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I was accepted to the MIT PhD program in mechanical engineering. In my admission letter they wrote that, "it is imperative you find an advisor as soon as possible, and definitely before the program begins in August." They further go on to state that I will not have funding if I can't find an advisor.

I have never seen a PhD program do this... Even most other programs at MIT guarantee funding for at least 1 year with no research obligations to an advisor to allow students to take courses, attend group meetings, and settle into a lab.

Does anyone have experience with this specific program or programs with similar funding structures? Will they really write me a check for tuition if I can't find a lab? I was so excited to get admitted to my dream school but now I'm terribly sad... I'm switching fields from math to mechanical engineering and I broadly know what I'm interested but there's no way I could commit to a lab without taking some mechanical engineering courses and attending group meetings. I feel like I'd need at least a year to figure out which lab I want to join. I don't have external funding through something like NSF. Any advice on what I can do?

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    The standard advice is not to attend graduate school in science of engineering without funding. However, that's not usually an issue at MIT; most departments at MIT do indeed guarantee funding for doctoral students for some number of years. In fact, demanding you find a funded position with a professor before the start of the semester seems really hinky.
    – Buzz
    Mar 12, 2022 at 5:41
  • I think you should ask this question after you've tried finding an advisor. If you cannot find an advisor, you don't have a project, so no degree. I think MIT is just asking you to get started on the first step of your degree. Mar 12, 2022 at 6:00
  • They want you to look for an advisor, not necessarily a lab. Putting a math student into a mechanical engineering lab in the first year may not be a safe thing to do unless you have been previously trained in a lab. So, they advise you to get an advisor first before they can fund you.
    – Nobody
    Mar 12, 2022 at 7:06
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    It sounds like the funding will come through the advisor via grants. What you can do is find an advisor, as they say. Otherwise huge expense.
    – Buffy
    Mar 12, 2022 at 13:13

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It sounds like they want you to find an advisor before you start; yes, if you for some reason don't do this but still try to attend you can expect a very expensive tuition bill. I would not recommend this.

If you can find an appropriate advisor who will fund you, that seems like an okay arrangement. It's certainly not ideal. My graduate program did something somewhat similar with "direct admit" students who would join a lab before starting, rather than the normal 1 year rotation to choose a lab. This was especially common for international students, and for people already working in labs as non-student employees. This allowed for students to be admitted without needing to compete for the small pot of money available to fund rotating students their first year (which for funding agency reasons was also restricted to domestic students).

The big difference with your scenario is that in the one I describe, the lab was predetermined at the point of acceptance. Effectively the process was "these students we are going to accept and fund for a year; okay, we have this other pot of students that qualify for the program but we don't have money for - hey professors, anyone like someone here enough to pay their bill?"

If you're not comfortable with this arrangement or can't find a lab you fit with before the program starts, then you should not accept the offer. I probably wouldn't, personally, even if I did find a lab this way, unless I already had a specific person in mind; it's a lame offer. However, it can also be an opportunity, and you'll have to weigh your decision against your other options.

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