Faculty Spotlight: Prof. Diana Z. O'Brien

Get to know Prof. Diana Z. O'Brien, Professor of Political Science and inaugural recipient of the newly established, endowed Bela Kornitzer Distinguished Professorship.

Where did you grow up? 

I was born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States midway through elementary school.  After living in Long Island, New York, my family eventually settled in Kentucky.  

Where did you complete your undergrad? 

Hanover College (2006) 

Where did you complete your PhD? 

Washington University in St. Louis (2012) 

When did you come to WashU? 

I first came to WashU as a graduate student in 2006. I returned as a professor in 2022.  

What is your area of concentration (IR, Comparative, Methods, American, etc.)? 

I am a gender and politics scholar and a comparative politics scholar. My interest in gender and politics has led me towards American politics and international relations topics, but I still apply a comparative politics lens to those questions.  

Why did you pursue political science? 

When I went to college I was interested in women’s history, women and politics, and gender and economics. I took a political science class and fell in love with the field. I loved thinking about how rules and norms structured human behavior, and it became clear to me that good governance was central to our broader happiness and wellbeing. 

What are currently working on? 

One of the great things about being a gender and politics scholar is that all political science topics can be examined through a gendered lens. It’s led me to a wide-ranging research agenda, and I’m never bored by my work. I’m excited about current projects on gender quotas and democratic legitimacy, the trade roots of the gender wage gap, and gendered security policy.  

What is your favorite class to teach and why? 

I love teaching my 300-level gender and politics class. Twice a week I get to talk with brilliant young students about whether, how, and in what ways gender shapes politics. We get to question our assumptions, asking how we would know if our beliefs were right, and---perhaps more importantly—what evidence could convince us that we’re wrong.  

What is one piece of advice you would give a student interested in becoming a professor? 

First, you should know that you don’t have to pay for a Ph.D.! In fact, the University will pay you a small stipend while you’re completing graduate studies. As a first-gen student, I had no idea that a Ph.D. was even an option for me! But, more generally, if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room!  

If you were not a political science professor, what would you be doing? 

I would be working with, and on behalf of, women. Advocacy, law, politics, etc.  

Favorite spot to go on campus? 

When the weather is nice, nothing beats a stroll from Seigle Hall down to the Brookings Arch and beyond.  

What is your favorite thing about WashU? 

WashU made me the scholar I am today! I have such warm feelings towards the faculty here, who once were my advisors and now are my colleagues. Coupled with the brilliant students, it’s a great place to work!  

Who is someone who influenced you? 

I owe a lot of my success to the people around me! Starting in high school, I’ve always had incredible mentors. A high-school teacher saw potential in me when I was adrift. During my first year of college, my undergraduate advisor told me I should think about a Ph.D. program (and that they were free!). At WashU, my committee shaped me into the scholar that I am today. I’m also lucky to be married to a fellow academic who is very supportive of my career (and is a very brilliant political scientist to boot)!  

Favorite quarantine pastime or hobby?

We had our daughter during COVID. She was a true source of joy for us during quarantine.