Many apologies if this is not in line with the questions for this site, but I am seeking some advice for the following problem.

I have finished an integrated masters degree and applied to PhD positions this year. There was one I wasn't entirely convinced by when applying, but the prospective supervisors seemed very supportive and 'human' when I was interacting with them, and I kept thinking at every stage as things progressed 'well, I guess I can just go ahead and see what happens. No harm there'. Unfortunately, I followed this trail a bit too long. This was the only PhD off I was given, and was funded. I initially declined the offer. It felt 'right' to do so, even though it probably wasn't very rational given the present uncertainty over PhD funding for future years in light of coronavirus.

But anxiety was eating away at me. I started having pain attacks, and ws getting very little sleep. In a moment of panic, when waking up very early in the morning screaming for fear of not having anything to do in the following year and the uncertainty of reapplying for PhD, I wrote an email asking for the PhD offer back. After calming down somewhat, I thought it was a really stupid thing to have done. But alas, the offer was given, and even though I told myself I wouldn't;t accept because I didn't;t think it was the right thing, I didn't feel there was anything to do but accept.

Now I am miserable, because I am not happy with the PhD situation, and because another opportunity has come up for this coming year which I would be really happy doing and I think it would open doors. But to decline the PhD offer now would be such a big blow I know. But please note before berating me, that much of the 'decisions' I made were done out of anxiety, clouded mind (partly due to coronavirus related issues) and just feeling there was no way out. I didn't feel I had anywhere to turn to for advice because people would just tell me 'you've accepted, so get on with it'.

But concisely, here are the problems:

  1. I have accepted a position with funding. I appreciate I may have deprived someone else of it.
  2. I can't imagine myself being happy in the location where the PhD is.
  3. The department doesn't do research precisely in my area of interest. It has a truly excellent department in an area which crosses heavily with my interest, and that is why I applied. At the time I wasn't sure to what extent I would like to dapple in this area.
  4. My prospective supervisor is nice, but also very young and doesn't have many past students. I feel like it would be so rude to deprive him of a student he is interested in having.
  5. But I genuinely fear going, not being happy, not doing good work and/or wanting to transfer. I should add that the prestige of this institution is far lower than that of my previous place of study, and I sometimes feel like they wanted me for that reason. It sometimes eels like martyrdom.
  6. Maybe I would come to love working in this area alone after all.
  7. Burning bridges and tarnishing my name in academia. This is the thing I am terrified of right now. As I mentioned in 3, the present university is a hub for the research which crosses Healy with mine. So this could be a huge, mega blow to my future academic career. Also, I think I will inevitably end up interacting with the people in this department at conferences etc, which would be really horrible.
  8. I mentioned I have something lined up for the coming year which I would be happy doing. It may not help with getting a PhD though.
  9. Another point is that because of the overlap of fields of interest, I would have a difficult time saying that 'I realised I wanted to work on something else' if I tried to transfer schools.

I'm starting to get quite exasperated. And not just with this but life in general (please don't take this out of context and say 'I need professional help'). I have spent the last few years working really hard to overcome very difficult personal obstacles and challenges, and try to shape myself and my life into what I want it to be. It feels like I'm almost going backwards, ending up in a location which feels mildly oppressive to me, for the sake of research in a good group.

My questions are these:

  • How detrimental might it be to my future academic career to reject the PhD offer at the present moment? I hear of scare stories that bad relationships with supervisors have come back around to bite.

  • What are some ways to balance this prospect with doing what I think will make me happier?

  • Is PhD funding likely going to be more scarce in coming years?

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    "please don't take this out of context and say 'I need professional help'" The symptoms you describe indicate that you do need help from a mental health professional. Quitting your PhD is a minor thing compared to taking care of your mental health. Exiting a PhD program or changing PhD programs are normal things to do. – Anonymous Physicist Jul 2 at 11:05
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    Is there an answerable question here? I don't think there is anything we can offer. Sorry. – Buffy Jul 2 at 11:12
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    @Buffy I am trying to gauge just how detrimental it might be to my future academic career to reject the PhD offer at the present moment. I hear of scare stories that bad relationships with supervisors have come back around to bite. I am trying to balance this prospect with doing what I think will make me happier, and also the prospect of PhD funding being scarce in coming years. I think the latter point is also something that can be concretely commented upon, even if the situation is not definite/clear – user528491 Jul 2 at 12:30
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    I'll give some thought to what I might advise, but the best advice is in the comment of @AnonymousPhysicist. Just Do It. – Buffy Jul 2 at 12:34
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    @Buffy I'll add some question marks then. ;) – henning -- reinstate Monica Jul 2 at 16:19

Applying, getting accepted, backing out, asking for an exception to get back in, getting that exception, then backing out again, will unquestionably burn bridges. It seems highly unlikely you're going to hurt anyone's feelings, because this sort of thing happens. I don't think you'll "tarnish your name", but I don't think you could rely on them giving you another chance at admittance. Within a another application cycle or two it's unlikely anyone at the department even remembers the name of one applicant who didn't start the program.

But now that that's out of the way, the rest comes down to your own feelings and priorities. What made you want to do a PhD in the first place? You mention the lower prestige of the program, but also mention that this is the only place that accepted you. Is doing a PhD still a goal of yours? If so, where would you apply if this place is no longer an option? They may not recall your name off hand, but I'm sure admissions would have records. It's also true that doing a PhD is often an arduous task. Is this something you could just work through for the long-term benefit, even if you don't like the location? You may have all kinds of good options available once you complete the program, but the anxiety and panic attacks you describe may suggest problems with getting through a whole PhD.

But these are things only you, and any professionals you choose to consult, can really analyze.

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I agree completely with Jeff's answer. Just a few additional notes:

  • While pulling out now wouldn't look great, it would be far worse to accept the offer and then do poor work and/or leave on bad terms. So, if you already know you will be unsuccessful, you should not attend. That said, it can be difficult to tell whether you would actually be unsuccessful, or if you are just nervous. You shouldn't make this decision alone -- ideally, both an academic who knows you well and a mental health expert should advise you.

  • Your comment about the institution's prestige is a little strange. For undergraduate, the most prestigious schools are usually the famous ones (Harvard, etc.). But now that you are a grad student, it is your department's or even group's reputation that determines prestige. So, it this place is a "truly excellent...hub" in your area, it's a little contradictory to say that it's not prestigious.

  • Regarding your other opportunity, I would just comment that many people plan to start a career (and/or family) and then pursue their PhD "in a few years," but in my experience, few actually follow through with the PhD. And this is not a bad thing; many people correctly realize that they can have a rewarding career without a PhD. But, you should be aware that there is some chance that doing a PhD is "now or never."

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  • Thank you very much for your and Jeff's replies. But I was wondering about the prestige point; what I was trying to get across is that the department is excellent for a specific niche area that crosses over with my area of interest. They don't have anyone working directly on that, so I would be 'on my own' in some sense and the name itself wouldn't show for much. If I wanted to keep going with the are in which the department excels, then that would be great. – user528491 Jul 2 at 17:41
  • But I don't think I do. In cases like this, I think having a name like 'Cambridge', 'Harvard', 'MIT' etc would be in my favour if trying to get postdocs in a tangential area to my thesis. – user528491 Jul 2 at 17:42
  • @user528491 I don't agree. Perhaps you need the prestige, not your future employers? – Araucaria - Not here any more. Jul 3 at 0:34

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