NCU Faculty Research
Perceptions of Trust in Mentoring

Written by Rick Rapier

Trust has been shown to be an essential component of high-stakes relationships such as the one between mentor and mentee, in what has often been described as a bond of trust.

But is trust integral to the dissertation process, between the doctoral candidate and the dissertation chair? That is what researchers from Northcentral University’s Graduate School aimed to find out, in particular, from the perspective of dissertation chairs.

Dr. Linnea Rademaker, in conjunction with three other researchers, Dr. Jennifer O’Connor Duffy, Dr. Elizabeth Wetzler and Dr. Helen Zaikana-Montgomery, explored on-line dissertation chairs’ perceptions of trust in the mentor-mentee relationship, with trust identified as a crucial factor in the success of doctoral students. Much had been done in assessing how protégés and students perceive the experience of mentoring before. But what had been missing from the literature was mentoring from the perspective of the mentors, and, more over, that of online dissertation chairs.

About Drs. Rademaker, O’Connor Duffy, Wetzler and Zaikina-Montgomery

As Dissertation Chair for the Northcentral University Graduate School and a member of NCU’s core faculty, Dr. Rademaker had a personal interest in the topic of this research. After graduating with two bachelor’s and a master’s from Bradley University, Dr. Rademaker earned her PhD from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Dr. O’Connor Duffy, likewise a member of NCU’s core faculty and a Dissertation Chair for the Graduate School, knew the mentoring experience from her own perspective. After gaining her bachelor’s from Amherst College, Dr. O’Connor Duffy earned first her master’s and then her PhD, both from Boston College.

Also a Dissertation Chair for the Northcentral University Graduate School and member of NCU’s core faculty, Dr. Wetzler came to their research with special interest. After graduating with her bachelor’s and master’s from Illinois State University, Dr. Wetzler went on to earn her PhD from Tulane University.

Dr. Helen Zaikana-Montgomery, Director of the NCU Graduate School, brought years of professional analyst experience to this research study. Having earned her bachelor’s from California State University, San Marcos, Dr. Zaikana-Montgomery earned both her master’s and her PhD from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Purpose of the Study

If you're a student or faculty member at Northcentral University, then you know the importance of mentoring in the learning experience here. While the literature has confirmed that trust plays a vital role in the mentoring process, both for face-to-face and online educational relationships, the focus of this study is how mentors foster trust within the dissertation process.

Dr. Rademaker and her colleagues based their research on the following definition of trust: “A willingness to increase one’s resource investment in another party, based upon positive expectation, resulting from past, positive mutual interactions.” They began without a fixed hypothesis, being as their research goal was to ascertain the “open-ended, qualitative” perspective of dissertation chairs in real-world experience.

To ascertain the result, the methodology they implemented for the study is outlined below.


In response to thorough examination of other studies on the importance of trust in mentoring, both for brick and mortar educational approaches and that of online, Dr. Rademaker and her colleagues examined 16 case studies. The researchers came by these case studies by issuing a qualitative, online questionnaire through SurveyMonkey® to 42 dissertation chairs that yielded 16 non-duplicate responses, from which the case studies would be compiled through qualitative data analysis for those 16 chairs’ perceptions of trust and how student vulnerability is an important part of the relationship that chairs consistently work to alleviate.

The following questions guided the study of existing research literature and shaped the questions that made up the SurveyMonkey questionnaire:

Q1: How do online dissertation chairs define and establish trust with their students?

Q2: How do online dissertation chairs perceive student vulnerability, and work to alleviate that vulnerability?

The SurveyMonkey questionnaire sent out to dissertation chairs consisted of the following questions:

  1. Trust is sometimes defined as being able to rely on someone. How and in what ways do you show to your students that they can rely on you?
  2. Mentors may exhibit the characteristic of concern for others. Please give an example of how you have demonstrated concern for your mentees.
  3. Another characteristic of the trust relationship noted in the literature is that of vulnerability, specifically on the part of the mentee. How and in what ways do you notice your students as being vulnerable (please give examples)
  4. Continuing to examine the characteristic of vulnerability, we also ask: How do you try to strengthen students' self-confidence and/or reduce that vulnerability in your students?
  5. Lastly, we examine the construct of content-knowledge. Content-knowledge as a sub-construct of trust is a complicated construct for us as dissertation chairs at NCU. Each of us has a specific area of content knowledge that we were hired for and that we have expertise within. How do you as a graduate school dissertation chair define your content knowledge as it pertains to the work of your students?
  6. Further, the construct of content knowledge can be used to mediate trust in the relationship. How and in what ways does your content knowledge influence, improve, or mediate the trust relationship with your mentees?


First, after analyzing the surveys, findings point to the importance for chairs to establish trust through three major areas of focus: 1) feedback, 2) consistency, and 3) personal connections with students. Second, chairs perceived student vulnerability to include both students’ discussion of their academic skills (or lack of) and their willingness to share personal information.

Chairs were very resourceful in enacting strategies to alleviate all types of student vulnerability including recognizing student strengths and pointing to the positives of vulnerability and by offering scholarly resources for students to develop their academic strengths.

Rademaker, et al, submitted their paper titled Chair Perceptions of Trust Between Mentor and Mentee in Online Doctoral Dissertation Mentoring to a peer-reviewed publication, the Journal of Online Learning Technologies (JOLT), where it is still under review (as of our date of publication) and they are awaiting the editor’s decision. Additionally, this past February, the foursome of researchers also presented their findings at the 2015 American Association of Behavior and Social Scientists (AABSS) conference in Las Vegas.

Join the Discussion

How do you think that dissertation chairs could more effectively promote trust in students and reduce their sense of vulnerability?