I am a physics undergrad, who is also interested in pure mathematics. I am not very sure what I want to pursue for my PhD. Though I have specific interests in each of the two, and also inter-linked interests, in general I am very confused. My question is it legally and practically allowed for you to chose a guide from another department different than that which you are affiliated to? If not, can someone from another department become a co-guide? In particular, I am looking for laws and practices in the US and Europe (may differ from country to country).

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    If not, can someone from another department become a co-guide? Yes.
    – seteropere
    Commented Mar 15, 2013 at 12:47

2 Answers 2



At least in the US, it is quite common for PhD students enrolled in department X to be advised by faculty in department Y, either alone or with a co-advisor in department X. Off the top of my head, I can think of PhD students in my (computer science) department who are advised or co-advised by faculty in electrical engineering, mathematics, and industrial engineering. Similarly, faculty in my department who advise PhD students in mathematics, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and biology.

That said, if you enroll in the PhD program in department X, you will have to satisfy the degree requirements (courses, comprehensive/qualifying exams, etc.) for department X, even if your advisor and your eventual research interests are in department Y.

  • Thanks for the answer. Is it known that students enrolled in department X, are advised solely by one guide in department Y? or only co-guides from other departments are common?
    – user2734
    Commented Mar 15, 2013 at 15:50
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    @ramanujan_dirac: Generally if you are enrolled in department X, you must have an advisor from department X. However, if everyone agrees, it can happen that most of the work is done with a co-advisor from department Y, and the advisor from X takes a minor role and signs off at the end. Commented Mar 15, 2013 at 16:00
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    Yes also in Europe. Advisors can even be from different universities. Commented Mar 15, 2013 at 16:01
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    Is it known that students enrolled in department X, are advised solely by one guide in department Y? — Yes, this is fairly common. The easiest route at my university is for the advisor in dept Y to have a courtesy appointment in dept X, but even that is not necessary. But we also have an annual review of all PhD students in our own department (both enrolled and advised) to make sure that everyone is making progress even if they spend all their time in another department.
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 15, 2013 at 22:20

I have seen co-advisors a number of times. At least three of my computer science colleagues were co-advised by biologists who were working on projects that needed complex and novel data manipulation and/or novel algorithm design (see, for instance, LUMPY: A probabilistic framework for structural variant discovery). There aren't any specific laws regarding this (at least in the U.S.), but specific university departments may have guidelines or rules regarding the practice--you would have to check with the schools you are applying to for individual policies.

If your interests bridge two departments, you should probably figure out which department you'd most likely fit into, and contact professors in that field to ask for their opinion on being co-advised. It may turn out that you need higher level mathematics to inform your physics research but that you won't be creating new math (for example), in which case you probably wouldn't need separate advisors.

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