Stanford scholar combines military service and academic research

Oriana Skylar Mastro has built two careers simultaneously: one as an academic, the other, as a service member in the U.S. Air Force.

Some people learn by doing. Stanford scholar and alum Oriana Skylar Mastro, BA ’06, is one such learner: As an undergraduate student at Stanford studying the Chinese language in the East Asian Studies program, she took a year off and went to the country to immerse herself in its culture. Then, as a doctoral student wanting to know more about security issues facing the U.S. military in the Asia Pacific, she enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where she continues to serve today.

Maj. Oriana Skylar Mastro is a Stanford scholar and an active duty service member in the U.S. Air Force. (Image credit: Courtesy Oriana Skylar Mastro)

Since joining the military over a decade ago, Mastro has built a career combining scholarship and service.

“I love being in uniform, I love working as a team and I love feeling like my research and expertise give back somehow,” said Mastro, now a fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI).

When Mastro was a first-year PhD student at Princeton in 2007, she had no idea her academic interest in international security and China – which began while she was a Stanford undergraduate student affiliated with the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC)’s honors program – would lead to a career in military service.

It was at a conference at the Naval War College in 2008 where she met Lt. Gen. Dan P. Leaf, then deputy commander of the U.S. Pacific Command (now called Indo-Pacific Command), the military headquarters in Hawaii that oversees operations in the Asia Pacific.

Mastro had been invited to give a talk at the conference based on research she and her former colleagues in the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace had conducted about the military balance of power across the Taiwan Strait.

As she chatted with Leaf, she shared with him how she hoped to do a summer internship at the command center to help her with her research into how the U.S. military dealt with issues in the Asia Pacific region. He suggested another option: enlisting.

Mastro was surprised by his idea.

“I said, ‘I’m not 18 years old, I’m not very tough, I’ve never fired a gun before. What would I do in the military?’ ” Mastro recalled.

While Mastro stuck to her original plan and pursued an internship, it didn’t take long for her to realize that Leaf may have been onto something about enlisting: Her skills, professional fluency in Mandarin and knowledge of Chinese strategic thinking, were an asset to her country, she realized.

So that fall, Mastro enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and was sent to Officer Training School to commission as a second lieutenant.

“I thought I would do this for four years,” said Mastro. “There was nothing in my background or personality that suggested I would enjoy it or be good at it. But this December, those four years will turn into 12.”

Learning lessons from the military

In 2009, Mastro took a leave of absence from her PhD program for officer training in Alabama. Training, as she put it, was “the complete opposite of an academic lifestyle in every possible way.”

During her military training, Mastro learned valuable lessons about teamwork and how a group can work together toward achieving a mutual goal. (Image credit: Courtesy Oriana Skylar Mastro)

Her day would start at 5 a.m. with intense physical exercise – Mastro had to be put on remedial weightlifting to get up her push-up count – and she and her team were expected to do a variety of drills, like putting on a uniform in under 30 seconds. And if one cadet failed to put on their garb in less than the time set, then the whole flight would be forced to repeat the exercise for hours.

Bootcamp was all about camaraderie: Officer trainees (known also as “OTs” in the military) were also encouraged to help each other out.

Mastro remembers one instance during training when her commander asked to speak with her about her academic performance. “I said, ‘What is there to talk about? I get perfect scores on all my exams,’ ” she recalled. “He responded, ‘But no one else in your unit does. So why aren’t you helping them?’ ”

That was when Mastro realized that in the military, teamwork was tied to effective leadership.

“Being a good leader is not just about how I was performing, it’s about everyone else,” said Mastro, conjuring the proverb: You are only as strong as the weakest link. “I realized teamwork was not splitting up tasks and everyone doing their part separately, but actually coming and working together toward a mutual goal.”

Combining scholarship and military service

Over the past decade, Mastro’s military duties have taken her from the offices in the Pentagon to army bases across the Pacific.

As a special type of reservist who works only for the active duty component (called IMAs, or individual mobilized augmentees), Mastro, whose rank currently is major, has held a variety of positions as a strategist focused on security issues in the Asia Pacific region – like thinking through issues related to China and how to understand them from a Chinese perspective.

“There are all these assumptions that people might have about China and how they understand their position on things,” Mastro said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘This is how the conflict is going to go,’ but it’s another thing to be like, ‘The Chinese don’t really see it that way.’ They may see one activity as threatening, another not.” For her inputs to U.S. military strategy, she won the Individual Reserve Officer of the Year Award in 2016.

