What can an academic sponsor do for me?

Be excellent (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

I heard about academic sponsoring through a Canadian colleague, Jo VanEvery, who participates in the #femlead chat. The conversation I caught was a few months ago, and the discussion about sponsorship was almost right at the end – curses on timezones! – but I was intrigued by the idea of it.

We’ve mostly heard of mentoring, and often coaching, for academic careers, but sponsoring is something that isn’t really on the Australian academic radar.

In fact, I hadn’t heard of it at all, and understood ”sponsoring’ mostly as material support for events and (sports) teams.

So, first up, what is academic sponsoring? As far as I can tell, academic sponsoring and mentoring share some territory, but sponsoring is a much more directed and concrete dynamic. It’s when someone vouches for you by putting you forward for an opportunity.

It’s partly about being an active referee: not only would a sponsor vouch for you if you were going for a job, but they would put you forward if they knew of an opportunity that would be of benefit to you. One version of a more comprehensive mapping of the sponsor (or ‘champion’) relationship, alongside other professional academic ones, can be found at the Academic Coaching and Writing site.

Why I like the idea is that it isn’t a generalised feeling of goodwill that’s focused on a cohort of early career researchers (ECRs). It’s a clear action attached to a person or small team. The benefits accrue also for both sides of the arrangement:

For the sponsored: The type of elevated opportunity that’s realised can be a career changer. While we don’t have a named or systemic way to do it here in Australia, many researchers out there are beneficiaries of ‘sponsored’ actions. Chances are, we label these dynamics with much more loaded terms like ‘protegé’ or ‘successor’.

For the sponsor: Being able to put forward good people is one of the best ways of cementing your profile as a player in a field. Yes, you do good work and, what’s more, you know the shape and momentum of the disciplinary networks so well that you’re contributing to your institution’s (and discipline’s) value by recruiting from the next generation of scholars.

A sure indication of research leadership and intellectual mentorship is the ability to recognise and develop the research potential of others.

Being able to discern and clearly stand behind a talented early career researcher, particularly if they are in your field, is a shift from the stages of being mentored or seeking role-models to actually being one yourself. This shouldn’t mean, of course, that you don’t retain your own network of mentors and role-models. It would be a sad day if you really thought you were the top of the tree and had nothing more to learn from your peers. In my experience, it’s tragic when someone hits the ranks of the professoriate… and stagnates. It happens all too often.

In her post of March 2012, Proactive Professional Development, Jo VanEvery ends by stating that

sponsorship is the best way to secure challenging assignments and visibility, things that are key to getting promoted and advancing your career. But you need to take that first step to visibility yourself.

This is probably one of the hardest things for many early career researchers to do: Assess their own academic and intellectual value and potential for the next big thing. Cultivating this ability early on, without crossing over into self-aggrandisation, is a delicate balance that’s usefully learned and practiced. With the right sort of sponsorship and delivering on that trust, your career can be seriously boosted.

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

4 Responses to What can an academic sponsor do for me?

  1. Pat Thomson says:

    I think the problem with this idea is that this is what old boys networks always did… There is significant potential for nepotism in sponsorship as well as just the serendipity of who you know and where you are when .. I’m concerned about how to make opportunities and recognition more equitably distributed

  2. JoVE says:

    Actually, I agree with Pat about this being the major problem. Well, except for the use of the past tense. This IS how things work. Now. And yes, “old boys” do get a huge advantage from this. I think the direction the #femlead chat is going, is towards talking about how to make the processes that are already being used more equitable.

    I know from my involvement in that chat (and some of the articles others shared) that this is a big issue in the private sector and that many companies are working very hard to make this kind of thing more equitable. They are creating formal mentoring programs to (partially) deal with the serendipity issues, for example.

    Who you know is important all the way through the system. And networking is and will remain an important activity. I think the challenge is really to think about how we make the system more equitable while recognizing that networks are always going to be important in some way.

  3. In theory this is a good idea, but in practice I can see it being very discipline-specific.

    As a sociologist, I would benefit from having people looking out for me, but essentially have that anyway from my academic networks. I get passed on job opportunities quite regularly and have some high-profile colleagues I can put down as a reference. This is the level sponsorship should be about, not creating a democratic deficit through allowing the elite of the field to appoint the younger cohort.

    An issue for me would be the transition from an early-career to an established researcher is the development into an independent researcher. It’s difficult to see how selling myself as someone who has a sponsor convinces people I have an independent research portfolio.

    In Sociology, independence is achievable early in careers. I can understand how in lab-based disciplines it can be difficult to move into PI roles and leading research. Mentorship leading to acknowledgement that someone is ready to progress, in those fields, could well help. Mentorship could also be important in applying for starting grants.

    Networking is an increasingly important part of academic life. Mentoring might create strong ties to established figures, but network theory suggests building a wider network of weaker ties to a variety of academics might be more advantaged. Mentoring has its place, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of people demonstrating they are an independent researcher independently building their own academic networks.

  4. Tseen Khoo says:

    Thanks, Pat + Jo, for your comments.

    I agree that many mechanisms for promotion and reward in academia (and more broadly) are still geared to old boys’ networks and prone to nepotism. When I stumbled across the #femlead stream, I was energised by it because it was taking a proactive stance to the situation. Admittedly, it could be replicating the dynamics of favouritism, but I’d like to think that encouraging academics to cultivate a keener awareness of the strategies and game-playing that take place (no matter how they end up choosing to participate) works in their favour.

    Jo, I agree that networks will always feature and have effects on outcomes within people’s careers. This is inevitable, from references on job applications to ‘kind’ reviews in journals and grant applications, who you know (or, more importantly, who knows you) really counts.

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