I asked John about this a month or two ago, and meant to blog about it then, but didn’t get around to it. So at most I’m giving a general picture of the way things work and not the specifics because I’ve forgotten a few of them. [See update below.]
Durham has about 150 postgrads and I believe about 125 of those are PhD students. In the last couple of completed years, the department got about 75-100 applicants and about 2/3 are given acceptance letters.* However, some applying for PhD are accepted only in the MATR program, primarily I think because they don’t have a good thesis topic or possibly they haven’t done a significant piece of research. Then I believe about 1/2 to 1/3 of those accepted actually start the program. So this year I believe 12 full time and 14 part time PhD students started this year.
That works out to about 1 new student per supervisor, but I know some supervisors pick up two. But you may apply with someone and then get transfered to another supervisor depending on the direction your thesis topic takes when it gets more defined, or more likely your primary and secondary supervisors would swap roles.
* John did mention that the number of those applying has jumped significantly this year, so I assume that would obviously descrease the percentages accepted. And with the addition of F. Watson on faculty, I imagine that will also increase the competition in future years as well.
[Update May 2009, I spoke with Loren Stuckenbruck today and he said that the number of applications for 09-10 has steadily increased over the past two years (on top of the 2007 point where John Barclay told me we had a big jump) and therefore acceptance rates are dropping accordingly, though he didn't provide any numbers. With a large jump from ~100 to ? in 2007, and steady increases since then my guess is that at most 1/3 are now accepted either to PhD or MA.]
Does anyone have info on the process at other schools?