Saturday, July 30, 2022

How M and I Narrow Down My Bid List

When it's time for me as a Foreign Service Officer (FSO) to "bid on" (i.e., apply and compete for) my next job, there are hundreds of potential vacancies. A big part of the bidding process is combing through those vacancies and narrowing down the jobs that I'm interested in, and eventually which ones I want to rank higher. Every person and family has a different way of identifying the jobs and posts that might be a good fit for them, but in case it's helpful as a data point I wanted to share what we do.

Even though the Foreign Service is my career, it's also a major lifestyle for not just me but the whole family. I never understood diplomats who seem to want to coerce or bully their family members into coming along for the ride or dragging them to posts against their will. I won't even waste my time bidding somewhere that M doesn't want to go, and he has what we call the Spouse Veto. No matter how badly I want a particular job, if M pulls out the Spouse Veto then I will drop it from consideration before the bidding process even really starts. To his credit, M isn't high maintenance and almost never uses the Spouse Veto. He has only used it twice, for two posts I will not name here, and both were for the same reason: bad Internet. High-speed, reliable, and affordable Internet is crucial for M's work and quality of life, and he has to live wherever I'm assigned for years. It's perfectly reasonable to me that we make this our priority.

If the post clears M's Internet standards, then I want to make sure the job meets my requirements. At this stage in my career, I'm not looking to bid any "stretch" positions up or down. In other words, I want to bid positions that are a match for my rank and not above or below. I know some Foreign Service Officers are eager to bid stretch positions up to try and hasten promotion, but for someone like me who was just promoted and who hopes to enjoy a long career in the Foreign Service before retirement, I'm in no rush at the moment. (That could change if I start getting too close to the Time in Class (TIC) limit; we have a certain number of years at each level by which we must get promoted or we'll be unceremoniously pushed out of the Foreign Service.)

I'm not too strict about bidding only "in-cone" jobs at this stage in my career, either. I am a Public Diplomacy (PD)-coned officer with one PD tour under my belt, so I'm happy to do another PD tour or venture outside of my cone and come back to it later. The most important thing to me is that the work is exciting to me. That means I might consider an Economic (ECON) Officer tour if the portfolio covers technology, something I'm relatively knowledgeable and passionate about, for example. There are also certain regions I'm interested in due to the history, culture, or current priority issues. I take all of these into consideration when I'm adding jobs to my shortlist.

Of course, I also do think strategically about how a position may help my career long-term or make the most sense for me right now. Because I'll be coming off of a one-year staff assistant tour in the Near East Affairs (NEA) Front Office, I am focusing my energy this bidding cycle on NEA jobs where I know my recent DC experience will be an extra advantage. (People also commonly refer to the Near East as the Middle East and North Africa.) Jobs with supervisory potential also get a bonus from me because I haven't formally managed staff in the Foreign Service yet except in temporary, acting roles. I'm also leaning toward a job that is not language-designated because I so recently finished spending a year learning Korean and would like more of a break. Plus, it makes more financial sense not to start a language when coming off a DC tour because you're not eligible for many benefits you would receive if transferring between two overseas posts. These things are not dealbreakers for me, but they do help me narrow down the list.

S is still too young for schools to be a factor, but the next time I bid we will be looking at schools. M and I are not 100% decided yet, but we are considering enrolling S in a standardized school system such as the international German school system so that there's a little more uniformity in his education across posts. We both agree, though, that most Foreign Service kids are extraordinarily resilient and will adapt to whatever educational environment they're in as long as it's safe. (We also agree that services like GreatSchools and its international equivalents do more harm than good, with ratings correlating more closely with race and wealth than anything useful.)

I don't think this is particularly common, but a mentor of mine who excels at bidding told me she also looks at the most recent OIG (Office of the Inspector General) reports for posts on her shortlist. If a post has a recent history of malfeasance, toxic workplace culture, or other problems it will often come through in the OIG report. I have also found it useful, but moreso at the later stages of bidding once I have a manageable shortlist (because trust me when I say those reports are long).

Lastly, every stage of the bidding process allows me to refine my list a bit more. I already wrote a post about informational interview red flags, but there are plenty of other reasons to move a job down or off your bid list entirely at some point while bidding. Sometimes posts will send you hints (or tell you outright) that you're not competitive for a job or that they already have another candidate in mind, and those are not worth investing much time and energy in. If you discover that a position is extremely highly bid and you were on the lower end of relevant qualifications, it's also safe to assume that your chances of winding up at the top of their list are also slim. In other cases the timing of the job might change or the position might be reclassified at a different rank, so you have to stay on top of anything that might affect your eligibility and desire to pursue the opening. Other opportunities might jump up or down my list based on the other people who I find out will be at that post, especially if I know the person who will be my supervisor. Regular tweaking has been helpful for keeping my bid list realistic and giving me the best possible chances of a handshake (i.e., a job offer) at the end.

The #1 most important rule for us in putting together and updating my bid list is flexibility. If you are flexible in as many areas as possible, then it's much more likely you can ensure that you don't have to compromise on the things that matter most to you (in our case, that's keeping our family together and having great Internet). It's also worth noting that a lot of the strict "rules" around bidding are more like guidelines with many exceptions being made all the time for folks who know how and whom and when to ask. (Last bidding cycle, for example, I was told that under absolutely no circumstances could I bid early and my departure date from South Korea was fixed. I ended up getting permission to interview early if I was up front with offices about my scheduled departure date. Ultimately, I got my top choice job from bidding early and received an exception that allowed me to shift my departure date earlier to make it work.)

I hope this advice is helpful to others who are in the early stages of figuring bidding out or who might wonder what factors one Foreign Service Officer and her family consider when going for their next assignment. If you asked 100 different diplomats how they narrow down their bid lists, I'm sure you'd get 100 different answers. So please treat this post as the sole data point it is, and I wish all readers bidding this year the best of luck!

Saturday, July 23, 2022

An Overnight Hanok Stay with My Korean Family

Now that baby S is over 100 days old and before I went to work from maternity leave, we took one last chance to travel with my Korean family before we move back to Washington, DC. My family absolutely spoiled us, renting a big van to come pick us up and reserving a beautiful modern hanok outside of Seoul in Unakchae Hanok Village (운악채한옥마을). (A hanok [한옥] is a traditional Korean-style house.) S was such a champ, too, handling the car ride well and enjoying the time with our relatives even in an unfamiliar environment.

The modern hanoks were comfortable and spacious. We packed S's bassinet so we could set it up at the hanok and know we had a safe sleep space for him, and it worked perfectly. Everyone wanted to take turns holding and playing with S, and he loved the attention. My family continued to spoil all of us during our stay, accommodating S's feeding schedule and not letting us cook or clean a thing. They prepared delicious Korean meals throughout our trip, from a barbecue dinner to late-night spicy ramen and beers to a delicious breakfast.

My family even found a truly 100% non-alcoholic beer for me, which I didn't even know existed! Most non-alcoholic beers have a little bit of alcohol so I've avoided them, but after some incredulous Googling I confirmed my family was right and the one they offered me (Hite Zero) had no trace of alcohol. It tasted just like how I remembered beer tasted from back when I used to drink! My cousin J also introduced me to an amazing snack: Honey Butter Chips! Where have these been all my life? I hope I can find them at H-Mart once we move back to the States, because I discovered them way too late in my Korea tour.

We gathered around a bonfire to chat once it got dark and M and I put S to bed for the night. We didn't have our usual camera so we set up my laptop with white noise and an ongoing video call so we could watch him on our phones while we were outside or in another room. My uncle brought a magical powder of some kind that made the flames of our bonfire turn different colors. I took a photo and video, but they don't do it justice. The effect was so cool, casting the fire in shades of teal and blue and purple!

We played a few different games, including badminton and tuho (투호), a traditional Korean game where you try and throw arrows into a jar. Take my word for it: tuho is incredibly difficult and most of us couldn't get a single arrow in even after many attempts. My cousin S actually got an arrow in on the first try somehow and we all lost it like we were at an NFL game. M being how he is, he kept practicing tuho long after everyone else was done until he could get at least one arrow. Thank goodness he ended up getting two and calling it a night.

The next day, we checked out of the hanok and went with my family to the Garden of Morning Calm (아침고요수목원). M and I actually went there once before in the winter, but it was a completely different experience visiting in the summer. All of the Christmas lights we saw last time were replaced by green fields, flowers, and lush trees now. The one downside is that the weather on the day we went was scorching. S was such a trooper, though, and thankfully there was a nice nursing room where I could take him to cool off partway through our visit.

I was especially struck by a majestic tree called the Millennium Juniper (천년향). It was considered a sacred tree that watched over a village in Andong (안동) until the village was designated as a flooding area. Thankfully, the tree was preserved and transferred to the Garden of Morning Calm after almost a year of prep work. They believe the tree has been cared for since the Joseon Dynasty and estimate that it's about 1,000 years old. How cool is that?

There was also a gorgeous lily pond with a bridge over it that looked like a scene out of a romantic movie. Between the picturesque walking paths and the collections of bright, summery flowers I think the garden was well worth a repeat visit. I've heard from some folks who have stayed in Korea longer-term that they make it a point to go every single season because the grounds change so much based on what's blooming at that time. And after witnessing the summer transformation, I believe it! (Just make sure you take plenty of water and a fan if you're dropping by during the hottest months.)

