Entry Level Officers (ELOs) have directed assignments. They receive a list of job options (the Bid List), rank which ones they'd like to go to and which ones not so much, they submit the list to their own Career Development Officer (CDO), the CDOs spend a couple days fitting round pegs into square holes, and ELOs are notified of their assignment. Within their first 2 tours they have to get off language probation (every officer has to have a foreign language), and there are a few other considerations as well.
For Mid-Levels it works a little different. The list comes out and we choose a minimum of 6 posts, with no more than 3 in one Bureau (Bureaus are sections of the world... WHA: Western Hemisphere, NEA: Near East Asia, EUR: Europe, AF: Africa, SCA: South Central Asia, EAP: East Asia Pacific, and of course stateside jobs). Ian already shortened the list to a couple hundred Consular positions. Since he's out of his cone now in an HR position, he wants to get back into his own field. Once we know where we want, Ian goes about the task of lobbying... talking to posts and the assignments team, submitting references and resumes, all in an effort to not only choose a post but have the post choose him. This process gets easier with each bid cycle as more and more FS officers know your name and your work.
With Ian up for promotion this summer we're making two lists: an 03 list if he doesn't get his promotion and an 02 list if he does. It's best to cover all bases. Within our lists we have jobs with language requirement and jobs without. This is an important distinction. Ian rotates out of his current position next August. A job without a language means we move out next summer between July and September. Jobs with language mean staying until anytime between December 2011 and August 2012 and adding either a half- or full-year of school in the States for the kids.
We've cobbled together our lists and wait for other pieces to fall into place: medical clearances to come through, AIP (Afghanistan/Iraq/Pakistan) assignments to knock off posts, lobbying to posts we really want. Our list won't be officially submitted for a while yet, not until after the promotion board, and that's a good thing. New jobs pop up, old ones fall off, preferences change, lists get reorganized.
In the Foreign Service everything is in a constant state of flux and it's truly a test of patience. In this line of work every Post decision affects the Officer's life and the life of the family and cannot be taken lightly. We just try to make the best decisions we can.