Trust Me! Building and breaking professional trust in doctoral student supervisor relations

Guccione, K. (2018)

London, Leadership Foundation.


This report presents findings from a research study looking at perceptions of trust in doctoral supervision relationships. It views academic supervisors in the context of their role as leaders and enablers of trust within their research environments and higher education institutions.

It aims to take a broad exploratory view of the specific behaviours that are important in trust building in supervisory relationships. Institutional and sector pressures on the doctoral degree, on doctoral supervision and on academic practice have increased in recent years, and supervision is just one element of an increasingly demanding all-rounder’ academic role.

Supervision is a complex leadership practice, and yet is a key influencer of doctoral success. Any difficulties that arise in transitioning to a doctorate, can be resolved through a good supervision relationship. A poor relationship means that such difficulties are sustained throughout the course of the doctorate. Emotionally competent academic leadership, as well as technical and intellectual mentorship, is required of supervisors, who must be supported in this by their department cultures and university structures.

Trust is a complex requirement of effective workplace learning, especially when learning from a supervisor, and is an essential component of what it means to be a professional’ – a person trusted to be an expert in a particular area. Using a definition of trust as willingness to accept uncertainly and make oneself vulnerable in the face of insecurity” (Hope-Hailey et al, 2012) this study poses that the quality of the supervision relationship is influenced by the presence or absence of trust. Trust may be a particularly important factor for leadership within the doctoral degree context, which is characterised by acutely felt uncertainty, the processes of original discovery, and the shifting role and power balances of building a new researcher identity.

To investigate trust in supervision we developed an approach that could facilitate discussion, reflection and understanding of trust and supervision and imagined better ways’ for relationship building. Interview questions were developed inductively through five initial, minimally structured interviews with staff in administrative roles related to doctoral affairs and supervisory support – postgraduate research tutors. From these interviews came a preliminary framework for discussing and contextualising vulnerability and trust in research supervision. This was used to structure student and supervisor discussion groups.

Structured group discussions were facilitated with 26 doctoral students across four research intensive universities. Supervisor groups engaged 17 experienced academic supervisors. A study blog was used to collect further data anonymously from across the UK. The reach of data collection was broadened, and the number of contributing individuals increased by 69 doctoral students and 21 supervisors. Thematic analyses were used to interpret and compare the data across groups and institutions.

Cite this paper

Guccione, K. (2018) Trust Me! Building and breaking professional trust in doctoral student supervisor relations. London, Leadership Foundation

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