Is Trustworthiness Important in a Doctoral Mentor? Toward a Theory of Tough Love Mentoring

Laura Roberts, Susan C Ferro-Almeida
International Journal of Doctoral Studies  •  Volume 14  •  2019  •  pp. 613-635

Doctoral education faces a serious problem: many students across the country begin the degree, but never graduate. However, effective mentoring can help students attain graduation, signaling their successful transformation to scholar. We believe the power of the mentor to bring about the transformation from student to scholar has to do with the quality of the relationship between mentor and protégé. In particular, we believe this relationship is most effective if it is characterized by the mentor’s tough love. Our purpose in this study was to interview mentors who are considered effective, to learn their thoughts on the importance of trust relationships, and to learn their ways in nurturing these relationships.

A mentor is a senior, more experienced person who guides a junior, less experienced person (in this context, a doctoral student). The role of the mentor is to provide guidance, modeling, technical support, personal support, and psychosocial support. In this paper, we sought to put forth a theory to explain the kinds of behaviors and attitudes that would characterize an effective mentor. The theory, called tough love theory, is a merger between parenting theory and trust theory. According to tough love theory, mentors who are benevolent, competent, honest, reliable, and demanding will bring about optimal growth of students.

We conducted semi-structured interviews of 21 effective mentors of doctoral students representing seven universities across the United States. We conducted conventional and summative content analysis of the qualitative data.

This study contributes new insights to guide a doctoral mentor on ways to develop a relationship with a protégé that will provide a catalyst for growth.

The findings were consistent with tough love theory. Moreover, an emergent theme of the research was the dynamic nature of the mentor–protégé relationship, whereby the dependent student transforms into an autonomous, independent scholar.

We recommend that doctoral mentors become tough love mentors, i.e., mentors who are trustworthy and who possess high standards.

These findings have implications for the development of mentor relations theory. Specifically, we identified the following characteristics that effective mentors believed to be necessary for protégé success: trustworthiness and high standards.

We believe the characteristics of effective mentors may generalize to doctoral study in other disciplines, such as the sciences and the arts. We also believe the characteristics of effective mentors may generalize to other contexts, such as business.

We encourage future researchers to test the tough love mentoring theory with quantitative data.

trust, authoritative style, tough love, collegiality, doctoral mentoring, empirical and theory-building paper
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