After that, we went to Dumulmeori Lake (두물머리), where three rivers meet. It was a lovely park and we enjoyed the (much cooler) walk by the water. We didn't have a chance to explore the whole park area, but there was plenty of space relative to the number of people and we had a chance to sit and watch the shimmering lake whenever we wanted a break.

We also had some delicious massive hot dogs that were sort of like double-battered corn dogs with sugar, ketchup, and mustard on the outside. (Don't knock it 'til you try it.) There were a lot of stands with street food, and according to my family the hot dogs are pretty famous. One hot dog was enough for an entire meal and made me feel like I was at a fair or a carnival.

Before we knew it, it was time to come back home and say goodbye. We had such a magical weekend with my family, and they made the whole overnight trip such a special treat for all of us. I'm going to miss them so much. Though it's terribly unfair that the pandemic took away so much time we would've otherwise spent together, I'm grateful we had the chance to make some special memories before we go.

Monday, July 18, 2022

S's 100-Day Celebration: A Korean Tradition

I can't believe our baby is already 100 days old! 100 days is traditionally an important milestone in Korean culture, a holdover from previous times when many children did not live to that age. Although I clearly have not been following this rule, the 100-day mark is also typically the time after which the Korean mom and new baby can start going out in the world (as it's believed going out too much before then hampers recovery and puts mother and child at risk). These days, many people don't celebrate a child's 100 days and prefer instead to go all-out for the child's first birthday (another big one in Korea called the dol janchi, 돌잔치).

But we decided to go ahead and do a 100-day party (baekil janchi, 백일 잔치) for S for a few reasons. First of all, it was so easy to throw something traditionally Korean together while we're in South Korea: we were even able to rent a whole baekil janchi party set for the weekend! Second, we knew we only had a couple of months left to spend with my Korean family before we leave for the United States, so we wanted to make some nice memories together while we're still here. Third, I talked to one of my Korean American friends back home who had done an adorable baekil janchi for her son. When I mentioned I was on the fence about whether to organize something, she mentioned any excuse to get a baby in a hanbok (한복, traditional Korean dress) is a good one. Once I pictured S in a baby hanbok, it was a done deal and I knew I had to do the party.

We were so busy in the days leading up to the party cleaning the house top to bottom, picking up the party rental set, preparing food, and ordering rice cakes. Part of the 100-day tradition is to give special baekil rice cakes to 100 people to bring good fortune and long life to your baby. Between the guests at our party and my coworkers at the embassy, we got our rice cake recipients covered (with the help of some awesome colleagues who helped me get the rice cakes to folks in the office while I'm still on maternity leave).

The rice cake gift sets were so cute, and the big square one was even filled with delicious chocolate - something I've never seen in a rice cake like that before. (If you're curious, the Chinese character on that rice cake means 100, or baek in Korean. Chinese characters are called hanja, 한자, in the Korean language. A lot of Korean words are based on such Chinese characters.)

Joining us and my Korean family were our friends and neighbors (the other N&M), who had just come off of two weeks of hosting their family members visiting Korea from the United States. I was impressed they had the energy after so much running around with their guests, but I'm so glad they were able to attend and be a part of spoiling little S (and making sure we got our money's worth on the party set). My friend N made a gorgeous Almond Joy cake for the event that was as tasty as it was beautiful (and that you can see on the right in the photos of the whole spread).

Everyone brought such nice gifts, too, from the traditional gold rings to the most delightfully arranged flower basket I think I've ever seen to a norigae (노리개), an ornamental accessory either worn on a woman's or child's hanbok or hung in a room for good luck. Some of my colleagues at the embassy even sent a cute Korean baby book and a card to mark the occasion. We were so happy to have an excuse to shower love over little S, and can't wait to celebrate his first birthday with the rest of our family next year once we're back home!

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Informational Interview Red Flags

It's bidding season, also known as the time of year when Foreign Service members "bid on" (i.e., apply and compete for) their next assignment. Even though it's relatively early in my career, I have had the opportunity to bid mid-level a few times due to my previous broken assignment to Baghdad and my early bid for my next job in Washington, DC. I thought I would do a few blog posts consolidating some of the best advice I've received and tips for folks who are bidding or just applying for jobs in general who might benefit.

When you're preparing to bid, you need to search projected vacancies and narrow down the jobs you're interested in based on location, timing, language requirements, supervisory potential, and of course the work itself. Once you do that, the next step is to reach out to incumbents, the people who are currently in that role, and request more information than you can find just by reading online. The incumbent can confirm whether the information online is up to date and offer you more detailed insights on everything from their typical workday to what kind of experience is most relevant to the role (and even sometimes how competitive the job is).

