I worked in some universities in Europe and currently work in Australia. All the universities I have been into supply their PhD students with a PC or a laptop. However, I recently started working with a collaborator in Canada and came to know that his university asks the PhD students to bring their own computers/laptops.

Are there many universities that do not allocate computers to PhD students? If so, why? and how does it work?

  • In my experience students provide their own machines and basic software. Specialized lab stuff is provided. – Buffy Nov 19 at 22:51
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    Stack Exchange generally opposes "polling" questions like this. They tend to result in dozens of answers just saying "mine does" or "mine doesn't" and at the end, you're no closer to knowing if you have a representative sample. Can you reframe the question in a way that can be answered more objectively? – Nate Eldredge Nov 19 at 23:40
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    @NateEldredge: Thanks. I'm not after a definitive answer. But, it's good to hear experience from people. Already amazed by what I got so far. Do you suggest any rewording to improve the legitimacy? – anu cex Nov 19 at 23:42
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    If the dozen or so US PhD programs I viewed in some depth, none explicitly made a point of saying they provided a computer, laptop or otherwise, and all programs were in the computer/tech-focused realm. A few stated they gave a startup research fund (a few thousand USD) the student could opt to spend on a computer if they wanted, and most/all offered a student office space that would be assumed to include some form of computer in it as standard issue. All made mention of well equipped open-access computer labs, and any computationally-focused would have extra resources available as well. – BrianH Nov 20 at 0:35
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    If you change the title, remove "according to your experience" from the last part, and maybe add more specifically a country / region you are interested in, I think the question will become valid and not have a polling character anymore. – silvado Nov 20 at 8:39
up vote 9 down vote accepted

Based on my work experience and from talking to people, I support Bryan's answer. Universities in Europe (not including the UK) virtually universally provide personal IT equipment (typically at least a laptop and a desktop display, plus some peripherals) to every student, while universities outside of Europe, at least often, do not. I do not really know about the UK, but my suspicion is that they may not.

To add to Bryan's answer, I will speculate a bit on the why part of your question. I think there are is one fundamental underlying reason.

PhD students in Europe are salaried employees of the university first and foremost. This is well documented in many questions here, for example this answer. Every reputable company will provide their employees work equipment rather than expecting employees to bring their own, so it is not surprising that universities do the same for their research assistants / PhD students. Contrary, master's students (who are usually not employees in Europe) basically never get a laptop to work on their master's theses, and are instead asked to use their private equipment or the public computer rooms of the university.

Along with this long-standing tradition to see PhD students as employees also comes a different mindset. Universities in Europe typically assume that all resources required to conduct the PhD project should be provided by the university. After all, we don't expect students to pay for trips to conferences, open access charges, or time on expensive experimental hardware out of their own pocket, so why would we assume that they pay for their basic work equipment?

Finally, it's also a question of basic economy. In Sweden where I currently teach, a PhD student costs me more than 350k USD over 5 years (the normal PhD duration in my department) in salary, social security, benefits, and overheads. Spending another 3k to provide the student with good hardware to work with really does not make a whole lot of difference in the overall project budget, while contributing quite positively to the overall PhD experience and likelihood of success for the project (or at least we think it does).

Although your question references Europe, Australia, and Canada, I will answer from a U.S. perspective.

In the U.S., universities providing students with laptop computers, particularly for their sole use is unusual. Some may do it, but those would be special cases.

For research that depends on computer resources beyond basic word processing/spreadsheet/statistics programs, especially in the sciences and engineering, individual labs typically have their own computing resources for student use, and there may also be university-wide computing resources (clusters, supercomputers, etc). In computation intensive labs, there may be a computer (probably a desktop) available for every person, in others they may be shared resources, but it would be unusual to expect a student to bring their own hardware.

In areas with less research funding, like the social sciences or humanities, departments may have neither office space nor computers for students.

Even when equipment is provided, however, many graduate students (and undergraduates) in the U.S. do have their own computers, whether desktops or laptops, and some may do the bulk of their research work on those resources even if others are available.

  • My experience in computer science and engineering is the opposite. This kind of work benefits from having a good computer, more than a typical grad student can afford. Moreover, having a university-owned laptop typically gives you access to university site-licensed software that can't be installed on personal computers. So either you're stuck to a desktop which isn't as good for being productive, or you're paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for software packages, or you're buying the student a laptop. – David Nov 21 at 5:10
  • What kind of work requires a good computer? (Computers are now exceptionally fast. An old computer can surely do everything a grad student needs, excluding some advanced computations, but they can't be done on new computers either, dedicated systems are needed or the cloud is used.) – user2768 Nov 21 at 7:21
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    @user2768 In computational biology we spend most of our time doing work that requires the sort of hardware you'd find on any good quality workstation, but is not generally found on a standard desktop or laptop, the most obvious thing being at least 32GB of RAM. Other things our students greatly benefit from is access to 2 screens of at least 24" and better than usual network interfaces. – Ian Sudbery Nov 21 at 10:34
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    Depends what you mean by "that sort of work". Uur high throughput processing work is done on an HPC cluster, but workstations are needed for interactive data exploration, interpretation and visualization. Plus its often better to get something done on your workstation than wait in the queue for a slot on the HPC if the job is small. Such workstations are available from dell (e.g. the precision range), but even something like an Optiplex 3060 will take 32GB. "Inexpensive" is a matter of opinion. A £1500 rig is a lot of money for someone taking home £1000 a month. – Ian Sudbery Nov 21 at 12:57
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    @user The gap is filled by good computers. You're the one that claimed they're unnecessary – Azor Ahai Nov 22 at 18:29

I am a PhD student at a Canadian university and I had several options to get computing equipment I need for my research. In my case, my supervisor provided the workstation for me, and, upon my request, my department (Computer Science) provided the laptop. I requested it because I need a laptop when I'm teaching and also when I'm traveling for research. As a side note, many graduate students at my university are not aware that they can get the equipment from the department. My research is computationally intense and it makes sense for everyone involved (aka me, my supervisor and my department) to provide me with good equipment so I can invest more time into research. However, I don't think this is necessarily a standard practice as it might depend on things such as the supervisor's attitude toward grad students (I know of cases where supervisors could not or simply did not want to this), or their/department's funding situation.

Are there many universities that do not allocate computers to PhD students? If so, why? and how does it work?

Usually this depends more on the PhD funding scheme rather than the university. There is a wide variety of PhD funding types with different modalities regarding the legal framework (e.g. employee contract or grant), the amount, the duration, rights and duties, etc. Nowadays most PhD schemes would cover costs for hardware and traveling to conferences (another important cost btw), but this is something to check with the institution providing the funding.

Some universities have a policy in place to cover these costs in case the PhD funding doesn't, but it's rarely automatic: students have to apply for it and their request might be rejected.

Why? Well it's quite simply a matter of where the money comes from. If neither the university nor the PhD scheme have a budget for it, then people have to use their own device or collect an old one from a sympathetic colleague.

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