In my department, PhD admissions and funding are two separate processes, which means many PhD students are admitted even if there is no funding for them. To be admitted, an applicant typically needs to impress a faculty member enough to want them to take the applicant on as a student (which means this faculty member becomes the applicant's advisor, if they decide to accept the offer of admission). To get funding, an applicant need to impress at least one of the several faculty members who controls a training grant enough to want them to offer the applicant a slot on the grant. It is very uncommon (if not impossible) for any PhD student to receive funding outside of a training grant via an RA, TA, or other source, at least in the 1st year.

As such, it is fairly common for a professor who wants a particular student to join the department as their advisee to lobby for the student with one of the training grant directors. This is particularly true in cases where the student of interest has communicated that they have a funded offer from a rival department and will likely not consider our department without a similar funding offer being extended.

Because of this practice, a difficult situation sometimes arises when funded students want to switch into a research area that is still within the scope of their training grant but not within the scope of their advisors' interests. Because both areas fall within the goals of their grant, these students are not risking their funding by switching (although they may be risking an additional year of PhD studies, depending on how late they switch). However, because their initial advisors usually had a large role in helping them secure funding, they are hesitant to make the switch out of a feeling of obligation to their advisor (e.g., "Dr. Z did a lot of work recruiting me and helping me get a funded offer, so I feel bad leaving her").

In situations where funding is not directly tied to one's advisor (but may be indirectly tied to them), what obligations does the student have to their advisor? Should the student feel free to switch advisors if they discover that another research area appeals more to them? Are there any special considerations or etiquette protocols?

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    My guess is that norms vary considerably across fields. That aside, students should ideally be able to pursue whatever direction is best for their growth as researchers. Many faculty are OK with this -- but unfortunately, I've also seen occasional instances where faculty take this sort of thing very personally and behave quite badly as a result.
    – Corvus
    Mar 9, 2015 at 1:01
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    Nothing (with the exception of guilt on the students part). Professors advocate for students knowing full well that sometimes the student can end up working with someone else. Mar 9, 2015 at 4:00

2 Answers 2


I think it is hard to answer this question without actually knowing the system and seeing whether such switches are commonly done. Typically, admission systems are either central (e.g., US-style, you apply with the faculty and once you are admitted you get an advisor) or decentral (e.g., central European, you apply and get funded directly by a specific professor). In the former case, transfers are not entirely uncommon. In the latter case, transfers are a bit of a dicey topic as students really only apply with and get accepted by one specific professor.

Your system sounds a bit like a mixture of both - somehow, admissions are centralized, but it sounds like individual professors have so much say in the process that it in practice may well work like a decentral system. One important question may be how this "lobbying" for students works in practice. Does every professor have an "alotted" number of students that they can choose (either explicitly or by common practice)? That is, does the transferring student "take away" an alotted place for a professor and add one for another? If that is the case, I would assume that transferring will indeed lead to some hard feelings. However, if the system is more flexible, and "lobbying" for a student really just means that the advisor sent a recommendation without many more implications, I think transferring may be just fine for everybody.

In the end, I think you need to see whether transfers happen regularly, and how the students that transferred are seen by the old and new faculty. If they never seem to happen, I would assume that professors will not be thrilled about the idea.

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    I've certainly seen admissions in the US work whereby a professor with funding for a student can put their hand up in committee and offer to take them on. If no one claims the student in this way, the student is not admitted. That being said, I have no idea what happens if the student and advisor later decide to part ways. Presumably this can be done amicably if the student finds someone else to find their work.
    – Bill Barth
    Mar 9, 2015 at 13:38

You should select your advisor based on your actual research interests and abilities, bearing in mind that that might not be possible given a change in funding. You should never maintain a relationship solely out of a feeling of guilt. However, you should carefully scrutinize your interactions with the potential abandonee, to be sure that you didn't make promises that you would now be breaking. If Professor X had a 4-year position to offer to you or an alternative student Z and you promised to see the project through to the end (which resulted in the actual offer), then that is a kind of promise / contractual relationship that should be taken very seriously. But usually, all the student knows about the matter is that they have an offer, and they are not contracting for anything long-term. It seems clear that in the situation that you describe, there is no broken promise.

The right (polite) thing to do is have a frank discussion with the faculty member, explaining your interests. It is okay to acknowledge his/her interests, but you need to hold fast to your own interests, which are primary. There could be bad consequences if the professor isn't sufficiently rational and professional to handle this, but you can't live your life for someone else's sake.

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