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I was wondering how co-advising works in graduate school, specifically:

  1. Is funding primarily provided by one advisor, or equally shared between two advisors?

  2. Does the student work on two separate projects in parallel or a single project guided by both advisors?

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I know it really stinks when the answer is "it depends", but ... Why don't you just ask your (potential) co-advisors? – StrongBad Feb 5 at 18:51
It's advising with the arrows reversed. – zibadawa timmy Feb 5 at 19:36
I'm really not sure why this question has been closed as too broad, as a simple overview seemed to me to be fairly straightforward. I have voted to reopen. – jakebeal Feb 6 at 21:37
Deleted my previous comments and voted to re-open. – scaaahu Feb 7 at 6:19
up vote 12 down vote accepted

My experience with co-advising is that it most tends to emerge from some combination of the following circumstances:

  • The student's project has some sort of interdisciplinary nature, such that the "primary" advisor does not have the ability to entirely supervise the student on their own at a technical level.
  • The advisors have a very close collaboration already, such that it is natural that a student working for one is de facto working for both.
  • The "co-advisor" is effectively the primary advisor, but cannot technically be so for various reasons, such as not being a primary investigator or being at a different institution (academic or otherwise).

Any or all of these may pertain at once. In essentially all cases that I have been familiar with, however, the supervision is of a single project, not of different projects for different advisors.

Funding most typically comes from the primary advisor (who usually would not have taken on the student without having the ability to fund them), but individual circumstances can lead to any number of other arrangements.

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I would add: primary advisor's funding ran out so a co-advisor was added. – StrongBad Feb 5 at 19:14
@StrongBad Haven't run into that one yet myself, but wouldn't be surprised by it: I'm guessing you have seen it. – jakebeal Feb 5 at 19:16
In my field small gaps in funding (6 months or so) are pretty common so PIs try and cover for each other. – StrongBad Feb 5 at 19:26
The UK has a substantial number of jointly held PhD programs (variously Doctoral Training Programs or Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships) - PhD students intentionally shared between a university and another institution (a research centre, museum, etc), with a single project and two named advisors. This seems to be similar to your case #3 but go a bit beyond it. – Andrew Feb 5 at 20:30
@Andrew, there are several joint PhD programs here in Chile, by several institutions none of which has the depth/breadth on their own. The PhDs there are commonly under co-advisorship, with funding from the program. – vonbrand Feb 6 at 1:13

To add to jakebeal's answer that really only applies to specific educational systems.

In mnay university systems in Europe, it is common to have a main advisor and one or more co-advisors. The role of the co-advisors vary but they are essentially there to provide additional support to the consetlaltion around the PhD student. The co-avisor can be called in to advise on specific aspects of the thesis, to complement the main advisor in these respects. This could be lab work, field work, numericall modelling or whatever speciality may have to be considered. A co-advisor may also be a general support for the writing process towards the end of the thesis work. This is probably the most common form. In such a case the person is an additional person with whom to discuss the research when writing papers and the final dissertation. It is thus common that the co-advisor is another person from the same research environment but it could be completely external from the department, university or indeed the country.

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