Mentor Support?


This case discusses issues of student-mentor relationship and it's responsibilities as it relates to advising.


Part 1

Janet, a new graduate student, is excited at the opportunity to work with Dr. Edgar at Eastern University. After a few months at Eastern, Janet is disappointed. Not only is her adviser hard to contact, but he returns drafts of her thesis late with few helpful comments. Dr. Edgar has recently taken an administrative appointment as Associate Dean of Research and has become even less available. After repeated cancellations of meetings, Janet decides to continue working on her thesis on her own.

At the end of the semester, she thinks she is ready for her preliminary proposal meeting. Before turning the proposal over to her committee members, Janet gives a copy to Dr. Edgar to proof and make revisions. Dr. Edgar, who is quite busy with administrative work at the end of the semester, looks over the proposal quickly. Although he does notice a design flaw in Janet's study, he decides that it would be best for Janet to get the proposal to her committee members quickly. He returns the proposal to Janet with relatively few revisions, and he does not mention the design flaw.

Janet makes the revisions and turns in copies of the proposal to Dr. Edgar and her other committee members. On the morning of her proposal meeting, Dr. Edgar stops by her office and hands her new revisions! She is surprised that he is giving her additional revisions, since he agreed earlier that the proposal was ready for the committee. Janet notices that one of the revisions includes a substantive comment about her design. Janet, worried, rushes to her adviser's office to discuss the revisions. Dr. Edgar reassures her that the design flaw is not serious. He says that he noticed it in her earlier draft and did not think the committee members would be concerned about the flaw. Relieved, Janet goes back to her office to prepare for the proposal meeting.

At the proposal meeting, one of her committee members, Dr. Olmstead, brings up the design flaw and says that there is no way she could accept the proposal in its present state. Dr. Edgar says that he told Janet to revise the flaw and that he is surprised that she did not make the needed changes! Janet is completely taken aback. There was no possible way for her to incorporate the changes in time for the meeting. The committee decides not to accept her proposal.

Discussion Questions

1. Janet was clearly led astray by Dr. Edgar's advice. Should he have told his colleagues about his role in Janet's proposal and defended her proposal in the meeting?

2. Does Dr. Edgar have an obligation to spend more time with Janet?

3. Should Janet confront Dr. Edgar about his treatment of the proposal and, more specifically, about his role as her adviser?

Part 2

Janet plans to revise her proposal. In a conversation with Tom, another graduate student who works in Dr. Edgar's research lab, she reports what happened in her proposal meeting. She finds out that a similar situation happened in Tom's proposal meeting and that Dr. Edgar had told him that committee members do not look too closely at the proposals.

Concerned about her situation and the possibility that this experience may be repeated with future graduate students, Janet decides to talk to the head of the department, Dr. Rob Smith. Dr. Smith is dismayed at hearing how Dr. Edgar behaved at the meeting and of Janet's treatment while in the program and decides to speak to Dr. Edgar.

Discussion Questions

4. Should Janet have talked about her situation with others before talking to Dr. Edgar? What could this action mean in terms of her future research with Dr. Edgar?

5. Is it Janet's responsibility to protect future graduate students?

6. Is Dr. Edgar violating his professional responsibility to Janet?

7. What should Dr. Smith do? Does he have a responsibility to help Janet change advisers?


Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 3, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 1999.

. . Mentor Support?. Online Ethics Center. DOI:

This seems a fairly straightforward case in which the professor, Dr. Edgar, is doing a terrible job of advising his student, Janet, and she has become the victim of his poor advice and his dishonesty. In analyzing this case, it may be helpful to consider what Dr. Edgar might say in his own defense and at the same time try to disentangle the ethical issues from the management issues.

