I never realised I benefitted from academic sponsorship until I read about the concept

I never realised I benefitted from academic sponsorship until I read about the concept
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Have you had a sponsor who’s given you a helping hand? Academic sponsorship is different from mentorship and Dr Pete Lawrence thinks that this is important because a sponsor can help you in ways beyond mentorship.

When I think back on my career, the big breaks I’ve had and best moves I’ve made didn’t just happen by chance or hard work, but were created by a few different senior academics who guided me towards certain opportunities. I’ve been very fortunate that these people have acted as sponsors by doing things such as introducing me to senior researchers at conferences, referred other researchers to me for technical help with their projects (which have led to papers), and put me in touch with senior researchers for possible international collaborations (again, leading to papers).

What is sponsorship? How is it different to mentorship?

I’d never heard of the concept of sponsorship before reading Dr Christine Parsons’ and Prof Pat O’ Connor’s letter in Nature. (I’d always assumed that I’d had outstanding mentorship – which I have – but now, having read the letter, I see that I have also had excellent sponsorship.)

Sponsorship, in my experience, has comprised small and unsystematic acts of thoughtfulness focused on my career development, by two or three senior researchers, offering me opportunities (to take or leave). These might have been strikingly obvious gilded opportunities such as when a sponsor said to me “Pete, ‘Leading Researcher in the Field’ asked if I wanted to join them in a symposium at ‘Important Conference’. Would you like me to offer you in my place?”; or less obvious, but equally valuable, such as when a sponsor said at a conference to a world leading researcher “Pete, I was just telling WLR about your idea about ‘XYZ’ – as you’re here, you explain it so that we can all discuss it together.”

Mentorship has been much more systematic and deliberate for me. It has involved a couple of meetings a year with my mentor, to set and revise goals, assess progress towards these, and plan how to make steps towards them. In case it helps anyone, the lodestar has been to do high quality research.

“Without my sponsors’ acts of confidence in me as a researcher, I would have had fewer opportunities to do that high-quality research.”
– Dr Pete Lawrence

Is it really so different from good line management and supervision?

My colleague, Prof Stella Chan, agrees with the importance of having someone to support ECRs but would expect that it’s part of the role of supervisor and mentor to provide this kind of support.

“Personally I think all these are good ideas for highly motivated early career researchers – but I am not sure about having sponsor as an official role. I personally think that increasing awareness amongst supervisors/ mentors so that they see themselves as a sponsor would work better than having a third person involved.”
– Prof Stella Chan

I’m possibly the last person to want to create more formal or official roles. Rather, I think that by promoting awareness of the characteristics of sponsorship amongst mentors and ECRs, they will respectively do and seek it, and mental health research will, let’s hope, consequently thrive.

Are there any issues with sponsorship?

Another mental health researcher, health economist Dr Liz Camacho, believes that one of the key issues with this sort of relationship in that it is typically informal and unmonitored and can be in danger of being akin to “special treatment” to which some individuals are party to and others are not.

I suspect that informal sponsorship is subject to many of the unconscious biases that play such a devastating role in recruitment processes and that a similar phenomenon to people recruiting in their own image happens, such that people typically provide sponsorship to people who remind them of their younger themselves.
– Dr Liz Camacho

Liz has taken part in a formal ‘Inclusive Advocacy’ scheme supported by the Wellcome Trust whereby people are matched with a senior member of the university who in theory has the position/power to use their influence to help the person there are advocating for. She recognises that the scheme has been good exposure and has given her some new insights into how some things operate and overall, it has been a positive experience feeling as though she has someone senior “in her corner”

And, an important question, am I doing it for others?

The mentors and sponsors whom I have learned most from are, uncoincidentally, those who have emphasised the importance of ‘paying it forward’. So, yes, I’ve certainly offered formal mentorship to junior colleagues and, without knowing it at the time, acted as a sponsor by doing small things to support others’ career development.

Read more on this subject: Dr Christine Parsons’ and Prof Pat O’ Connor’s letter in Nature

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