In the majority of graduate programs in which each student has a faculty member for a graduate supervisor, one must indicate whom they would prefer for a supervisor at the time of application. The application should be aimed at the needs of the prospective supervisor, because that person’s decisions are paramount in determining whether or not the student is accepted into the program.
Many programs also allow applicants to indicate a second or third choice of potential supervisor. Many grad-school applicants have questions about these second choices, such as: Do they need to be as carefully made and justified as one’s first choice for graduate supervisor? And what are the chances of someone you list as a second choice actually accepting you? What if your application is highly impressive, but your first choice cannot accept you for one reason or another that really has nothing to do with you; can you expect your first choice to alert your second choice about your file?
How it works, most of the time
Naturally, most faculty members will be eager to find a strong applicant from among those who listed them as a first choice. In most cases, therefore, someone you indicate as a second choice is going to be less interested in the prospects of working with you than is someone you indicate as your first choice. Depending on individual preferences, however, some faculty members might still look closely at applicants who have listed them as a second choice. In some departments, at some schools, there is a culture of co-operation amongst faculty members when it comes to finding excellent candidates for their graduate programs. In those departments, it might be common for faculty members to let their colleagues know when they detect a particularly strong applicant, who they are not themselves interested in accepting.
Some programs make their selections by a committee consisting of the faculty members who are interested in taking on a new graduate student. When the committee meets, they decide which applicants are most appealing for their program, and then discuss who would like to supervise particular students. The selections are made on the basis of whether applicants express interests that match the interests and expertise of a potential supervisor; but this method ensures that all graduate program faculty members have a good opportunity to consider each applicant to the program, rather than just a select few who may have listed them as a preferred graduate supervisor. In a program that selects their graduate students this way, it might not matter too much to a faculty member whether he or she is listed as your first or second choice for supervisor. Keep in mind that this system of matching students with supervisors is far less common that one in which the student applies to work with a particular faculty member, who in turn decides whether the student is accepted.
Overall, the second or third choices for a potential supervisor are important, but usually not because one of them is likely to end up accepting the student. That can and does happen occasionally; however it is rare, so one should not expect it.
Do your choices make sense?
The most important reason why graduate school applicants need to carefully consider whom they indicate on their applications as a second or third choice for graduate supervisor is because those choices can influence how the applicant comes across to the admissions committee or the first-choice prospective supervisor. For instance, if the research interests of the second or third choice are quite different from those of the first choice, it may raise the question in someone’s mind of whether the applicant took the time to properly look into the various faculty members in the program; or, someone might wonder if the student is confused about the area in which he or she wants to do graduate-level research.
Many graduate school applicants will indicate an appropriate faculty member as their first choice of graduate supervisor, but then make the mistake of either failing to indicate a second choice when given the opportunity to do so, or else naming a second choice that does not fit with how the student describes his or her interests in the personal statement. Do not make these mistakes yourself. Ensure that your second (and third) choices for graduate supervisor will make sense to the people who examine your application.