The Career FSO Ambassador: Current Demographics

This post on the career FSO ambassador started out very similarly to the Foreign Service salary guide– to answer a ‘simple’ question that instead led to a deeper content piece.

You see, I was trying to determine which Foreign Service cone has led to the most career FSO ambassadors.

Now, my immediate thought was the political cone. As a generalization, those in the political cone interact and network the most with state politicians, learn the historical and cultural backgrounds of a state and region the best, and tend to be posted in the same geographic region the most. It is from this background, I hypothesized, that they learn to become the most qualified for the position.

In the spirit of not just making statements, I wanted to make sure I found referencing material to back my thinking up.

Unfortunately, after some Internet research I could not find a definitive answer. There were a few comments on blogs and feeds that assumed the political cone was the one, but like mine there was nothing to back this claim up.

Not to be “defeated”, I set out to answer this question.

The Career FSO Ambassador: A Very Brief Introduction

There are a total of 186 ambassadorial positions available, as of December 2014, and of that number 114, that’s 61%, are career Foreign Service Officers (this number does not take into account vacant positions).

For those that don’t know, the US Ambassador may be a career or political appointee. The majority of career FSOs have moved up the FS ranks, have earned the rank of senior FSO, and are then nominated to the position of the ambassador by the US president. Those that are politically appointed by the President did not move up the FSO ranks and may not be federal government employees.

As opposed to career FSOs who have earned the opportunity to be nominated for the position out of merit and experience, politically appointed ambassadors tend to receive extra scrutiny and ethical questioning during confirmation due to allegations of the ‘spoils system’ and that they may not be qualified to represent the interests of the US.

Additionally, most political appointments receive what some would call “comfier” appointments (e.g., Western Europe and Australia).

An example of each is US Ambassador to Argentina, Noah Mamet (political appointment), and US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Michael McKinley (career appointment).

By reading their official biographies, you will easily notice two completely different careers prior to being nominated as ambassador to their respective countries.

Finding the Data

In order to answer the question, ‘which cone leads to more US career ambassadors’, I used the ‘List of Ambassadorial Appointments’ created and routinely updated by AFSA to learn who the career appointments currently are.

I then did background research on all the career appointed ambassadors to answer this question.

That’s right, all 114 ambassadors.

As a side note: a more definitive answer to this question would be to research every career FSO ambassador ever to be appointed since the use of the five cones. However, after the amount of time it took to gather information on the current 114… “ain’t nobody got time for that”. If this were done though, it would then be interesting to see the representational change over time of each cone.

Along the way, I also collected the following information if it were available:

  • Gender
  • Date of birth
  • Year the ambassador joined the Service
  • Year the ambassador was nominated to become an ambassador
  • If this is their first nomination or multiple (noted throughout this review as ‘2nd+’)

As being transparent is a key aspect of this website, the following are some limitations of the data and where the data was gathered from.

The information was found on a number of different sites, but predominantly the embassy about page each ambassador is serving in, AllGov, AFSA, NNDB, and a couple of others. For purposes of reliability, I was able to cross-reference much of the information on these sites with one another.

For a number of the ambassadors, educated guesses were required. For example, some ambassadors did not list their year of birth but they did list the year they graduated from high school and/or college. To determine year of birth I subtracted 18 or 22 from the year they graduated from high school or college, respectively.

Finally, determining the cone was difficult. No database, as far as I could find, publicly lists the cones ambassadors started in upon joining the Foreign Service. Again, educated guesses were made by following the positions they held along their FS career.

For any one data category, I was able to find at least 93% of the information, except for cones. Unfortunately I was only able to determine approximately 75%.

A complete listing of the data follows. For any piece of information missing, I wrote ‘Blank’ in the field. If you happen to know the missing information, or if corrections are needed, I welcome your input by contacting me.

Additionally, and I am excited for this, you can do a LIVE FILTER of the data bellow. Want to know how many ambassadors were born in 1950 or are named John? Just type it in the search bar (where it says “live filter”). Thanks to Chris Spittles for providing the template of the live filter on his website.

The Demographics Breakdown- A Better Insight

I am a big believer in showing data visually, it’s more interactive and both you and I find it more interesting.

To this end, a map, bar charts, and pie charts are used. Feel free to scroll over, zoom, and click on the charts. They are dynamic and meant to be interacted with.

