In order to be eligible for employment, Foreign Service officer candidates must be able to be granted a Top Secret security clearance. As soon as I passed the Oral Assessment in February, the State Department began its investigation of me. Part of the investigation involves interviewing friends and coworkers of the candidate.
It’s a good idea to give some advance notice to people who might be interviewed. If a a G-man knocks on your friend’s door and starts asking questions about you, you’d want your friend to have some idea what the questions were all about.
The same goes for your boss. You wouldn’t want your boss to get the wrong idea about the interview. But there’s a dilemma: to tell your boss to expect a security interview is to let your boss know that you are actively seeking employment elsewhere. That can be awkward.
One person on a bulletin board reported that she was fired immediately upon telling her boss about her candidacy for the Foreign Service. Since most of us in the working world are “at will” employees, we can be fired for any reason that isn’t a violation of a legally-protected status. Your boss can’t fire you for being a certain race or gender, but he can fire you because you have an annoying laugh, or you dress funny, or you like the wrong sports team. Or if you have applied for a job elsewhere.
After reading that person’s story, I felt the need to share my own experience about telling my boss. Here is what I wrote:
My experience with telling the boss was wonderful. About a week after I passed the OA, I told my boss that I was pursuing a career in the Foreign Service, and that he could expect to be contacted by investigators.
I was anxious about telling him, because a few years ago, when I was still a university faculty, I was awarded a Fulbright, and my boss was not only not supportive, she was angry with me. Being a Fulbright Scholar damaged my academic career. 🙁
Fast-forward a few years. In a new career in the financial sector, I was anxious about telling my boss about the FS. When I broke the news to him, I was careful to remind him that there are no guarantees, it wasn’t going to happen soon, and that any number of factors could, as the renowned reproductive scientist Todd Aiken infamously stated: “shut that whole thing down.”
To my surprise, my boss not only knows what the FS is, but he also had a very positive reaction to my news. He smiled, congratulated me, said that he was proud of me, and promised to do everything that he could to help. In short, his reaction was a polar opposite of how my previous boss reacted to the Fulbright.
It was hard to believe that he was really supportive, but a few days later, he asked me to be the point person on a new long-term project. I told him that I would be happy to work on it as long as I am still working there, but I reminded him that my future was a little uncertain. He said he remembered, and that he would be happy to have me as long as he could.
A few days later, his boss (VP) popped his head into my office and congratulated me, too. I am very pleasantly surprised at the level of support and encouragement that I have received from the management.
To make a long story short (too late), although Marti’s experience doesn’t surprise me, not every boss will have the same scumbag reaction. I guess I’m one of the lucky ones (this time).
TL;DR: my boss didn’t fire me when I told him about my FS aspirations.
My favorite Christmas present was a coffee maker that uses a special brewing system. Think of it as a French press invented by a mad scientist.
As part of the very thorough medical clearance, I need a lot of tests done. Yesterday two vials of my blood were drawn, and this morning I had to go back and lose another vial.
I have a history of breaking out in a cold sweat around needles, but this time I was able to get through it without any problems.
Even though the experience wasn’t traumatic, it wasn’t any fun getting stuck with a needle on my birthday. After it was over, I treated myself to a doughnut.
I was notified by email that Diplomatic Security now has a “complete security package” on me and will start to process my security application. I guess this marks the point at which my background check actually begins.
The additional information that they needed was on my foreign spouse. Stacy has relatives in Taiwan and in China, and we needed to supply the State Department with birth dates, addresses and occupation data for her aunts and uncles. This was tough; her relatives in China live in rural areas, and they don’t have “addresses” in the sense of an American mailing address. It isn’t as vague as “village by the mountain,” but it isn’t much more than that.
We decided to give as much information as we could, and added a footnote that she has never even met the Mainland Chinese relatives, and crossed our fingers. Luckily, State seems to be satisfied with what we gave them.
Official word from the State Department is that security clearances take between six and eight months. Other candidates are reporting on the online discussion group that their clearances are taking as little as three months, and the more typical time period seems to be four months.
I still think that, with my complicated background, my clearance will take closer to the longer end of the official time range. I would be very surprised if they were done with me in only three or four months.
The next step should be a face-to-face interview with an officer who will be in charge of my case. Then interviews with my employers, coworkers, friends, neighbors, etc. From what other people have written about the process, it’s pretty thorough. Although I’ve read several accounts about the security clearance process, I will reserve judgement. Experience has taught me not to believe everything that I read.
I need language points. My score on the Oral Assessment was high enough to qualify me for a job, but not high enough to ensure that I will actually receive an offer of employment. The process of selecting Foreign Service officers is a pure meritocracy: at this point in the process, only those candidates who have a high enough score will get a job.
Although I can’t do anything about my OA score, I can supplement it by showing a high proficiency in a foreign language. By taking a proficiency test, candidates can supplement their score, and thus win a higher place on the registry. In addition, not all languages are equally valuable to the FS. There is a list of “Super Critical Languages.” Not surprisingly, languages on that list are those that are spoken in strategically important countries. Chinese is on that list.
Being a speaker of Chinese, I am in the position to get extra language points if I can demonstrate high enough proficiency in Chinese.
But I’m worried. My Chinese is pretty good, especially speaking and listening. However, I have never been formally assessed.
I am fortunate that in the modern world, there is no shortage of what language teachers call “realia;” artifacts of real language that can be useful for language teaching and learning. Thanks to YouTube and other websites, there are many sources of real Chinese that I can use to improve my language skills.
The Chinese that is spoken in China is probably 90-95% the same as the Chinese spoken in Taiwan, but there are some differences in pronunciation and vocabulary. Think of British English and American English. Mostly the same, but still different.
Lately I have been watching Voice of America’s Chinese news, and the evening news from Taiwan’s Public Television Service. Both are freely available on the web.
The Taiwanese news is broadcast in an accent that is familiar to me, and I since I lived in Taiwan so long, I can relate to the topics and cultural references. But that isn’t going to be enough. It’s likely that I would be posted in China, so I need to be familiar with the accent and phraseology that is used in China. More importantly and practically, the person administering the test will likely be a Mainland Chinese person, not Taiwanese Chinese, so I have to get used to the accent. Voice of America’s Chinese programming is dominated by native speakers from China, and it seems that the intended audience of its programming is people in China. So it’s a good resource.
The background check is off to an inauspicious start. I just got an email from Diplomatic Security, asking for more information about my foreign-born spouse. They need a “biographical sketch” of each of her family members. This will be tough: some of her relatives are in Taiwan, some are in China. Hooha.
A lot has happened since I stopped blogging over two years ago. After my position was eliminated at Michigan State, I started a new career at a credit union, and simultaneously began applying to the US Foreign Service.
Through this blog, I will track my progress toward becoming a diplomat. Key milestones will be documented for the benefit of others who may be curious about my path.