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In my experience, there are two types of PhD students

(1) A professor offers a PhD studentship. Then, students apply directly and know their supervisor from the first day.

In this case, how a professor secure the funding for a PhD studentship?

(2) A department offers PhD studentships. After admission, students can choose their supervisors or the department will assign them to available professors.

In this case, how the capacity of each faculty member is determined to accept PhD students from available students of the department?

I know that the system varies from university to university, but I am curious to know the most common systems for each cases in North America and Eastern Europe.

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There is a third case, I know this happens in Australia though not sure about elsewhere. In Australia, sometimes you have to have the explicit support of your prospective supervisor (with whom you must establish contact by yourself), and subsequently submit a research proposal along with your application for a funded scholarship. So being accepted by a professor doesn't guarantee funding. –  Moriarty Apr 9 at 18:14
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Fourth, you go around and ask professors whether they'd consider having you. Usually, they'll know you from lectures, projects and/or theses. –  Raphael Apr 9 at 21:20
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@Raphael Your fourth option is really the second option. –  JeffE Apr 9 at 21:54
    
@JeffE: I understood (2) to be: "I apply for program at school X I like and go through a formal selection process. Once I am accepted, I choose a supervisor." My (4) would be more like "I'd like to work this person Y I like. I seal the deal with him and then we bend bureaucracy to our will." –  Raphael Apr 9 at 21:58
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In at least two cases that I know of, a professor recruits a PhD student and then once the student accepts the offer, a different professor in the same department offers the student an irresistible project and steals him/her away! –  foobarbecue Apr 10 at 2:06

5 Answers 5

up vote 9 down vote accepted

(2) A department offers PhD studentships. After admission, students can choose their supervisors or the department will assign them to available professors.

In this case, how the capacity of each faculty member is determined to accept PhD students from available students of the department?

This is generally the norm in US universities. How the capacity is set depends on various funding-related factors:

  • Does the department support all incoming Ph.D students via fellowships ? Then there's a budget associated with this.
  • Does the department support all incoming students via fellowship or teaching assistant positions ? Then based on estimated enrollment of students in courses there's a rough formula estimating number of TAs needed each year, and this factors in how many students are leaving.
  • Does faculty funding support students (either from Day 1 or eventually) ? Then the department will solicit information from faculty on how many students they expect to support that year, and make calculations accordingly.

All of these are estimates, and can go wrong. So departments usually need some kind of cushion when doing calculations to adjust for that.

While departments might "assign" students to faculty when they enter, this is probably for administrative purposes so students don't slip through the cracks and have someone they can approach early on. Typically students and advisors choose each other once the students arrive.

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(1) A professor offers a PhD studentship. Then, students apply directly and know their supervisor from the first day.

In this case, how a professor secure the funding for a PhD studentship?

Either through departmental funding allocated to a particular faculty member (perhaps a new professor was given a 'startup package' from the department), or through external grant money (which would usually dictate that the PhD student is to work on a specific project).

Relevant:

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US mathematics departments are usually a delayed variation on (2). The department accepts applications. The student may in their application mention an interest in working with a particular faculty member, and a faculty member could lobby for a particular student, but in neither case does this actually create a binding advising relationship.

The department don't announce a fixed number of available positions, but they decide how many students to offer admission (and funding) based on current enrollment, funding, and general faculty availability. (Funding primarily comes from the department, not from the faculty.) Some number of those students accept the offer and show up in the fall. They may be assigned a pro forma advisor who helps them decide what classes to take, etc, but this person is not expected to be a research mentor. Then, over the next 2-3 years, the student is expected to make contact with various faculty members and eventually find one who is willing to be their advisor.

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In Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences departments in the United States, it seems to be a hybrid of the two; the department admissions committee must accept you even if the professor you want to work for has RA funding for you (as opposed to TA funding generated by the school/dept). They evaluate you knowing that you want to work with Professor A. It's almost a given that the student has contacted Professor A prior to the application. The influence of professor A is persuasive (I assume) but not the be all end all, since often times the departments are looking to build a diverse class of not just research interests, but personalities and experiences. This is at least how both my advisors explained the admissions process to me at my current institution. This also seems consistent to how I've been admitted to other places.

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What is "EAPS"? Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Science? East Asian and Pacific Studies? –  JeffE Apr 9 at 21:56
    
Also, professor A's interest in student X does not mean that professor A is a good advisor for student X. It's a really bad idea to admit students with only one potential advisor. –  JeffE Apr 9 at 21:58
    
EAPS is indeed Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. I agree that having multiple potential advisors is favorable, though in many subfields the student would be lucky to even have found one no matter how highly regarded the department is. –  Neo Apr 9 at 23:27

Based on my experience there are actually three different cases:

  1. A faculty members (having fund from a project with a company or a national grant or some other source) announces that there are PhD position(s) available. The topic you are going to work on is determined. Those interested, apply to the faculty member directly and s/he decides which one(s) to choose. After admission you become a student of the university of the faculty member, but the department or university don't have any say in the admission process. This method is usually used in Europe. This is similar to your "case 1". (Your answer: As I said it can be from a project with a company, a national research grant or other sources).
  2. A university or a department in a university announces that there are some number of PhD positions available. You may correspond with some faculty members and get their approval, but the university or department has the final say. i.e. you may get the approval of a faculty member but don't be admitted by university. In this case you apply to university (or department) and they sort the applicants based on some factors and admit those number of people from top of the list that they announced. For example if they announced 15 PhD positions, then the top 15 applicants will be admitted. In this case it is usually asked from applicants to correspond with faculty members and get their approval before applying. This is similar to your "case 2". This method is usually used in Europe. (your answer: The capacity of each faculty member can be found out by corresponding with them.)
  3. There is no official announcement from university/department. The university approves new students each semester. There is no limit on the number of positions. The applicant corresponds with a faculty member, and after getting her/his approval applies to the university(department). Since there is no limit on the number of students (in contrast with case 2), almost all students who get the faculty member's approval, will be accepted by the university/department. This method is usually used in north America.
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