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Can I accept a PhD offer and later withdraw from the program before it even starts? Is there an etiquette for that?

I really want to do a PhD but they have put a deadline in accepting and I am currently interviewing with companies. Please advise.

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    Is a PhD program effectively your backup plan? That's probably the worst reason to do a PhD and I wouldn't recommend it. – Bryan Krause Apr 12 at 15:28
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    If you have an offer for a PhD but are still waiting to interview with companies then it sounds like you don't really want to do a PhD. – astronat Apr 12 at 15:29
  • @BryanKrause Good point but PhD is not my backup plan, but neither my first plan. I want to do research and work with novel ideas and producing results in a collaborative environment. Sadly most jobs in my field do not involve that and the entry barrier to actually get a job that involves that requires a PhD MOST of the times. PhD is just a way to get there to me either if I can't do it with my master's degree. – user99355 Apr 12 at 17:13
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Can I accept a PhD offer and later withdraw from the program before it even starts?

Yes, of course you can. They won't force you to enroll and they won't come after you legally. It's certainly not worth anyone's time. However, it does harm the department's planning because they might not be able to fill your spot. For more discussion, see the comments on this answer.

Is there an etiquette for that?

Yes, the etiquette is to not do that. It's rude and you will burn bridges. A spot that could have been offered to another student may be lost. But if you're quitting to move to industry, you probably don't care anyway.

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    Actually, if you don't wait too long, they probably will be able to fill the slot. There is likely to be a waiting list. – Buffy Apr 12 at 16:29
  • @Buffy Language softened, although I was considering if the OP is still interviewing, they might not be done with interviews for another month or so, which might make it more challenging. – Azor Ahai Apr 12 at 16:30
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    If they had no problem filling the slot with someone else they found just as acceptable, they wouldn't have put the deadline. The later it gets the more people will commit elsewhere. – A Simple Algorithm Apr 12 at 18:32
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    I get what @ASimpleAlgorithm is trying to say: If you make 20 offers and one quickly declines, you can get #21 on your list. But if someone you've made an offer waits for a long time, #21...40 of your list have likely made commitments to another university somewhere because they were still good enough to get in somewhere. You may only get #41 on your list to accept the now open spot -- or maybe no-one at all who you thought was acceptable to your program. In other words, it does put the department in a bad spot, and it's justified to consider the behavior rude. – Wolfgang Bangerth Apr 12 at 21:39
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    @WolfgangBangerth Except what you just said I think agrees with Buffy's comment: an earlier decline means they are likely to be able to offer to someone on the waitlist, and ASimpleAlgorithm says their comment was meant to counter Buffy's. A late decline, especially one after the normal acceptance deadline, all but ensures the spot cannot be filled by someone else (except if it becomes an 'extra' slot available in the next year). – Bryan Krause Apr 12 at 23:25
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It's a little snaky, but not the end of the world. If you can give them notice before SEP class starts, they will appreciate that. Maybe they can't fill the slot but there is a chance they can. Also it's better than just not showing up on day 1.

I did that personally and will share the story:

Accepted at one, local, school while interviewing. The timing is difficult to 100% do this in parallel and I was torn. So I explored both options and wanted to have 1 grad school lined up if it was hard to get a job (was during a recession).

A couple years later, I ended up leaving industry and going to a Ph.D. (at a different school). But even the one, I had jerked around before, was still willing to have me, again.

Of the 6 schools, I had earlier been accepted to, 5 of the 6 were willing to take me again 2 years later. It wasn't a big deal and I just portrayed it positively (had been productive for 2 years, but still had a yearning to do more than basic engineering, blabla). Anyhow 5 of the 6 bought that (true, but positive spin) characterization. I guess 1 of the 6 didn't. Also, I did end up finishing the Ph.D. later, doing well, yadayada. IOW I ended up being a good risk.

Note: I'm not justifying this (can anticipate the scolding). Just want to share the practical experiential datum on having actually done it and how it worked out.

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