‘Tis the season. I do not mean the fall season, or entering the holidays. I mean it is the time of the year when Foreign Service Officers seeking their next assignment begin bidding on potential jobs.
Well, that is not exactly right. The official bidding season began on Monday, September 19 with the release of the “Bid List” (a database of all available jobs) and was scheduled to end on Monday, October 31, the first day that official offers or “handshakes” can be extended. Six long weeks. But that belies how much work actually goes into this process.
I feel as if I have been bidding since I arrived in Shanghai, over 20 months ago. I feel that way because I sort of have. A few weeks after my arrival I started looking at the projected vacancy list, a list of the jobs likely to be available for me to bid on. Only eight jobs appeared to meet my timing and criteria and two of them were on the US-Mexican border. Ciudad Juarez was a good place for us to be before, but I was not keen to return to the border.
Since I arrived in January 2015, my departure date would be approximately two years later in the winter of 2017. We have two bid cycles a year – one in the summer and one in the winter. I was a winter bidder. Additionally, I looked at jobs that were listed as fulfilling a “Political” job. We have five “cones” or career tracks as a Foreign Service Officer (also called a Foreign Service Generalist; there are also Foreign Service Specialists who have other career tracks: https://careers.state.gov/work/foreign-service/officer). The five cones are: Consular, Economic, Management, Political, and Public Diplomacy. With the limited list generated from my search of Political-coned jobs available for winter 2017, I decided to look into an extension. Although unusual for an Entry Level Officer (ELO=an officer in their first or second tour), on May 1, 2015 I had been granted my extension to April 2017, placing me in the summer bid cycle.
And I let that stand for a little less than a year.
Then I revisited the Projected Vacancy List. I poured over it. I printed out the capsule descriptions, the single paragraph summary statements about each position. I made lists. I researched pet importation restrictions (for the two cats). I read reviews of many places on Real Post Reports (http://www.talesmag.com/real-post-reports/all), where real people who have lived in the cities and countries highlighted can anonymously respond to a survey answering questions on commutes, housing, whether you need a car and what type to bring, security and health concerns, schools and more. I made more lists. Then I whittled my lists of top posts down to about a dozen.
In late April of this year I took the time during my R&R to go into the State Department to meet with the desk officers covering several of the countries from my Shortlist Dozen.
Back in Shanghai I started to reach out to some of the incumbents serving in posts on my Shortlist Dozen to find out a day/week in the life of their position, what he/she found were the top reporting issues and top responsibilities, and get the skinny on work/life balance. By August I had reached out to someone in all of my Shortlist Dozen spots. In places where the incumbent had recently left and the new one had yet to arrive, I reached out to the heads of political sections. Before I left for my Australian vacation on September 9 I had identified a firm ten jobs that would make up my bid list (because this year the maximum we could bid was ten). I felt fairly confident that although each and every place would take me and my daughter in a different direction, they would all meet carefully researched personal and professional goals. I was ready.
Then the official bid list came out.
On Monday, September 19, Washington, DC time, the State Department released the Bid List. Since I essentially live 12 hours in the future, I did not feel concerned returning to Shanghai on Tuesday. Yet when I nervously checked the list on Wednesday, my first day back in the office, I already felt behind. Luckily though, having reached out to many offices prior to the official bidding season, I secured three interviews within a week. The first, with my third choice, went alright. I think it went better than I had expected, yet at the end of the call I had some doubts this is where I wanted to be. My other two interviews though went quite well. Alright. This might not be so bad.
Then two positions high on my list, both in the same country, were gone from the list. The incumbent had extended. Then another slipped off the list for the same reason. Then another. I searched for replacements, found one, reached out to the office, and then learned it too would no longer be available.
How is it that jobs listed as available become no longer so? In the case of the jobs I had looked at, they were all two year jobs with one year of training and over 20% post differential. As I am bidding on Summer 2017 jobs, I would then enter one year of training and arrive to post in Summer 2018, then serve two years in the position. The incumbents had only arrived at post in late Summer 2016 after their year of training. Incumbents in countries with 20% or higher differential may extend a third year. I can imagine it is not easy to arrive to a new position in country and within weeks be expected to decide if you will stay two years or three. Having now been through the wrenching bidding process, I am not surprised that many opted to extend. I expect I might do the same. Still, I will use an un-diplomatic phrase here, it sucked.
Then a fifth job made itself unavailable. Originally a position with a start date of Summer 2018, that included a year of training (mostly language) became a Summer 2017 position. The incumbent who had initially agreed to stay a third year under a special “service needs” designation, decided instead to leave after the second year. Though the language designation remained, the timing would mean no year of training. It had been the language training that had made it so attractive. I removed it from my list.
My strong list of ten had quickly been reduced to five, the minimum.
I had two more interviews; I thought they went fairly well. But I needed more bids to feel comfortable.
