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Pissing off a prof with my Grad School Decision??


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So here's some backstory, I did an internship in Prof X's lab two summers ago at school B.  I loved the research but the lab environment was not very friendly.

 

So I applied to school B since I asked prof X for letters of rec. I visited only 3 of the 5 schools I got accepted to.  I didn't visit school B since I had spent a summer there and I had limited number of visits to make, I needed to see other programs I told Prof X this back in Feb very politely.  

 

So in the meantime, I visit School A and I loved school A, the research is awesome, the profs really recruited me, and the cherry on top was that I got the prestigious Y fellowship to school A for 37K/yr for 3 years, travel funds and no teaching etc. Pretty boss.  School B offered me a stipend of only 25K and with required teaching duties.  I made my decision to go to school A.  Before I got a chance to tell Prof X of my final decision (which I made monday evening), I got an email on Tues saying,

 

"Hi Throwaway Chemist

I hope you have had nice visits to graduate schools! I was worried that 
the fact that you did not schedule to visit School B might have meant 
that we are lower on your list. I am writing to tell you that we, 
especially myself, would be very excited to have you back for graduate 
school (well, that was essentially the most important thing I wrote in 
my recommendation letter for you that probably got you into most of the 
graduate schools you applied for).

Even though you have spent the summer at School B, a lot of new things 
are happening here. In the specific case of our group, we have a lot of 
new research projects growing rapidly even in the last 2 years (for 
example, you probably have not seen Grad Student's first paper in JACS). You can 
see some of the updated research in our recently updated research webpages.

Let me know if you have questions and would like to talk more on the phone.

Prof X"

 

I replied back with,

 

"Dear Prof. X,

I am especially grateful for your letters of recommendation!  I was only able to arrange three graduate school visits of the five schools I was accepted to since I also went to ACS.  Anymore visits would have been too much travel and missing too many classes. 

I was going to email you today anyway to inform you I was not recommended for the NSF fellowship.  I had good comments from reviewers so I will try again next year!  I saw Grad Student's paper in JACS last spring, it is a really great paper!  That's very exciting for her, congrats!  

In terms of research, School B and School A were at the top of my list of graduate schools.  All in all, the decision process was a very difficult as both schools have phenomenal research and facilities.  However, I was awarded the Y Fellowship at School A so that is what ultimately tipped my decision to attend School A for graduate school.   

I very much enjoyed my time working in your lab.  It has been very instrumental in forming my academic career!  I thank you for your continued support.  I hope I will be able to continue to scientifically interact with you and your lab group more in the future!

Respectfully, 

Throwawaychemist"

 

Well he shoots back with...

 

"Dear Throwawaychemist

Sorry to hear that you did not get the NSF fellowship this time. I would 
imagine that you were highly competitive, but I think there was some 
recent shift from NSF to fund more current graduate students than senior 
undergraduate students. Both of the second year students in the group,

 got it this time (their 2nd try).

I am surprised that, in the end, you are thinking about School A mainly due 
to their fellowship... I was thinking maybe you are attracted to 
programs such as Berkeley, Stanford, etc...,  which are obviously more 
competitive than School B or School A and alike. [editor's note: I didn't even apply

to these programs and school A & B are ranked just beneath those schools]

The materials chemistry area at School A is much less strong than School B,

the fellowship is just a short term thing (if you keep trying with a better research proposal,

you will very likely get an NSF fellowship in graduate school), at least in my 
mind that should not be the major factor in your choice of the graduate 
program.  Plus City of School A is just much less interesting place than City of School B. 
Most of my graduate students had the options of going to School A when they 
were going to graduate school.

Perhaps I should have persuaded you to visit School B again this spring, 
so you have a more clear comparison between the different programs. 
After all, you have learned and seen much more about research in the 
last 2 years. If you want to make a ad voc visit, I think this could 
still happen, especially if you drive here.

If useful, we can talk more on the phone about these.
Prof X"

 

TLDR; I pissed off a prof I did an undergrad internship for by choosing a different school.  

 

IMO, this prof was really disrespectful.  I am totally confident in my choice of grad school.  But at this point I don't even know what to say so I haven't responded & I'm not sure even I even should. I'm just surprised he is so upset.  He wrote letters for my Goldwater Scholarship (which was successful), NSF fellowships and grad schools... now I feel like I can't ask him for any more LORs. I have other references, but I really don't want to burn bridges this early in my career.