As a final reminder, all the broken down data is based on the current career FSO ambassadors that are nominated or posted.

A Global View
The map below shows all current career, political, vacant, “empty”, and not applicable (N/A) postings.

[amcharts id=”map-5″]


A disclaimer: the four regions in black (N/A) currently have no diplomatic relations with the United States. These four include Western Sahara, Iran, Bhutan, and North Korea. Additionally, we do not have posts in the territories of Svalbard and Jan Mayen, French Guiana, and New Caledonia, and these were given the designation of empty.

You will notice that political appointees tend to be located in the more developed regions of the world while career appointees are in the developing.

For me, two surprises were India and China. Two states where I would expect career ambassadors to be appointed. That said, the cultural pull of both countries and the prestige of leading these missions are most likely the reasons they are political assignments. Furthermore, being politically appointed to these countries, I have learned, is not new. Since 1960, China and India have both been politically appointed 68% of the time.

Approximately 66% of career ambassadors are male.

[amcharts id=”pie-2″]

First Time or Second (plus) Ambassadorial Posting
For approximately 74% of ambassadors, this is their first appointment. For 26%, or 29 ambassadors, they are currently serving their second, third, or even fourth appointment.

[amcharts id=”pie-3″]

The Timelines
1. The average age of the ambassadors when joining the Foreign Service was 27.5 years, which is nearly five years younger than the average age of most new hires today at 32 (US News, 2012).

[amcharts id=”serial-2″]

Originally I was going to source this article by the Washington Post, which notes 30 as the average in 2004, but then I saw the more updated number by US News. I am now wondering why the average age has been increasing over the years and how much of this has to do with the FSOT (if at all).

If you have any insights feel free to leave a comment.


2. The year the ambassadors joined the Foreign Service ranges from 1972 to 1996, with the average being 1985.

[amcharts id=”serial-4″]


3. The cones chosen by these FSOs were as follow:

[amcharts id=”pie-1″]

“Other” includes a mix of different agencies and specialist positions such as Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, and a Regional Security Officer (full breakdown can be seen in the data above).

As it turns out, the political cone does have the largest representation.

This means my initial thought was correct. However, at only 38%, this isn’t an overwhelming majority. Instead, it seems that each cone has the opportunity to produce an ambassador. Of the five though, you may want to hedge your bets towards political, economic, or consular, as management and public diplomacy are not represented strongly (if you really want to become an ambassador).


4. The age of the ambassador when nominated the first time ranges from 38 to 66, with an average age of 54.

[amcharts id=”serial-3″]


5. The length in time it took the ambassador to be nominated ranges from 15 to 36, with an average time of 26.5 years.

[amcharts id=”serial-1″]


Closing Thoughts

I find the information above to be pretty interesting.

Our ambassadors are clearly not all from the political cone, are not all the same age, and have a diverse background (you learn a little something after reading all their biographies).

This really does mean that whatever your background, aspirations, and interests upon joining the Foreign Service, you do have the potential of becoming ambassador (if this is what you aspire to be!).

The US career ambassadors are some of the most interesting individuals to read up on. If you are interested in joining the Foreign Service, I highly suggest you look up some of their bios. This will not only give you a better sense of what you have to look forward to every two to three years as you move posts, but some of the biographies also note the major political experiences they went through (elections, protests, war, etc.).

It was also fun to realize that I have actually (briefly) worked under one of the current ambassadors during my time as an intern at US Embassy, Kenya. He was the head of the economic section at the time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the above and on the career FSO ambassadors in general!

Join the pFS Newsletter!

Receive 6 lessons to help you prep, study, and practice for the FSOT.

Plus! By signing-up you are also joining hundreds of other FSO applicants in a communal pursuit to join the Foreign Service.

I promise not to spam, because I hate it. Powered by ConvertKit

16 thoughts on “The Career FSO Ambassador: Current Demographics”

  1. Great work and insights!
    Two takeaways:
    1. We can clearly see from your chart that 38.1% ambassadors are from political cone, 17.8% are from consular and econ, however, do you have the data of the makeup of each cone? Meaning, according to my knowledge (in the FS communitry for over 12 years), there are more number of consular officers than any other cone officers, which makes the base number of consular officers way more than others. Therefore, although 17.8% of the current ambassadors are from consular cone, but they competed and excelled from a bigger portion of consular officers, by what I mean, it is harder to stand out into selected senior officers as a consular officer.
    2. That leads to another question, when select potential candidate for future ambassadors, is cone or even gender a consideration? When the decision makers in D.C. evaluate qualifications, do they favor someone just because they want a political cone officer to serve the position, or simply they need a female? Or it all matters?

