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I am in the process of contacting potential advisors at various universities, and finding out if they would be willing to take me on as a student, and then mention this in the application. However, I have run into a problem. The area of research I am interested in (desalination & water treatment) typically comes under the Civil and Environmental dept. in the US, and so do the faculty. Where I am from, this topic comes under Chemical Engineering. I have done my bachelors and masters in ChemE and want to do my PhD in it as well. So now I would like to know if I mention that I want to work with professors from these departments in my ChemE PhD application, will it hurt my chances? Do I now have to consider applying to CEE Department instead?

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  • Are they listed on the ChemE department web pages as associated faculty? Not that uncommon. Perhaps there is a research center or center of excellence. If so, it would not be a problem at all.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Oct 11, 2021 at 21:40
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    This will depend very much on the particular university and its policies. Commented Oct 11, 2021 at 21:44

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If you have already made contact with some professors, seek their advice on the best way to do things. I think you are likely to find problems, however.

One solution you might suggest is to have more than one advisor, one in each department. This would be more likely to be acceptable to both departments.

The other issue is that if you have TA funding then it would probably come from the department you are formally associated with and they probably would want you to be a formal student in that department.

Good luck, but the best source of information and a solution is the professors you've already contacted.

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  • (+1) This nails it. There are typically far fewer funded TA positions than applicants, the promised financial support is significant and multi-year, and departmental faculty do not want to de facto have TA slots used to support students who do not want to work with faculty in the paying department. That said, this kind of thing happens, but it gets scrutinized closely and the admitting department does not have to grant permission for its grad students to be primarily advised by grad faculty in other departments. At least that is how my department worked.
    – Ed V
    Commented Oct 11, 2021 at 21:52
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From my experience (US, biomedical engineering) this is actually quite common. There are many professors whose primary appointment is in a different department than the one you've signed up for. Again, from my experience, this actually tends to be a good thing; you get exposure to a wider range of faculty, students, collaborators, techniques, and ideas.

The specific department through which you're enrolled is mostly going to dictate your required course load, secondary degree-granting requirements (submission/publication counts, qualification exam differences), and possibly some thesis details. (Aside from the obvious "the actual degree you receive".) With respect to the first point—course load—I've found that departments are generally quite willing to work with you on non-core courses so long as its relevant to your work.

So to answer your specific question, so long as the professor is doing vaguely related work to your specific area of interest, I don't think it's likely to hurt your chances significantly. That said, this is something pretty specific to the university, so definitely just reach out and ask... this isn't an uncommon question.

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