 

Has anyone had anything similar happen to them? Any advice on how I should handle this?

Edited by throwawaychemist
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I am not reading this email as upset at all, but as being friendly and supportive about the NSF fellowship and still trying to recruit you as a graduate student. Personally I think this email makes some very good points in that I too would consider the fellowship and teaching requirements not as important a factor in my decision and that the school, environment, advising, opportunities, etc. are much more important. This is of course just me and you can have other priorities. For me, once it's clear that the stipend I am being offered is sufficient to live reasonably well, that's no longer a consideration. Teaching is also important in terms of getting important experience, as long as it's not excessive, so not having any teaching requirements isn't necessarily a good thing. Once it's been established that the stipend and teaching requirements are reasonable, it's then all about the research fit and opportunities I'd have at each school that meets these initial criteria. I think that this professor is trying to tell you that the experiences you had a few summers ago in the lab might not be current anymore, so the research and fit are good and you should know that. If you're still convinced that school A is right for you, that's of course within your rights. But honestly I think it might be wise to give school B a shot and take the invitation to visit seriously. 

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Sorry I should have been more clear.  I had made my final decision to go to School A BEFORE I found out about the fellowship.  I love the research at A school, I've already established solid relationships with my top PI and other profs at school A and there were other factors of course!  So I was set on going there anyway, the fellowship was an added benefit... It was not the sole or even main factor. I realize I didn't convey that very well.  Even though I am not required to teach, I know it is important experience to have so I probably will anyway. But with this fellowship I can choose when I want to teach and which classes. It will be nice to not have to teach and take courses at the same time so I can focus on my research.    I have already made the official decision & notified school A.  Perhaps I am reading his emails wrong & it's not a big deal. But I still don't know how to reply to his most recent email. 

Edited by throwawaychemist
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My current PI and other letter writers have stressed then when I tell profs that I have chosen to attend another school that you should not discuss the reasons why and should NEVER mention money as a reason. From his point of you, it could look like you are chasing after money instead of science, which he is pointing out as a problem. I think the points he makes are correct... you should be more concerned with science than money and the email that you sent to him says otherwise. He doesnt sound pissed at all. It sounds like he wants you in his lab and is trying to recruit you, while also being a good mentor and explaining that you should not make a big decision like this solely because of money.

 

I sort of think you got yourself in trouble with that first email. You should chose your graduate school based on science and research fit. The other aspects should be secondary to the science. It sounds like you DO like the science and environment more at school A and just didnt want to say this to spare his feelings. I totally understand why you framed it to be about money but I also think that caused reaction on his end since he doesnt think this decision should be about money. I think you need to email him back, very kindly, and explain that you feel confident in your decision to attend school A since it seems all around like the perfect fit for you. I would mention that you still love his work and would be honored to work with him again in the future.

Edited by bsharpe269
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Oh man I didn't think of it that way... I thought it would be insulting to him if I said I liked the research and environment at school A better and thought school A was a better fit.  I basically just used the fellowship as an excuse to so I didn't have to say I didn't like School B as much.  The money really was not my main factor. As I mentioned in my previous post, I had made my final decision to go to School A BEFORE I found out about the fellowship.  I love the research at A school, I've already established solid relationships with my top PI and other profs at school A and there were other factors of course!  So I was set on going there anyway, the fellowship was an added benefit... It was not the sole or even main factor. I realize I didn't convey that very well.  

Edited by throwawaychemist
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Oh man I didn't think of it that way... I thought it would be insulting to him if I said I liked the research and environment at school A better and thought school A was a better fit. I basically just used the fellowship as an excuse to so I didn't have to say I didn't like School B as much. The money really was not my main factor. As I mentioned in my previous post, I had made my final decision to go to School A BEFORE I found out about the fellowship. I love the research at A school, I've already established solid relationships with my top PI and other profs at school A and there were other factors of course! So I was set on going there anyway, the fellowship was an added benefit... It was not the sole or even main factor. I realize I didn't convey that very well.

I think this is an easy mistake to make... I would avoid getting into specific reasons in additional emails if possible. I would just stay vague and say that you feel like you will be really there and it's a perfect fit. I don't think this will result in any burned bridges with this guy! It sounds like you have been professional and I'm sure he will understand.

