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During the last month, I applied for PhD programs in some of the top US Universities in my scientific field. At the same time, I applied also for a PhD position in a very good European University. About one month after I submitted my application to this European University, I was offered a full-time, funded PhD position, in which I was supposed to begin as soon as possible.

Admissions for the US Universities are announced in the spring. So, I currently have an offer from Europe and a very short deadline for accepting or rejecting this offer. My ultimate career goal, however, is to study and work in the US, and there are some serious reasons for this. If I reject this offer from Europe and if I won't be admitted in the US, I will have lost every chance for a PhD, since a long educational gap will have been accumulated, putting my career at risk.

So, I'm thinking to accept this offer from Europe, until next academic year, and if I have a positive answer from the US, then quit my PhD studies in Europe and begin a new PhD in the US. I would like some insight about people in Academia. I acknowledge that such a scenario might affect the whole PhD project because of my possible withdrawal. Would this considered to be immoral? Could I have any consequences? Could this choice of mine - quit a PhD for another one, in a new country - seem bad to prospective supervisors in the US?

I already know that pursuing a PhD is a serious career choice, and I have no intention to take silly decisions for no reason. I just want the best for my career. To my eyes, this would be no different from quitting a job for a better one, for a better "company", in a "market" with greater opportunities. I would appreciate every advice from you people, since I have no experience related to Academia other than my undergraduate studies.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – cag51 Dec 22 '19 at 3:37
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    As Europe is a bit larger than a point, it may be worth mentioning that there are places in Europe where groups have to put down the whole sum for funding a PhD candidate in advance, prior to advertising the position. If such system applies to the place you could go, eating up a part of the money will result in more than a minor inconvenience to that group. – tevemadar Dec 22 '19 at 14:12
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Quitting a PhD because you realise afterwards that it's not the right path for you is fine. A fellow student during my PhD did so (due to homesickness, primarily), and immediately started a PhD at a university in his home country. The supervisor/group leader/etc were disappointed but didn't hold it against him.

Quitting because you only accepted the position as an insurance policy is a very different matter. If it's not for personal reasons, such as those above, leaving mid-course for another university will be seen as a very selfish act. Even more so if anybody finds out that you were hoping to do it before you even started. From your description it sounds like your field is relatively small. That means people tend to know each other, which means this could very easily hurt your reputation far more than attending MIT (or whichever other prestigious institute) would help it.

In short: you shouldn't accept a position unless you intend to stick with it. You have an offer on the table, you can either accept it or reject it. If you accept it, the right thing to do is to withdraw any other applications which haven't yet responded. If you aren't willing to commit to it, the right thing to do is to reject the offer. There is a third option, too: you can ask the European university if they'd be willing to grant you an extension to the decision deadline. How likely this request is to be accepted strongly depends on many things, including national and institutional cultures and the length of deferral you're asking for.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – cag51 Dec 22 '19 at 3:34
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This is unfair to another PhD prospect, who might not have the options you have. Because you know now that this position would not work out long term for you, just go with the US position. When you sign up for a PhD you agree to commit n years to make a full project. When you sign up for a different job the commitment is not as clear. In both situations it's fine to quit because the ambient is toxic or your situation changed. But this is not your case, you know this beforehand.

As other people point out, this is unfair to the supervisor who accepted to commit time to work with you on a specific project and to the funding agencies that have given support. These commitments come in the form of time cycles, that's why accepting this job is not like accepting other jobs that don't have this type of requirement.

The thing is that you are trying to insure yourself against all odds and by acting according to your best interest you hurt other people (those who might get offered the EU PhD or the US PhD if you deny any offer). The fact that you can grasp that something is wrong but you still wanna do it anyway makes it clear that it's not the most honest way to act. Sure, anybody does it, and everybody marks later that their behavior was not proper/good/acceptable/... or somewhere else depending on the scale.

What we often have to do is called choosing without enough information. Nobody likes it, I guess this is your first challenge as a PhD student. Learn this lesson. And, in fact, switching is not even in your best interest! Accepting the EU PhD to quit will hurt your career. If you want insurance, you have a 100% chance with the EU position. If the university is good and you are good (as implied in your question), you will have opportunities in the US later. EU PhDs are shorter and pay better, you'll be in the US in no time.

Quitting for acceptable reasons that come after you committed to do a PhD is acceptable because you did not make a dishonest deal. Your original intentions were true, something that you could not foresee or can no longer tolerate has happened, which is a valid reason to revisit agreements that no longer work (aka, quitting a PhD).

