rooted in cross-cultural problem solving and analysis. I grew up an Indian American in West Virginia, an Indian American West Virginian in Chicago, and an Indian American West Virginian Chicagoan in the Teso region of Uganda4. I like to think that my résumé is a reflection of my identity, not the other way around.

In the next post, I’ll get into my motivation for wanting to join the Foreign Service, and try to link to some blog posts of current FSOs about why they decided to join. If you’ve got any questions/comments, please leave a comment below!


Be Well,



  1. There is a little nuance to when exactly in the application process you need to meet the age/citizenship requirement, and you can read more here:
  4. A West Virginditesgoan if you will

But first, a metapost

I should take a second to explain exactly why I’m writing this blog, and what I hope to chronicle here. 1

When I was in the Peace Corps in Uganda, communication with home could be pretty strained. While I did have a blog, I only posted intermittently because I was rarely afforded internet access. 2  This had two regrettable consequences. First, selfishly, I wish I had a better record of my thoughts about my experiences as they unfolded. As my Peace Corps service fades further into memory, I have to question the accuracy of my recollections about my time there. I’m not as worried about the details of what happened there, but in how they shaped my worldview. In telling the same stories over and over again, it is easy to let a compelling narrative of personal growth creep into a story where it actually didn’t happen (e.g. “I farmed because I was bored and wanted the exercise,” turns into “I started to farm because I wanted the exercise, but also because it gave me a way to connect with the people in my village,” and finally “My farming showed my community that I was truly interested in being a part of the village. In the end though, what I took from my time working the land was far more valuable than a few bushels of eggplant.”).

You should always have swimming goggles at hand, just in case.

Me, before my daily fake cathartic farming experiences.


The other consequence was that my conversations with friends and family back home were more one-sided and less meaningful. When someone would ask me how my work was going, I didn’t want to spend the next 20 minutes explaining what a Village Savings and Loans Association was, or what types of problems were plaguing the primary schools of my village. Any time on the phone with someone from home was extremely valuable – I needed to be spend them as close to America as possible. I wanted to hear about WVU football, and new girlfriends, and hiking trips, and grad school applications. Because my friends and family at home didn’t have a lot of information about my work, we had few meaningful conversations about my life in Uganda and a litany of conversations consisting of bullet-pointed updates from home (at my prodding). This time around, I hope this blog can help my communication with home be more balanced and interesting for both sides.

I’m going to try to keep this blog about things germane to life and work in the Foreign Service (and training) as well as the process of pursuing a career as a Foreign Service Officer. As a rule of thumb, anything that would make sense outside of the context of my attempt to join (and hopefuly serve in) the Foreign Service will find a home elsewhere.3

Otherwise, if you have any thoughts or questions, please leave a comment below!

Be Well,


  1. For a meta-meta-post, I can explain why I decided to write this metapost! As I write this post I am in Foreign Service limbo: on the register waiting to be called up. There are absolutely no action steps on the horizon for me to take before I get an invitation to an A-100 class, which can grate on you. Similar to the time I spent waiting for my Peace Corps invitation, I’ve filled many of these anxious hours by devouring the blogs of many Foreign Service Officers, and they all have their own unique tone and purpose. Sometimes, it takes a bit of wading to figure out if a particular blog is focused on whatever aspect of the Foreign Service about which I am looking for information, and I’ve found these introductory posts pretty useful.
  2. I may be concealing some of the truth here. Internet access in the nearest town got a lot better as time wore on in Uganda, and I consequently had more of it. After my first year though, I became less and less inclined to post because I more desperately wanted to check sports scores, read the news, and watch YouTube videos of Tina Fey aping Sarah Palin rather than generate mini-essays about village life. The internet needed to be an escape, not a chore.
  3. Most likely the tumblr blog I’ve been working on with my friend Joe Rodman at

Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.

The first time I took the Foreign Service Written Exam was on Election Day in 2008. I joked that Barack Obama and I were both going to get our dream job on the same day. I was wrong.

I was in the Peace Corps at the time, living in a small town in Uganda called Mukura. The exam is offered in certain U.S. Embassies throughout the world, and the nearest location to me was in Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania. Luckily, my friend Brad was also interested in the Foreign Service, and the two of us schlepped down to Dar to take the exam on the same day. I remember running into the Embassy in the pouring rain – there was a lot of real estate to cover between the massive outer wall and the entrance – and taking the exam soaked to the bone.

I passed the written exam, passed the mysterious Qualifications Evaluation Panel, and finally take the Oral Assessment in DC in September of 2009. Unfortunately, I came up short, scoring a 5.1 out of 7, just under the 5.25 needed to move on. 1

I took the written test again in October 2009 and passed, but decided not to continue my candidacy because I had just been hired for a new job in Chicago and wanted to see how it would play out. Finally, I took the test again in the summer of 2011, took the Oral Assessment in January, and passed with a 5.5! After getting my medical and security clearances (in August), and after passing a Hindi language test, I am now sitting on “the register”, a ranked list of candidates according to the section of the Foreign Service they intend to join.

That brings us to the present. After a 4-year slog, I’m optimistic about my chances of being called for the next intake class and figured it was time to start writing about the process of joining the Foreign Service(and if all goes well, eventually writing about being an FSO). I’m slightly less optimistic about my chances of writing frequently at great length, so I’ll refrain from starting a precedent of exceedingly long posts and wrap this one up.

In the coming days, I’ll go back and write a bit more about the application process, my personal background, hiccups in my candidacy, and the like. Hopefully future posts will be filled with more puns and dad jokes, as this one has been a bit dry…

Oh, and this is me (we have nothing to hide):


  1. I’ll go into the application process in more detail in a later post

Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.