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When a department enrolls x number of students based on the capacity of the department and its professors, the ideal desire is fair distribution of PhD students among faculty members. However, students are attracted to attractive professors (by different factors such as fame, personality, etc), and there should be less or no request for some faculty members.

Assuming a student and advisor mutually agree that they would like to work together, but the department would rather have the student work with another faculty member who is short on PhD students. Can the department limit the number of students that may work with each faculty member, so that new PhD students will be distributed among faculty?

In a hypothetical situation, there are 10 PhD students, and 10 faculty members. Can the department set the limit of one PhD student per faculty to ideally distribute the students among faculty members?

Note: This question is not about the cases in which a candidate specifically apply for working under supervision of a specific professor (due to the admission system or funding source).

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    Such a scheme seems to be in absolutely nobody's interest. – fkraiem Sep 18 '14 at 23:59
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    I don't think anyone can answer "legality" generally. It depends on the policies of the individual university/department. – ff524 Sep 19 '14 at 0:03
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    This is not about academic freedom. Academic freedom is the right of academics to communicate ideas or facts without being punished by the university for it. It has nothing to do with being able to demand a particular advisor. – ff524 Sep 19 '14 at 0:08
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    Similarly, a faculty member can't say "I want to teach Linear Algebra, and you must assign the class to me even if another faculty member wants it" because "academic freedom." That's not what it's about at all – ff524 Sep 19 '14 at 0:10
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    @Stephen don't get me wrong; I think this "equal distribution of students" is a policy that would benefit nobody. But it's not an academic freedom issue; students don't have a right to the advisor of their choice. It's well within the scope of the department's responsibility to set a policy on who may serve as an official advisor to students in the department. – ff524 Sep 19 '14 at 8:09
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Questions like this show the importance of understanding the perspective of faculty members.

Can a department tell a student and advisor not to work together? Who knows. It will come down to the department.

But it is much more likely the other faculty would try (in private) to convince a "greedy" faculty member not to accept so many students. Faculty have a longer perspective than students - students graduate in a few years, but tenured faculty usually stay at their institution far longer, with the same colleagues. So there is usually more risk for a faculty member who harms their relationship with their colleagues, compared to just turning down possible students. There will always be new PhD students next year... At the same time, if a faculty member really wants to work with a particular student, no other faculty member is likely to want to "steal" the student.

What about the hypothetical situation from the question?

  • It would be extremely unusual for a department with 10 PhD students and 10 faculty to tell the 10 faculty that they each have to find one student, and none of them can take 2 students.

  • It would also be unusual for one faculty member of the 10 to work with all 10 students.

What happens in most cases is that the students naturally gravitate towards faculty they like, and faculty who don't feel they have enough students will make more effort to be friendly and reach out to possible students. If a faculty member doesn't want to work with a student, or a student doesn't want to work with a faculty member, they don't work together. In the end, the students all find mentors, although it may take some students more than one attempt.

The situation is different, of course, when students are required to select an advisor while applying to the university, because then there is no doubt who each student will work with.

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My graduate department had exactly such a policy. In part, this was because they had a few "really big names" who would be able to grab a number of students each year. The basic rule was that no advisor could take more than two sole-advised students in a given year.

There were some exceptions made to this rule. First, new faculty advisors could get three students, and co-advised students were exempted. From the students' perspective, faculty members could not formally commit to specific students. Instead, students submitted ranked lists of projects and advisors submitted ranked preferences of students. The department then tried to match people and projects within the above constraints.

This seemed to work well enough, as I never heard of anyone who got less than their second-ranked project.

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This unfortunately happens in many institutions, and not just to distribute students evenly among faculty (sometimes it may be to distribute students evenly among areas covered by the department, or to get enough students to run research projects/labs that are cash cows for the department). I have known numerous cases of students leaving without a PhD because they could not work with the advisors they were assigned.

One issue is funding: a professor with funding will automatically get a student if that funding is the (only) source of support for that student. However, office politics and biases/preconceptions on the part of grad program administrators, department heads, or deans does play a part. Another issue is that students' interests do evolve over time, but not every department/institution respects this. Sometimes the policy is that a student is paired with an advisor early on (before the student is mature enough), with no scope for change later.

In general, it is good to ask of an institution or department if it has a formal and well-defined procedure for a change of advisor. If not, the chances are that students are locked-in, probably from the beginning, possibly without their own wishes being considered.

  • There may not be such an "automatic" mechanism as you imagine in the second paragraph. There may be other determinations as you state beneath that. The professor might be restricted in terms of number of advisees regardless of their funding source. And this makes sense unless their funding source can fund time, then a new advisee takes away from the advisors time in an irreplaceable way. – virmaior Sep 20 '14 at 10:04
  • It is "automatic" in the sense that hardly any professor would fund a student (for other than a short time like a semester) and not be an advisor for that student. It can happen if there is a research group with multiple professors involved (where the funding is also shared), where another professor than the PI on a grant is the primary advisor, but otherwise the principle applies. – sr3u Sep 20 '14 at 14:02
  • I took the sentence as written to suppose the opposite sort of automaticity: if you have money, you can advise students. That's how I took the adverb placement. – virmaior Sep 20 '14 at 14:16

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