Is it generally accepted in academia, that a PhD supervisor should have a PhD in the same research area as the student's PhD research area?

For example, let's assume that my research area is the ACM subject area "Information Systems" and the supervisor's research area is in Sociology > Psychology.

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    Down-voters should comment so that the question can be improved. This seems like a reasonable question to me. Mar 29, 2015 at 20:51
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    @WetLabStudent I'm not the downvoter but downvoters aren't obliged to explain anything and shouldn't be pestered into doing so. Mar 30, 2015 at 8:34
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    @DavidRicherby He is just asking their inputs for the question, politely. This is not pestering. If they don't want to, they can just choose to ignore it. If you don't know what is wrong with your question, how will you rectify it.
    – user568109
    Mar 30, 2015 at 9:01
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    @WebLabStudent fyi, the help center > model says, "If you see misinformation, vote it down. Add comments indicating what, specifically, is wrong."
    – Todd Booth
    Mar 30, 2015 at 9:16
  • The word on your PhD doesn't mean that much. I have been doing gene therapy research for 5 years, my PhD will say "Pharmacy", but I won't be qualified to sell pills, and I most likely will not be teaching pharmacy students.
    – user137
    Mar 30, 2015 at 15:50

3 Answers 3


It doesn't matter what the supervisor's Ph.D. was in, originally: fields are protean and careers take all sorts of strange paths. What really matters is whether the supervisor's knowledge is sufficient to supervise the research that the student will be conducting. That depends on the path of their career, the precise focus of the student's research, etc.

My advisor, for example, had a Ph.D. in mathematics (since computer science didn't really exist as a separate field yet), but has worked in artificial intelligence, electrical engineering, physics, VLSI, biological modeling, and astronomy, and would be quite appropriate to supervise students in projects in any of those fields, if their focus and his background had sufficient overlap. Likewise, my background in artificial intelligence was no barrier to supervising a biology Ph.D. (which I have done), given the path of my own research over time.


It would be impossible for all PhD supervisors to have a PhD in the same field as the PhD candidate is studding. If this would be the case there would never be PhDs awarded in new fields.

However, your supervisor should have a track record within the field. (S)he should have studied it and should have published in the field.

Sociology is a very broad field, and there are surely sociologist who have extensive knowledge about information systems and who have published about it.

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    +1 for "If this would be the case there would never be PhDs awarded in new fields." Affinity with the subject is preferable and perhaps even required, but a PhD in the exact same field has never been a requisite as far as I am aware.
    – Mast
    Mar 30, 2015 at 11:02

A supervisor needs to be able to coach you through your research and your entry into academia. This typically requires that she knows something of the field. She needs to know the important conferences to go, introduce you to the important people, have a realistic idea which journals are a realistic outlet for your papers, etc. etc. etc. This knowledge does not necessarily come from her PhD education, she may have specialised later into your field. The problem is not going to be your committee complaining, but you not getting the right couching and thus making wrong (career) decisions.

So I would say that it is necessary that your supervisor is embedded in your field, but not necessarily through her PhD, and this necessity is unlikely to be enforced by your committee.

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    This is quite interesting, only in that with my experience, while I had good supervision relating to my thesis work, neither of my supervisors directed me to specific journals, introducing me to important people or which conferences I should attend. That kind of coaching was not part of their job description and it was expected that I do this myself. This isn't to say that they didn't help me, both of them helped me get work in academia regarding teaching, but I'm not sure if the above coaching is an absolute requirement, or something some supervisors do while others do not...
    – awsoci
    Mar 29, 2015 at 22:39
  • It is certainly expected in my field, so any PhD student who does not receive that type of coaching has a severe disadvantage. These students exist, and some make it and become successful in academia, but most just cannot compete and are forced to leave academia after finishing their PhD. It is sad and wasteful, but it is certainly something the OP should consider when choosing what to do. How important this is depends apperently on what the norm is in his field, not just in Sweden but also internationally. Mar 30, 2015 at 7:46

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