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.