Mentors, role-models and sponsors – who’s on your team?

Posted by Cate Macinnis-Ng, @LoraxCate

Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a team of mentors, role models and sponsors to raise a successful scientist. It pays to be a bit strategic about building your support team. So what’s the difference between these roles and how do you find them?


A mentor is generally someone who uses their own experiences to advise someone else. We often think of mentors as older and wiser than the mentee but peer-to-peer mentoring can also be very effective.

Finding a mentor

Mentoring is part of the supervision process so postgraduate students have ready-made mentors. Similarly, postdoctoral fellows often have an advisor who can also act as a mentor. But what happens if you would like a mentor for a specific issue? People from minority groups or studying while raising a family might benefit from talking to someone has been through similar experiences. Many institutions offer formal mentoring schemes but you can also ask your supervisor or research group head to make suggestions. Sometimes a mentoring relationship won’t work out and sometimes it will be a fruitful enchange that will last years. It’s important to remember that there is a difference between a mentor and a councillor. Don’t be offended if a mentor suggests you see someone professionally if you are facing extreme challenges.

Many professional societies have mentoring schemes.

The British Eclogical Society has a mentoring scheme for women.

The Ecological Society of America Early Career Section has a mentoring program at ESA 2016.

The NZ Ecological Society has a mentoring scheme for PhD students learning the ropes for reviewing.

Getting together with a group of peers for a monthly morning tea or lunch can be very rewarding. Just make sure the experience is mostly positive and uplifting, a circle of niceness. More ideas on peer mentoring can be found in this handbook.

Role models

A role model is someone you would like to emulate. Often they are more advanced in their career and they may have achieved something you would like to suceed at one day. They may be particularly good at balancing work and outside life, maybe they have recently transitioned to a permanent position or they may have been awarded a presigious fellowship. They might write an inspiring blog or have a media profile. They have pathed a path you would like to follow.

You often won’t know your role models personally but you know of them and their achievements. Role models are inspiring because they show you that it can be done. As an undergraduate, I had only two female lecturers and neither of these women had children. These days, finding role models is usually reasonably straight-forward. Twitter and conferences are good places to start. Good role models may have a prominent online presence or present plenary talks at conferences. They could also be a senior academic, head of school or dean in your own institution. Meeting and getting to know a role model can also be an inspiring experience so don’t be afaid to approach a role model at a conference or reach out on Twitter. Hopefully they will turn out to be friendly and engaged!

For some great female role models in New Zealand, profiles of women in science, technology and engineering can be found on the Curious Minds website.


A sponsor is sometimes also known as a champion because they will champion your cause. A sponsor suggests you for roles and acts as your advocate. They are a public supporter while the mentor-mentee relationship is less visible. A sponsor is particularly difficult to aquire because you can’t really approach someone to be your sponsor, it generally has to be initiated by the sponsor. This piece for the Association for Women in Science calls on senior women to act as sponsors to advance women in science.  And this piece from the Harvard Business Review has some interesting ideas on sponsorship from business.  Also in the business world, women are ‘over-mentored and under-sponsored’ and the same may be true in science. It takes a particular type of person to act as a sponsor. Perhaps looking around and discovering who acts in that way in your research field or institution is a good place to start. Impressing the sponsor can take time.


So, who’s on your team? Research tells us that mentors are particularly important for women and other minority groups but science and academia are challenging for anyone so everyone can do with a helping hand. Don’t be shy about asking for help, you will find many mentors find helping the younger generation very rewarding. Chances are they have benefited from mentoring themselves and will be happy to pay it forward. If all else fails, you can always bribe them with cake!

Further reading…

The Dynamic Ecology blog has a great post on getting the most out of peers, mentors, role models and heroes in Science.

This piece from Science has a wealth of information on first hand experiences of mentoring.

While in this collection of interviews, women from Oxford University talk about their mentors, role models and sponsors.

Thanks to Anna Paula Rodrigues for a Skype chat that provided the inspiration for this post.

Dr Cate Macinnis-Ng is a Senior Lecturer and Rutherford Discovery Fellow, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland.  She is a plant ecophysiologist and ecohydrologist working on plant-climate interactions.