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    Let me be honest here: I would never back off my interest, in order to make the world more "fair" for some unknown, vague people with similar interests as mine. It may sounds very selfish, but it is what it is. I think everyone acts like that and this is how it should be. Consider this: What if I actually realize that I don't like the project, the supervisor, the University, the country in the EU PhD, 6 months after the beginning? I should quit, I guess. What if, at the time of withdrawal, an offer from US arrives in my email? Should I still reject it, lest I'll be perceived as selfish? – teufel Dec 20 '19 at 19:11
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    @Teufel "I think everyone acts like that and this is how it should be." Firstly, this is not necessarily how everyone acts; and even if this were mostly true in the sense of the statistics, that is not an argument that this is how people should act. Most societies and communities have to operate with some level of trust, not just contractual obligations. If one wants to get ahead by ignoring that, well then it's a free world, but one shouldn't be surprised if people who operate according to those codes get annoyed – Yemon Choi Dec 20 '19 at 19:23
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    @Teufel: No, nobody is saying that you should reject it in that situation. The one and only piece of advice people are trying to give you here is that you need to be honest about your intentions (and no, appearing to be honest is not the same thing as being honest), and one (of many) reasons for doing so is that it will harm other people (and society) if you act dishonestly. Trying to justify it with "the same thing might happen anyway" is missing the point by a gargantuan distance. – user541686 Dec 21 '19 at 3:06
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    One more thing: I know some people in academia who have behaved precisely according to the principles you espouse here. Very capable people, they have achieved some minor position, but they ended up completely isolated, and their career, which should be stellar, stagnates at a level far below their scientific skills. Word gets around. – Captain Emacs Dec 21 '19 at 12:50
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If you ask me I'd say asking people for morally right decisions will never "work out", since you'll scarcely find a truely honest person to answer your question.

I do understand how you stand between the chairs and appreciate your struggles. I totally do not understand how people want to scold you for that, you show very high morality by asking.

You might consider being honest to your European supervisor about your intents. If I was a supervisor, I'd rather chose some honest guy that speaks true and follows his aims, which by the way is a great sign of ambition and emotional involvement in the topic or carrier, than some guy that just "swims in the masses" (guess at least you, having a german nickname, will get what I say by that ;D), like most do.

I don't know it that's an overall problem at German universities, but here I see that a lot of PhD-students got to work far more in their proposed freetime than they should, as the work load is chosen far to heavy for one position. Which I'd call exploitation. People still accept these positions for their rarity. There of course are lucky PhD-students which do not have that work load and can truely focus on their research, but at least at the university I am this does not seem to be the case with the PhD-students I asked or told me unasked for.

So, this is why I'd say, you can consider any PhD-position as a normal job, as long as this positions often give less money for far more time and so on. I don't see why a PhD-student should see more in it as long as so many of them get exploited so often.

If this is not true for your position, then this might change considerations significantly.

Still, you are given an 'impossible' choice. You are right, that, by declining the European offer, you might lose your chance to ever again get an offer for a PhD. This is not your fault though, and this again tells me you are in full right to see for your own wants and accept the European offer, even if that means you will cancel it later on. That's an organisational problem which is to be solved by other people.

Having worked for some years before going to some university, I do not see any difference in academical jobs vs regular jobs in economy. Why should you plan to stay somewhere for years? What makes the difference? There are lots of jobs outside academia, which are even scarcer, and where your boss wants to plan for years either, and still noone would blame persons for cancelling for lesser reasons.

Don't become one of the guys that think their supervisors and academia sacred. They are not. They are normal jobs, just that people somehow make religion of it. Asking me, as an absolute atheist even in the fields of academia (I observed that some atheists seem to find their religion in academia...), say: Follow your heart and do what is good for you (since other won't but just exploit you in most cases), I truelly believe that you are of high moral and will know better than everyone else how you want to live your life.

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    Thank you for your answer, I really can relate to it, specially in the last part talking about religion. We tend to forget that at the bottom of things, they are people too, struggling to achieve something better for their careers. In terms of morality, that's why I'm asking: not only because I'm thinking the consequences, but because I would never want to irritate my peers in some way, and that's something that really concerns me. But when it comes to your very personal interest, I think that making some people unhappy is sometimes inevitable. – teufel Dec 21 '19 at 15:17
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    I'm also pretty sure that many people concerned too much about morality, would also switch Universities if they would benefit from it. Overskurkens moral... In terms of the comparison between industry and academia, yes, there are many regular jobs, even scarcer, where you are supposed to carry on a long-term project, let's say, build from the ground up a whole new extraordinary department of a certain company. If you receive a better offer after some time from another company, would you be considered as dishonest? I don't think so. – teufel Dec 21 '19 at 15:28
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    This derives from the hindmost human urge, I think. At the end of the day, what matters both for the employee and the employer is what he has achieved and how does it translate into his life. Be it of recognition, of publications, of zeros into a bank account or of food on his table. Maybe this sounds too bad, but it is what it is. Again, I'm not a selfish carpetbagger. I just believe that stepping down of your personal goals for the sake of not annoying other people is foolish. – teufel Dec 21 '19 at 15:37
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    Truely spoken, you'll always irritate someone no matter what you do. So the best thing you can do is stay true and follow your personal beliefs, as so many people cowardly follow other people's beliefs as they don't have the self conciousness to carry the burden of responsibility for their own actions. Carry the burden and stand up for your beliefs, and never forget you and only you are the one responsible for your own happiness. And if that means, you've got to disappoint people that set up conditions in such an unflexible way that it sometimes is impossible to fit in, then be it. – kaiya Dec 21 '19 at 20:28
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    "If I was a supervisor, I'd rather chose some honest guy that speaks true and follows his aims…" If you were a supervisor, no, you would never invest time and energy in a PhD candidate who honestly admits that they have no commitment to the project or to your student-supervisor relationship. You seem to forget that other people are involved in this arrangement, and that supervisors are not there purely for the benefit of students. We get to pick and choose too. – Michael MacAskill Dec 22 '19 at 7:24
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I would say it depends on in what country and with what conditions the European offer comes.

