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ORFE graduate students allege lack of departmental support

The door to Sherrerd Hall is in the center of the blue-tinted photo.
Sherrerd Hall houses the Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering. 
Zehao Wu / The Daily Princetonian

Princeton’s Operations Research and Financial Engineering (ORFE) department has described itself as a one-of-a-kind program that combines data-driven science with principles that can be applied to a wide range of fields, including finance, communications, and transportation. It is a department that prides itself on the study of “optimal decision-making under uncertainty.” Yet a failure in a different optimization problem — the optimal number of students to accept in 2020 — created a series of bottlenecks in the department.

Casey was accepted to the ORFE Ph.D. program in 2020, attracted by its unique applications. They enrolled after attending the University visit days and obtaining a student visa, with plans to complete the program and earn their Ph.D. 


However, they were forced to leave with their M.A. after failing to find an adviser, a necessary step to passing the general exam that is required to progress in the program.

According to four students within the department, in the fall of 2021, there were a record 27 first-year graduate students in the ORFE Ph.D. cohort. By May 2023, 24 students in that cohort remained to pursue their Ph.D.s according to the University. Students within the cohort cited a shortage of advisers, a lack of departmental support, and insufficient opportunities for pay that resulted from the over enrollment.

The University has noted that despite the larger class size, the level of attrition is not significantly higher than normal and that all current students are now paired with an adviser.

The Daily Princetonian spoke to two current and two former students in the cohort about their experience in ORFE and interviewed four students, with the pseudonyms Casey, Alex, Jamie, and Cameron. The students were granted anonymity to discuss internal ORFE departmental affairs.

Jamie, who also had to leave the department after two years, said that “Princeton ORFE makes me feel like I’m worthless … I think that coming to Princeton was the worst decision I have ever made in my life.”

A large class strains advising resources


The admissions cycle in the winter of 2021 was anything but normal. It was the first admissions cycle since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the University saw significantly different results in yield.

According the University, the average class size for the program is 12 students.

The 2021 ORFE holiday newsletter sent to ORFE alumni read, “We had a record 60 percent yield on graduate admissions and welcomed our largest Ph.D. class of 27 students … Our undergraduate class (86 sophomores), graduate cohort (86 students) and faculty size (20) are all the highest we have had in our 21-year history.” Currently, the “Faculty” page on the ORFE website lists 19 faculty members.

In an email to the ‘Prince,’ University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss wrote, “An unexpectedly high percentage of admitted students accepted offers to start the ORFE Ph.D. program in Academic Year 2021–22, leading to a larger-than-usual group of first-year students. This happens from time to time in admissions.”  

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He added that the department is proud of the 60 percent yield, but accepted fewer students in the following two years to “bring the size of the four-year program back to its typical level.”

This expanded class size is more than twice the size of the typical class, which, according to students, impacted the adviser system. Alex and Cameron, two current students, confirmed that even though they were able to find an adviser, it was a challenging process.

“I’ve contacted a lot of professors, and few responded to me. Some didn’t respond, and some just said they have enough students, so they’re not taking more,” Alex said. “At least three students were interested in working with the adviser I’m working with right now, and he said he can only take two [students] at a maximum … One had to find another adviser, and I’m fortunate enough to be the two out of the three [working with him].”

Cameron faced similar unresponsiveness. When the professor they worked with over the summer said that they did not have time to read Cameron’s project proposal, Cameron tried reaching out to other professors. “I didn’t know [which professors] were willing to take students,” Cameron noted.

Cameron eventually found an adviser after contacting Ronnie Sircar, the department chair of ORFE, who helped him figure out his general exam and current adviser.

Sircar did not respond to repeated requests to comment for this piece.

For graduate students, advisers determine the path of students’ studies and guide them through the Ph.D. process. Having an adviser is necessary for Ph.D. students to progress with their degree and struggling to find one is stressful.

Because of the alleged difficulty in finding an adviser, students may not be able to focus on what they want for their research. “I had to switch my area of interest. [The adviser and I] are trying to find a common ground so we are both happy,” Cameron said.

Cameron added, “Four people left our Ph.D. program this year. I would have been the fifth person if I left. They had different causes — at least a couple, to my understanding, had difficulty finding an adviser.”

