How many PhD students can a professor take on?

As an academic advisor, a professor’s role doesn’t just involve developing curricula, imparting knowledge, applying for grants and university admin.

They also have to be mentors, act as dissertation committee members and supervise research students.

One question that commonly arises in this regard is just how many PhD students can a professor manage at any given time? The answer, of course, is not a simple one. There are various factors that need to be taken into account before arriving at a figure:

  • Faculty workload,
  • funding,
  • the level of supervision required,
  • research quality and
  • time management skills

In my experience, PhD supervisors want as many PhD students as possible as that is what drives their career. They need to publish as many papers as possible and the only way to do that is to hire a massive workload of PhD students and postdocs to do the research grunt work for you.

A PhD supervisor with too many PhD students will often not be able to dedicate enough time to each student resulting in a subpar experience for their research group.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at these considerations to gain a better understanding of the complex task of managing research students. We’ll also explore some of the strategies that can be employed by both professors and PhD students to ensure that the experience is a mutually beneficial one.

How many PhD students can a professor have

The number of PhD students a professor can have varies depending on the university and the professor’s workload.  

There is no specific number on the amount of PhD students a professor can have any one time and some more famous researchers can have up to 20 PhD students in their lab.

At this point they are often jointly co-supervised by other academics and senior postdocs in the lab.

Generally, professors are advised to supervise only a limited number of graduate students to ensure that they provide quality guidance and attention to each student.

Here are some of the factors that dictates how many PhD students a professor can have any one time:

Professor’s Time AvailabilityThe amount of time the professor has to dedicate to advising students.
FundingThe available funding can dictate the number of students a professor can financially support.
Institutional PoliciesSome institutions have rules regarding the maximum number of PhD students per professor.
Professor’s Research AreaThe nature of the research area might require more or less supervision.
Experience and Skill LevelMore experienced professors may be able to handle a larger number of students.
Administrative DutiesProfessors with more administrative duties may have less time for PhD students.
Support StaffThe availability of support staff can increase a professor’s capacity to manage more students.
Professor’s Personal PreferenceSome professors may choose to limit the number of students they supervise for personal reasons.
Collaboration with Other ProfessorsIn collaborative environments, the workload of supervision may be shared.
Student IndependenceThe level of independence and initiative of the students can also play a role.
Other Teaching DutiesOther teaching duties like lectures, grading, or curriculum development may reduce capacity.

It is crucial to make sure that the supervisor-student ratio is correct to maintain adequate mentorship.

Many universities have guidelines that specify the maximum number of PhD students a professor can have at one time, which is usually three to four students.

Some universities allow for more if the professor has a particularly large lab or research team and enough funding.

They may also have co-supervisors or research assistants who help shoulder the workload, allowing the professor to provide a productive and fruitful mentorship to each of their PhD students.

Professor supervision responsibilities for their students

Professors have several supervisory responsibilities that need to be fulfilled.

Here is a quick summary of the key responsibilities that PhD supervisor has when taking on a PhD student.

  1. Guidance and Support: The supervisor’s main responsibility is to provide guidance and support to their students throughout their research process. This includes helping students to refine their research questions, methodology, and data analysis.
  2. Monitoring Progress: Supervisors should regularly monitor their students’ progress to ensure that they are on track to complete their research and thesis within the given timeframe.
  3. Providing Feedback: Supervisors should provide constructive and timely feedback on their students’ work, including research proposals, drafts of chapters, conference presentations, and journal articles.
  4. Developing Skills: Supervisors have a responsibility to help their students develop the necessary skills for their research, including academic writing, presentation skills, and research methodologies.
  5. Mentorship: Beyond academic guidance, supervisors often act as mentors to their students, helping them navigate the academic world, giving career advice, and supporting their professional development.
  6. Advocacy: Supervisors should advocate for their students within the department and university, and help them to build their own academic networks.
  7. Ethical Oversight: Supervisors must ensure that their students understand and follow ethical guidelines in their research.
  8. Resource Provision: Supervisors are often responsible for helping students access necessary resources for their research, which can include lab space, equipment, funding, or data.
  9. Emotional Support: The PhD journey can be emotionally challenging. A good supervisor provides emotional support, understanding, and encouragement.
  10. Examination Preparation: As the completion of the PhD approaches, supervisors have a responsibility to prepare their students for the final examination and defence of their thesis.

Supervising students is an important responsibility of a professor. It involves providing guidance, support, and oversight to ensure that students succeed academically and ethically.

You can see from the list above that the responsibilities mean that a typical PhD supervisor really only has time to take on a handful of students – whilst also simultaneously being able to do a good job.

What other things does a professor have to do?

Being a professor isn’t just about teaching and looking after PhD students and postdocs. It’s more like juggling a bunch of flaming torches, and boy, does it get hot!

For starters, they’re constantly grading work, prepping lectures, and catching up on the latest science chats at conferences.

When they’re not up to their elbows in academic journals, they’re in the thick of department meetings, figuring out how to spend their grant money wisely.

And if they’ve got their sights set on a tenure-track position, they’re always thinking about their next big publication to add some sparkle to their record.

This gig is a real roller coaster, even more so since the pandemic hit.

So is really important Profs only takes on as many students as they can manage – however, many take on more than they can manage and often means a challenging and unsupportive environment for many PhD students.

Wrapping up

At the end of the day, the number of PhD students a professor can effectively supervise is like a carefully balanced equation, dependent on time, funding, institutional policies, research area, experience, and even the professor’s personal preference. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

It’s also worth remembering that it’s not just about quantity, but quality. The goal is to create an environment where each student gets the attention, guidance, and mentorship they need to flourish in their research. More than just a number, it’s about nurturing the future of academia.

For those aspiring professors out there, take it easy. This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. Pace yourself, take care of your students, and remember, you’re shaping the future leaders of academia, one PhD student at a time. And to those brave PhD students, remember this is your journey, don’t hesitate to ask for the guidance and support you need. You’ve got this!

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.