Mentor helping student use laptop.

Academic sponsors can help junior scientists ascend the career ladder in ways that mentors cannot.Credit: Getty

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.

Finding sponsorship

Universities have focused on mentorship schemes and training for women and members of minority groups because these are intuitive, appealing solutions for diversity, equity and inclusion issues. These schemes often assume that these trainees need more help than others. For example, women might be assumed to have insufficient confidence. Mentorship schemes therefore focus on increasing confidence in women: a perceived way to ‘fix the target’ and ensure inclusion goals are addressed. But there is evidence that women — as an example of an under-represented group in science — already receive the same amount of mentoring (and occasionally more) than men in many workplaces1. It is sponsorship that is missing2 — and the lack of it could be perpetuating gender inequalities at the highest levels of academia.

Why might women receive less sponsorship than men? Globally, men occupy more university leadership and senior positions than women. Generally, people tend to seek out and support candidates who are similar to themselves3. The dominance of white, able-bodied men at the highest levels of academia means that sponsorship is plausibly more accessible for white, able-bodied junior men. And research by one of us (P. O’C.) suggests that male junior researchers are more aware of sponsorship2 and of tactics to access it. They are more comfortable with power and its importance, and will often perform favours, such as undertaking routine parts of the potential sponsor’s job. Creating indebtedness and deepening trust in these ways is an effective tactic to attain sponsorship.

Many women can be uneasy about receiving sponsorship: they might want to feel that their achievements are a result of their hard work. Both male and female sponsors, too, can feel uneasy about acknowledging their role in advancing the careers of their trainees, although they might be comfortable with reframing sponsorship as ‘talent management’.

Those in powerful positions can create change by consciously recognizing and reflecting on their sponsorship practices. Have you noticed that you identify with some junior researchers, but not others? Do you create different opportunities to interact informally with some of them, to build trust in them, and, ultimately, to sponsor them? Are these practices likely to benefit the organization in the future — or are they perpetuating the status quo?

What if discretionary payments to you as a manager were based on whether you sponsored two under-represented junior researchers every year? What would you need to change to achieve this target? When you next update your CV and write down the names of those you have mentored, you could also name those you have sponsored. By becoming aware of your practices, you can not only change them, but also contribute to a culture in which senior managers hold each other to account.

We think it is also important for early-career researchers to be aware of hidden processes, such as sponsorship, that can make career advancement easier for some. You might feel that you will benefit from mentorship. Indeed, seeking out a mentor might help you to find a sponsor. But you are better armed to find effective career support if you understand the difference between the two.

Of equal importance, senior academics need to understand the difference between mentorship and sponsorship and to recognize that they can promote diversity through their sponsorship relationships.