I am enrolled as a student in a U.S. university. I will be applying for a PhD program in physics in the coming months and I can't really move to another city. Therefore I am considering to stay at my current university A for my PhD (where I will receive my B.S). I am 100% sure that I will be accepted and I am very happy here.

However, there is no research going on at university A that I am interested in for graduate school or for a career. My main interest is in theoretical physics.

There is a top-ranked school B for physics about forty minutes away. This school has exactly what I am looking for in graduate research, but for other reasons I did not like school B at all, when I briefly attended it. Moreover, it is very unlikely that I will be accepted there for a PhD program.

I am wondering:

  • Can I pursue uni A's PhD program and have an advisor from uni B?
  • If so, should I bring this up with both universities before I apply or should I wait until I am in the program and chose my adviser?
  • Could you clarify what you mean by "collaborate with the research going on at the other university?" Are you asking whether you can pursue uni A's PhD program and have an advisor from uni B?
    – henning
    Jun 4, 2015 at 20:53
  • I guess so, yes.
    – Physika
    Jun 4, 2015 at 20:54
  • Can you clarify where you are (USA, EU, Australia, etc.)? If you're in the USA, you're aware that most programs will require that you spend the first two to three years "in residence" (i.e., in that city) to take classes and to TF/RA. Finally, what type of physics are you interested in -- experimental or theoretical?
    – RoboKaren
    Jun 4, 2015 at 20:55
  • 2
    I think that it is possible to have a co-advisor or dissertation committee member, affiliated with other university, but I'm pretty sure that you have to have a co-advisor or [main] advisor (committee chair), correspondingly, from your host university, at least, in US. Jun 4, 2015 at 23:41
  • 4
    Am I missing something: if University B is very unlikely to accept you in their PhD program, then how likely is it that someone from University B would accept you as their doctoral student? Is it that you have some technical issue that makes you ineligible for B's program? If you're just not strong enough, then aren't B's faculty going to look first at B's strong students before A's weaker ones? Jun 4, 2015 at 23:43

5 Answers 5


It is not uncommon to have a formal PhD position at university X, a supervisor at university X, and a co-supervisor at university / institution Y. This may happen for example, if the PhD topic is on the interface of two subjects, or if Y provides essential experimental / lab / other facilities for the research.

It is also not uncommon to have a PhD at university X, a supervisor at university Y, and a co-supervisor at university X. This usually happens when a professor from X moves to Y some time before, or shortly after, the PhD is started. The role of a co-supervisor may be solely to observe the process and make sure that the research will succeed and the thesis will be submitted in time and in good order, to university X's satisfaction.

In the UK, the so-called Doctoral Training Centers, are sometimes organised between several universities, sharing the same direction of research. I have not heard of any examples, but I assume that a collaboration of a PhD candidate with several professors at different universities in this case is more than likely to happen.

Another example, which can happen very naturally, is when a PhD candidate is closely involved in a research project, which is already collaborative.


I was the "advisor at a distance" for such an arrangement in the US, so it is in principle possible -- depending. The student went through "the other university", and I was one of his co-advisors. Thanks to the interwebs, that was easy, and thanks to their rules, it was possible for me to be co-advisor (though not sole advisor). So analogously, you could stay put while working with a relevant faculty person at that institution. However, institutions differ in their tolerance of outsiders, and my own institution would not tolerate an outsider as co-advisor.


Depending on the specific universities you are considering, it might also be possible to do a cotutelle program. In the words of the University of Ottawa:

A cotutelle doctoral program offers you the opportunity to complete your doctoral studies at the University of Ottawa as well as at another university (outside of Ontario). In a cotutelle doctoral program you are jointly supervised by a thesis supervisor at each institution and you attend the two universities alternately. You need to take a single comprehensive examination, and you work on a thesis to be defended only once in front of a jury chosen by the two partner universities. Once you have completed your doctoral program, each university confers a separate degree, with a mention of the cotutelle collaboration on the degrees.

If you want to go this route, you need to tell the university well in advance, so they can come to an agreement with the other university.


Everything is possible (well at least, as other answers have already shown there are many forms of multi-university PhD). But it's not extremely common either and an important question for you is how will you go about finding/creating such a position?

In the examples I know (admittedly in Europe, not the US), the position was often funded from the get-go as a collaboration (perhaps as part of a specific grant application) and advertised as such. Alternatively, I know people who have been hired at some institution and added an external supervisor after one or two years, obviously with the consent (or perhaps on the advice) of their first advisor because of the direction their research was going or some other opportunity for a collaboration.

Often those projects were cross-disciplinary (and sometimes transnational) in nature and the secondary advisor came from a different field/country. (National funding agencies often have some money earmarked for cross-disciplinary projects and the European Union encourages transnational projects through its Framework Programmes, thus providing additional incentives.)

In your case, if there is no research on your topic of choice at university A and nobody interested in starting such a project, it's difficult to see how it could come about.


Three aspects to consider:

  • Funding: who is going to pay your tuition fees and give you pocket money? It's often not obvious for an advisor to fund a student located in another school. But maybe you have some fellowship or TA.
  • PhD committee: schools put conditions on who can be in your PhD committee (e.g. at least 2 profs in your department), so at some point you may have to deal with profs from your school.
  • Administravia: the school's policy might force you to have an advisor from the same school.

In my grad school, I've never seen anyone working with an advisor from another place only (except when the advisor recently moved of schools): there is always one local co-advisor.

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