APS Bridge Program

Building, Maintaining, and Reestablishing Trust

There are many opportunities to build trust with students and it is obviously important to do so. We are often asked about best practices for building, maintaining, and reestablishing trust. Of course, people are different and some students will naturally trust their advisors, mentors, and peers. However, this is not the case with everyone. Building trust may take more time for some students. This may be an aspect of their personality or it may have resulted from past experiences. Nonetheless, trust can be built over time. In this section, we mention three situations in which trust can be gained or lost. These three examples are used to illustrate the importance of transparency, effective communication, and confirmation of your support and commitment to student success.

When making determinations regarding placement in classes, it is important to be transparent with students and explain assessment and/or decision making.

Students placed in undergraduate courses rather than the graduate core without explanation have felt that lowered expectations were set for them and trust was lost. Students placed directly in the graduate core courses who thought they would be placed in undergraduate courses felt they were being set up for failure and trust was lost. So, regardless of the situation, it is important to make graduate students aware of the process for determining course placement. This is also an opportunity for building trust. Ensuring students that decisions are being made with their best interest in mind and that you are dedicated to their success helps to build trust. Thus, we encourage communicating this to students when discussing course placement. Let them know that you have high expectations for them and believe that they will be successful in completing their PhD. This should guide decisions made in regard to their course placement and students should be made aware of this.

Difficulty can arise when there is a difference of opinion between the advisor and student on the level of course for which the student is prepared. While we have seen instances where a student felt they could take on the more advanced course, and have been successful, it is common for students to feel they are ready to take on the advanced course, and end up doing poorly. In these cases, having a common way of assessing students and then assigning courses allows students to see the process as being less biased. If students do persist in a course that you think is either too high or too low, having frequent early discussions with the instructor and the student is essential, as this may allow changing to a lower or higher level course without jeopardizing the student’s grade and self-esteem.

When mentoring, it is important to be transparent about what information about a student is being shared with whom and when possible obtaining permission prior to sharing sensitive information.

No one wants to feel as if people are talking about them behind their back. Sharing information regarding performance or progress in courses, mental health issues, and other topics that are sensitive is important to bridge student retention (see Mentoring for Retention). However, a loss of trust can occur if students find out that information they have disclosed to one person in what they have stated (or even just perceived) to be in confidence is being shared with others. Thus, we recommend that advisors explain to students what will be shared and the motivation behind their reasons for sharing. Again, you are more likely to gain trust when it is apparent that you are acting in the student’s best interest. Thus, if you are sharing information with others to seek more support for the student or to get help in addressing a challenge the student may be facing, communicate this to the student.

Open and honest communication in both directions is vital to student success.

A student’s relationship with their research advisor is one of the most important relationships during their graduate career. However, building and maintaining this relationship can be difficult if there is a lack of trust by either party, or if there has been a complete loss of trust. Thus, we strongly encourage research advisors to communicate regularly and effectively with students.

It is important for research advisors to clearly articulate expectations for their research students. For example, clear expectations should be set regarding the amount of time to be spent in lab, hours during which students are expected to be present in labs, time away from lab during vacations and semester breaks, and the frequency and nature of check-ins (i.e. emails, face-to-face meetings, participation in research group meetings, etc.). Loss of trust can occur if students feel that they have been unsuccessful at meeting expectations for which they were unprepared or unaware.

Students who struggle academically may find it difficult to balance their coursework and research requirements. Research advisors should ask students about their academic progress and whether or not it is impeding their ability to accomplish what is expected in terms of research if they are not meeting expectations. It may also be necessary for research advisors to reach out to other faculty that interact with the students. This may require extra effort and time from the research advisor. Students should be made aware of these efforts and that the motivation behind them.

It may be necessary for students to spend less time on research during their first or second year to focus more on coursework. Some bridge programs have limited student’s research experience to literature reviews, initial data collection, participation in journal clubs or research meetings, or familiarizing themselves with equipment until they have a better handle on their academics. These kinds of decisions require transparency and communication with students. Again, it should be clear to students that these decisions are made with the goal of helping them to successfully complete the PhD. Effective communication goes both ways. Yet, students may be reluctant to tell their research advisors about challenges they are having. This is often because students often do not want to disappoint or lose the respect of their research advisors. To circumvent this, some bridge programs intentionally assign faculty mentors to students that are not their research advisors and then apply the constellation mentoring model (See Mentoring for Retention).