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I have received an offer to visit a lab for 4/5 months that could lead into a fully funded PhD. In the meantime I have other applications in the pipeline from which I will hear back in either a few weeks or a couple of months (just different educational systems).

I am excited about going to this lab but I want to wait to have all my offers on the table before commiting to a program. Also I am not sure yet if I will be able to develop in this lab the project I have in mind. However the PI of the lab is highly regarded in the field.

If I were to leave the lab I would want to leave in the best note possible not to burn my bridges with this person and institution.

I am sure the PI knows I might have applied elsewhere and also although it is likely that this visit will turn into a PhD there is also a small chance it will not.

What would be the best way to handle this situation in an ethical and correct way, and not disappointed anybody?

PS: I will get paid in this period but not as much as PhD student. Let me know if more information is needed.

EDIT: So apparently by the end of the visit I will present a PhD proposal, so I hope that at that point it will not be too late to answer other offers.

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Is this the same as an open-house? If so, I doubt there would be any conditions imposed on you to accept their offer. –  Naresh Dec 4 '12 at 10:49
    
I am not sure what an open-house is. Myself and the PI applied for a "visiting student grant" and got it. –  user4050 Dec 4 '12 at 11:11
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This will depend on all of the institutions involved, but I expect it should work out for you. I am sure the laboratory making the offer must be familiar with this situation, so the first thing I would do is talk to them about the various contingencies. Then for the other offers, as they come in, you will have to explain you are getting experience in this laboratory and give them the date you expect to know whether or not you can accept their offer. If they insist on knowing sooner, then you can take it up with your PI.

It may not be easy emotionally (decisions between good offers can feel very hard even though really neither choice would be "wrong"), but I think it is very unlikely that you will be disadvantaged by taking the opportunity to work in a prestigious lab. Some of the other offers may be willing to wait, and for the ones that can't, they may allow you to reapply if you don't receive the offer you want.

There is a slight chance that the PI is taking advantage of you this way, but if so I'm sure they will have a reputation for that, and the first person to make you another offer would let you know you are better off leaving even if it does "burn a bridge". Then you may need to ask around a little more to be sure who to believe. But it is more likely you are in a win/win situation – you get experience either way, and if a really nice offer comes along from another lab, probably your PI will be OK with you taking it, and you can finish their work up before going and taking up the new offer.

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In general, I think so long as you and the PI in question are forthright about your mutual expectations, there should be very few problems.

If the PI who is offering you the position is planning on having you become a PhD student, then that should be made clear. Similarly, if you'd like to consider other options, then you should let your potential advisor know that a "competition" will be taking place.

However, since you said you'd be writing a PhD proposal, it's not clear that you'd automatically have a guaranteed offer for a position at the end of this position if successful. This should also be cleared up before you make a final decision.

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