Advice for applicants
Advice for Peace Corps Applicants
by Chuck Ludlam
Update by the Wiki Community Dec. 2013
As a double RPCV and a prominent member of the movement to reform the Peace Corps, applicants often ask me how to approach the application process and the decision to accept an invitation to serve
My advice is always the same: applicants to the Peace Corps should be selective and cautious in accepting an invitation to serve. “Buyer Beware” should be their watch word because the quality of the programs in the seventy-seven Peace Corps countries varies considerably. Because applicants will be committing two years of their lives to this service, they should be confident that the Peace Corps program (e.g. Senegal, agriculture) in which they serve will be professionally managed and respectful of the Volunteers. By being selective, applicants can be more certain that they will be empowered to serve productively and emerge from their service feeling proud of what they have accomplished.
To make an informed choice, applicants must request relevant information about the country and the program in which they are invited to serve. If substantial numbers of applicants request this information, the Peace Corps will establish routine procedures to make the information available to applicants in a timely manner, i.e. it will be sent to them with the invitation to serve.
Applicants should understand that they have leverage in requesting this information. The idea that applicants are in surplus – a reported “three to one ratio” of applicants to training slots – may be a misconception. The Peace Corps appears, in fact, to be scrambling to fill training slots. The ratio may be three to one before the onerous medical screening process, but after that process is completed, the ratio of medically fit applicants to training slots appears to be more like one-to-one. In short, the main criterion for selection in the Peace Corps is medical fitness. So each individual applicant is needed by the Peace Corps to fill its programs.
Applicants typically have seven days to accept or reject an invitation to serve in a specific country and program, giving little time to be selective and ask questions. Given this short turnaround time, the applicants should inform the Peace Corps recruiter well in advance that they will need certain information about the country and program when the invitation is finally issued.
To date the Peace Corps has not been transparent with applicants, the Congress, Peace Corps alumni, or the press. So initially, Peace Corps personnel may not be enthusiastic about supplying relevant information to applicants. In fact, applicants might be told – directly or indirectly – that if they do not accept the first invitation, they might not get another. In the same way, they might be told that they are not being cooperative and flexible, which are important characteristics for a successful Volunteer. Applicants must stand firm and insist that they receive the information they need to make an informed choice in their own best interests.
If the Peace Corps does not provide relevant information that enables the applicant to assess the quality of the program, the applicant should consider carefully whether or not to accept the invitation to serve. Applicants are being asked to spend two years of their lives as Volunteers, so the least the agency can do is provide full transparency about the Peace Corps and the management and effectiveness of its programs.
Following is a description of information that will help enable the applicant to determine whether or not to accept an invitation to serve. These recommendations are taken from our Peace Corps reform report.
Early Quit Rates
1. Early Quit Rates: Applicant should request data on the “early termination” (ET) rates – that is, the percentage of applicants who fail to complete their 26-27 months of service. The ET rate data is a relevant measure of the quality of the overall management of Peace Corps in a country. Worldwide ET rates average more than 30% and vary from about 15% up to nearly 70%. For years the ET rate data has been obscured as a measure of the performance of Peace Corps. However, the Peace Corps has recently conceded that the “cohort” rate – the measure of how many applicants fail to complete their service – is the appropriate ET rate measure. Applicants should insist on knowing the “cohort” ET rate and not accept an “annual” ET rate measure – a misleading figure that does not measure the percentage of Volunteers who complete their service. The applicant should also request the ET rate for the specific program (i.e. health, education, agriculture) in which he or she has been invited to serve and the break out of the reasons given by the Volunteers and the Country Director for the early quitting in that country and program. If the Peace Corps refuses to divulge accurate ET rate data for the country in which the applicant is invited to serve or if the ET rate for that country is greater than about 20%, the applicant should consider carefully whether or not to accept the invitation to serve.
