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Caroline Whitbeck Elmer G. Beamer-Hubert H. Schneider Emerita Professor in Ethics Case Western Reserve University Case Western Reserve University More Posts
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The Supervisor-Trainee Relationship


Author(s) Caroline Whitbeck

An online module designed to stimulate discussion about the ethical issues that arise in the supervisor-trainee relationship.

Author(s): Caroline Whitbeck

Background and Module Content

The relationship between trainees and their research supervisors is usually formative for the trainee. This is especially true when the research supervision occurs over a extended period and when the research is the trainee's main activity. A similar situation holds true for doctoral students and their dissertation supervisors or post doctoral fellows or associates and their sponsors, but applies also to other trainees, such as residents, medical fellows, and bachelor's and master's students.

Trainees learn many positive and negative lessons about responsible research conduct from observing and interacting with their supervisors. Unfortunately negative lessons can be learned from misunderstood behavior and/or bad behavior. It is important that supervisors be able to discuss with their trainees how and why their research is conducted as it is. Institutions have a role in facilitating those discussions.

Supervisors often function as mentors. A mentor is not only a research supervisor, but also an example or source of guidance about professional development and how to cope with a host of responsibilities that attend being a research investigator. Fulfillment of those responsibilities includes not only skills in: writing and reviewing papers, lab management, grant writing, job seeking, and the management of time and commitments, but also the development of ethical judgment and standards for treating others fairly. Along with this comes simultaneously meeting responsibilities for: education of students, advancement in one's field, colleagues and collaborators, one's institution and one's funding agencies.

It is the fortunate doctoral student or post doc who has a true mentor as his or her supervisor. The task of the would-be mentor is more difficult if he or she was not well-mentored in his or her own trainee period. Group mentoring and peer mentoring, including discussions of how to cope with difficult situations may help a lab , department, or institution identify key values and standards and transmit good ways of meeting those standards that are appropriate to the conditions of research in one's field.

More on mentoring of junior faculty or advisory committees

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Method and Scenarios

Distribution of scenarios and related discussion questions to the students and faculty.

Panel discussion based on those scenarios and questions and any others that students or faculty wish to add.

Thes additional scenarios can be used to focus on Working Relationships in the Lab, aspects of the relationship between two or more colleagues in a research lab, or other issues such as authorship and data management.

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Reading (recommended for discussion of the scenarios)


  • To have an open and candid discussion of potentially sensitive topics and thus establish that all matters of research conduct are discussable and strengthen trust within the research group.
  • Improved understanding of the mutual responsibilities of supervisors and trainees.
  • Establish some agreed upon methods suitable to the particular research group for resolving conflicts and misunderstandings when they arise.

Selected Bibliography (for further reading)

Bird, S.J. and Sprague, R.L. (eds.), Mentoring and the Responsible Conduct of Research, Science and Engineering Research, Volume 7, No. 4, 2001, 449-640; Opragen Publications, Guildford, Surrey, UK. (Contents and abstracts can be viewed at

Bird, Stephanie J. (1994), "Overlooked aspects in the education of science professionals: Mentoring, ethics, and professional responsibility." J. Science Education and Technology 3: 49-55.

Fort, Deborah, Bird, Stephanie J. and Didion, Catherine J., eds. (1993), "A Hand Up: Women Mentoring Women in Science." Washington, D.C.: Assoc. for Women in Science.

Gorovitz, Samuel (1998), "Ethical issues in graduate education." Science & Engineering Ethics 4: 235-250.

Hall, R.M. & Sandler, B.R. (1983), Academic mentoring for women students and faculty: A new look at an old way to get ahead. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges.

National Academy of Sciences (1997), Advisor, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

For further reading please see the additional Annotated Bibliography

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Relevant Web Resources

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Year 2006
Publisher provided Keywords ENGINEERING MEDICINE PSYCHOLOGY SCIENCE Supervisor/Trainee Relationships
Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
Language English
Cite this page: "The Supervisor-Trainee Relationship" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 8/17/2006 OEC Accessed: Sunday, December 11, 2016 <>