Communication Currents

Using Mentoring Enactment Theory to Explore the Doctoral Student­ Advisor Mentoring Relationship

December 1, 2012
Instructional Communication

At the beginning of each academic year, thousands of students throughout the United States decide to pursue a doctoral degree. The completion of a doctoral degree may take between three and ten years depending on the type of program in which the doctoral students enroll and their academic progress. As such, doctoral students invest a lot of time and effort into their education. Similarly, the universities the students attend invest in the doctoral students by providing financial and materialistic support. Unfortunately, approximately 50 percent of doctoral students never complete their academic program, which causes substantial loss to both the students and the universities they attend. One major reason why doctoral students do not complete their degree is because they are involved in dissatisfying and under-developed relationships with their doctoral advisors.

Doctoral advisors serve as mentors to their doctoral students (i.e., advisees) by providing various types of support to their advisees. Throughout the advisor-advisee relationship, the advisors help their advisees decide on appropriate classes to take each semester; they also provide encouragement and they teach their advisees how to become effective college instructors, how to conduct research, and how to become a member of their academic department.  These types of advisor support are invaluable to advisees as they increase the advisees’ research productivity, their likelihood of completing their academic program, and their chance of obtaining employment after graduation. Thus, the advisor-advisee relationship is the most important relationship in which doctoral students are involved, which is why it is imperative the advisees try to maintain a positive relationship with their advisor.   

Because advisees are highly dependent on their advisors to complete their academic program, whereas advisors’ career success is considerably less dependent on their advisees, there is a power imbalance between the advisor and the advisee such that the advisor has most of the relational power. Therefore, researchers have argued for more than 30 years it is the advisees’ responsibility to maintain a positive relationship with their advisor. More recently, Pamela Kalbfleisch developed Mentoring Enactment Theory,which focuses, in part, on how mentoring relationships are maintained. But howdo advisees maintain their advisor-advisee mentoring relationship and do they receive more support from their advisors when they maintain their advisor-advisee relationships? We used Mentoring Enactment Theory to guide our investigation of these two questions.

The first purpose of this study was to identify what advisees say and do to maintain a positive relationship (i.e., relational maintenance behaviors) with their advisor and if there are any differences between male and female advisees’ use of these behaviors.  The second purpose was to examine if advisees’ use of these behaviors is related to the amount of mentoring support they receive from their advisors and the duration of the advisor-advisee relationship.

To achieve these two purposes, 636 advisees completed three different questionnaires and 141 advisors completed one questionnaire. The questionnaires were administered primarily online, but some participants completed a traditional paper-and-pen questionnaire. Both the advisors and the advisees responded to questions about how frequently the advisees communicate to maintain their advisor-advisee relationship, and the amount of mentoring support the advisors provide to their advisees.  Additionally, the advisees also indicated how long they had been involved in their advisor-advisee relationship.  

The results indicated that male and female advises are equally likely to maintain their advisor-advisee relationships by:  (a) expressing appreciation, (b) being courteous, (c) discussing their academic and career goals, (d) being humorous, (e) protecting their advisor’s reputation, and (f) completing assigned tasks in a timely manner. The results also indicated that, in general, advisees actively maintain their advisor-advisee relationship when they receive mentoring support from their advisors. Similarly, advisors reported that, in general, they actively provide mentoring support to their advisees when the advisees try to maintain their advisor-advisee relationship. However, advisees’ use of relational maintenance behaviors was not related to the duration of their advisor-advisee relationship.

These results provide two practical implications for advisors and advisees. First, being appreciative, courteous, humorous, protecting their advisors reputation, completing assigned tasks, and discussing their goals are appropriate behaviors in which advisees should engage with their advisors. When advisees use these relational maintenance behaviors, their advisors are likely to provide their advisees with mentoring support, which enables the advisees to complete their academic program. Therefore, it should be perceived favorably that advisees’ use of relational maintenance behaviors with their advisors is unrelated to the duration of the advisor-advisee relationship. Advisors’ provision of mentoring support to their advisees is also likely to be unrelated to relationship duration.

Second, advisors can expect their male and female advisees to use relational maintenance behaviors fairly equally. This is an important finding because much of the early mentoring research indicates that mentors prefer same-sex mentoring relationships as opposed to cross-sex mentoring relationships, which may have made some advisors reluctant to serve as a mentor for a person of the opposite sex in the past. This may be of particular importance to female doctoral students because traditionally, most mentors have been men, which made it more difficult for women than men to initiate mentoring relationships. However, the findings obtained in this study may make female advisors less concerned about serving as mentors to male advisees and vice versa.

In sum, this study indicates that doctoral advisors’ provision of mentoring support is closely related to their doctoral advisees’ use of relational maintenance behaviors, which suggests that the advisor-advisee relationship is likely mutually influential. Therefore, it is possible that doctoral students’ academic success or failure is not only related to their advisor’s provision of mentoring support, but also their own communicative behaviors used to maintain their advisor-advisee relationship. Consequently, advisors and advisees are jointly responsible for the success of the thousands of students who decide to pursue a doctoral degree at the beginning of each academic year.

About the author (s)

Scott A. Myers

West Virginia University


Daniel H. Mansson

Pennsylvania State University

Assistant Professor