Universities normally (as far as I know) do not limit the number of PhD students a research-active professor can have as long as he secure the funding for his PhD students. For example, if a professor have enough research fund can get 10 PhD students (instead of research associates) and pay them directly. Then, they pay their tution fees, and university/department can increase its capacty for PhD enrolment.

In fact, the university/department can increase its capacity as long as they are paying students, but I don't understand how this scheme works when PhD study is free (in some European countries).

In the latter case, the professor provide research funding for the PhD projects and their wages, but the university should invest for courseworks (pay more teachers for these unexpected students).

What limits the number of PhD students in universities without PhD tution fee?

And when there is normal tution fee, isn't there any limitation for the number of PhD students as long as there are good candidates?

EXAMPLE: A department arranges the admission of 10 PhD students (assigned appropriate professor for the courses). Now, a professor fund 10 more PhD students for himself. Now, the department head should plan new classes/courses (this needs budget). He may need more resources, which is normally approved by the Dean.

I understand that more PhD students fuels the engines of an academic unit, but the department head is not bothered with overload of PhD coursework. In other words, does the department head encourage professor to get more funded PhD students, and saying "don't worry, I will take care of coursework"?

  • As a counterexample to your first sentence, I'll note that my university limits each department to a maximum number of grad students regardless of available funds, presumably because they want the school to remain focused on undergrads.
    – user4512
    Jan 12, 2015 at 6:51

2 Answers 2


What limits the number of PhD students in universities without PhD tution fee?

I'm not sure countries exist without a PhD tuition fee. Rather there is a scholarship system in place to cover the cost of tuition. The limiting factor here is the number of scholarships allocated by the government. So the answer is the government.

And when there is normal tution fee, isn't there any limitation for the number of PhD students as long as there are good candidates?

This would be dependant upon the institution. There may be a hard limit imposed by the faculty. Otherwise there is a soft limit in the number of students one professor can reasonably manage.

  • 1
    At my university, every PhD student with a teaching or research assistantship has their tuition waived. Those students don't pay tuition, and nobody pays it for them.
    – JeffE
    Sep 19, 2014 at 2:48
  • @JeffE This is what I meant by scholarship. In your case it's an assistantship and I guess that the number of those available is governed by the university. Sep 19, 2014 at 3:24
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    There are plenty of countries with no tuition fees at all, so in particular none for PhD students. For example the Scandinavian countries. Sep 19, 2014 at 6:31
  • 2
    The logic is that in those countries the PhD students aren't students at all, they are (junior) employees. They are either explicitly employed to do their PhD research (e.g. the Netherlands) or are 50% employed to work on some project, and are "allowed" to work the remaining time on their dissertation (e.g. Germany). There is little cost to the university as there is no formal curriculum they have to offer to the students, so they can adjust what they offer the students based on the number of students. Sep 19, 2014 at 8:39
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    @TobiasKildetoft in Sweden there are tuition fees for PhD students, and they are quite high. The thing is, you don't see it because the PI pays it for you along with your salary (but they have to secure the funding for it).
    – Davidmh
    Sep 19, 2014 at 10:53

There is no hard limit. The soft limits are what you would expect: availability of funding, availability of excellent students who are interested in doing a PhD with you, how much time it takes to supervise a PhD student, etc.

The question seems to be based on the premise that more PhD students is somehow "bad" for the university in a system without tuition fees. However, this is not the case. (In this answer I will try to explain the system that we have here in Finland, but I do not think the situation is that different e.g. in other Scandinavian countries.)

Let us compare two cases:

  1. A professor gets a small research grant and hires 1 PhD student.
  2. A professor gets a large research grant and hires 10 PhD students.

Let us assume that all else is equal, these are excellent students, all of them finish their PhDs on time, each of them produces the same amount of high-quality research, and in both cases the professors still have enough time for their other duties (teaching, administration, etc.).

Now case 2 is actually fairly attractive for the university and for the department. There are two main reasons:

  • The basic funding of the university depends on how well the university does. This is measured with numerous indicators, but producing lots of PhD, producing lots of excellent research, and attracting large research grants are among the important indicators. Hence in the long run, the university will get more funding, and the university will also reward the department.

  • Research grants do not cover just the salary of the PhD student. All the money goes through the university budget, and the university always takes part of it for all kinds of "overheads", which cover in part the costs of running the university (facilities, administration, IT, libraries, etc.).

Furthermore, PhD students will also serve as teaching assistants (e.g., 5–10 % of their time is allocated for teaching activities), so a fraction of the grant also goes to support the teaching activities of the university.

(That said, there are some corner cases that may be a bit more difficult. If the students are not hired by the professor but they fund their own studies with e.g. personal research grants, then it is not as clear that having lots of such PhD students is a win-win for everyone. The universities do not get their "overhead" share from the grants, yet the students would expect the universities to provide office space for them.)

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