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Future collaboration with a professor whose admissions offer you declined?


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So I have three offers and I really like two of them but all options are great. Two of the professors do pretty divergent work, but that both hit components of my interests in different ways. I am leaning towards one of the options, but have concern that if I close the door on the other, I won't be able to explore that avenue of work or work with that person again. I have really strong chemistry with both and want to execute research relevant to both labs. How feasible or common is it for collaborations to emerge with a professor whom you declined to work with and declined admission? I am thinking that for whichever option I decline, I would like to instantly broach the topic of collaboration, as I have ideas for how the different research topics may intersect. However, I don't want to step on any toes or upset any people.

Does anyone have any thoughts on the matter or experience with this?

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Some people have egos, and we have no way of knowing how these specific people will react.  But presumably, part of the reason you want to work with each of these people is that they're nice to you.  If you think they're nice people, we can only assume that if you explain that you regret they won't be your advisor but that you still really want to work with them in the future, that they will be receptive.  That's no guarantee, but if you find out that they have bad blood upon hearing the decline, then something would have happened eventually to make them angry.

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No one will be offended that you didn't take their admissions offer (as long as you're not a jerk about it, of course!). So you shouldn't have to worry about losing out on future collaborations because you said no to them this time.

However, I am not sure if it's the best idea to instantly start research with the prof at the school you're not attending. Grad students are generally expected to be more focussed on their work and it might not be feasible to make good progress on your actual PhD program coursework and research work while also making progress on an outside project. 

In addition, if the prof at the other school is looking for students, if you turn down the offer/project, they might prefer to have one of their actual students take the lead on that project instead of you since you would be a student elsewhere already. They might want to have someone full time on it, plus there are other reasons to want to have your own students instead of just using someone else's. And similarly, your own advisor/dept at your grad program might not be happy that you are working on a side project with a professor elsewhere at this stage.

Personally, I found that starting a new PhD program is a demanding enough time and the period up to the quals exam is quite intense. I am glad I waited until later on in my PhD to start external collaborations and side projects. I found it better for me to be able to fully focus on doing well in my grad program and PhD project first instead of splitting my time and energy across multiple projects. But you're a different person than me of course. Just letting you know my own experience so you can decide what's best.

That said, if you were thinking of including this other prof on as a collaborator to the project you would work on at your actual grad school, then it might be possible earlier on (although I'd wait until I have talked to my advisor at my grad school and wait until a semester or two has passed before bringing it up). However, you said that these two profs did very different stuff so I didn't think this was the case.

But going back to your title, I read "future collaboration" as in 4+ years from now, not instantly! You can definitely still work with this person in the future. If they are the type of person that would never want to speak to you just because you took another offer then it's probably not a person you want to work with anyways. Don't make any plans now but keep them in mind for the future. When the time is right for you to start thinking of new avenues of research, then contact them again. You don't even have to refer to your past discussions as a prospective grad student, because in 3-4 years, you'd develop much more as a researcher and it won't really matter that you had applied to their program in the past (i.e. if you find another prof somewhere that you would want to work with but you didn't apply to them in the past, you can still reach out). Talk to your advisor at this point for tips and advice. In my field, near the end of the PhD, the student is expected to start thinking and planning for post-PhD work, which often includes reaching out to other profs and starting new research ideas.

Also keep in mind that while most people do choose to stay in the same area of research as their PhD initially, this is mostly because they want/need to be productive right off the bat as a postdoc. But during this time, people will often start shifting focus too and it's a good time to be going into other research directions that you were interested in before (and maybe you'll find other things to be interested in while a grad student). So it's not like whatever you choose for your PhD closes all doors forever and you must only work on this one single topic. As researchers age, they often expand their projects further and further. For many tenured profs, their PhD dissertations are nothing like what they are doing now.

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3 hours ago, TakeruK said:

In addition, if the prof at the other school is looking for students, if you turn down the offer/project, they might prefer to have one of their actual students take the lead on that project instead of you since you would be a student elsewhere already. 

TakeruK's answer is spot on IMO... and to elaborate on this point: Brand new grad students are not collaborators in the full sense; they're trainees. (Exceptions made for the 1/100 brilliant student who hits the ground running.) Bright and motivated students are amazing and are junior colleagues... but they are a ton of work. It can be years before they're self-sufficient. There's a large gap between "taking on a promising student" and "collaborating with someone very junior who isn't my student and who might require lots of time."  So, OP, don't take it personally if they aren't interested and keep them in mind as a postdoc supervisor, or email them in a year or two when you have more independence.

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