My original ten bids had featured four jobs in three countries of the East Asia Pacific (EAP) bureau, three jobs in two countries in the South Central Asia (SCA) bureau, two jobs in two countries in the Africa (AF) bureau, and a single job in the Western Hemisphere (WHA) bureau. The European (EUR) bureau uses another bidding tool from the other bureaus – too complicated to go into here and make an already complex narrative more so — which is why I then added three Near East (NEA) in two countries into my mix. I reached out to incumbents. I had another interview.
I cannot imagine this is very exciting to read for the uninitiated and perhaps too cryptic for those in the know. For those actually living it though, it is exciting and scary and stressful at the same time. These bids can begin to feel terribly weighty. Each bid after all represents a different job in a different city in a different country. Each place will alter not only my professional and personal trajectory, but also that of my daughter. If we go to X country in southern Africa I imagine her on the swim team. She likes swimming. Swimming seems like the most popular sport referenced on the international school pages. Yes, there is a swim team with try-outs for five year olds. Yet if we go to Y country in Central Asia, she will likely not swim. I cannot find mention of a pool on any of the school websites. But horseback riding seems a likely possibility. My daughter likes horses.
I play this game in my head frequently. Too frequently. I have to stop when I start to psych myself out of a job. Many bidders receive a message from their Career Development Officer reminding them to be realistic about their options, to not bid on jobs that are a reach, are too heavily bid (within the bidding tool we can see the number of bidders on any given job), or are above our pay grade. The email tells us that last year two-thirds of bidders received an offer on or in the days that follow Handshake Day. The unspoken, but glaringly obvious information is that a full one-third of bidders did not. I falter. I feel very unsure again. I cannot afford to persuade myself now that a job may not be the right path. If I have an offer, I should take it. The email says so.
Bidding can be a lonely sport. Sharing with friends and family who are not in the Foreign Service can be difficult. People are disappointed and confused to learn I have not bid on a single European post. When I have mentioned the places on my list I then receive “votes” on a particular place. “You should go to X because the weather is better” or “My vote is for Y because then I would see you more” or “They all sound nice but I prefer Z because [insert any kind of random fact the person might know about Z].” I know these are well meaning. I do. But unfortunately I do not really get to choose. I can make a list, but ultimately the choice is on the other side.
So basically in a nut shell: the Bid List is released, bidders pour over the bid list and submit bids (and also their lobbying documents like their resume and references and employee profile) to Posts of interest, *if* post is interested they will contact the bidder for an interview, Posts make their own short lists and send to DC, bidders submit their final bids, i.e. a minimum of 5 and a maximum of 10 bids. Then bidders wait. Ten excruciatingly long days til Handshake Day. I try to relax. I try to focus on my work; I have plenty to keep me busy but I feel a little unmotivated, distracted. I liken it to when you are working on your computer and a program that you have no control over is running in the background. For me Bidding 2.0 is constantly running in my brain.
I submitted bids for eight positions in seven countries. I had interviews with six. I heard I made the short list, but was not the number one choice, for five places. I suspected I was on the bid list at a sixth place as I was the only bidder on that job (though as is so many things in the State Department, that is certainly not a guarantee). By all accounts I was in a good position. Then Handshake Day arrived…and passed with no handshake for me.
So how to best to describe this process? It is rather like the dating game. Imagine you are at a high school and the Homecoming Dance is coming up. Everyone would like to get asked to the dance. Cindy likes John. John likes Cindy but is a bit more into Jessica. He would like to ask Jessica to the dance, but if Jessica says no then he will ask Cindy. Rajiv likes Cindy too. He thinks he will ask her to the dance. But he heard that John might ask her if Jessica says no. So Rajiv is also thinking about asking Kaori or Naomi. Kaori likes Rajiv but also Blake, but does not think she has a shot, but is hopeful anyway. She heard from a friend who knows someone who knows Blake though that he knows she is interested, so maybe she will wait it out. Aaron though is the star quarterback of the football team and if he asks Cindy, Kaori, or Naomi, they will say yes. Claudia is a cheerleader and if she asks Blake, John or Connor they will say yes.
Confused? So am I. But picture instead of hormonally charged teenagers these are bidders and cities where positions are available. A very strong candidate might get two or three handshakes on Handshake Day, but can obviously only take one job. The candidate though has 24 hours to consider the offers and respond. When that candidate takes one of those jobs, the two losing Posts must now go down their Shortlist to their number two. Number two though may have been number one on another list and has already accepted a handshake. Perhaps number three on the list though is still waiting and will accept Post’s offer. Yet, this can go on for days. And as the days pass bidders become increasingly hopeful to get an offer from someplace, any place they bid. At the end of the day, as everyone and anyone who knows you are bidding but did not receive an offer on Handshake Day will tell you, everyone gets a job. So after the dust settles there are always jobs that either did not have bidders or for whom their bidders took other jobs.
But on day three of the process I got an offer. Thank goodness the stress of bidding is over. I should take a few days to….Oops, too late, now I am freaking out about all I need to prepare to get there…