“Women in Academia” – Dr. Aigerim Shilibekova

Dr. Aigerim Shilibekova, Founding Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies, Associate Professor of the Regional Studies Department, Faculty of International Relations, Eurasian National University


Please tell our readers about yourself – where are you from, your specialization, how long have you been involved in science/academia and how?

All my life, in one way or another, I have been involved in an academic community. I grew up as the eldest child in a large family of five, whose parents were lifelong educators. My late father was a professor of Civil Engineering at Taraz State University for almost 30 years; my mom was a Lecturer of History at the medical college. Looking back, I believe that my parents were the most influential people in defining my choice to become an academic. The fact that they did not quit their jobs and stayed committed to their profession even during the hardest period – in the early 1990’s, had always inspired me.

For about a  decade now, I have been working at Eurasian National University. I started as an Assistant at the Department of the International Relations rising to the position of Associate Professor at the Regional Studies Department. During this decade, I was lucky to get substantial experience from diverse aspects of academic life. I was a PhD student in Political Science, when in 2009, my research activity helped me to secure a grant from an international development fund to establish the Center for International and Regional Studies at ENU. This fostered me to learn about management of research (developing projects, grant proposals, fundraising, event organization, etc.). After graduation I continued teaching and conducting research projects, but I was also lucky to gain practical experience in higher education management and administration. There were various positions in the ENU’s administration such as the Head of Graduate Studies, Director of the Department of Postgraduate Education and Director of the International Cooperation Department for several years before I left for Harvard University as a visiting scholar in 2013. In fact, Harvard experience has become an important milestone on my professional development path.

How did you become interested in your current field? What was the inspiration and motivation behind it?

I have two sources of inspiration and motivation for all the work and projects in my life. The first source is my children. As any parent I want them to grow and live in a secure and prosperous country. This is why I became interested in studying the security-development nexus. The second source is meeting outstanding people who trigger my interest in various aspects of international security and development. Among them are such prominent scholars as Joseph Nye, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Fred Starr, Derek Bok, Nazli Choucri and many others whom I met thanks to my academic profession. No other professional sphere would be so much rewarding as the academia. Indeed, it provides unlimited opportunities to grow and excel through various scholarships, fellowships, conferences and collaborative research projects.

Please tell us more about your professional journey: Do you remember the ups and downs of the process or during your graduate studies? Have you encountered any obstacles or prejudices on your way?

For my graduate studies I moved to Turkey and have never regretted it. Istanbul was, and still remains, the most fascinating city to live in, though it was sometimes challenging to be a foreigner and a female student in the big city. However I am very grateful to my professors, mainly women, who supported and encouraged me throughout my studies. As for the most important benefit, the major takeaway from my graduate studies was mastering the key research methods and skills.

Was there a time when you had to balance/maneuver between family and work?

Each time when I had to travel abroad to attend conferences, to research projects or be part of an official delegation, I was feeling a bit guilty for leaving my kids and family. At some point I realized it was self-destructive. Now I just try to be in a harmony and dialogue with them in terms of our mutual expectations. I am grateful to have my family, and most my mother-in-law, who has always understood and supported me in everything that I do. They know it makes me feel more confident and accomplished. Another strategy that makes life easier – is trying to avoid people in your environment who feel they must express their concerns about your kids, and the way you raise them by being a working mom.

As of now, what are you working on? Why is this project important to you? What is the most appealing aspect of your daily job?

Recently I have completed my book on Design and Methods of Research in Political Science that is based on Stratagem, a project I started to plan while being at Harvard, and that I launched after returning to Kazakhstan. Stratagem is an innovative training format for educating 21st Century researchers that helps maximizing researchers’ potential by improving their soft skills. My aim is to train students and young scholars who want to enhance their research skills.

Initially, Stratagem was launched in February 2015 as a pilot project to test the format on early career researchers (students) at Eurasian National University. In this regard I am grateful to ENU administration for their support. The results were exciting. Last December Stratagem was showcased as a shortlisted project out of 500 international projects and got a special prize at the final conference of the Reimagine Education Awards or the so-called Oscars in Higher Education Innovation, organized by QS (better known in Kazakhstan as an international ranking agency) and the Wharton Business School in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, the geography and disciplinary scope of Stratagem’s skill-shops is also expanding. I conducted them in Shanghai for 38 young academics from 10 different countries, and as recently as this past February, I delivered one skill-shop session on innovative thinking for 25 students from the Law Department at ENU in the framework of the International Law Workshop. I already got several invitations from universities in India, Mexico and Vietnam to present my Stratagem approach. At the moment we are working on various ways to commercialize the project.

What is your dream contribution to the field (your country or the world) that you hope to make in your lifetime?

I hope to turn Stratagem into an educational program for everyone, who wants a lifelong opportunity to look through the window of research to the world and their own future. Through Stratagem, I hope to contribute to the development of many skills of academic and business researchers, and broaden the appeal of research to a wider audience at different levels. At the individual level, it already encourages participants to think strategically and optimize their activities so they continuously diversify their chosen portfolio, and continue to be learners and researchers throughout their careers. At the institutional level, it may help developing and sustaining a “pipeline” of university graduates – who are strategic thinkers and progressive researchers for the academic community, business, industry, government and society. At the national level, I hope that Stratagem will become a model that seamlessly will integrate research into mainstream education in our country.

Could you please share the names of the books and thinkers that impacted you the most?

Oh, there are many, indeed. But as the most influential books I would mention Abai’s “Book of Words”, Ataturk’s “The Great Speech – Nutuk”, Edward Said’s “Orientalism”, Barry Buzan’s “People, States and Fear” and Amartya Sen’s “Development as Freedom”. As for personalities, I want to mention and thank my Master’s thesis supervisor Professor Gulay Gunluk Senesen at Istanbul University, my doctoral supervisor at ENU – Professor Zhuldyz Tulibayeva and Professor Piotr Dutkiewicz at Carleton University. I feel blessed by their mentorship that helped me manage my priorities, and find ways throughout the most difficult stages in my professional career.

What would you advise or say to the women who are just embarking on their journey in academia/research? How can they succeed and what should they avoid?

There is a lot to share, but my most important advice will be – “Be strategic and find a mentor! ASAP.” A mentor is a professional in your field, who is ready to nurture and encourage you, and share his/her experience when it is needed. Unfortunately the institute of mentorship is not widespread in our society, nowadays. Though I think that traditionally there was a practice of mentoring in our culture. As the most vivid example I recall from history is Abylay-khan’s prominent mentor Tole-Bi, who played an important role in the former’s success.

I am confident that finding a good mentor, who will become a wise and trusted counselor, is a shortcut to success for young professionals. It is even more important for women. I always bear in mind the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s words that there must be a place in hell for women, who do not help other women. I agree that only women can fully understand and help each other, therefore having women-mentors is a must. Our first and best mentors for lifetime are our mothers, of course, but there is a benefit to have more women-mentors from different spheres. I myself have an honor to be a mentor for a couple of bright students and sincerely do hope that I am being helpful to them. By sharing knowledge with younger generations I fulfill my duty as a good citizen and contribute to the development of my country.


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