Mentoring Yourself as a Woman in Academia

2 July 2020, 0823 EDT

This post, part of the Bridging the Gap channel, is written by Rosella Cappella Zielinski, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Boston University and non-resident fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University. She is  an alumna of BTG’s International Policy Summer Institute

For those of us figuring out how to navigate our identities in the classroom, on the job market, and in the wider world of academia, mentoring often plays a crucial role. Yet, often, our institutional advisors, as immensely supportive as they can be, do not reflect our gender, race, ethnicity, orientation, or other personally identifying attributes. 

The Future Strategy Forum (FSF) — an annual event designed to connect scholars of national security issues with leading practitioners to showcase female talent in the field and build vertical and horizontal networks across the policy-academic gap, organized by CSIS in partnership with Bridging the Gap, the Kissinger Center at SAIS, and the MIT Security Studies Program — recently asked me to offer some remarks regarding the effect of COVID-19 on financing grand strategy and to also share some career-related advice for the FSF–BTG grad student cohort that was part of the event. It turns out that the former was easy — while the latter, not so much.

I was stunned to realize, in preparing my remarks, that in all my time as an undergraduate and graduate student studying international relations, I never had one professor that was a woman or Hispanic. Not one. 

I have had amazing mentors, from John Odell and Peter Rosendorff when I was an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, to my dissertation committee at the University of Pennsylvania (Edward Mansfield, Avery Goldstein, Michael Horowitz, and Alex Weisiger), to Steven Brooks and William Wohlforth during my time as a post-doc at the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. These consummate professionals, and lovely human beings, provided awe-inspiring technical and intellectual mentorship — really, an embarrassment of riches. What these gracious individuals inherently could not do was mentor me on how to navigate academia as a woman or as someone who is bi-racial (my mother is an immigrant from El Salvador). 

I was fortunate enough to take a theory course in graduate school with the amazing Ellen Kennedy and qualitative methods with Julie Lynch, but there were no women who spoke to my interests in international security. Not until I attended the Summer Workshop on the Analysis of Military Operations and Strategy (SWAMOS), where I heard Cindy Williams and Tami Davis Biddle present on the defense budget and air power respectively, did I encounter such scholars. 

Thus, I’ve mostly had to navigate being a woman in academic, in particular a bi-racial woman, on my own. And I have come to realize that you have to mentor yourself from the ground up. Here are four lessons I would emphasize to help ourselves and our peers and, hopefully, help to expand diversity in academia as well. 

Four Lessons for Self-Mentoring

Create power where there is none: Academia is full of opportunities to organize and lead. I cannot tell you how many times throughout my career (at times successfully and at other times not), I have organized a panel, an event, a workshop series, or a special issue. By organizing (without funding, aside from registrations of course), I had the power to choose which senior scholars to invite — as well as which of my peers to invite and, in doing so, lift up others. 

Find mentors in your peers: I may not have had any senior female scholars guiding me in my academic journey, but I had some amazing junior female co-authors who taught me how to navigate academia as a woman. Indeed, we struggled together. There is so much value in having someone you can confide in, to validate your anxieties, to see what you are seeing, especially when unconscious biases are not so unconscious to the receiver. Having a female co-author is truly freeing and empowering. 

Model your identity (if/when you are comfortable): I often use examples of my identity in the classroom in hopes of inspiring the next generation. When I teach nuclear deterrence, I invoke my identity as a mother when I talk about deterring my child from stealing a cookie. When I talk about hierarchy and power in the international system, I invoke my identity as a Latinx. I ask questions like “What traditional metrics do academics use to measure power?” and “How does where my family is from, El Salvador, measure up in those rankings?” Inevitably, I will have a student come up to me and say, “Wow, I am Latinx too, that is so great, there are so few of us.” 

Teach everything: I was embarrassed to admit to the Future Strategy Forum group that I used to refrain from teaching Feminist International Relations theory since I did not want my students to think I was teaching this perspective only because I am a woman. I do teach it now and, along with all International Relations theories, subsume it in a discussion of ontology and epistemology. I deeply regret, however, that self-consciousness about my gender prevented me from delivering a well-rounded education. 

All of these lessons can be subsumed under something I try to constantly let my students know, by word and deed: we are all in this together. Academia, for me, encompasses a sense of service and commitment to the community. If we can reframe our pursuits away from the zero-sum game and the desire for self-advancement, and instead present academia as a commitment to advancing our collective understanding of the world, we can mentor ourselves and others at the same time.