I’ve been in correspondence via email with a potential PhD supervisor who has agreed to take me on. After a few emails back and forth and polishing my proposal with his guidance I submitted my application per his instructions. It’s been a little over two weeks since I submitted. He suggested we interview either via Skype or a visit to the campus.

Visiting the campus would mean I would have to book some plane tickets. They're relatively cheap since it's within the UK but I'm also on a budget and don't know if I'm going to get accepted or if the interview is required for a decision on my application. I suggested a Skype interview and then during the interview we could arrange a visit on campus but he countered with an offer to just visit the campus during the last week of the month.

I was confused so I agreed I could visit campus but asked for him to clarify or provide some guidance on the application process and never heard back from him. I still haven't bought plane tickets and am not sure how to interpret this series of events.

Should I just explain my situation to him and ask for a Skype interview? When I agreed on a visit I told him when I would be able to fly out but haven't heard anything so I'm really not sure about buying plane tickets. It all seemed like things were going along smoothly but now I'm very confused.

  • 34
    Plane tickets within the UK? Go by coach if money is an issue. Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 15:06
  • 4
    When was this contact? Many UK academics have been very busy over the last week or so, trying to get things done before going on strike today so contact that's already a bit sporadic may be further delayed. It's not uncommon for a potential supervisor to find money to pay reasonable travel expenses for an interview.
    – Chris H
    Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 16:11
  • 5
    @TheMathemagician Not really a reasonable suggestion if traveling from (for example) Scotland or NI to southwest England.
    – MJeffryes
    Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 17:45
  • 6
    @TheMathemagician: Trains in the UK are insanely expensive.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 0:40
  • 4
    Trains in the UK can be amazingly cheap if you book long enough in advance and wait for specials. Unfortunately that doesn't seem to be possible under the OP's circumstances, in which case... yes, trains in the UK are insanely expensive. (Most of the time.)
    – David
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 3:37

9 Answers 9


The solution here is honesty and candor. You should explain that you would like to visit the campus, but that your financial situation doesn't allow it at the moment. Any reasonable person would either drop the suggestion of a campus visit, or find some money to pay for your travel expenses. Any other reaction would be a red flag.

  • 25
    @Eric When they know the difference in ability to visit comes from money and decide for that reason anyway, it is not really a scientific organization I would like to be part of.
    – SK19
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 6:04
  • 9
    @SK19 Life is an online optimization problem and people, whether in academia or not, tend to favor greedy algorithms for their decision making. Imperfect decisions are made all the time because the convenient choice is good enough.
    – Eric
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 11:33
  • 10
    @Eric They almost certainly already budgeted for the travel and just didn’t think to mention it. Otherwise they’re incompetent as a resource manager (= PI) anyway. (It goes without saying that a domestic flight for a single applicant is peanuts in the hiring budget for a PhD student.) Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 14:09
  • 4
    @Eric Oh but the triviality of the cost is relevant: If the PI didn’t budget for the applicant’s travel that would be ridiculous and a huge red flag. This has little to do with “fair” treatment. It’s simply how things are done: If you can’t be bothered to comply with such minimal expectations then you’re an atrocious PI. Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 13:25
  • 4
    @Eric This isn’t about being in a position of strength. It’s about what can reasonably be expected: first off, it’s eminently unrealistic that the PI won’t pay. But (purely for the sake of argument) if the PI really refused to reimburse this travel, then there is no way that OP should consider doing a PhD with them. — You seem not to understand what a huge professional misstep that would constitute. Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 13:45

I recently traveled across the UK by train for two separate interviews (from St Andrews down to Norwich on one occasion, and down to Oxford for another), so I can from personal experience say that situations involving traveling for interviews seem relatively common.

In both instances, reimbursements for travel expenses were a given, and involved submitting the tickets and a summary of the costs to the university after the interview. In one of the instances I had to email the university and ask about reimbursements, while in the other it was stated ahead of the journey that travel expenses would be covered.

