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I wrote an email to my potential advisor, politely declining an offer for a PhD position. And he has replied saying that he's sad to hear that, and asking if there's anything he can do to convince me otherwise. How do I reply to this?

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    Are you accepting another offer or deferring your studies? – Buffy Mar 30 at 13:21
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    I'm accepting another offer (haven't accepted yet) and had mentioned that in my initial mail to him. – Train Heartnet Mar 30 at 13:22
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    I don't think you need to reply. All professors know (I hope) it is hard to retain good students. – Prof. Santa Claus Mar 30 at 18:26
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    @user3306356 Even so, the advice wouldn't be substantially different. – Kaz Mar 31 at 3:54
57

I would just reply that you thank him for his interest but that it isn't possible to work together at this time. But suggest that you would be honored/happy to stay in contact for the future if your fields of interest intersect.

Over the long run you want to build up a set of contacts like this and you have an opportunity to start it. He might be a future source of advice on your research or your career. But such contacts need to be nurtured.

I would, however, hold off on such a reply until you have a firm and accepted position elsewhere.

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    Thank you, I'll follow your advice! I do have a confirmed offer in place. – Train Heartnet Mar 30 at 13:34
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First, tell no lies. Second, thank the professor for their vote of confidence in your ability. Be gracious.

If you are accepting a placement with another advisor or at another institution then say so. You need not provide any reasons justifying your decision. Simply be polite and state the bare minimum required to convey your situation.

If you have chosen not to pursue a degree at this time then say that. Again, you need not justify this decision. Just say that you are not pursuing this any further for the time being.

Brevity and courtesy are your allies here.

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    In my initial email, I had mentioned that I'll be accepting another offer. I'm just not sure what more to say to convey the situation. I definitely don't wish to list my reasons for choosing one over the other. – Train Heartnet Mar 30 at 13:27
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    Then just reiterate what has already been conveyed, that you made your decision based on the information available and do not wish to revisit the issue. – James B. Byrne Mar 30 at 13:55
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Well, he wanted to have you and is trying to find out whether there is any condition that he may change to convince you otherwise (e.g. pay, conditions or something else).

If there isn't way to convince you, then you can simply make clear that you made up your mind to pursue some other option, and, if you wish to be more specific, you could say what you decided: to change location/take up a PhD somewhere else/go to industry/become a stay-home father or just state that you have decided not to pursue a PhD at this time, whatever of these is the case.

EDIT

Of course, you should not invent a non-existing reason, but this should go without saying.

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    That sounds like an invitation to lie. Don't do that. – Buffy Mar 30 at 13:20
  • @Buffy Why? Where did I say OP should lie? OP should state whatever is the case for them or, if they choose so, not give a reason at all. I never ever advocate lying. I just gave a selection of possible reasons why OP may decide not to pursue the PhD with above supervisor and what are perfectly valid reasons to state. Tick what applies. If my response is misleading, please propose a suitable change. – Captain Emacs Mar 30 at 14:31
  • Thanks for the update. Your second paragraph seemed ambiguous. Like making up a reason. – Buffy Mar 30 at 14:44
  • @Buffy Ok. I said "whether there is a reason to convince you otherwise", the second starts with "If there isn't..." - so basically, I am trying to say that it should be made clear that OP made up their mind, either with a reason or without. I didn't quite see the ambiguity, but if you saw it, maybe others do, too. It looks as if the other answers covered the field, so I will consider removing my response. – Captain Emacs Mar 30 at 16:47
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    A small edit would fix it, for me, at least. Consider ending the second paragraph with "... what ever is accurate and honest". – Buffy Mar 30 at 18:00
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There is nothing out of the ordinary here - they made an offer, you declined, they inquire if there is anything they could do to change your mind (presumably you did not provide a concrete reason for declining, otherwise they would have probably made an offer that potentially changes this reasoning or, if that's not possible, wouldn't even have asked).

How to go forward is completely up to you: If you declined for a reason that can potentially be fixed (most importantly if another university made a better funded offer) you can let them know and see what happens - but you are also completely in your right to not tell them and just go forward with another option. In this case I recommend phrasing your answer politely but generically (e.g., "Other position was a better fit for my research interests.").

I would recommend the latter option particularly if your actual reason may be offending, such as because you went for a higher-status university or because you did not find the project exciting. If your reason is rather neutral but cannot realistically be changed (e.g., you would prefer to move to city / country A rather than B, your spouse likes the other place better, etc.), you can just let them know truthfully - no reasonable person should think less of you because of this.

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1

There are basically two scenario's here. The professor still has an open PhD position, and you're not going to take it. That means he'll have to find someone else. But why didn't you accept that position? Was that purely because of reasons that are particular to you? If so, tell the professor. That means he might have more luck with the next candidate.

But if the offer was structurally lacking in some respect, and the professor might be in a position to change that, then it's fair to let him know. It won't affect you, since you already declined. But you're helping both the professor and his future PhD student.

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In addition to the suggestions in other answers, you might consider suggesting some collaboration without and independently of being his Ph.D. candidate. Perhaps suggest a visit. If you're super-interested in what he's doing, maybe co-advisorship might be relevant. Of course - you might not be interested and then it's not relevant. I'm just saying that interaction/affiliation with a senior researcher is not a binary "nothing" vs "I'm with him" choice.

Another point is - maybe there is something he could do to convince you:

  • He might be able to offer something you don't know is possible (e.g. in terms of payment, equipment, undergrads/M.Sc. students who could assist you, or other benefits I haven't thought of).
  • You might be making an assumption that's invalid about your chosen position, which he could disavow you of. Now, this is trickier, because he's obviously biased, but it's not impossible. I mean, people do sometimes choose Ph.D. positions based on such assumptions.

So if you like him / his research group enough to be open to such arguments, perhaps don't dismiss this opportunity and offer, say, an audio chat to discuss this, in which you would be more forthcoming about how you made your decision and he will make his "pitch".

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