When a student is undertaking a PhD in pure mathematics, is it the case that the supervisor typically chooses the topic for the student?

  • 5
    What is meant by "chooses"? "I have picked this topic for you, work on it." or "We currently have funding and thus open positions related to topics X, Y, Z. Pick one."? And what is a "topic"? A concrete set of research questions you need to work on, or a general topic that requires some work as imposed by the funding, which your research may or may not be related to? – O. R. Mapper Apr 13 '18 at 10:53
  • As @O.R.Mapper asks, and more: what is your context? Don't you choose "the supervisor" based on their line of work? And what is a "topic"? A specific yes-no question? A general line of inquiry? And... how general? – paul garrett Apr 13 '18 at 13:53

In short, if the advisor chooses the topic for his student in any field without taking student's opinion into consideration or a proper discussion with him about his interests – that is a very unhealthy dynamics in student-advisor relationships.

The good supervisor definitely should:

  • determine the student's interests
  • take into account the student's strongest/weakest skills and his goals of getting the PhD in the first place
  • offer him several directions that are interesting to the advisor and might be interesting/are promising for the student
  • be prepared for a reasonable flexibility within the general direction

However, it is unreasonable to expect an advisor who specializes, say, in PDE to be open for research in mathematical logic. Particularly in pure math, the initial choice of the advisor might already dictate very strongly what general direction of research you are going to work on. However, even within the general direction, there are many possible topics and approaches; thus, the list above applies anyway, in my opinion.

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    Hm, this is a bit odd seeing as I have applied to a PhD position on a specific topic: it has been determined sometime earlier when my (then-future-now-past) supervisors were applying for funding. Once they obtained that, they started looking for people to fill that specific PhD position with a specific topic. Of course, all the factors you mention (except flexibility; I still had that when choosing approaches) were factors: they were taken into account in the interview, to determine if the candidate is suitable and a good fit, or not. – penelope Apr 13 '18 at 13:14
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    @penelope Yep, totally agree! There are plenty of PhDs that are filled to work on a very particular project (actually, happens pretty often in the Engineering field, where I am coming from) - but I think the OP is a different case, as during the interview before being admitted, it would be clear. – Anton Menshov Apr 13 '18 at 13:18
  • Yup, agree with Penelope here, engineering has specific topics on offer based on funding and industry links - the game is finding candidates... – Solar Mike Apr 16 '18 at 3:38

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