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To give more context, I am in the US.

I am a first-year PhD student in CS, and I was admitted without an advisor. Over the first semester, I have talked to many professors to see if our research interests match. Finally I decided to work with Prof. X, and I told him that. He then followed with a plan for a study project related to his research, eg, playing around with his codebase, reading his lecture notes from his previous special-topic course. So far, we have had two weekly meetings, and he suggests we should meet every week and I should email him if I have problems in this study.

In this case, has he considered me as his PhD student, or someone on probation as a candidate? I think of him as my advisor, and I follow what he suggests me to do. But does he think the same way? He has never announced something to indicate our student-advisor relationship. In our meeting, we have only discussed problems on actual contents of the subject, never about something else such as whether to give me an office space, whether to fund me as RA so I do not have to TA.

  • In my mind the answer I want is whether I am officially a PhD student of Prof.X. But how do I phrase it so it is not too awkward to confirm with him? Or should I just silently believe that it is already the case?

  • I know right now the project is a non-research study, so should I ask him about office space or RA now or later when I actually start researching?

  • The department continuously tracks me as "in search of advisor", so I think I am urged to give them an answer. But with my current situation, I do not know what to say to them.

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There is no single definition of what being an advisor means and entails. The one common thing is, well, the advising part. Apart from that, advisors don't have to do anything (this might depend on the country, at least in Germany being an official PhD advisor means first and foremost just that, all the rest is optional).

So from what it sounds like your professor is your advisor (meeting regularly and giving you input etc.), but if that comes with an office and whatnot will probably depend on your individual situation and university.

If you have an otherwise good relationship with the professor, speak with him about your concerns, I suggest starting with something along the lines of: "As the department needs me to chose an official advisor soon, I wanted know if I can officially put you down as my advisor."

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  • In Germany, does the advisor need to approve the dissertation at the end or is that entirely a group activity based on the defense?
    – Buffy
    Jan 6 at 14:03
  • @Buffy There is a group decision after the defense, yes. The Group normally consists of several professors (some of which could have been also doing some co-advising on the way to the thesis) including the main advisor.
    – Sursula
    Jan 6 at 14:19
  • How about a signature? The US also has a group decision, but probably guided by the advisor.
    – Buffy
    Jan 6 at 14:22
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Taking on a PhD student is a serious, multi year commitment that many professors would not make before getting to know the student and gaining an appreciation for their abilities and personality, for example by having them do a research project under the professor’s supervision for a semester.

By contrast, having a couple of meetings with a student, discussing some project ideas and allowing them to play around with your code base is not a serious commitment, or much of a commitment at all really.

The professor is your adviser, at least informally, only after you (or they) “pop the question” and the other party says yes. Not before. You should not assume anyone is your adviser until that’s said explicitly, just like you should not assume you are engaged to someone because you went on a couple of dates with them.

Even then, it’s best to have things documented in an email and inform the department of your change in status. Whether they will consider the transition a formal one that requires any paperwork will depend on your department’s policies. Doing things formally will imply a slightly higher level of seriousness and commitment on the part of both yourself and the professor. At the informal stage, even if there is a mutual understanding that someone is your adviser, it is not set in stone and not uncommon for one or another of the parties to decide it’s not working out and decide to back out of the relationship.

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  • I understand that there is usually a transition from trying working with a prof to being completely trusted and accepted as a PhD student. But for how long should this trial phase last? I do not mind taking some time to get to know each other this way, but it seems like the department is pressing to have a yes/no answer from me about advisor seeking (they have sent out two general advisors to discuss this issue with me). Compared to other students who are admitted with advisors, why it takes only application review for a prof to commit to them, while for me it is a long game to play?
    – Daydream
    Jan 6 at 21:23
  • 1
    That would depend on the professor. It’s totally possible they are happy taking you as a PhD without a long trial period, you just have to have a discussion about that. And if the department is pressuring you, it might be a good idea to go and talk to the head of your graduate program and make sure you understand their expectations, and that they in turn understand what your situation is.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 6 at 23:34
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There's no standard process for this. I strongly suggest you talk to your director of graduate studies first to get a sense of the approximate process, not just for the issue of declaration of PhD advisor, but the whole process of completing the PhD program.

Most PhD programs are not very formal when it comes to "declaration of PhD advisor", until it comes to a point in your PhD studies when a faculty member has to organizing a committee and sign some paperwork. In some PhD programs you have (1) the qualifying exam, (2) the preliminary exam and (3) dissertation defense. There are usually two types of qualifying exam: (1a) you take a series of written exams or (1b) you give a presentation on some topic based on your study of a collection of papers. (1a) does not require a PhD advisor. So if your program uses (1a),(2),(3), then formally declaring a PhD advisor during your first year is not necessary if you have not completed (1a).

And as for your questions:

has he considered me as his PhD student, or someone on probation as a candidate? (etc.)

Most likely he's still trying to figure out if you are a possible candidate. You had only two meetings with this faculty member -- call him X. You are studying his notes from a special-topics course and so there's still some time before you can engage in the research work of X. However X is willing to guide/advise you once a week in person and also will answer your emails. Honestly this is the most valuable thing for you right now.

In our meeting, we have only discussed problems on actual contents of the subject, never about something else such as whether to give me an office space, whether to fund me as RA so I do not have to TA.

... so should I ask him about office space or RA now or later when I actually start researching?

You'll have to wait for him to initiate discussion on the RA-ship and office space.

The department continuously tracks me as "in search of advisor", so I think I am urged to give them an answer. But with my current situation, I do not know what to say to them.