Based on this, I would highly recommend asking them whether or not travel reimbursements are available, or, if the cost of buying tickets cannot be covered by your budget until the time that the university sends you the money, ask whether the purchasing of the tickets can be paid for by them ahead of time. In situations like this, it is often best to be specific and make sure that the university knows exactly what is required of them.

Several other alternatives also remain. As suggested in another answer, coaches are often cheaper than flights, in addition to being readily available, and train tickets can often (as far as I have heard; I have not tried this myself) be purchased by a third party on behalf of another traveler, allowing for the university to pay for the tickets ahead of time.

  • 7
    +1. Speaking as someone involved in my (UK) department's PhD admissions process, I think anyone in the OP's position should politely but firmly ask the potential supervisor whether travel expenses can be reimbursed; it is then up to the supervisor (or any other host) to find out what their own department's policy is. Some supervisors are not always aware what this policy is, through no fault of their own.
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 18:38

Assuming you want to go to that university and work with the advisor, I would say the cost of a domestic plane ticket is probably worth it given the impact on the next 4 or 5 years of your life.

  • 16
    That would entirely depend on whether paying that cost would have enough room to buy food and pay all other bills until the next paycheck. I don't think you can simply decide that this cost is doable without more knowledge about the actual financial situation. Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 17:28
  • Being in the situation of applying for a 4-5 year PhD program implies something about their financial situation. Either they can afford the tuition/opportunity cost of their time or they believe the stipend they receive over those years is sufficient for living. OP is debating whether or not the expenditure is worth it given they are on a budget, which is perfectly understandable. It doesn't appear to me they cannot afford the costs entirely.
    – user44476
    Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 18:25
  • Receiving stipend in the future assumes that the OP would actually get accepted, of which there is no certainty yet. I find it hard to assume anything about their current financial situation (we don't even know if the OP is currently a student, for instance). Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 18:28
  • Perhaps you may spend some time to note that the question is not "I can't afford to visit, how should I tell my prospective advisor?" but "should I spend the money to buy tickets or ask for a Skype interview instead?"
    – user44476
    Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 18:38
  • 1
    Fair enough, but that doesn't mean that these expenses have no adverse effects to the OP. I'm saying here that there is very likely to be a serious trade-off, which you seem to be ignoring entirely. Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 18:42

A potential PhD supervisor wants me to visit campus for an interview before I know if I'm accepted

You've got things the wrong way around, my friend. It is you who wants to visit with the research group, in the hopes of joining it. It is very much in your interest to go, to get to know these people, to talk to them about their research work and group dynamics, to give some kind of talk... it's not some caprice of your prospective supervisor.

Still, you can and should definitely ask - politely - whether they could offer to cover your travel expenses. Do not insinuate that this will somehow be a condition for your coming to visit.

but I'm also on a budget

After drink, food and lodging, this is probably the next most important thing in the budgeting priorities list. If you don't have money to cover the cost of the trip, and the university/the supervisor don't ofer to cover your costs - take a loan.

I mean it, I'm not joking. Do not give up on this.

... and don't know if I'm going to get accepted

So improve your chances of being accepted by visiting.

PS - All of the above assumes you care about being accepted there. If you just submitted an application as your n'th favorite option then maybe I'd change my answer

  • 3
    So what's the limit of costs a student should incur to obtain a PhD position? Should they pay to submit an application? Should they do an unpaid trial week in the lab? Trial month? Should they compensate the supervisor for the time spent to interview them?
    – MJeffryes
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 15:07
  • 1
    @MJeffryes: That's a fair and valid question, and I'm not sure I have a good answer. But I definitely believe that cost is above the cost of a domestic (rather than international) visit to the relevant university. Probably above the cost of an international visit if you can use low-cost carriers.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 22:49
  • 2
    It's not so much a question of "is investing in education a good investment" as "does the OP have the cash flow to do this and still survive the next few months". As my (American) grandpa used to say when someone wanted to justify spending money on something because it was 'a good deal': "Elephants two for a quarter [25p] is a great deal - if you need elephants, and you have a quarter."
    – brichins
    Commented Feb 24, 2018 at 19:16
  • @brichins: So I'm saying you should just get a quarter.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Feb 25, 2018 at 18:52
  • @einpoklum Even a "small" cost like a train ticket and a day off work may not be feasible for someone living hand to mouth, regardless of the long-term benefit. While it is possible to get the price of a train by borrowing from friends or getting a payday loan, personal debt is a very, very slippery slope if your finances are that restricted, and taking a day off a low-wage for anything but dire emergencies can get you fired. "Just find the money somewhere" simply isn't plausible for many people.
    – brichins
    Commented Feb 26, 2018 at 18:08