  2. thank you for this post. very informative and I love your approach with data. I am a bit older at 38 and just thinking to join, but I think it is never too late if it is something you will enjoy doing

  3. US amb to mexico is not political. She is a career civil servant of the State Dept who has moved up in the ranks.

    1. Hi Patricia, thank you for your input. I see that I don’t even have Mexico listed. When I wrote this originally I may not have been able to find the data on the ambassador. Were you referring to someone else?

      1. Stepanie Smith Kinney, SFS ret.

        She was referring to Toberta Jacobson, who resigned within the last year and has just written an OpEd on why that has gotten some attention on TV talk.

  4. I really enjoyed this – thank you so much for doing all the groundwork! I just took the first test last weekend, so maybe I’ll be seeing you in the future. 😉

  5. As someone who is considering a career with the FS I find this article to be particularly interesting and insightful. Kudos to you for putting in the time and effort to research previous ambassadors so that we can have some concrete data!

  6. Nice write up.

    I think it is important to remember that of the political appointees, there are really two groups of those: those who bring certain special qualities, and those who are being rewarded for party loyalty. That is why you see political appointees to places like China, Japan, and India. Those jobs aren’t going to bundlers, they’re going to people with certain special backgrounds (Congress, Kennedy, etc.)

    Also, I think it is important to remember that your chances of becoming an ambassador are remarkably slim. I get that question quite a bit on my blog. What cone do I pick to become and ambassador? The answer is that it really doesn’t matter. Sure, it could happen, but I wouldn’t count on it. There are just too many variables out of your control. We have around 13,000 FSOs at the moment and your own data says 114 are ambassadors. Of those, quite a few are on their second ambassadorship. So…less than 1%?

    There is nothing wrong with having the goal of becoming an ambassador, but I think too many people who are trying to get into the FS focus on that. You can have a very rich, rewarding career without becoming an ambassador. It’s kind of like getting a job at Google, but with the goal of becoming CEO. It won’t happen, but you could still have a great career.

    1. Hi Shawn, I appreciate the insight.

      It’s neat to hear it is a common question from folks on how to become an ambassador, and specifically which cone to follow. The question popped into my head and I just went with it. I do believe it’s very important for folks to choose the cone they want to work in long term, what they will enjoy the most doing.

      You wrote something that has me thinking of next steps, “there are just too many variables out of your control”. Yes, but there must be qualifications that can help folks towards their goal of becoming ambassador (if this is a long term goal) or if not becoming ambassador being an “advanced” FSO. For instance, and these are just thoughts not certainties, being fluent in one or two languages, knowing the geo-political history of a region well, strong networking abilities, continued education as a FSO (I noticed the majority of current ambassadors have at least a Master’s), length of service, working in a large mission or small, etc.

      This would be all the more interesting to find out for those who became ambassador in 20 or less years and to try and determine what separated or assisted them (connections?) from the rest of the pack.

      Thanks again for the note!

      1. Hi Jack,

        I think you could definitely attempt to pursue an FS path that leads toward ambassadorship. Find a region and really get known there (Africa, Asia, etc.) Even more important, spend a lot of time back in DC doing jobs where you meet the movers and shakers. I think one reason you’ll find fewer management and consular officers in ambassador slots is because they often spend more time overseas. I think that hurts you when you are after a chief of mission slot. You need to be making those crucial connections back in DC. I think that networking that you mention will trump everything else.

        1. my understanding is that most career ambassadors historically were political officers; that seems to be less the case now. the focus of pol and econ officers in an embassy is on bilateral relations and promoting USG interests. Mgt’s role is to support those efforts. this no doubt helps pol and econ officers in the Amb/PO selection process. I agree DC experience is vital to a successful career, especially when selecting principal officers. I also think being a great pol or econ officer does not necessarily translate into being a good ambassador (or DCM).

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top
Daily, actionable advice

Subscribe for guidance

You will also receive updates when new posts are published on pFS.