So the school that I got into for m PhD program offers a simple admission deferral process that I'd like to apply for, for personal reasons (I don't want to use this post to discuss whether or not I should defer; assume that the personal reasons are serious enough, because they are). This could defer my admission one year, to fall 2019.

My question is, would it be very unprofessional/unethical to also apply to other schools during my deferral period? It seems silly to throw away my offer, since I would like to take it, but I would also like to see where else I may be able to get in. Would it be better to simply rescind my acceptance, rather than having the department believe that I am certain on my intentions to enroll in a year?

Edit to clarify: The decision to defer is due to the personal reasons that I mentioned above, and not because I take issue with the program to which I've been admitted. If not for the personal reasons, I would go to school now. But, if I'm going to be deferring at all anyway, it would seem imprudent to not at least try my hand and open up the future by applying elsewhere. Telling the department about the personal issues and leaving out the previous sentence, though, does seem wrong.

  • I would suspect that departments have an estimated probability of deferred students not ultimately enrolling. There could be many reasons why. But, if you are happy with this school, what do you think is a good reason to go somewhere else instead? And is that reason real or imagined?
    – Jon Custer
    Jun 6, 2018 at 16:00
  • @JonCuster It's just that my GRE score is the only thing that held me back from getting into a bunch of other schools as well as this one. So, if I'm deferring for a year, I feel that I may as well take it again and see what happens. I'd be interested in being able to have more living situations as options for the next 5 years, as would my partner. The city that I did get into is nice, but we probably wouldn't live there otherwise. Jun 6, 2018 at 16:16
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    While it is possible that a GRE score was the sole reason, that is not guaranteed by any means. Living options (and work options) for partners is a good reason, at least to me. But, just trying to get into a ‘better’ school, where ‘better’ is not well defined, isn’t.
    – Jon Custer
    Jun 6, 2018 at 16:20
  • It does seem unethical to tell a school you're deferring for very important personal reasons (I believe you), but to use their generosity - they don't like having one fewer student now and one extra next year - to boost your GRE score and go somewhere else. Would you really feel comfortable messaging the graduate student advisor and telling them exactly this? Jun 6, 2018 at 16:26
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    @Anonymous Personally, I would not do this (and I have considered that I may defer next year, check my Q history), it strikes me as rude and very uncool, but I'll let a person on the other side of admission answer. Jun 6, 2018 at 16:35

3 Answers 3


I think the question is really when do you become committed to a graduate school. Once you understand that, then you can understand how a deferral fits into that picture. Given you mentioned GREs, I am going to assume US based graduate schools.

Generally, no one considers a student as being committed to a graduate school at the time of application. We expect students to apply to lots of schools and compare offers and choose whatever is best for them (including possibly not going to graduate school). This is the driving force behind wait lists.

Once you accept an offer people generally think of you as being committed. That said, some students accept an offer and do not remove themselves from all wait lists and if they get a better offer, break the commitment to the first school. Faculty do not like this, but we tend to have short memories and are fairly forgiving of minor slights.

Once you start attending graduate school you are committed. Transfers once you are a student are rare and tend to piss faculty off unless there is a good reason for it (e.g., your advisor moved, they canceled your specialization, you are being harassed by a faculty member or student, someone dies). While we are forgetful and forgiving, we can also be vengeful.

As a deferred student, you are somewhere between having accepted the offer and having started school. No one has invested time in you, so it is not a huge deal if you back out. That said, the earlier you back out the better. I would no try to break the offer after next years decision deadline. In other words, if you don't get accepted someplace right off the bat, you cannot count on the wait list.

In my opinion, breaking the commitment prior to admissions decisions being sent out is not a huge deal. Breaking the commitment after admissions decisions are sent out, but before wait lists are being used is pushing the envelop of what I think is acceptable. Breaking the commitment after the decision deadline is too late.

  • Your last sentence doesn't make much sense to me-- the deferral option is specifically offered in the case that unforseen circumstances affect a students ability to enroll. So, what do you mean in saying that this unforseen circumstance came "too late"? Are you saying that, since the decision deadline has passed, that it is unreasonable for me to consider deferment, which is specifically offered for situations like mine? I haven't enrolled yet, and that should be enough. Jun 6, 2018 at 18:33
  • I do understand, however, if you wouldn't see me as breaking any commitments if I did defer, but also didn't apply anywhere else, giving the school my promise to attend next year. But, what if I do defer and apply elsewhere, don't get it, and still end up going to this school after the deferment period? Have I still betrayed the school in principle, in your eyes? It doesn't make sense to me to throw away the offer, and it also doesn't make sense to lock myself into it if I have an extra year to live life. Would you think it better to rescind altogether and reapply? Jun 6, 2018 at 18:36
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    @Anonymous StrongBad is talking about the time at which you would eventually revoke admission and saying that to do so immediately in the spring you apply is least intrusive, to do so after actually starting work at the school is the most intrusive, and to do so while deferring admission is somewhere in between. SB is saying if you do apply to another school, the latest you should accept that offer is before the 2019 acceptance deadline (i.e. April in the US), to give the school you deferred time to offer to someone else.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jun 6, 2018 at 18:37
  • Also, this answer seems much more reasonable to me than your position. Do you have thoughts on what is said there? Jun 6, 2018 at 18:38

I think it is at minimum rude, and probably unethical.

