Can who you pick as "faculty members of interest" make-or-break your PhD application?

Question I:

If one happens to pick only faculty who aren't taking in PhD students will that doom ones application? If-not, will the PhD acceptance board try to pair you with a faculty member you did not list – assuming the applicant is of high-quality?

I applied for a PhD program in Computer Science. I will be funded through a Think-Tank/Research-Institution – to which I am a full-time employee. I put this on my application. I did not think too deeply about the faculty of interest.

I considered also applying PhD program in Computer Science & Engineering. However, here's the catch. If I apply using the same "faculty members of interest" as the PhD in Computer Science application, I believe my chances of acceptance do not increase. I believe if those faculty members would not have accepted me into their labs as a PhD in Computer Science, they also would not have accepted me into their labs as a PhD in Computer Science & Engineering. However, filling out two

Question II:

Is filling out two PhD applications in similar domains with the same "faculty members of interest" somewhat pointless?

Question III:

Is it worth reaching out to admissions to ask to change your "faculty members of interest" after submission if a better fit is found?

  • 2
    Did you get in touch with these faculty members to find out if they are taking on students at the moment, before submitting your application? Depending on your location, that is a common thing to do. Dec 16, 2020 at 9:05

1 Answer 1


The answer depends on the admissions process at the school.

  • Some departments will look through all applicants together, choose the top applicants from the entire pool, and then assign them to faculty advisors. Student and faculty preferences on the advisor has some impact, but these students are competing against all other students.
  • For other departments, individual faculty primarily look through students who want to work with them (as stated on their application), and admission decisions are made for individual research groups. For these departments, the preferred faculty advisor that you list can have a large impact on the extent to which different faculty review your application, and which other applicants you are primarily being compared with.

As an externally funded PhD student, you are not competing for the limited funding like other applicants. Of course, there may be other constraints such as lab space and available time for specific professors, but available funding is often one of the main active constraints. That gives you a greater chance of being able to work with a specific advisor.

You will likely be working with the same professor for 3-4 years, so requesting an advisor whose research interests and/or working style are a good fit for you could make for more enjoyable and productive PhD studies.

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