In Germany for example you're usually simply hired as an employee of the university, with a very standardised payroll. Employment contracts take a few weeks to draft, so hiring a replacement for you takes almost no time. And employers regularly hand out very short term contracts that need to be extended half way during your PhD. In this situation I wouldn't hesitate a second to quit and move to the US.

If instead the position comes with a stipend, a grant or something else that required your future supervisor to put in some work that would now be wasted, I would be more hesitant to just pack up and move.

But I think academia is quite an un-empathetic environment. If you quit because of personal issues or mental health, nobody really bats an eye. This is without question a very sad situation that's the reason for a lot of personal suffering, and that I would like see change. But don't think you are required to show some special loyalty just because somebody decided to hire you for a few years.

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    "Employment contracts take a week to draft" I am curious where in Germany that is. My experience is that universities need between 4 and 8 weeks to make a contract... And of course, finding a suitable candidate also takes time, maybe even longer. – wimi Dec 24 '19 at 13:54
  • You're right, maybe I was exaggerating a bit and I'll change it. The point was that it takes almost no time and work. :-) – Nils Werner Dec 24 '19 at 14:13
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This is not immoral because you have the right to quit the PhD at any moment. However, beware of possible consequences of that like subscribed conditions at the first university or pay back. Inside academia morally questionable decisions are commonly taken, and yours is perfectly acceptable. Deception is a common practice in academia.

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    It is true that one has a basic right to quit a PhD, but your answer doesn't seem to address the issue identified in Chris H's answer above: "Quitting a PhD because you realise afterwards that it's not the right path for you is fine... Quitting because you only accepted the position as an insurance policy is a very different matter... Even more so if anybody finds out that you were hoping to do it before you even started." – Yemon Choi Dec 24 '19 at 16:00
  • @George, Could you please explain in more detail what do you mean by "Deception is a common practice in academia"? – teufel Dec 24 '19 at 18:00
  • I am referring in general to manipulation, distortion of evidence, gaslighting, dishonesty in the workplace, playing politics among co-workers in academia. – George Dec 24 '19 at 18:13
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    Regarding these negative aspects of academia, what's your sample size from which you infer these things are "common"? In any case, I don't think these negative aspects, which sadly do indeed happen, are very relevant to the particular decision which the OP must make according to his or her own goals/beliefs – Yemon Choi Dec 24 '19 at 18:56
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It is perfectly fine. The best option for you will be to accept an offer now. And in case you get an offer for a Ph.D. in the USA next year, decide then. You'll in great shape to make that decision. By that time you will have more information and understanding to make an optimal decision for yourself. You may really like your European group/advisor and choose to stay in Europe. You may decide to quit Ph.D. altogether. In case you are unable to get the US to offer the world remain in balance and no question of choice arise.

Edit: In case you get an offer (only in case) from USA next year. Consult your current advisor. He/She is really the correct (and the best) person that you should really listen for advice.

Rebutting @Matias_Andina: "This is unfair to another Ph.D. prospect": The person which is supposed to be hired if you leave this position is actually not capable enough to get hired. Else they'll be asking this question, not @teufel.

"you shouldn't accept a position unless you intend to stick with it...": Every hiring takes into account that things may not work due to thousands of reasons and people leave companies for their own goods all the time. This is a market place.

Accept the offer. Good Luck.

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    +1 yes, this is all correct. PhD studies are market place. that itis – SSimon Dec 21 '19 at 7:00
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    The answer is actually grossly misleading: "Every hiring takes into account that things may not work due to thousands of reasons and people leave companies for their own goods all the time. This is a market place." - yes, perhaps. But OP knows they are going to leave, ahead of time. Academic positions are rare, especially in small fields. OP is taking away a post for a more interested student (they may have been only marginally weaker and far from "not capable enough to be hired" - #2s can turn out to be better than the original #1). – Captain Emacs Dec 21 '19 at 12:58
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    Strongly disagree with this answer and the comment by its author, not least because of their seeming lack of ability to communicate in a civilised way. Downvoted and wish I could do so multiple times. – YiFan Dec 21 '19 at 14:20
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    @Captain Emacs, this is an off-scope and unverifiable scenario. How could a PhD student during his first 3 months steal scientific ideas anyway? But in any case, the same principle, if true, would apply to industry as well. Switching jobs could be seen as transferring ideas between industrial departments. But we are not talking about espionage or something. Anyway, sensitive positions involve some kind of security clearance. Not the case here. – teufel Dec 21 '19 at 15:04
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    @teufel Of course, I do not really believe you intend do so. On the other hand, despite Pushpa thinking people who would believe this are stupid, I have actually seen far crazier things which even my most paranoid colleagues wouldn't have dreamt up. If one looks for extreme cases, one will always find one that's even more so. – Captain Emacs Dec 21 '19 at 19:46

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