Suppose a faculty member has external funding for PhD students (who would otherwise have TA positions). How do they decide which of their PhD students get funding? For instance, I've seen faculty who give priority to their most senior students or who rotate funding between all students. Are these choices at the discretion of the PI, or does the department/university/funding agency have some fine-grained control?

In particular, are there constraints with regard to non-discrimination in the same way there are when hiring students in the first place?

I'm in the US, but would be interested in hearing responses from different academic cultures as well.

  • 1
    There are often constraints about which mechanisms can be used to pay which students. For example, students who are not citizens of the country they're studying in may have visa restrictions against mechanisms of support which may be labeled as "jobs", and other times government funding mechanisms may require citizenship. Nov 9, 2021 at 16:02
  • We try to constrain questions such that there can be a "correct" answer rather than a collection of equally-valid answers. So: can you restrict this to a given country (sounds like US) and field?
    – cag51
    Nov 10, 2021 at 1:56

3 Answers 3


I suspect this is too varied to give a good answer, but here's the general sense in my department, which is not a "wet lab" department where cheap labor is needed from grad students.

  1. Any funding body rules. The only major one I'm aware of is citizenship, as mentioned in the comment.
  2. The university and college (a collection of related departments) do not have any rules like "seniority first." If there were anti-discrimination rules, this is where they'd live.
  3. Then, it is up to the PI's discretion. (a) First, they will fill things they need done, e.g. experience with certain equipment. Then, (b) students dissertating or close to it first (if they have the money to not need the students to actually do anything). Faculty will also fund (c) first year students so they do not have to TA as they are getting settled their first year.
  4. Finally, the department will hunt around to find funding for students that don't have TAships or other funding. I know many grad students who have RA'd for a professor that isn't super related to them, or split two appointments between two faculty.
  • About point 3: In most cases, grant funding is tied to a specific project, and you need a student who is working this area or they can't get funding from that project. Nov 9, 2021 at 19:39
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    @WolfgangBangerth I mean, yes, profs aren't funding people working on psychopathology on physics grants, but for somethings reasonably close, many of my peers are technically on RAships but given pretty wide range. Plz don't report us to NIH. Nov 9, 2021 at 21:39
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    Ha, no, I won't ;-) Nov 9, 2021 at 22:47

Faculty members in US can always choose their doctoral advisees from among admitted students. For most, they will already have some experience with the student through classes or other interactions. So, the faculty member, perhaps in consultation with the head or even post-docs working with them would be the most likely way to determine who gets RA funding from the grant.

It doesn't make sense, in US, for a student to be imposed upon a professor, nor to have other determine who does research with them. The RA position assumes that the student will have certain research tasks in that group.

How they decide is up to them, but in some cases it might be that they choose someone "interesting" who can't get other funding for some reason. In other cases it might be that they choose the person with the most promise for the present and future.

A somewhat less frequent option, I think, is when a faculty has a research/study group in which they work closely together and perhaps have a weekly seminar. In such a situation, a senior professor might defer to a junior one on choosing a candidate even when the senior professor holds the grant. I've seen similar things happen in a particularly collegial faculty.

  • I think OP was mostly thinking of the situation where a professor already has supervisory roles for multiple students, but only so much research funding to go around such that some of their students will be funded other ways like with a TAship.
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 10, 2021 at 3:19
  • @BryanKrause, for individual cases, maybe it's pistols on the green at dawn, like the old days.
    – Buffy
    Nov 10, 2021 at 13:40

Firstly, anti-discrimination laws are not generally restricted solely to hiring decisions; they apply more generally to any type of decision-making that has consequences for the employee/student in an employment/educational context. So in jurisdictions where anti-discrimination laws are present, it is likely that they would apply to the allocation of research funds to students. Usually this would mean that the person allocating the funds cannot discriminate on the basis of protected characteristics like age, race, sex, etc., unless some legitimate legislative exception is met. In the USA this matter is covered at a federal level by Title IV (education) and Title VII (employment) in the Civil Rights Act 1964. There may also be applicable state laws depending on the jurisdication the university is in.

In terms of the locus of decision-making, it is usual that the PI on a grant will have discretion to allocate the funds as they wish, but obviously they are still going to be required to abide by applicable laws and university policies. In particular, the department would not generally micromanage a decision by the PI unless they have reason to believe that a legal breach would occur otherwise. As to the particular methods of allocation you have mentioned, both are probably okay within the scope of anti-discrimination law. Rotating funding between all students is non-discriminatory. Giving priority to senior students might argualy raise a question of age discrimination, but it is probably okay, and courts have tended to allow decisions based on "experience" without considering this to be age discrimination.

  • In the US age discrimination rules start at 40 so it’s not likely a factor. Nov 10, 2021 at 6:16

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