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Matching students with supervisors ?


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I really don't understand the process anymore. I am an international student in EE and where I am from the PhD starts by selecting a supervisor/Lab who is willing to take you. Then you apply (which is basically guaranteed if your intended supervisor approved)

in the US, everything is in reverse!

First you have to get accepted to the program. Only then do you start with the selection of a supervisor, but nothing is guaranteed! 

I may have wanted to work with Prof. X but end up working with Prof. Y?!

Can someone explain the logic behind this process?

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I can't speak for all schools, but one advantage of this method is that it gives more freedom to both students and professors. For example:

- Students might not know what they really like to study at the start of grad school. This option allows students to take some classes, get to know some professors and try new ideas before committing the rest of the degree to it. Many new grad students have a "research interest" but this doesn't mean it's their only interest---it might be the only thing they have done in the past.

- This also gives a chance for professors to see how students perform in classes and get to know the students better before committing time and money in a new student. Some students are amazing on paper but not actually that great when working with them. However, despite the lack of commitment, there is often some kind of understanding that there is some professor interested in a student before they are actually accepted.

- If a professor decides to leave the department or turns out to be a terrible personality fit for the student, it gives the student time to find a new supervisor. I find that my perceptions of professors and research interests changed a lot during my first year.

In Canada, we often enter PhD programs with a specific professor too (maybe that's where you're from?). However, my US school does it the reverse way as well. At first I was skeptical but I think it is actually a much better system now that I have experienced it. The way my department admits students is:

1. Students are admitted with a department fellowship the first year (no professor pays for them) and we are required to do at least 2 separate projects (not related to each other) with 2 different professors. Projects aren't fully completed, just "proof of concept".

2. We take a qualifying exam after the first year based on these two projects (at the level of a Masters defense except only at the "proof of concept" stage). 

3. In the 2nd year, we are funded by a professor who had originally committed to us when we were admitted. They don't tell us this up front though. 

4. By the end of the 2nd year, we need to formally decide on a thesis advisor. It's often clear well before this stage, but we basically need to have it set by the 3rd year. This person pays us for the rest of the degree. Usually it is one of the two professors from the first year project but it doesn't have to be.

Typically, about 3/4 of the way through the first year, the student knows which of the two advisors they want to keep and there is one "main project" and one "side project". But it doesn't have to be this way. Some people change to a completely new project in their 2nd year. 

I personally enjoyed and benefited from this flexibility. If I was stuck on the topic I applied with, I would have been a lot less happy and I didn't even know about the subfield I'm currently in when applying because I had no exposure to it at all.

Here are some tips though, for this different system:

- You should not count on being able to work with one specific professor. If there is only one person you would work with if admitted, think twice about accepting the offer.

- You should talk to current students to see how often students are turned away from their top choice professors. Even if schools do not formally match students with profs upon acceptance, most schools do consider this when deciding. If they are making 20 offers (for example), they are not going to make all 20 offers to people in the same subfield. Usually there is some consideration for a balance of interest but it varies from school to school. Ask students to find out how often people have to take a 2nd choice advisor.

- Keep an open mind about what you want to do. Focus on the skills and experience you want to develop as a student instead of the field of research.

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