I am a student with an MSc in Physics who is supposed to start a PhD next month. The reason I am writing is the bad psychological situation I ended up after a hard choice between grad programs. I will try to go straight to the point omitting details on how frustrating the whole application period was. After many rejections last year and the year before, I was in the initially pleasant position to receive four offers. After long thought I reduced them to two, which ended up turning the whole thing into a nightmare.
Place A: The school that I did my MSc. I would continue in similar topics with a different and very young supervisor in the same research group as my MSc (it's a bit more complicated than that but anyway...). I left and now I regret it.
Place B: The place that I accepted to do my PhD even though I haven't visited it yet. Not sure about the exact topic, but it is supposed to be similar to A. It is slightly more well known as a name and the supervisor is widely considered as one of the top researchers in his field.
None of the schools are top-10 super prestigious but the Prof. in B can be regarded at this level, if not better.
I admit I made mistakes in the decision process but that's not important since I cannot turn back time. I was never 100% confident with my choice and when I rejected A it felt bad. But I had the same buyer's remorse feeling when I rejected the rest of the schools too, so I thought it is going to pass in a week or so. Here I am, four months later, feeling MUCH worse! I lost all motivation to work, let my father make all the arrangements for B (accommodation etc.), and did not even help him, I am constantly procrastinating everything related and even started having bad habits, like wasting time in computer games, unhealthy eating and sleeping every day after 4am. Starting a PhD this way is probably not going to have the best outcome.
To be fair, the whole thing is indeed partly in my mind, but there are also some facts that changed recently and made A look better now. It has to do with location - I had personal reasons to prefer B's location which do not exist anymore (no, not girlfriend). Moreover, I would definitely prefer A's location for a job (after graduation), hence staying in A for PhD could help career-wise.
I should also note that the offer from A is not officially on the table anymore, so one might think the whole thing is pointless. On the other hand, I had good relations and they seemed satisfied with me during the MSc, so with a bit of luck I might be able to get an offer for next year, if I try. Of course the whole wrong decision/regret story could hurt my chances, so nothing is certain in this direction.
The way I see it, now there are a few options now:
Drop out from B prior starting and try to get an offer from A for next year (or as early as possible). This is going to piss off B but it is still better than starting, wasting their time and funding and not giving my 100% self because of my problems. It is also possible that A might stop being interested anymore, but I will get in touch with them and explain the situation before letting the other option. I also get an unexplainable gap year in my CV which might hurt in future job search.
Be honest with everyone. Tell A that I want to go to them but I am commited to B and discuss with B why I don't feel very excited starting there. This can have a bunch of different outcomes, from managing to go back to A with everyone happy, staying to B with everyone happy or even losing both options. In any case, it is probably morally correct to follow this route but also tough. Telling to my new supervisor "I chose you but I feel that I don't want to be here" is not the optimal way to start a relation.
Start normally at B and pretend everything is ok. Since I have never been to the place there is a possibility that I'll like it and get better with time. This sounds very unlikely now but things might change with time. On the other hand, things can get worse and depending on how bad, it might be possible to continue half hearted (hardly to do a PhD this way) or eventually drop out. In this case nobody knows whether it will be possible to get readmitted to A or anywhere else as dropping out of a program definitely raises questions.
Anyway, if you read everything and reached this line, thank you very much. Honestly, I don't expect the forum to solve my internet as I probably need professional assistance, but writing things down helps me in any case. Since, I spent the time to do it, I thought it would be great to share, for people who have been in a similar position, others that are just interested in such stories or even someone who might have a piece of advice, which is of course very welcome.
First I would like to thank the people who read my message, particularly the people who answered for the effort they put without having anything to gain. I really appreciate that.
I am adding this update to give some more details related to Allure's great questions. I did not analyze the reasons for my choice because my message was already long and I tried to focus on my current problem.
To answer the first question: the truth is that I was never sure (even now), in the sense that even if I stayed at A it is likely that I would still be in a similar situation about not choosing B. Or it could be easier since there would be less uncertainty as I already have experience with A, nobody knows. So I admit that I did not have the courage to handle the situation properly, but I cannot erase the second thoughts I have now either.
I am not the most outgoing person but still asked people for advice, probably not as much as I should have done, though. Most of the answers were pretty much like Allure's comment, that both seem good choices. Even my A supervisor who would probably like me to stay there spoke highly for B, too.
I should also mention that my supervisor at A would be different from my MSc supervisor and I would be his first PhD student. I would also be in a different nearby institute but I would be possible to work closely with the old group too. For Buffy's thought, being supervisor's first student (A) vs super-star supervisor (B - 80k citations, more than 20 students in his group, etc) is another open question with many different answers, even in the current website. I searched a lot about that and nothing really convinced me.
I wouldn't say there is a material change like Brexit. Probably the most accurate answer is that I made the wrong choice with the info I had. However things happened during the summer too, which made me reconsider. To explain the timing, I accepted/rejected the offers in May, my second thoughts started end of June and they aggravated during summer. When I chose B, my project in A wasn't going very well - I had some good numerical results that my supervisor liked but I lacked deep understanding. Also, the supervisor did not spend much time on this. All this, combined with the fame of B supervisor, as well as the fact that B is geographically closer to my home were the reasons for the initial choice.
What changed: When I arrived back home, the feeling of being close to home (one of B's pros) became much less important. My ties with my parents don't feel as strong as before for personal and work reasons and I think it was very immature and remnant from my undergrad that I even considered distance for the PhD choice. Without the distance fact, I would prefer A's location because of the language (English). B is in Europe and I do not speak the country's language (not need for work, though). But more importantly than that there's research. I said it wasn't going well until early May, but the situation changed drastically in the last 1.5 month. The supervisor showed interest, the project went much better and I really enjoyed my final presentation. In fact we were even preparing a publication, something that was put on hold since I left. To sum up:
When I decided I felt lost in A anyway, so I would have to start over no matter where I went. So I thought of trying in a new place closer to home (B).
Now I know that if I stayed in A I would already have something to start working on and even get a paper out quickly. B seems like starting from scratch again and in a location (environment outside the institute) that might be not very friendly, considering the language problem. Of course, I will never know if I don't go, but I have trouble being positive about it and that's not good.