Have an informal meeting with your graduate director, update him/her with your progress (your meetings with X, etc.), and ask the director when do you need to officially declare your PhD advisor. If the grad director tells you to do it right away, then talk to X and ask him for his permission first. There's a high chance that the grad director will tell you to wait till you have met X for at least one semester.

PS: It is not a disadvantage for you not to declare your PhD advisor early. It takes times for a faculty member to figure out your background, your work ethic, your interests, etc. It also gives you time to understand the expectation from this faculty member. It is not always a bad thing for the advisor and advisee to part ways.

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  • About the department, the qualifying exam is 1b indicated above. About the professor, I reached out to him at beginning of the first semester. Awkwardly, he said he would have probably taken me on at the application process but I listed him very low... and he showed an interest in working with me, but suggested I connect to other facaulty as well. I performed pretty well in his course for the first semester, and found him helpful. I am really commited to working with him, as I have turned down some other profs. I guess it would be terrible if he turns out to not want me as his student.
    – Daydream
    Jan 6 at 20:50
  • 1
    For the "presentation" type of qualifying exam you will need an advisor to guide you on the study of a collection of problems. You should still check with your grad director on the general process. Most programs expect their student to finish the qual in 3 years. Extension beyond 3 years is possible but requires a letter from the advisor. Don't worry about listing him low on your initial list. You have not met him then and couldn't have known that you would do well in his class. Don't worry about him dropping you. Just work hard and learn as much as you can. Good luck.
    – spoock7824
    Jan 7 at 16:16
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In the US it is actually typical for a student to start without having a dissertation advisor. Often they have an academic advisor who can answer questions about coursework and general progress until they are replaced with a dissertation advisor.

Usually (maybe not universally) the advisor signs the dissertation when it is done and probably participates in the defense at the end. In some cases their role is to assure the other members of the dissertation committee that the work does, indeed, measure up. This is often needed if the committee comes from different sub-fields and may not be as familiar with the work as the advisor.

So, make it official by just asking them if it is appropriate to list them formally at this time.

My own case was similar in some ways (math, though). I asked a couple of people if they would take me on and the ones I asked said they had no ideas for a project that we might work on. But they pointed me to a more senior faculty member who did agree. I don't remember (50 or so years ago) anything about paperwork, but it would have been easy after he said yes.

There was also a weekly (or so) seminar attended by a few faculty (those I'd approached, for example) and their students in which research progress and ideas was discussed. So, there was some sharing beyond just that between the formal advisor and their students. This is more likely in large departments, of course.

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You should not spend too much time with a professor that does not indicate a commitment, at least verbally. This was the mistake I made assuming the professor will take me as his student, but professors easily change their minds. This happened to me. After one year, my funding was discontinued and all the blame of not finding an advisor was put on me by the department, although numerous times I clearly told the graduate director that I suspect that professors have exploitative tendencies and asked him to put his weight on the process. He preferred not to get involved and let it slide. I dropped out due to lack of funding. I suspect this department was over admitting PhD students, as they need many teaching assistants for their growing undergraduate CS degree program. Because lots of students had issues with finding advisors and they were continuing to give more admits. This was a top 50 US CS PhD program.

Note that you are free labor for the professor. No one prevents him from taking advantage of you, except his ethical values. Department head and even the dean will turn a blind eye and will cover that up to save the brand name of the school.There are plenty of evil and cheap professors who take advantage of and suck the blood of poor PhD students.

For my case, most were new assistant professors who needed to exploit as many PhD students as possible to increase their chance for their future tenure review. If an established or a well-funded professor spends his time on you, this is a good indicator that he is serious. Usually, an established professor's time is more valuable than time spent for being cheap and taking advantage of a student.

This happened to me and I had to drop out of the PhD program after my first year. I was assigned to introductory CS courses with busy and crowded labs and office hours (10-15 hours of student interaction per week), not including the time for weekly meetings and grading solving exercises. Whereas some incoming PhD students served as TAs for easier courses spending no more than a couple of hours per week and they have easily found advisors who offered RA positions. I think the department had a tiering system and professors knew that we were there only for Taing and being exploited. Actually, a professor that I talked to subtly hinted to me about this. But at that time I could not understand that. Now looking back I can connect the dots.

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  • I am so sorry for your situation back then. How can I tell if a professor is committed to me to help me grow, versus treating me as a means to their end? Should I check with my prof right now? Do you think a more senior professor is more likely to commit? P.S. most CS PhD students here are admitted with an advisor, and unfortunately I was admitted from the left-over pool.
    – Daydream
    Jan 8 at 2:31
  • Depends on the graduate director. Mine was a soft nice guy type who only talks but never finds a solution or intervenes. Tiger types will take initiative and will solve the problem. For my case, I suspect they were exploiting students as TAs. Also, lots of other students were struggling to find advisors. It was a known fact in the department which you only learn when you arrive there. I asked an established professor at another institution and he said that graduate director did not do his job well. Jan 8 at 10:25
  • I can't recommend any strategies, If the professor is a senior one with a big lab and good funding, usually, he is trying to asses your capacity. He should have an idea about you, at least before the half of the semester. You should try 3 labs or so in a semester. Prof must definitely have a good idea (does not have to be official) about you after a semester or so. If he is unsure after a semester, move on. Jan 8 at 10:32
  • Unfunded senior professors also look for free labour to exploit. If the lab has lots of phd students with research assistantships that is a very good sign that professor is senior and respected. If a lab is full of phd students who do teaching assistantship that is very bad. Jan 8 at 10:38

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