Faculty motivations for accepting (or declining) a new graduate student

Dear (prospective) Graduate Student,

The words “Sorry, I’m not accepting new students” can be heartbreaking and even maddening if at some later date you find out that suddenly now that Professor is interested in accepting students. The choice to accept or decline a new student is actually quite complex for a Professor. Here are some common factors influencing the decision:

  • Funding. This is the number one consideration for most professors. Grad school is very different from undergrad where students often have no income or look outside of the university for income. Grad students usually need an income which commonly comes from the university. Professors need to have a plan to support you, whether that be through a grant they already have, through a grant or fellowship you acquire together, or teaching assistantships or other employment offered by the university. If you don’t address the issue of funding when you contact them, they may respond to your inquiry based on their current funding situation. Without an active grant that includes student support, they may simply say they don’t have a position right now. A recent grant they submitted with a personnel budget may come through a few months later though and then they’ll begin searching for students.
  • Number of current students. A good mentoring relationship is one that allows for regular meetings and other forms of support. This may mean helping you formulate your research proposal, facilitating professional networking, or working collaboratively on grants and publications. If a Professor feels that they’re stretched too thin, they may wait until some students matriculate and their mentoring load lightens before taking on new students. Although disappointing to you, this is probably for the best given how important the mentoring relationship is to both your job prospects and your scientific development.
  • Maintaining a balanced research program. A Professor’s research program has a strong central theme, but their interests often ebb and flow into side projects. You may have discovered their lab through one of these side project that the Professor isn’t intending to continue. For example, a herpetology Professor in the conservation biology dept. might partner on a multi-year study on chytrid fungus because it’s seriously impacting amphibian survival, but if you’re interested in studying disease they may not have the desire or skill set to advise you on that topic long-term. Alternatively, a Professor may have enough students already exploring a particular topic and are really looking only to add students that fulfill a specific, neglected niche in their program. For example, a Professor known for studying tick-borne disease may have plenty of students studying Lyme disease but lacks students interested in tick taxonomy, a complementary field lacking from the team.
  • Whether you are a good fit. The expression “good fit” gets used a lot in academia, but the meaning is fuzzy. A lot of the time the expression implies complementary personalities suggesting you and your mentor would “get along” or they find you “talented and motivated.” However, a good fit is much more than that. Fit is also about the structure of the work environment and expectations regarding mentorship. In other words, do you need a lot of space to work on your own or do you need more micromanaging? How much do you want your professor to be involved in networking and professional development? Do you want your Professor to be easily available for meeting and questions or would you prefer to figure things out on your own? There isn’t a right answer and each student’s needs are different based on their level of experience and their goals. Not all Professors can provide the type of relationship you need. Don’t be apologetic if you aren’t a good fit because compatibility here is just as key to your graduate success as it is to their lab environment! It’s important to figure this out in the two-way interview process.

Stay positive.

– R

Those are a few of the core considerations that I’ve heard from Professors over the years. What common reasons have you heard from your advisor when considering new students?