We all recognize the benefits of mentorship, having someone to guide us through the complex world of academia and other sectors. Mentors provide advice and insights from their own careers and experiences. And outstanding mentorship is celebrated. Nature launched an award for this in 2005.
But less discussed are the benefits of sponsorship: a type of active career support that relies on a senior researcher’s willingness to leverage their influence, networks or position to actively promote a junior colleague’s career advancement. Mentors provide advice and support to help a junior person to fit in; sponsors create opportunities and visibility to help junior researchers move up. Mentors form one-to-one relationships, but sponsors help to form connections and create tailored opportunities to move the person whom they have sponsored up the career ladder. Sponsorship requires advocacy on behalf of the junior researcher; mentorship does not.
Examples of sponsorship in academia can range from introducing a junior researcher to well-established colleagues, inviting them to a grant-application meeting, including them on a prestigious conference panel or mentioning them in a faculty meeting.
Sponsorship often comprises small but career-making actions: one example is inviting a PhD student to a coffee meeting with a visiting professor. These small actions can accumulate, helping to accelerate the careers of some researchers, even when formal mentorship is equally available to all.
By contrast, mentorship might involve giving advice on how to present yourself at a conference; how to deal with the conflicting demands of teaching and research; and providing career guidance, reassurance and encouragement.
Anyone, but particularly those from under-represented groups and people who might not understand academic culture or know how the system works, can benefit from mentorship. Advice, information and emotional support are all of value, but these individuals are likely to benefit even more from the career acceleration that sponsorship can provide.
Unlike mentoring, sponsorship is not easy to standardize or structure. Mentors can be given guidelines on how to mentor, agree on goals and expectations, meet at regular intervals and listen to the needs of the trainee. But sponsorship can’t be outlined in the same way. The sponsored candidate’s performance reflects on the sponsor. If a candidate performs well, glory is reflected on the sponsor. If a candidate performs poorly, it can damage the sponsor’s reputation. And sponsors themselves belong to a select group: those with academic or organizational power, heads of departments, faculty deans, well-funded, influential researchers and senior academics.
Read the full post on teh Nature Careers website: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-023-00123-z