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Alright so what if I said something like this:
 
"Dear Prof. X,
 
I realize I didn't explain myself clearly.  I feel confident that I will be able to get some sort of outside fellowship during my graduate career so you are correct in that the fellowship was not the main factor in my decision.   There were many other factors that went into making my choice!  I really liked the research at School A and I feel confident in my decision.  I'm sorry I wasn't able to visit School B, but I would be honored to work with you again in the future."
Edited by throwawaychemist
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Agree with everyone else that the prof's response does NOT appear pissed off at all. In fact, they are still trying to convince you to come visit the program one more time! 

 

I agree with rising_star that since you are now certain of your choice for School A, just respond with your last sentence. 

 

For future reference (or for anyone else reading this), I strongly recommend not including any reasons at all when you decline offers. My advice would be to simply thank them for all their help in visits/emails/chats/etc, say that you are not going to accept their offer, say where you decided to go (optional), and close with something like "I hope to see you again at future conferences or collaborate with you again etc.". Don't give reasons and especially do not criticize their program. If you had especially meaningful interactions with the prof, then you should address that in your letter too. 

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For future reference (or for anyone else reading this), I strongly recommend not including any reasons at all when you decline offers. My advice would be to simply thank them for all their help in visits/emails/chats/etc, say that you are not going to accept their offer, say where you decided to go (optional), and close with something like "I hope to see you again at future conferences or collaborate with you again etc.". Don't give reasons and especially do not criticize their program. If you had especially meaningful interactions with the prof, then you should address that in your letter too. 

 

I wish I had read this yesterday. I emailed a POI to explain why I was turning down the offer at Program A. I didn't want to say anything about funding so I mentioned that Program B's non-teaching years were attractive and, I thought, conducive to my graduate development, which he took as me belittling TAs in his program. I quickly responded and tried to clear up the matter and he said he understood but it was not a great feeling.

 

So yeah, I totally back this advice up 100%, having learned from experience.

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I agree 100% - professors you know closely who are trying to recruit you can be touchy about their own programs, so giving reasons is not necessary.

 

That said, I also agree that he doesn't seem pissed - but even if he is...whatever! This your your career. Any PI who gets pissed off because you didn't attend his program but made a choice that was better for you personally and professionally is at the very least not in touch with the reality of life for his students, at at worst not a great advisor at all.

 

Also...saying that a fellowship should not be an important consideration is totally something a professor with a full salary would say. Of course it's important - there's a big difference between $37,000 and $25,000. I mean, of course I agree that once the stipend pays the living costs in a particular place it's not as important a consideration, but if two schools are otherwise equal in my mind with similar facilities, research, and faculty - that's almost an extra $1,000 a month! I think it's also not great to tell students that they have good chances of getting an NSF (you can't ever really know) and city comparisons are subjective (I love living in State College, PA, more than I've liked living in NYC for the past couple years).

 

So basically, you are the one who has to do the PhD and you are the one who has to bear the effects that has on your life.

 

As for how to respond, I would go with something vague: "Thanks so much for your advice, Prof X! I am confident in my decision to attend School A. I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to visit School B again, and it'd be wonderful to continue our collaboration in the future!"

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It seems that the Prof may be thinking that you have not notified school A yet, and so he's trying to recruit you. imo a nice think to do would have been to ask him for advice before making your decision; now it's obviously too late, but I would recommend talking to him on skype b/c talking in person can help you adjust what you say according to his responses and body language and thus clear the misunderstanding: just as you might be misinterpreting his reaction, so might he. Besides, since he wrote you LORs, you must thank him properly anyway. So I'd say skype in, apologize for choosing a different program, thank him for support, enthuse about his projects and suggest avenues for collaboration between the two labs if at all possible.

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The exact same thing happened to me. I applied to a masters program in the same school where I did my undergrad and my professor wouldn't stop calling me, emailing me, and trying to recruit me. However, I received a much better offer from another university so I had to turn that university down. At the end of the day, every professor who likes you and has been close to you will seem more personal while trying to recruit. They aren't trying to be rude - they genuinely think that their program is the best and that you should be there. Therefore, just be cordial and say that you are very sorry but you've already made your decision. I'm sure your prof will understand.

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I think others have made good points about the situation. My only comment would be to try speaking to him on the phone. It seems like he really wants to talk you into this so if I were in your shoes, I would try calling instead of consuming time thinking and writing emails. It would probably be a better way of kindly rejecting his offer or reconsidering it. 

 

Good luck! 

Edited by niceweather
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