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The problem: I have a professor that accepted me to take on a thesis when i'm ready but another one offered me one also. The second one did it while the first professor was in the room and I felt the obligation to deny it, even though we have way better communication with the second one.

Both of them know each other very well (they even have neighboring offices) and denying one of them will complicate things and the worst case is that none of them will give me a thesis because I will seem too selfish.

The question: How can I choose the second one (if the offer is still on) without making a mess?

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Jeez, they're just people. Talk to them. –  JeffE Mar 3 at 4:58
@JeffE Professors are scary ogres who should be worshipped and feared from afar. Actually communicating with them might turn you to stone... –  Suresh Mar 3 at 8:09
@Suresh You've got it the wrong way round - if you can't get your way, just threaten to open the curtains, for the daylight will turn them to stone! Anna K - good students are a commodity. Professors will compete for them. It's good that you have choices! It sounds like no serious commitment has been made yet, so any professor who makes a big deal of you switching isn't one you would want to work for anyway. –  Moriarty Mar 3 at 10:37
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2 Answers 2

up vote 14 down vote accepted

I recently posted a question about being on the other side of this scenario - a professor in my university offered to take on a student who had already agreed to work with me (and had been working with me for the previous year already).

You'll notice from reading that question and its responses that while I was a bit annoyed with the professor, I wasn't upset with the student. In fact, I advised the student to choose the advisor he thought would be best for him, and gave him a good recommendation to the other professor in case that's what he chose.

That's because the student is supposed to act in his/her own best interest (while still being responsible and professional, of course). It's not being selfish, it's being smart.

The first professor shouldn't get upset with you for pursuing an opportunity that is better for you - if he/she does, then you really don't want to work with someone like that, anyways.

So, go talk to the second professor: "I was thinking some more about your offer to advise me on my thesis and I have reconsidered my original decision. Is the offer still available?"

If he/she says yes, accept the offer and go talk to the first professor: "I really appreciate your offer to advise me on my thesis, but I've decided to work with X instead. Thanks, again."

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I strongly agree with this answer. Remember: an adviser losing a student (in whom they've invested time) is an annoyance and a cost, but it is easily absorbable by the adviser in the long run. On the other hand, picking the correct adviser has a massive impact on the career of the student. It is implicit in the informal contract between student and adviser that, so long as the student is always honest with their adviser, the student will make career decisions in their own best interest. Stay far away from any adviser who would harm your career for their own gain. –  Jess Riedel Mar 4 at 19:12
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[I am assuming that you are in the American system where PhD students are admitted to and funded by the program as a whole rather than any particular advisor. I can't speak for the etiquette in other systems.]

I don't really see a problem here at all. At any time you can work with any faculty advisor who will have you. Switching advisors may seem awkward from the student perspective, but in fact it is very common. If you haven't even started working with one advisor, then no time has been invested in the advising relationship, and you can start working with someone else without any qualms whatsoever. (Even after you have started working with one advisor, you can still switch at any time, but if you've worked with one advisor for a while then it does start to feel a bit awkward. Sometimes one must do awkward things...)

If the two professors know each other well, then of course they will find out about it, yes, but it should not be embarrassing or problematic for them: it's just the way things work. If you are sure that you want to work with the second professor, talk to the second professor to make sure that this offer is still on the table. Then accept it and immediately tell the first professor that your plans have changed. No biggie.

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It's not the american system. The professor has to accept you and you are his responsibility not the university's. –  Anna K. Mar 3 at 3:23
@Anna: I see. Please edit your geographic information into your question, and I will delete this answer. –  Pete L. Clark Mar 3 at 3:35
This helps, no need to delete. I'm looking for a more personal perspective that points out the dangers/stepbacks and maybe how they overcame them. –  Anna K. Mar 3 at 3:47
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