What has Dr. Edgar done wrong? The case describes what seem to be a series of failures to fulfill his responsibilities to his student. He fails to make arranged meetings with her. He fails to give her timely feedback. Perhaps most important, he fails to give her the benefit of his knowledge when he sees a flaw in her design. Then, to save himself from the embarrassment of having approved a flawed design, he lies to his colleagues, telling them that he had told her about the flaw. Janet appropriately feels that she has not gotten the advice she needs and consequently, she has been put in a situation where she fails, i.e., the committee does not accept her proposal.

Dr. Edgar might defend himself by explaining that he is overloaded with work; he is trying to do a good job, but, he might admit, he is having a hard time managing all of his responsibilities. He might also argue that nothing has been lost since Janet can fix her proposal and resubmit it.

That is not, by any means, an adequate defense, but it is how Dr. Edgar might characterize the situation to minimize its meaning. The defense points to the entanglement of ethics and management. Because Dr. Edgar is doing such a bad job managing his responsibilities, his behavior crosses the line between poor management and unprofessional and unethical conduct. It is hard to say precisely when Dr. Edgar crosses the line; however, it seems clear that he is over the line when he fails to tell Janet about the flaw in the design. He compounds that wrong by lying to the other members of the committee and refusing to take responsibility for his own behavior.

It should be noted here that trust is at the very foundation of the student-professor relationship. Education cannot happen unless students trust their professors and professors trust their students. Students must trust that professors give them accurate knowledge and that they design courses and give assignments that will lead to knowledge and skills the student will need. Students also must trust that the process by which they are evaluated will be fair rather than arbitrary. In parallel, professors must trust that students will turn in work that they have done (rather than someone else's work), that students will take their advice and respond to their suggestions and criticisms. Professor Edgar's behavior is reprehensible because it undermines that trust.

Part 2 of the case focuses on what Janet should do. Again the ethical and the management issues seem to be entangled. Several of the decisions that Janet must make are simply a matter of how best to manage her way through graduate school; others have to do with her responsibility to Dr. Edgar and future graduate students.

I do not think that Janet has a moral responsibility to Dr. Edgar to keep quiet about what happened, but I think her best interests lay in handling the problem delicately and in a way that doesn't undermine her reputation in the department.

I am not convinced that Janet is obligated to do something to protect future graduate students, although I think it is good for her to do something. I hesitate to recommend that she do anything because she can't be sure that Dr. Edgar has behaved similarly with other students. Even though a student has told her that something similar happened to him, the report is informal, and she has no way of knowing how bad the problem is. Going to Dr. Smith is a good thing for Janet to do because Dr. Smith is in a better position to investigate the problem and determine its severity. Not only is he in the best position to take action, it is his responsibility to do so. Of course, it is important to remember that Dr. Smith will have to give Dr. Edgar a chance to explain his side of the story. He cannot simply act on an accusation.

Ideally, Dr. Smith will keep his conversation with Janet confidential and will give her advice as to whether to continue to work with Dr. Edgar or to find a new adviser.

Author: Deborah G. Johnson, Georgia Institute of Technology.

At first glance, this case may lead the reader to focus on common practices between students and mentors. Traditionally, an adviser reviews graduate students' proposals before the proposal is presented publicly. Dr. Edgar did read and revise Janet's proposal, but he then failed to properly advise her and prepare her for the proposal defense. However, the ethical dilemma in this case is not only the one that Janet faces, but also the dilemma that Dr. Edgar faces.

This scenario was written with two goals in mind: 1) to promote discussion between graduate students and faculty on student-mentor relationships and 2) to encourage discussion between academicians about professional responsibility. Since this case involves two different issues, it would be useful to address each of these issues separately.

Student-Mentor Relationship

One common problem that arises between graduate students and their advisers is that the two parties fail to discuss their responsibilities and roles at the outset. Since both the graduate student and adviser have responsibilities to each other and to the other faculty, establishing rules at the beginning of the student-mentor relationship might avoid negative consequences for both concerned parties later.

