One of the most important factors in my career has been the mentorship and advocacy I received from those who came before me. As we transitioned to a fully remote world, one of the most pressing concerns on my mind was the future of mentorship for those coming into the field.
There really is no replacement for being able to take a wide-eyed, energetic, talented person for an informal coffee at a local haunt, answering their eager questions and talking them through the opportunities and challenges in the field. Or taking an overworked junior staff member for an impromptu drink when you can tell that the stress of the demands in the office or the field are bringing them to their limit, assuring them that you’ve been there too, and it will all be worth it. Those conversations were invaluable to me when I was on the receiving end of the advice, and they fed my soul when I was finally in a position to provide a modicum of direction to the next generation. The shift to the fully virtual environment threatened to reduce that vital component of a healthy NatSec ecosystem.
Yet the shift to the virtual world has also democratized access to mentorship. Where I might have previously scheduled a rare call with a college student at my alma mater, the proliferation of Zoom calls in daily life changed the game with respect to the culture of accessibility for people in the field. Given that a coffee or happy hour required physical proximity, most of the individuals I had the pleasure of mentoring in the past were either already located in Washington, DC or attending elite graduate programs with the resources and networks somewhat necessary to break into the field. The shift to the virtual environment assists those who may have been overlooked in the past: students and young professionals of modest means, from underrepresented groups, and from the midwestern state schools who might otherwise not know how to break into our field. It also gives us much broader access to the full range of talent across the country.
Given that a coffee or happy hour required physical proximity, most of the individuals I had the pleasure of mentoring in the past were either already located in Washington, DC or attending elite graduate programs with the resources and networks somewhat necessary to break into the field.
The question, then, is how we as national security professionals can make the most of the moment?
BEING INTENTIONAL ABOUT CONNECTING
As a workforce, we’re all experiencing a degree of Zoom fatigue, and while we are seemingly more available — or perhaps seem “more available” — boundaries on our schedule are increasingly important. But an intentional hour-per-week meeting with mentees or young professionals curious about joining our field not only provides a service to the next generation, it can be particularly energizing in our own professional lives.
Having a quick list of go-to articles, podcasts, and blog posts on hand can make it easy to provide further resources; don’t underestimate how useful materials that seem viral in the District might be to a grad student who lives outside the Beltway. In addition to Inkstick, Lawfare and War on the Rocks provide national security perspectives from a wide range of practitioners, including senior leaders and on-the-ground analysts. The 538 Politics Podcast and the new Daily Punch can situate mentees in the broader political context, and any podcast under the War on the Rocks podcast umbrella (including the entire back catalogue of Bombshell) dive deep into pressing national security issues.
As a potential mentor, you should be aware of the broad types of internships and entry-level policy opportunities across the field (i.e., Hill internships, the Presidential Management Fellows program; think tank internships, etc) — you don’t have to be an expert on the experiences but can simply point them in the right direction. This can mean reaching out to your own personal networks — colleagues and former colleagues, your own mentors, contacts you have on the Hill or in the Pentagon. Most national security professionals don’t mind being connected to eager students and junior professionals; we all kind of expect it, and we’re happy to pay our experiences forward.
Finally, alert potential newcomers to the field to the plethora of virtual think tank events, which is another resource that was tough to find pre-pandemic. And don’t neglect the junior staff within your own organization and on your own team; find time to connect with them about their goals and the parts of their job that make them feel alive.
CONNECTING IN THE POST-PANDEMIC WORLD
When the pandemic era is over, I want to find a way to continue reaching the next generation of national security talent nationwide. The pandemic may have brought a lot of negative outcomes, but it’s also reduced barriers — once thought insurmountable — for participation in the national security community.
The last few years have shown us the importance of understanding and including voices and perspectives from outside the DC bubble, and the need to capitalize on the strength of our nation’s diversity. Let’s leverage the infrastructure developed in response to the pandemic to invest in the future national security talent pool.
Katherine Kuzminski is the Senior Fellow and Program Director for the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. Her research focuses on military talent management, veterans issues, and civil-military relations.
The Future of National Security Work is a series of articles that examine the experience of work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the future of work once the pandemic has gone. For more in the series, check back here.