A personal visit to the campus significantly reduces the risk that you are making a big mistake by taking the position. Even if there's only a 5% risk of it all going wrong (e.g. because you can't stand the place or the people), incurring some travel expenses to eliminate that risk is well worth the expenditure.

The same applies to the institution as well of course: which is why they might be prepared to cover your costs.

A personal visit achieves far more than a Skype chat. If you go and have lunch with other students, they will tell you things that you won't learn from a formal meeting with your supervisor: for example, what's the best part of town to look for digs.


I had a similar experience, and personally I accepted. Accepting or proposing an alternative depends on several factors. Personally I accepted because it was a very good lab and it was already a great opportunity to just get a chance at an interview, and because the cost was not crazily expensive and I could afford it (I took the cheapest transportation I could). In the end, it was useful to go there, as I could meet the team and not only the head, so I could see for myself what the ambiance was and get a glimpse of the lab's work and the way they work, and in addition it allowed me to get contacts I could communicate with for further questions, who were very helpful when I had to make the arrangements to set in.

So in the end, I would say that you should ponder the decision. It's not all black and white, it's not an unfair demand your supervisor did, as you can get additional information to make your own decision about joining in (as the team counts a lot!). If you really can't afford the cost or the lab is not a highly demanded one, then you can propose an interview by skype after explaining that your financial situation doesn't afford you to come physically.


In this type of scenario, the majority of academic advisors would offer reimbursements for your expenses. I think there is a decent chance that your potential advisor assumes that reimbursement is implied; however, I'm from the US and not entirely sure how things work in England. In my own experience, my advisor is always very busy and tends to overlook logistical matters similar to what you're describing. If your advisor "agreed to take you on" I wouldn't worry too much about acceptance at this point as your admission to the University is pretty much entirely dependent upon that fact. I know you're on a budget; however, you said that you CAN afford it. Thus, you should definitely visit the lab as this is a huge commitment for the next 5 years of your life and it is 100% worth checking out the lab and meeting everyone in person before signing your life to it....even if you aren't reimbursed.


Actual travel would be unreasonable to ask for (but not, perhaps, if it was all taking place within the greater London area). On the other hand, I would consider a skype conversation to be reasonable. You can go into much more depth on specific topics a lot easier than in an exchange of emails.

  • 5
    Actual travel would be unreasonable to ask for Why?
    – MJeffryes
    Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 14:58
  • I know London is big, but would anyone actually reimburse someone for travel within a metro area? Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 16:47
  • @Azor-Ahai Given the prices, I think it would be appreciated, and would be a sign of good faith...
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Feb 23, 2018 at 23:40

Just do a Skype interview. Take it from there; the issue might come up naturally. If it does not come up you can mention it at the end when they ask if there was anything you should have discussed.

It seems that the supervisor is willing but the whole thing is still dependent on funding being allocated. In that case demanding travel from far afield is a bit too much and I would not have required it of a candidate (anything up to a three-hour train journey seems acceptable to me, even though ticket pricing in the UK can be insane). If the money is there and the supervisor is keen, I'd still do a Skype in the first instance.

It has been brought up that you learn more about each other (including an chance to get the feeling that this won't work out) if you visit rather than Skype. But this is all relative. Fleeting intake contacts have worked out fine; extensive getting to know you's have failed to give the requisite early warning.

Skype and be open about doubts and misgivings. Better to clear up such matters now than later.

You must log in to answer this question.