Question 1 was written to encourage discussion of the responsibilities involved in the student-teacher relationship by focusing on Dr. Edgar's behavior toward Janet. Clearly, Dr. Edgar misinformed Janet about the seriousness of the proposal meeting. He also failed to inform the committee how he advised Janet. Dr. Edgar omits the fact that he gave the revisions to Janet just a few hours before the meeting and that he was even aware of the design flaw in an earlier draft.

Should Dr. Edgar own up to his responsibilities? Or is it Janet's responsibility to inform her committee about Dr. Edgar's late revisions?

How would the answer to Question 1 change if Janet were in her last year of graduate school? Or if her funding were cut off as a result of this meeting? Conversely, how would the reader's opinion change if we find that Janet is a student who does sloppy work? Is it still Dr. Edgar's responsibility to help Janet in her progress through the program?

According to a recent report produced by the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, the mentor's primary goal or obligation is to further the student's education (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine, 1997). Thus, Dr. Edgar not only has a responsibility to help Janet through the program, but he has an obligation (regardless of other commitments) to help her through. Graduate students and faculty advisers assume different roles within the department and the university, and these roles might conflict. In this case, Dr. Edgar is Janet's adviser, but he also is now an administrator at the university. His conflicting roles create time pressure in his life and take time away from each other.

The reader could be asked how this situation would change if Dr. Edgar did not have an administrative position. Certainly it would be easier for Janet and Dr. Edgar to work together because Dr. Edgar would have one less role at the university. But the reality is that professors have many roles. Oftentimes they have to spend less time on research and advising duties to complete committee or administrative work. Question 2 was written to encourage discussion about how the role of adviser should be maintained. Professors often accept new students that they do not really have time for and spend very little time with. Perhaps Dr. Edgar should not have accepted Janet and the new position in administration at the same time. Effective advisers are good listeners, good observers and good problem solvers (NAS et al., 1997). In addition, effective advisers keep in touch with each graduate and respects the goals and interests of good students. Thus, regardless of Dr. Edgar's new position, one of his responsibilities is advising graduate students, and he should assume this role with commitment and dedication.

Professional Responsibility

After learning that Tom experienced a similar situation, Janet decides that it is her professional responsibility to inform the department head of Dr. Edgar's behavior. Questions 4, 5, 6 and 7 all focus on this issue of professional responsibility. These questions were written to explore whether the consequences of Dr. Edgar's behavior (both for Janet and Tom) should influence Janet's decision to speak to the head.

The reader should consider whether Dr. Edgar is a tenured faculty member. If he is untenured, then Janet's decision can affect his future at that department. Should his mentoring abilities (or lack of abilities) affect his ability to obtain tenure?

In addition, Janet's decision will affect her own future. Most likely she will no longer be advised by Dr. Edgar, and she might eventually feel forced to leave the department.

Consider Dr. Edgar's position. What is it like to face your fellow faculty members after realizing your faults as an adviser? Should Janet give Dr. Edgar some consideration before approaching the department head? The answer to this question is, of course, yes. I am not arguing that Janet should behave altruistically or even that she should do unto others as she would have others do unto her. However, her position at the university is dependent on Dr. Edgar. So most likely she will ruin or, at the very least, damage her career by reporting Dr. Edgar.

A final position to consider in this case, in terms of professional responsibility, is Dr. Smith's position. As head of the department, is it his responsibility to look after Janet's concerns? If Dr. Edgar is untenured, is it fair to Dr. Edgar to bring this issue before the tenure committee? Dr. Smith's position is tenuous. Suppose he is elected by the faculty. Does he have the same responsibilities to the graduate students as he does to the faculty?

In summary, this case concerns two general issues -- the student-mentor relationship and professional responsibilities. With both issues, all positions and relationships should be considered before Janet can make a final decision. However, it is fairly clear that Janet must do something. She must find a way to protect her career interests and to address these issues without purposefully damaging Dr. Edgar's career.


  • National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering. Washington, D. C.: National Academy Press, 1997.