Volunteer Survey Results
2. Volunteer Survey Results: Applicants should request the results of the most recent agency survey of the Volunteers for the country in which they are invited to serve. They should request the complete country-by-country results of the survey so that they may rank the countries. To be sure, the Peace Corps has thus far refused to release the results of these surveys in response to Freedom of Information requests. We obtained a copy of the 2008 Biennial Volunteer Survey and the country-by-country results and published them in Peace Corps Wiki. PCW has published spreadsheets that enable applicants to rank the countries with regard to various key questions. One of the most important questions in the survey is the one that focuses on the quality of the Country Director, the individual who sets the tone and standards for Peace Corps operations in each country. If the ratings for the Country Director are low, it is likely that the country program has problems. Applicants should also request to see the survey responses, including the responses to open-ended questions, for the Volunteers who serve in the specific program in which the applicant is invited to serve (i.e. health, education, agriculture). If the Peace Corps refuses to release the most recent survey results and the country-by-country and program-by-program results, or if the country or program are ranked in the bottom half or bottom quarter of the countries where Volunteers serve, the applicant should consider carefully whether or not to accept the invitation to serve.
Contacting Current and Returned Volunteers
3. Contacting Current Volunteers: The Peace Corps should make available to the applicant/invitee the contact information for Volunteers who are currently serving in the country and program. Applicants can then ask them relevant questions about the program and determine how to prepare for service. Some current Volunteers have blogs and applicants can find them through http://www.PeaceCorpsJournals.com. Additionally, there is an independent forum called Peace Corps Forum that is available for new applicants, trainees, current volunteers, returned volunteers, and people who are generally interested in the Peace Corps at http://peacecorpsforum.com/.
4. Confidential Reviews: Applicants should request information on whether the country program solicits the views of Volunteers on a confidential basis regarding the Peace Corps staff and programs. Programs that respect the Volunteers solicit their views annually on a confidential basis. Providing a hotline number to call in case of an emergency is not sufficient to prevent problems before they cause a crisis. Confidentiality is the key because most applicants are unwilling to speak up unless their identity is kept confidential. Country programs that report the views of the Volunteers to all of the Volunteers and/or publish them on its website are especially impressive. If the country does not solicit the views of the Volunteers on a confidential basis, the applicant should consider carefully whether or not to accept the invitation to serve. Note: The Peace Corps has opposed legislation pending in the Congress (S. 732, the PCV Empowerment Act of 2007) to require that it solicit the views of Volunteers on a confidential basis regarding staff and programs.
Whistle Blower Rights
5.Whistle Blower Rights: Applicants should request information on whether the country program protects Volunteer whistle blowers from retaliation. Volunteers should not be vulnerable to retaliation if they blow the whistle on poor management or corruption in the program. If the country does not provide protections against retaliation for Volunteer whistle blowers, the applicant consider carefully whether or not to accept the invitation to serve. Note: The Peace Corps has opposed legislation pending in the Congress (S. 732, the PCV Empowerment Act of 2007) to give Volunteers whistle blower protections.
6. Rapid Expansion: Applicants should request information about any recent increase in the number of Volunteers in the country to which they are invited to serve. The Peace Corps has recently increased the overall number of Volunteers by 1,000 despite the fact that Volunteers favored reform over expansion by 2.5 to 1 in the 2008 Biennial Volunteer Survey. There exist obvious tradeoffs between quantity (number of Volunteers) and quality (good programs and training). This rapid increase places extraordinary stress on the Peace Corps staff, which may not have been increased in advance of the flood of new Volunteers. The expansion makes it more difficult for the staff to adequately manage training, prepare sites, recruit local counterparts, and support the Volunteers in their work. If the country in which the applicant is invited to serve has seen a rapid increase in the number of Volunteers, the applicant should consider carefully whether or not to accept the invitation.
Seed Funding for Demonstrations
7. Seed Funding for Demonstrations: Applicants should request information about the availability of funding for Volunteers to cover their work-related expenses, including expenses to launch demonstrations. Without seed funding, Volunteers often find that it is difficult to succeed. If sufficient funds are not available to Volunteers in the country, the applicant should consider carefully whether or not to accept the invitation to serve. Note: The Peace Corps has opposed legislation pending in the Congress (S. 732, the PCV Empowerment Act of 2007) to require that it reimburse Volunteers for their work-related expenses.
This advice to applicants is given so that they can make a better informed choice about whether or not to serve. My goal is to avoid a situation where the applicant accepts an invitation and then, due to poor management of the agency, they need to quit early or become demoralized. We want them to enter service with high expectations and have these met by the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps is nothing except for its Volunteers and it owes them an extraordinary opportunity to serve and a reasonable opportunity to achieve sustainable development results. When the applicants ask for relevant information, and serve effectively, they become part of the Peace Corps reform movement that will ensure that the Peace Corps thrives and prospers.