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After a grueling application process, waiting period, and decision making process, I am very happy that I have come to a decision about which of the two programs that accepted me I'll be attending. The only thing I'm worried about is that, as I think is ordinary, I contacted faculty at both programs during this process and have had very meaningful, helpful, valuable conversations with one of them, and he is a faculty member at the place where I plan to decline the offer. My concern: I don't want my declining admission there to damage a potentially valuable professional relationship with someone who does great work in my field. What's the etiquette here? What is the way to decline most politely? Is there a way for me to maintain this relationship--I don't want to seem like I was brown-nosing a potential adviser in my emails, but rather that my remarks were genuine. Maybe I'm just being excessively anxious for no reason, but I'm pretty worried about this. What's the protocol? 

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This is pretty normal, and shouldn't cause any harm to the relationship. It happens all the time and this wouldn't be the first time this POI tried but failed to recruit a student. 

You can write a version of what you did here: it was a hard decision, you really appreciate the POI's time and advice, but eventually you chose XYZ (you can give a quick reason if there is clean one, such as it was more funding, better location, or whatnot, but you don't have to). Say that you hope to see the person again and maybe get a chance to work with them (and/or meet them, if you hadn't before) in the future. That's all you need to say. 

And next time you're going to be in the same place, e.g. for a conference, reach out and ask if they have time to have a coffee with you. 

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I have a similar feeling but more towards the students I talk to in both programs. But I think it's good to remember this decision is what is best for you so don't feel bad about it. I think everybody understands the process does not always work out for you.

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I was very anxious about sending out those decline emails as well. I was in a similar position, where I had established close relationships with the POIs, emailing far in advance, doing Skype calls, and meeting up at a conference. At two schools, the POIs had really gone out of their way to make sure I got the best experience and information at the interview weekend, too. I felt terrible about declining their offers, especially since it was a close call and I feared they would think that I had been leading them on with my prior enthusiasm. 

Ultimately, it was totally fine, and it felt so much better to resolve those loose ends and end it all on a positive note. I sent emails that expressed how much I appreciated all they'd done for me, how difficult the decision was, and how I wished to continue following their research and see them at conferences in the future. Everyone responded with kind emails. Though they expressed disappointment, they all wished me the best and said that they look forward to staying in touch in the future.

*Note: One helpful tip I got from my current mentor was to say where you will be going instead (as they would probably ask anyway), but avoid mentioning specifics of the other program that swayed you. You don't want to indirectly diss the program by extolling the pros of the other program, implying that those things were lacking elsewhere.

Edited by brainlass
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