As graduate students, we are incredibly busy juggling our academic responsibilities, our professional development, and our personal lives. Often, the added task of developing and maintaining our professional networks can seem daunting and overwhelming. However, by taking an intentional perspective, you can make incremental progress that will yield big results.

A robust professional network includes a variety of mentors and sponsors. You might be thinking, “Oh, these sound the same,” but there are key distinctions between mentors and sponsors that, when considered, can make your network seem much more coherent and intentional.

The table below, adapted from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford, outlines this distinction:


Mentors  Sponsors
A mentor could be anyone in a position with experience you desire, who can offer advice and support.  A sponsor is a senior level staff member or advisor invested in your career success. 
Mentors support you through formal or informal discussions about how to build skills, qualities, and confidence for career advancement. Sponsors promote you directly, by connecting you to others or serving as references.
Mentors provide feedback to aid your personal and professional development. Sponsors are more directly involved in your professional upward mobility.
Mentors share the “unwritten rules” for advancement in their organization or field with you. Sponsors actively model behavior and involve you in experiences that enable advancement.

As you can see, mentors and sponsors serve different functions and it is equally important for your academic and professional development to seek out both. (Though some people might function in both roles as well!)

So, how do you go about identifying these mentors and sponsors? And, further, how do you maintain those relationships? Organization is key.

When identifying who would be a good mentor vs. who would be best as a sponsor, try following these steps:

  • Consider who is already mentoring or sponsoring you, and how. You may want to use a needs-based framework to assess who your current mentors and sponsors are, and how they help meet different needs (such as accountability, emotional support, or access to opportunities). You may not even realize all the mentoring relationships you already have! Reflecting on them can help you be more intentional, and seek out other mentors and sponsors to fill needs not currently being met.
  • Look for new mentors or sponsors. There are many ways to expand your network: you can use LinkedIn, informational interviews, or professional associations, or take advantage of conferences. If you don’t know where to start, consider making an appointment with a career counselor.
  • Schedule a meeting to discuss potential mentorship and/or sponsorship, and what that might look like. Make sure that what is agreed upon is mutually beneficial to both parties, and that both parties are comfortable with the parameters of the professional relationship. If you are speaking with a mentor, set goals and put a timeline to those goals to help with accountability. If speaking with a sponsor, flag any upcoming applications of interest for which you will want a reference.
  • Keep track of meetings and conversations through a spreadsheet or another form of documentation. Write down when you last spoke with a mentor or sponsor, what you discussed, and what the next steps were. If you were connected through a mutual colleague, you should take note of that as well. This will help if you are maintaining a large professional network.
  • Follow up at set intervals. If you have trouble remembering to follow up with people in your professional network, set a reminder to check your spreadsheet every month or so. Then, you can see whom you should loop back to, and go from there! This can be especially helpful during times when you have exams or copious amounts of schoolwork, in order to not get overwhelmed.

Of course, it is important that you find a method that works best for you! Some resources to get you started are:

It’s true, building your network while in graduate school can seem like a big undertaking. However, if you think of it in terms of mentors vs. sponsors, and approach the task intentionally, it can be not only easier, but more rewarding!

If you have any additional questions, feel free to email us at [email protected].

About the Author: Rachel Wallace is a Professional Development Liaison at the Graduate Division and a Master of Public Policy Candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy.