Today we welcome Biology doctoral students Brooke Morris and Zach Winfield to BearTracks. 

“Find a mentor.”

Right? We have all heard that phrase. But how do you do it?

I remember hearing ‘find a mentor’ at the start of my undergraduate degree. But I had no idea what that really meant and how the heck I would find one. Recently, on a Twitter thread, there was a large discussion about needing a mentor for guidance in a specific field I was interested in learning more about. 99% of the comments were people asking how to find a mentor. Amongst those asking were highly trained professionals who were unable to find a mentor any better than the newest members to the field. Finding a mentor is not something that you wake up one day and magically know how to do.

Being a mentor can also be stressful. Many people assume that a mentor is there not only to train but also to open doors to new networking and job opportunities. That is a lot of pressure for one person! Not only are they obligated to train you, but also to help you get a job.

“Find a sponsor.” Have you ever heard that phrase?

While attending the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) Conference of 2020 in Austin, we learned that mentors are only ONE part of professional development. You should also be looking for sponsors. I confess—at first, I panicked. Not only should I be looking for a mentor (which I have no idea how to do) but I need to have sponsors as well?

What is a sponsor? Over the course of a one-and-a-half-hour workshop at SICB, I learned the difference between mentorship and sponsorship, and it was revolutionary.

A mentor is someone who is in a position that you look up to, maybe in a position you might want to be in one day. A mentor could be your adviser, your group or lab mate, a more experienced graduate student or faculty member. Mentors are those who can provide advice for you professionally but can also offer advice on how to balance your life. You can ask a mentor for help with ideas or the best way to navigate career choices. Mentors can give you feedback as well as encouragement. Your relationship is driven by your need for guidance without expecting much in return. Mentors should be driven by the mentee and expect little in return for offering advice on your next move or help with work behind the scenes.

A sponsor is someone who is in a position of power that has the influence to open career doors for you. The relationship with a sponsor is very different. Sponsors expect loyalty and performance while being public advocates on your behalf.

Of course, the role of mentors and sponsors are in flux, as those who were once on equal footing as a mentor can become a sponsor in the future. But still it is important to remember these are separate roles.

It is also important to develop both mentors and sponsors throughout your career.  People you cross paths with may only want to offer one service or the other. Do not decline an offer for one when you were expecting the other. Networking is an important part in everyone’s career and cutting ties before the knot is taut is never wise.

Knowing the difference between the mentor and the sponsor is key to building your support team over your career. This can seem daunting, but you probably already know people in your life who would stand in these roles. Recognizing who they are is the first step and then understanding how to approach them for your specific asks.

Want to learn more? Come and join Zach Winfield and Brooke Morris on February 26, 12:15-1:30, for a GPS Workshop “Mentoring and Sponsorship: How to Curate your Support Team (STEM)”