The University clarified that only three students left the program. According to Hotchkiss, this is not unusual. In a statement to the ‘Prince,’ he wrote, “The attrition rate for the AY21–22 cohort is similar to the program’s historical average. The students continuing in that cohort are ORFE’s largest group of third-year students ever; they all passed generals this past spring and have advisers.”

Despite similar statistics, the students claimed that having to choose an adviser in a different subfield could be challenging and that some students left when they could not find an adviser. Jamie, who left in spring 2023, spoke with the ‘Prince.’

 “[There is] huge competition about choosing advisers — in a Ph.D. program, if you do not have an adviser, it’s basically the worst thing,” Jamie added. “The first thing students have to do is compete for advisers. The second is because of the competition, they cannot choose the adviser they want to work with.” In the end, faculty often end up with multiple Ph.D. students with varied interests.

In a statement to the ‘Prince,’ Hotchkiss wrote, “There are 16 ORFE faculty who advise multiple Ph.D. students.”

Jamie speculated that the number may be lower. “ORFE is not a very big department, and a lot of faculty [have] retired or are not active, but their names are still on the webpage,” Jamie said. “There are at most 10 faculty who are still active and willing to take students in the ORFE Ph.D. program.”

The ORFE department Ph.D. Handbook mentions the process of finding an adviser. It emphasizes the small size of the department and reads, “At various times, some faculty might be too busy to take on new students: Do not take it personally if a faculty member is unable to take you on as an advisee, there are plenty of excellent research opportunities available to you.”

The handbook also states that a student’s adviser must be in the ORFE department, or that if an advisor is not a core ORFE faculty member, a core ORFE faculty member bust be “seriously involved in co-advising the student.” While students in ORFE must be advised by ORFE faculty, ORFE faculty can advise students in other departments.

“The department is really strict about who we can find to be our adviser. So we really need to find a professor inside the department — we can’t reach out to a professor in another department,” Alex said. “That’s pretty strict [considering] we just have more students this year. Last year, it was really tough, and I think I was worried about not being able to continue in this program.”

In a later statement to the ‘Prince,’ Alex wrote, “We can only find professors in our department or [have] associated professors — who may be in other departments — as advisers.”

According to Alex, “other departments have more flexibility with finding your adviser, [and] it can be a professor from a different but related department. In [Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE)], they can have a professor in the Computer Science (COS) department be their main adviser, but for us, the main adviser should always be ORFE.”

The ECE website and the chairs of the COS departments confirmed students can choose advisers outside of the department, both of which are much larger than ORFE.

Funding scarce in department

Difficulty finding an adviser could also have financial repercussions. According to Casey, many of their peers received a smaller stipend over the summer than they were expecting. The ‘Prince’ obtained a copy of an admission letter stating, “You are guaranteed minimum summer support of $2,500 for research-related activities conducted during June and July following your first academic year. If you work on a project with a faculty member over the summer, you will receive funding of up to a total of $8,000.”

According to Alex, while every student works with a professor, not all of the professors have funding. Despite working with a professor, Alex only received a base pay of $2,500 for the entire summer. Because there were so few professors that could take on students, the student felt they did not have the liberty to choose between professors who had funding and those who did not.

“If the professor you were working with had more money, the student received $4,000 per month,” Alex said. That amounts to $8,000 for the entire summer. “I only know [another student] in the same situation as me, because we share the same adviser. I’m not sure about the other students/professors,” Alex added.

According to Hotchkiss, “Admission letters for the AY 2021–22 cohort promised students minimum summer support of $2,500 for research-related activities conducted during June and July following their first academic year; this recognized that first-year students might not yet be involved in an adviser’s research project and able to secure a research assistantship (AR). Students who were ARs were paid at the AR rate of $4,000 per month; this included the vast majority of the 27 students in that class in summer 2022.”

Many ORFE students are on track to complete their Ph.D., and with all students now paired with an adviser, the initial struggles of the large class may be coming to a close. But for those who felt they were affected by the strain, the repercussions continue.

“Had I known these things when I was here for visit days,” Casey said, “I would not have come to Princeton.” 

Olivia Sanchez is a staff News writer for the ‘Prince.’

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Editor's note: This piece has been updated with additional context from the University provided after publication, and also to clarify the text of the ORFE student handbook.