In deferring, you have still accepted a position. If you use the remaining time to do things other than what you said you were going to do, you are taking advantage of the generosity of the offered deferral (which, I would add, is not a guarantee everywhere - they are generous to offer it).

I can see a couple possible exceptions:

  1. If the reason for applying to another school is also related to a serious personal issue (for example: to be near an ill family member, to be near an institution responsible for your own care, because a certain climate is important to your health, for immigration/travel reasons).

  2. If there is no offer of funding/support from the school, then in my opinion you are less beholden to them, and they are less impacted by if you are to later withdraw your acceptance. In this case you should almost certainly pursue other offers.

  3. If the deferral process really is that simple, where the reason you give doesn't really matter: they are just allowing you to take a year for any reason. I think this sort of thing is more common in undergraduate rather than graduate admissions (especially for a PhD), though I don't have enough personal experience to say. I would still suggest talking to someone at the school before deciding this is the case.

I would also add that I think you could be vastly overestimating the importance of attending a particular school and paying far too much attention to ranking. While I was writing this answer, @JonCuster posted what I think is a very important comment to consider, coming from the perspective of someone who has spent a lot of time here at Academia.SE:

..."I see too many questions here about changing to get into a ‘better’ school, with little thought given to what makes it ‘better’ - some random ranking does not make it better. You appear to have thought through it a bit more, so keep thinking!"

If you do want to look at other options because you aren't certain about attending this school, I would suggest discussing this with them rather than rescinding your acceptance outright. If I were them, however, I would have much preferred to admit a student this year that actually wants to go to this school rather than waiting a year to take someone who doesn't.

  • I think it is mostly your exception #1 that applies to me. Like I said, if it wasn't for my personal reasons, I would go happily to the university which admitted me. And I never said anything about the schools ranking or status, I never even expressed desire to find a "better" school, so I dunno why there is emphasis being put on that. The school which admitted me is actually rather prestigious and well known in my field. Continued... Jun 6, 2018 at 18:27
  • So I'm not just making a foolish decision; I have many reasons, some of which I describe here, and I do have a good idea of what my academics would be like at this department, rather than just thinking about the school's status. I have already been speaking to a potential advisor about research projects, and understand how the group there fits into (and doesn't fit into) my ambitions. In regards to your other two exceptions: yes, I do have funding from the school, though that is standard in my field, and yes the deferral process seems fairly straightforward. Jun 6, 2018 at 18:27
  • @Anonymous Your statement "I would also like to see where else I may be able to get in" is a cue that you are looking for better options, as well as your comment about "It's just that my GRE score is the only thing that held me back from getting into a bunch of other schools as well as this one." I included those exceptions because in the comments you did talk about other living circumstances as a motivation. Hope my answer was helpful, and I think StrongBad's answer is also excellent (and upvoted by me), especially in terms of how commitment increases throughout the process.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jun 6, 2018 at 18:34

The main reason why people say exploring other options is rude or unethical is that you are wasting a precious spot that could have been offered to someone else. However, this assumption is quite questionable for a few reasons:

  1. If this assumption alone makes such exploration unethical, then transferring to a more suitable program or dropping out to explore other career options should be considered unethical as well (but they are not). In fact, these are probably more "unethical" in the sense that you have already taken up resources from the school / program. The dropout rate is >=20% even for top programs (statistic taken from a top 10 CS PhD program).

  2. As StrongBad pointed out, breaking the offer before next year's decision deadline would open up the spot for someone else - this is the entire point of the waitlist. Or, who knows, maybe the program have already accepted someone else this year, after knowing your decision to defer.

  3. The Council of Graduate Schools April 15 agreement clearly states that "Starting in Fall 2020, applicants are no longer required to obtain a formal release from the program whose offer they accepted, either before or after the April 15 deadline." If the school you are deferring is a member institution, then they would abide by this, since deferral is a form of acceptance.

Of course, it is definitely much easier for the school / program if all deferees actually attend. However, I wonder whether such administrative convenience is all we should take into account, especially when school choice has a much bigger impact on the student compared to the program itself.

Also, from a practical stand point, schools don't systematically share information on applicants (it's a privacy thing!), so such exploration should be fine, given that you are considerate enough to actually break the old offer before next years decision deadline.

Finally, a student is allowed to drop out any time from their PhD program, including during the deferral period, for any reason. Of course, the student should be considerate with his/her actions, but most issues have nothing to do with ethics.

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