As I sat in the middle of the room during another career advancement seminar for graduate students, the speaker posed a question that led me to believe that this seminar was going to be different.
"Do you have a sponsor?" she asked.
While this question is often associated with conversations regarding H1B visas and "green card" applications, I had a feeling that the career development speaker was referring to something different.
In this current economic and job climate, we are all aware of the importance of effective mentoring. We are told to surround ourselves with individuals who will aid and guide us throughout our scientific career. However, there remains a step above a typical mentor—a sponsor.
A sponsor is a mentor willing to "campaign" on your behalf and enthusiastically supports your work. These individuals will recommend you for a talk during a plenary session, introduce you to key people at a meeting, and engage you in conversations with leaders in the field. A sponsor will take an active role in your training, including you in review article preparation, grant writing or other duties that are marketable to a variety of potential employers.
Most importantly, a sponsor will be your advocate, speaking highly of you and your talents behind closed doors. Some of these activities are common to typical PI/mentor behavior but the actions of sponsors go above and beyond what is normally expected.
I know of a case where a sponsor's extensive voicemail advocating for a student's admission to a particular lab eased the PI's doubts and led to a successful placement.
As a senior graduate student at the careers seminar, I could not honestly answer the original question posed to me. I have been fortunate enough to have a number of mentors throughout my training but I could not be certain if I had a sponsor. Furthermore, I had to ask myself if I have been presenting myself in a manner that would attract a sponsor.
In your own search for a sponsor, keep the following tips in mind:
- You need a mentor first: You have to have a stable mentor/mentee relationship before it can evolve into something bigger. That initial relationship is key to a fruitful sponsorship opportunity.
- Make your goals and interests known: Clear communication about your goals and aspirations must be done. To help you throughout your career, your potential sponsor has to be made aware of your aspirations. Do your part by actively talking about your goals and how they may be able to help you.
- Put the work in: As trainees, we have to meet our potential sponsors halfway. Approaching an individual and simply asking them to be your sponsor would be easy but I'm afraid it doesn't work that way. A sponsor has to choose to advocate for you. Show that you have the work ethic, drive and passion that demonstrates that you are someone who a sponsor would be willing to stake her or his reputation on.
As trainees, both graduate students and postdocs, we are susceptible to developing a myopic view of success. We have been trained to think that a solid and productive PhD will lead to a top-tier postdoc and will all but ensure you a successful career. While a high impact publication will certainly look outstanding on your CV, a personal call by a sponsor to the department chair and/or scientific director, making the case for you will speak volumes when applying for a job. These are the connections that are critical to career advancement and overall success. As I continue on my career journey, I'll be sure to execute the above mentioned "tips for sponsorship" at all times. You never know when a potential sponsor may be watching.