For example, Mastro recently authored a chapter in a Department of Defense perspective paper on military competition with China. In the piece, she outlined the tools and strategies that date back to the Cold War that the U.S. still relies on when engaging with China – like economic coercion or diplomatic isolation. Mastro argues that the Chinese may perceive these actions as threatening and could thus be detrimental to the U.S. relationship with Beijing.

How military experience influences scholarship

While Mastro’s academic background helps her with her military responsibilities, her military experience also influences her research as a scholar.

For example, it was during a simulated war game – where combat strategies and scenarios are played out – that she found the inspiration for her first book, The Costs of Conversation: Obstacles to Peace Talks in Wartime (Cornell University Press, 2019).

It was a late afternoon and after a long day locked in a windowless room, the team had to wrap the conflict they had spent the day simulating. To do so required moving into a negotiations phase with their enemy.

But this was where the group reached an impasse: What is the best way to bring the opposite side to the discussion table? The group examined various tactics available to them: They debated whether the escalating conflict further would force an opponent into submission or whether easing off from combat was better.

Mastro was curious to know what evidence political scientists had to support one scenario or the other.

She was surprised to learn the evidence was scant. What she saw in the academic literature was an underlying assumption that throughout a conflict, both sides were simultaneously “talking while fighting,” she explained. But Mastro, now with a few years of military experience behind her, knew that was never the case.

That was when Mastro began research for her book, the first comprehensive framework that shows states how to incorporate diplomacy into their wartime strategies in ways that won’t undermine their objectives. The book was named by the American Political Science Association as the best book by an untenured faculty member in the international security section.

Balancing two careers, challenges

It has not been easy to manage two careers simultaneously, Mastro said.

In addition to balancing two careers in academia and in the military, Mastro is also a parent. (Image credit: Courtesy Oriana Skylar Mastro)

When Mastro enlisted, her professors at the time, while personally supportive of her decision, were skeptical about how it would affect her professionally as a scholar. They told her that her career in academia was effectively over.

“I was very stubborn about serving,” Mastro recalled. “I make decisions based on what feels right, not really what is going to be good for my career, so I thought, ‘I won’t have a job, I won’t be a professor.’ That’s kind of how I saw it.”

While Mastro proved otherwise, there have been other challenges she has encountered, especially as a woman working in defense, where there are significantly fewer women serving than men (currently, only about 20 percent of the U.S. Air Force are women).

She remembers when she started her first job at the Pentagon, her boss gave her advice about how to navigate workplace dynamics as the only woman in the office. “He said, ‘The men are going to try to treat you as their girlfriend, their mother or their wife. Don’t let them. Don’t sit there and listen to their problems. Don’t bring in any baked goods. And don’t flirt with anyone. That’s the only way anyone will take you seriously.’ ”

Now, as a young mother, there are new challenges that she encounters, as both a service member and as a scholar.

For example, it was only in August of this year that nursing mothers serving in the Air Combat Command could use breast pumps in secure facilities – because of the Bluetooth features found in many of these devices, they had been banned because of the security risk they posed. Meanwhile, in academia, it can be challenging to travel to deliver lectures or talks without any child care provisions, said Mastro.

“There is this stalled progress. Women can now have children and work. Maternity leave in both the military and academia, a relatively new phenomenon, is a step in the right direction. But in both cases, the answer is to delay mothers’ promotions. But what if I don’t want to be years behind my male colleagues? We need to rethink how we support women so they can continue to excel after children,” she said.

Despite these challenges, Mastro has soldiered on; her next book examining China’s strategies for building power will be completed next year.

Mastro, who joined Stanford in 2019 and works closely with the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) and two centers run under the auspices of FSI, now finds herself teaching alongside some of the same faculty who taught her as an undergraduate student. She finds the campus community supportive of her two careers.

“When I came to interview here, my interactions with colleagues at FSI, APARC and CISAC made it clear that my military service was not something that I needed to hide or downplay,” Mastro said. “So emotionally, it is really great to be able to be here and to do the work I think is important. It’s been a long path since I was an undergraduate in CISAC’s honors program, but I’m exactly where I want to be.”

Media Contacts

Melissa De Witte, Stanford News Service: mdewitte@stanford.edu