I'm a new assistant professor in the UK in Electrical engineering. I'm in the process of setting up my lab and I work in a "hot" area. Thus, I have the chance of getting good students funded by industry or funding bodies.

I know of professors with 10+ PhDs and others with 2-3. The group I did my PhD in was in the second category while my postdoc in the first.

However, I am wondering, what should be my target? Any studies have been made? Any personal experience?

I currently have three PhD students.

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    Surely this is heavily dependent on field.
    – MJeffryes
    Commented Feb 8, 2018 at 17:30
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    My advice here is to start small if you haven't had a chance to graduate a few students. Partner with someone senior. Finding out what works for you take time. If you have a post-doc then maybe you can delegate the technical details to him/her whilst you focus on general supervision. I reckon you have to pay close attention if you want quality, so a small number of good students is worth many poor students. Commented Feb 8, 2018 at 19:12

4 Answers 4


This is more of a qualifying remark: What your eventual target might be should probably be different from your current target. Advising students is a skill you have to learn and learning this skill will take time. So I'd recommend starting small until significant parts become routine. Also, more senior students might be able to show new students the ropes, so staggering might be useful too.

There are of course a lot of other constraints, so don't take this as your only criterium.


This depends on many things, such as whether you have tenure, whether you have postdocs or other “in-house” faculty to help you advise and mentor grads, how demanding the students themselves are, how many people you have space/equipment for, how many students you can expect to support financially, and how much time/effort you want to put into advising — both as opposed to your other work and as opposed to your personal life.

In my experience, having observed this for some time, a lone advisor typically accepts no more than two grads. If they have a postdoc or equivalent, they will sometimes accept another grad or two and share the advising with their postdoc.

If you’re going for tenure, obviously focus on that, with guidance from more senior faculty in your department. Expect to successfully mentor a grad or two by the time your tenure review cones up. This shows you are valuable to your institution.

Some grads and research projects are naturally more or less demanding on your time. You’ll need to evaluate how demanding potential grads and/or research projects would be before recruiting any. Allocate slightly more time than you expect, to be safe.

Some groups are constrained by lab equipment and/or space. Competing for time to use special equipment is difficult for grads. You want to make sure you don’t recruit more grads than you have room for.

It’s also difficult for grads to have to look for funding elsewhere, as this takes significant time away from their research. Of course, seeking funding on their own is good experience for them on many levels, but being able to provide funding makes everyone happier. Not being funded can cause grads to take way longer than they should to graduate, which is stressful foe them and you. Consider how much you will be able to help support them financially (e.g. as a Research Assistant) and how likely it is they will be able to secure funding on their own (with your guidance) for their research.

You also need to consider your own plans. Do you have a sabbatical coming up? Will you be working off-site or traveling a significant amount of time over the next few years? Are you going through some demanding personal challenges, such as divorce, mental illness, physical illness, having kids, and so on? If so, you might avoid recruiting new grads unless you or others will be able to support them during these times.

One word of caution: don’t recruit a large group all at once, as doing so has the potential for you to become dangerously overcommitted. Start small and add as you learn what you can handle.


There’s no right answer here. It really depends on what level of supervision you want to provide. The more direct interaction you want with your group members, the smaller your group must be. The more grant money and support you have, the larger your group must be. If you need your students to assist with teaching duties (e.g., if TA’s are assigned to faculty rather than courses), you may need a larger group than a smaller one. For promotion, you may need to have a certain number of graduates or currently supervised students.

So this leads to groups with just a few students all the way up to groups with scores of graduate students and everything in between.


Less than you want...

If you desire or require more subordinates (students, postdocs, teaching assistants, etc.) and you don't have them, you're going to let yourself down, personally and/or professionally.

... and more than you need

Every additional student means that much more time and effort you must give to your supervision duties, or that much less of the same time and effort each student can fairly expect.

If the additional students are not adequately supporting the achievement of your (individual, research group or faculty) goals and meeting obligations for the "costs" they add, they are a net loss to you (as an individual, group, faculty).

There may be a range where any number is acceptable and manageable and satisfies your (individual, group, faculty) needs and desires. There may be an anti-range where growth or loss will both push you further from achieving one of the aims above, even as it pushes you towards achieving the other.

Generally, if you present an attractive opportunity (for whatever definition prospective new people might have) it will be easier to gain than to lose, so unless you have specific targets to recruit i.e. headhunting, start low and build rather than start high and cull. This is doubly so if removing students would be a heavily bureaucratic or legal process compared to that of onboarding them.

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    It's really sad to think of a teacher-student relationship as some kind of purely commercial relationship with the need to keep score and determining whether it's a "gain" or a "loss"...
    – user9646
    Commented Feb 8, 2018 at 8:38
  • Unfortunately, some universities do see themselves as a business (and some actually are businesses with an explicit profit motive). The purely economic aside, if taking student X will drop your output, lower your reputation, decrease your standard of teaching, and reduce the quality of your subordinates' theses, are you really going to invite them onboard just because they really want to join? Sure, maybe their attitude and perspective and that midrange prize is worth needing another couple of revisions or a 2% drop in average GPAs or a few months added to everybody's thesis time, ...
    – Nij
    Commented Feb 8, 2018 at 9:20
  • ... or maybe it's not. That's the kind of decision a manager has to make, and balancing needs/wants of everybody is part of the job. No, it isn't nice, but we don't live in a utopia either. @NajibIdrissi I certainly don't judge my students on whether they'll bring down whatever performance indicators I'm checked on, but neither can I ignore the impact of taking on that next responsibility against those I already have.
    – Nij
    Commented Feb 8, 2018 at 9:23

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