Do you have a sponsor? (Do you need one?)

I have been reading the book by Sylvia Ann Hewlett on sponsorship: (Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor. Sylvia very kindly gave me a copy of this book when I met her in March where we were both talking at The Meaning of Success event in New York; she is a fellow alumna of Girton College. She is emphatic that you need sponsors as well as mentors. As she puts it, sponsors

‘believe in your value and your potential and are prepared to link reputations and go out on a limb on your behalf’.

These aren’t just people who give you advice, as mentors do, they are powerful people who will be your champions and provide opportunities to prove yourself. As a consequence, if you fail when you try you may damage their own reputations too.

The book largely describes a corporate world that at first sight looks incredibly different from academia. It is hard to relate the language she uses to the (comparatively) flat world of academic research structures. It isn’t so obviously a case of being shipped around the world to deliver one project – perhaps restructuring a failing office – and then another, each linked to the sponsor but enabling you to progress after each task until you arrive at the much sought after ‘C suite’. Academic life does not resemble this very closely. Yet there are similarities, although they probably deal more with the non-research side of academic progression – although not necessarily so, as I’ll explain below.

Mentoring as a concept is much more familiar to university departments, not least through Athena Swan action plans. Many departments appoint formal mentors to new staff hires. Some provide explicit assistance to early career researchers too. One would hope that supervisors (of students and postdocs) provide mentoring too, although one knows that sometimes that is a forlorn hope. However, I remain unconvinced that formal mentoring is the catch-all answer that sometimes people make out, not least because you can be assigned one with whom you do not gel, in which case there is no sense of clicking to indicate that the mentor ‘gets’ what the mentee is looking for/needing.

Mentors can advise you on where to look for the next source of funds or the number of papers you would be well-advised to have under your belt before applying for a fellowship. Perhaps they may help you negotiate some tricky internal conflicts or at least enable you to talk through your options. But will they put your name forward, behind the scenes, to be considered for some new role? That is where Sylvia believes sponsors come into their own. This would be, not just for promotion – when mentor or sponsor alike should be tapping you on the shoulder and encouraging you to throw your hat into the ring – but for some role where the effect of someone else putting your name forward might be hugely important. Things such as joining some significant committee or being considered as a head of a team or department would fit this bill. Speaking up to a head hunter to put your name forward to join some external body would be another sort of example. Mentors, in Sylvia’s categorisation, would not be likely to do this but sponsors will.

So, within academia it is obvious that as one progresses, colleagues of both types will be helpful. Thinking about Sam Edwards, as I’ve been writing various pieces (my last post plus, in a slightly more scientific vein, a piece on the Guardian website) to honour the memory of the man who made such a difference to my own career and who died a couple of weeks ago, I realise in many ways he certainly did act as my sponsor as well as mentor. When he pulled in the money for two major grants – one on food physics and a subsequent one on colloids – he passed the lead on the grants over to me. At the time I suppose I imagined he was doing it faute de mieux. I was the experimentalist to hand; he felt an experimentalist and not a theorist was the right person to lead the work and anyhow he had bigger fish to fry in the rarefied world of policy and industrial leadership he moved in. Although the faute de mieux argument probably has some truth in it, at the time it never crossed my mind additionally what a compliment he was actually paying me or what a fantastic opportunity he was tossing in my direction.

The food physics grant I took over before I’d even got a permanent position at the Cavendish. The lecturer who was meant to be the lead, Jacob Klein, headed back to Israel for personal reasons leaving me as the only obvious (experimental) successor, as I was already in the department in my first year as a URF. Suddenly I found I had a grant to hand, tied in with the Institute of Food Research at Norwich, funding three or four postdocs in an area in which I had no experience. Character-building, I suppose one could call it. Quite scarey too. But out of that ultimately grew my own successful research in starch some years later – there were some less than successful projects in between, as well as so-so projects that weren’t a disgrace but which either had little to do with food or which just weren’t hugely exciting – and from there I moved into things more biological.

Back in the 1980’s I foresaw none of that. I merely knew that Sam expected me to make a go of a large grant and I had better get on with it and enlist help where I could. Clearly, now I know what sponsorship is, Sam was doing exactly that. And by doing that he was indeed risk-taking, another attribute Sylvia Ann Hewlett identifies with a sponsor. If I had monumentally messed up it couldn’t have destroyed Sam’s reputation, he was way beyond that point, but it might have left him looking less than wise in his choice at the very least.

So, in academia sometimes sponsorship can be highly significant as well as the mentoring that is so much more familiar. This is not to say that the only people who ‘make it’ are the ones who found a sponsor along the way. Nor do I believe that all early career researchers should expend much time and effort seeking such people out, as Sylvia believes is so important in the corporate world. Nevertheless, having people higher up the career ladder who you take the trouble to talk to when you encounter them, be it in the canteen or at a conference, and to whom you indicate what you might be looking for in terms of progression cannot be a bad thing.

So, if you haven’t yet identified a sponsor as well as a mentor, maybe you should give the matter further thought.


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4 Responses to Do you have a sponsor? (Do you need one?)

  1. Brigitte says:

    I always bristle when I hear the word ‘sponsor’, but on reflection, and having read this post, I can now look back at my career and see the influence of sponsors and, I hope, I can also see that I might have acted as sponsor to others – without using that word. Sometimes the roles of mentor and sponsor go hand in hand; sometimes they don’t. Anyway, interesting to think about. And yes, most of the time both sponsoring and mentoring just happened; these activities were not engineered in some way.

  2. I am sure my initial reaction would have been like Brigitte’s and some of the comments I’ve seen on Twitter: sponsorship may look like croneyism. In fact, I’ve come round to thinking it’s the opposite. Croneyism has always operated behind the scenes. Naming it (shaming it if you want), bringing it out into the open as one way of thinking about life, may give far more people the opportunity to embrace it and share in any benefits there are. I think it is important to distinguish people who put your name forward, from those who give you jobs – which is how I think of nepotism. If your name is mentioned to a headhunter it should broaden the pool from which they seek candidates rather than narrow it. But your name being mentioned is absolutely not the same as getting the job. So both headhunters and those they approach have an important role to play in making sure the pool is as diverse as possible. I have talked to at least one of the standard HE headhunters about exactly this, and written a little about what may or may not work when they call.

    Furthermore, I am not advocating that people should spend all their time trying to suck up to the more powerful in the hopes that something useful will come out of it. I am merely saying, there is more to support systems than mentoring that might be worth remembering. My first reaction to the Hewlett book was that ‘this does not apply in HE’, but then I paused and thought there might be relevant elements, even though career and power structures are so different.

  3. Brigitte says:

    I totally agree. That was the point I was trying to make – rather badly!

  4. xykademiqz says:

    I would say that sponsorship is absolutely critical in order to reach the upper echelons of academia.
    While you can apply you own analytical mind to figure out, in this age of the Internet, where to apply for grants and how many papers for tenure and whatnot, unless you have someone championing you, you will have a very hard time getting invited to important places (to give a talk, to sit on a review panel, to lead a big grant initiative, to become associate editor of a journal, etc.) While there are substitutes for mentors who are senior folks (peer mentoring, for instance, is a great concept), there is nothing of the sort to replace enthusiastic championing by a well-known senior colleague.
    That’s why (in the US at least) getting a PhD (or doing a postdoc) at a big name school and with a big name advisor brings about considerable career advantages. It’s not that the training or work done is necessarily superior, it’s that through the advising relationship you get the sponsorship of very visible and influential people.

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