I always ask the incumbent not only to send me the job description for bidders (as they usually have some standardized text to share prepared in advance), but also to let me know if they are available for a call. The informational interview call is to me one of the best ways to gather vital information that can help me determine if I would be a good candidate for the job, whether I want to bid it at all, and if I bid it where it would rank on my list. I've found incumbents are often willing to offer more nuanced and detailed answers on the phone or over a video chat than they would put in writing.

I once heard that a job interview process should be considered two-way: even as the employer is evaluating you as the applicant, you should be evaluating them. In the case of the Foreign Service where we have the luxury of more secure, regular work and the alternative is not unemployment, I think this is especially true. In that vein, I wanted to share some informational interview and incumbent red flags that have led me either to rank a job lower on my list or even decide not to bid it altogether. These are specific to me, but if you're in the bidding or job application process right now it might be helpful to think about what your red flags might be so you can look out for them (or in some cases, ask the necessary questions to find out what you need to know). Here are my red flags in no particular order:

  • They don't seem invested in DEIA work: I always ask about the office's DEIA (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility) efforts. There has been a big push from Department of State headquarters to expand diversity work to encompass all aspects of DEIA, and it's even a requirement for our annual performance evaluations now. In my opinion, there's really no excuse not to know about DEIA and not to be involved. In one awful informational interview I did recently with an incumbent, they didn't know what "DEIA" was and couldn't give any examples of how post was improving DEIA in the workplace besides the extremely vague "our leadership cares a lot about it." That's a major red flag to me.
  • The pitch for the post leads with the airport: If someone is telling me about their post but leads with the fact that the international airport allows you to go anywhere else and gives no examples of things that are interesting or rewarding about the work or the location, that tells me people don't really want to be there and are just looking to escape.
  • The incumbent is unprofessional: What does it say about the job if the person they previously hired to fill it is unprofessional? Examples I have experienced include receiving emails full of mistakes and typos that made me think hiring their replacement was an afterthought, being interrupted and talked over during an informational interview, and being talked down to for knowing less about the post and the portfolio than the incumbent who had served there for years.
  • They use coded language for overwork: When an incumbent uses a lot of coded language that usually means they and the entire team are overworked (e.g., "dynamic, fast-paced office looking for a resilient team player who can respond to the requirements of an actively engaged Front Office on high priority issues for Washington and responsible for staffing post's many high-level official visits..."), I start thinking their management does not do a good job of protecting their team's time. I am personally a strong believer in the idea that if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. If you expect your people to regularly work 12-hour days and be constantly available by email on nights and weekends, you have nothing to ramp up to if there is an actual crisis or major visit. Everyone will be too burned out to do much other than put out fires. I love my job, but I also love my life outside of work. So I'm looking for positions that won't make me choose one over the other.
  • They use outdated or offensive language: I have heard folks at work use the r-word or expressions like "off the reservation", and if they're still using expressions like this today it shows me that they haven't done a lot of listening to marginalized people and/or they don't exist in a work environment where people feel empowered to correct problematic language and behavior. I think one of the biggest institutional problems we face is a culture of conflict avoidance instead of accountability, so I'd much rather work in an office where people are open to constructive criticism. I want to work with people who change their behavior and language when they learn it's hurting others.
  • The incumbent doesn't get out much: What's the point of sending us overseas if we spend all day at a desk anyway? When an incumbent mentions a large amount of paperwork, whether that's drafting Congressional reports or documentation for grants management, that's a red flag that the job might be less interesting to me personally. (Who knows? Maybe someone else would see this as a plus.) I want to be out of the office meeting people, getting to know the country and the issues I cover better, and reaching out through events and programs as much as possible. In at least one case, I even heard from someone that they were mostly stuck at their desk because their boss kept all the interesting outreach to themselves and stuck this poor subordinate with all the paperwork. That's not the kind of leadership I need in my life!
  • They don't respond at all: I don't know why some incumbents never seem to respond even after multiple follow-ups. Do they struggle with inbox management? Is hiring their replacement not a priority for them or their office? Do they not know how to set an out-of-office message? It's a mystery to me, but when there are so many jobs out there I prefer to rank ones higher where I know there's some mutual enthusiasm. Put another way, I am a straightforward person and I don't like it when posts play hard to get. If I receive no signals of interest from even my first attempt to reach out to a post, it seems like my chances of being a top contender for the job are slim and it's not going to be worth a ton of my time and energy fighting for it.

These were the red flags I've seen in my bidding experience so far, and I hope they're helpful to readers who are bidding or applying to jobs or preparing to apply to jobs. We all have our own preferences and requirements, so I find it helpful to do some soul-searching and thought beforehand to determine what might be a negative or even a dealbreaker for me at that stage in my life and career. I wish everyone reading the best of luck in their bidding/applying journey!