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Pressure to commit before an offer?


littlered78

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Okay, longtime lurker, first time poster-- I have my first dilemma on my hands. I don't know how things work in admissions committees and in departments, so I hope someone can tell me if these profs are dealing appropriately with me, and what my next move might be.

I applied for a PhD in Education in the small department in which I already got a Master's, School A, and for an Ed.D in a large university, School B. (The names of the schools are less important than the situation, and I'm a little paranoid about posting-- please forgive the vagueness.)

I asked my professor at School A to write me a letter of recommendation for both schools (in other words, she knew I was applying elsewhere). In all honesty I became more excited about School B as I was going through the application-- the department seemed much more exciting and my research interests have changed significantly since getting my Master's, to fit the professors at School B.

Well, I got a phone call from the head of the department at School A, asking me, "Why do you want to get a PhD?" He then explained that there is only one funded doctoral student in the department next year and would I be willing to go part time with no funding. I was polite and cordial and asked to think about it. Then I emailed him and said that financially I couldn't go part time.

Three days later I got a phone call from my recommending professor, asking me what my thoughts on doctoral work are. I was puzzled, but answered that I'm passionate about it. She told me that the head of the department "wasn't convinced of my enthusiasm" and that I needed to "do something to make it clear to him." I asked her if she meant I should call him? (I felt really uncomfortable with this.) She said, "I don't know, I don't mean kiss his a++, but let him know how much you want this." I said still that I wasn't sure what she meant, and that I didn't know how he got the impression that I wasn't enthusiastic (I had definitely been enthusiastic on the phone!). She said she would ask him more and get back to me. I was mystified.

The next time I heard from her it was an email, four days after our call, and it said:

"It was great to speak with you on the phone. I think, in sum, that _______ just needs to be assured that you are enthusiastic about accepting the offer (when offered) and that you can be a team player and will be eager to be a part of the ______ community. Otherwise, its very exciting!"

So, now, what is she ASKING? Is she asking me to promise that I will accept an offer? I can't promise that when I haven't even heard from School B (might not hear for over a month), and even if I had heard from them, I don't know what the offer IS. Is this kind of thing usual? Are she and the head having doubts about me because they know I applied to another school as well (a very prestigious one)? Are the doubts because I don't want to go part time?

More importantly, if I am NOT willing to commit to an offer before I get it, is there a graceful way to say this without burning bridges with a professor who up until now has been really great to me and really great to work with??

Thank you for any ideas. I am really stymied.

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It's an awkward situation and unfortunately I don't have good ideas about how to get out of it. In general, it seems that because of the funding situation, certain (mostly public) schools are in the position of [a] only having very limited funding for graduate students, and it may be impossible for them to "re-offer" a funding package to someone further down the list, if the first student they offered it to declines. In that case, schools may find that they prefer to first give a "hypothetical" offer to applicants to test their response, and only make real offers to those who seemed enthusiastic about the offer and likely to accept it. The trouble is, oftentimes they do this before they have exact details about the funding package, and before applicants hear back from other schools. When I was confronted with that situation, I withdrew my application. But then, that school wasn't one of my favorites. It seems to me that the school is putting you in an impossible situation. To give yourself the best chance, you should say that you are very enthusiastic and would certainly accept an offer, if made (assuming that this *is* one of your top choices). If you end up choosing another offer, however, you have to take into account that you may upset people at school A and you may burn some bridges there. If they are honest, understanding people, they will know that they placed you in an impossible situation and you had to do what was best for yourself. But some people may be nonetheless peeved, so you have to weigh your options carefully. Sorry that I can't give you a more helpful answer.

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All the professors I've talked to have been very understanding about the need to look at different offers and make campus visits before committing to a program. If this program is going to sort of hold you hostage, honestly I think it's a program you'd be better off skipping anyway.

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If this program is going to sort of hold you hostage, honestly I think it's a program you'd be better off skipping anyway.

Unfortunately it's not that simple. The financial situation in certain states puts schools in an almost impossible situation where they could end up with a small cohort and not making use of the limited funds they do have if they just make admissions offers in the usual way; they need to be sure their offers will be accepted, or else they may end up with no international students at all (that was my case - they could only offer admissions to one international student and couldn't re-offer the spot), no students in a particular sub-field, or worst - no students at all. I think we should be understanding of their predicament. That said, my advice above was to fake enthusiasm, as long as it's generally there, because in the end us students need to do what is best for us, not what is best for the school.

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Unfortunately it's not that simple. The financial situation in certain states puts schools in an almost impossible situation where they could end up with a small cohort and not making use of the limited funds they do have if they just make admissions offers in the usual way; they need to be sure their offers will be accepted, or else they may end up with no international students at all (that was my case - they could only offer admissions to one international student and couldn't re-offer the spot), no students in a particular sub-field, or worst - no students at all. I think we should be understanding of their predicament. That said, my advice above was to fake enthusiasm, as long as it's generally there, because in the end us students need to do what is best for us, not what is best for the school.

Thanks to both of you for your input. I ultimately decided that I don't need to withdraw my application or anything, but I also don't need to tell them that I will definitely accept an offer. I wrote very friendly and enthusiastic emails to both the professor and the head of the department and didn't commit to anything.

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