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Gracefully rejecting a PhD offer (still a hypothetical scenario) - Need advice

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Hi all,

I am currently applying to PhD programs. I have a bachelor's in Psychology and a Master of Science in Neuroscience. These days, it is particularly hard to find a PhD in Neuroscience, as the field is becoming increasingly popular and competitive.

I am applying to 5-6 different programs - there was no guarantee that I would get accepted anywhere, so of course I have no option but to create multiple options - most of them with an autumn 2022 intake. Unfortunately, the timing is not in my favour as I currently find myself in a situation where I had an interview for my second most preferred option (B), but am still waiting to hear back from my most preferred option (A) by the end of March. I got the PhD at institution B, which I am truly happy about. However, ideally, I would love to go with option A pending acceptance. Option B would require that I confirm my place by the end of March/beginning of April. So, it could be that I don't even know if I have been invited for an interview for option A around the time that I need to provide a reply to B. If I do get an interview at institution A and it goes well, I would probably reject offer B - if I could.

What really bugs me is that I am already in contact with my potential supervisor at institution B. He really supported me during the whole process and I will email him on Monday with the good news - he was asking when I'd find out and he's been really engaged and sweet. It kinda breaks my heart to imagine having to cancel option B if option A becomes feasible, at the same time, a PhD is a huge investment of time, energy and effort, and I can't help it but think about what would be best for me (which is also a complicated process, like you'd all know).

I am wondering:

- If option A becomes a real possibility, how to gracefully reject B, especially given that I like the supervisor so much and that, for now, I will accept option B (they'd need a reply from me very soon), but in reality that won't be my most final decision?

- When should I let the supervisor know that I am waiting to hear back from other institutions - when, realistically, I have been invited for other interviews, when I get another offer (if), or now on Monday when delivering the good news that I've been selected for the PhD (it was an application through a central CDT, so my supervisor still doesn't know what's happened)?

- Is what I describe above common and do students often reject PhDs a bit into the application/admission process (when they do)?

- The project at institution B is a fully funded CDT, so if I reject it, the project is not going to go through. I was told by the supervisor that only I have been invited for an interview (of all candidates), which breaks my heart even more (since, of course, he would love his project to be funded and the only candidate likely to make that project happen is myself). How can I best navigate this additional complexity?

- Like I wrote above, I will accept the offer (for now) because there's a lot to lose, but I will still wait to hear back from the other options before I sign a contract. I fear that my email would surely make the supervisor think that I'm accepting the PhD and actually going for it, which wouldn't necessarily be the case (at least for now). Is there a lot to worry about?

I am really confused and I feel bad. Any thoughts and advice would be very much appreciated though - I am really overthinking this, and I wake up and fall asleep with thoughts about all these scenarios, emails, responses...

Thanks all! :)

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Accepting an offer and rejecting it later will more than likely burn a few bridges. The more specific your interests are, the smaller a world it is. Therefore, I would seriously consider if it is worth going back on an offer after accepting it. You state " Like I wrote above, I will accept the offer (for now) because there's a lot to lose, but I will still wait to hear back from the other options before I sign a contract. I fear that my email would surely make the supervisor think that I'm accepting the PhD and actually going for it, which wouldn't necessarily be the case (at least for now). Is there a lot to worry about?". Even if you do not sign a contract as of yet, your written intent to accept the offer cannot be taken any way other than you accepting thr offer and going with it. Your best bet is to reach out to the supervisor, explain how excited you are for the opportunity and that you are waiting on one more interview before you are comfortable making a final decision. Hopefully they are able to grant you an extension. 

Are you applying to US schools? If so, do they not abide by the April 15th guideline? Also, has school A stated they are still making decisions/have others heard back from them? Most PhD programs have finished interviewing by now and are sending out offers (at least in the US), but many programs don't send official rejections until they've filled their next year's class, just in case there's an off chance they have to dip back into the applicant pool. 

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Many thanks for responding!

I think you're absolutely right and these are my concerns as well - that it would be a nasty move on my part and that, in my heart, it's not something that I would actually want to do. However, since I will indeed be waiting to hear back from my other options for a long time, I simply don't really know how to approach the situation.

What if I try and stir option A to provide feedback on the premise that I've received another offer, which I need to confirm? I've heard some programs may kick into gear if a student informs the administration that they have already received another offer, but underscore that this very program is the one they are interested in the most. 

Otherwise, school A should come back with a decision by the end of March. School B will send me the offer coming week and I will have a few days to accept it. 

These are both British universities in this case.

Thanks again for thinking along :)


Edited by Razkolnikova
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