Suppose a PhD recruitment committee selected and assigned a PhD student to a certain supervisor. However, for some reason, the supervisor doesn't want to supervise this particular student. He wants an alternative student.

What does this supervisor do, then?

What if this is about prejudice but the supervisor won't say that?

  • 1
    Which of the many people here are you?
    – Buffy
    Sep 26 at 17:22
  • @Buffy, None of them.
    – user366312
    Sep 26 at 19:10
  • 1
    This depends upon the university. In the US, I've always seen that PhD advisors need to accept a student. Can you provide more details about the location, such as type of school? Sep 26 at 19:37
  • 5
    If this is an actual problem you are personally facing, please ask about your actual problem, not a hypothetical situation, and make the question about solving your actual problem, not "what happens". See also academia.stackexchange.com/help/dont-ask and meta.stackexchange.com/questions/66377/what-is-the-xy-problem - if this isn't about an actual problem you face, don't ask here please.
    – Bryan Krause
    Sep 26 at 20:36

3 Answers 3


Some background. If a student enters a US doctoral program with only a bachelors they may be assigned an "advisor" who isn't intended to be their dissertation advisor, but only a guide through the coursework and exams. The student chooses and makes an agreement with the dissertation advisor later after they settle on a topic. If a student is dissatisfied with their initial advisor then they may have an opportunity to switch.

On the other side, faculty are expected to do this sort of thing and may be assigned students to "guide". There might be valid reasons for a professor to wish a certain student without taking on another, such as a particular background of the student. Very senior professors might be able to avoid such duties altogether, but not with a particularly favorable view from the department chair.

However, if a student is being discriminated against for some reason, then there are two issues. The first is that the professor is a problem and the university needs to find a way to deal with that problem. There have been some well known instances of very racist and sexist but very prominent math professors in this country. Some are tolerated because of their perceived excellent scholarship, but the university has a duty to provide a path for the student.

The second issue in such a situation is that such a "guide" would be destructive for the student discriminated against, so it is actually to their benefit that the professor won't "accept" them, provided someone else will.

Universities are full of humanity, good and bad. The university itself has both an interest and a duty to see that fairness rules, but not that a particular faculty member matches up with a particular student, especially in cases where the student might suffer. The student needs and deserves a supportive guide.


Both potential supervisor and the members of the recruitment committee are people. They can talk and listen. Having a conversation is almost always a good idea to solving problems!

  • What if this is about prejudice but the supervisor won't say that?
    – user366312
    Sep 26 at 19:31
  • 1
    @user366312 I don't know what other solution there can be. Someone has to communicate with someone else. If nobody says anything, then the situation cannot be resolved. In what other way do you think this could possibly be sorted out, regardless of the reason? Sep 26 at 21:04

First of all, I have never heard of the cases when PhD students have been assigned to supervisors by some committee without asking the supervisors whether they are willing/able to take the job first. The agreement (for general mentoring or for thesis writing) between the student and the supervisor is almost always voluntary on both sides (almost because there are several standard situations when somebody may be officially in charge of new student orientation, etc., but even then I have never seen anybody accepting this position against his/her will).

Second, there are plenty of reasons the student or the supervisor may feel like they may be a bad match for each other and, believe it or not, if one of them feels so, that often means that it is, indeed, so and matching them by force will lead to nothing but a disaster.

Third, you can never tell the true reason why a professor agrees or disagrees to accept a PhD student (an outright rejection may be chosen for more honest and honorable reason than an acceptance by the way: the latter may just come from wanting some extra points for the coming promotion, the grant application, etc. without any genuine interest in the student and may be "biased" in the same way, like "It will help me to have a minority student on my record, so..."). So don't try to guess what the truth might be. It may be anything in both cases and you'll never have a chance to find it out, much less to prove it. On the good side, I should say that if the agreement is made voluntarily (for whatever reason and with whatever initial motivation), most professors would commit to it and try to help the student all the way through.

Finally, there is little point in discussing a situation that neither has arisen, nor is likely to arise.

Just my two cents :-)

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