I would like to ask you about the correct behaviour when applying at different universities for different PhD positions.

Currently, I won two PhD positions and a second shortlist for a third one. The third one is the one I really want, but the interview will be held on campus and due to coronavirus pandemic it has been postponed after the mid of August. I have strong academic and personal reasons to go for the third one, but of course I am not sure that I will win it. Now I have to decide between the two I already have. I would feel guilty to tell yes to one of them and later on withdraw the offer.

What is the acceptable time to change your mind? Should someone follow his personal motivations or be ethical?

Thank you,


  • This could also depend on your field of study. As a pure mathematician, I can do my research whether or not I have Ph.D. students. Indeed, my students' research is usually separate from my own. So if a prospective student (or postdoc) decides to go elsewhere, it's not a disaster for me. But if I were in an experimental science and relied on students or postdocs to keep my lab functioning properly, the sudden absence of an expected student could be a serious problem. Aug 2, 2020 at 1:30
  • 1
    I suggest searching this site; this has been asked many times. See for example Deadline For PhD offer while waiting for other results and What to say to one PhD offer when still waiting to hear the result of a different and preferred PhD application?
    – cag51
    Aug 2, 2020 at 2:31
  • Can't you push your third place to accept an online interview? I understand you aren't in the position of power, but "we'll just postopone the interview" sounds like a not very professional conduct to me. You applied there keeping in mind certain conditions of this proposal, and now they are changing them in a unilateral manner. Aug 2, 2020 at 9:38
  • Hi Joys. I was just wondering what you ended up doing in the end. I was in a similar position, and am feeling somewhat miffed about y present situation
    – Meep
    Sep 6, 2020 at 16:21

4 Answers 4


Is there a deadline by which you must accept the two offers you currently have? If so, send a polite email to those institutions explaining the situation and asking for an extension on the deadline until you hear back from the third. I expect they will be amenable to your request, given the circumstances.

If you accept one of the current offers without waiting for the outcome of the third, I don't think you will be very happy. You must pursue the position you want the most and feel is the best fit for you. Your PhD will be much more productive and enjoyable that way.

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    They told me they cannot wait until then. I understand because in one of the two country where the PhD is the only starting month is October and if they "miss" it they will have to wait one year. I have until the end of this week to decide and of course It will be not enough to wait the answer for the third one. I told the third university about my other positions, but they kept saying they want me to be there. I really do not know how to be ethical and at the same time do the best for me. Such a hard decision to make.
    – Joys
    Jul 2, 2020 at 17:20
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    with 'explaining the situation', I wouldn't say literally that you consider them your "second choice", nobody likes to hear that (and they might be tempted to give the PhD to someone with a stronger motivation to start there). It's rather that you need some more time to explore another option.
    – Wouter
    Jul 3, 2020 at 11:11

This is a tough one. There is not a right answer here. What I would do is to start giving some numbers to evaluate the quality of the positions. Make a table with pros and cons of each position and if you end up having most of the pros in the third position I don't see why you should not accept a position now and eventually withdraw it at a later stage. Anybody in your situation would understand you. But first deeply analyse all positions and you will make a much better choice.


I think it is legitimate in your position to accept one of the currently offered positions even if you later reneg on it when you get the third position.

I would say you gave them fair warning if you already asked for a delay due to coronavirus issues upsetting the calendar, and they said no.

Make sure your contract is not binding though so that you don't get administrative issues over it, but I believe your ex-prospective PhD supervisor will live with your choice and not be bitter over it, which counts more long-term than the good will of the administration of a college you won't attend.

  • I'd prefer if the supervisor was forewarned of the situation though, it would make things eventually much smoother. But that might be apolitic if they decide to give to number two on the list instead who says he'll take it no matter what. So it depends on whether if you reneg in august they can reattribute the grant to another student, which depends on the school. If there is a reattribution procedure that exists (a second round in September ?) no moral issues over reneg.
    – Yann TM
    Jul 2, 2020 at 21:54
  • Hi! Thank you for your answer. I think they can redo the procedure, but as I understood for one of them It it hard to then start the PhD in a different month for bureaucratic reasons. Moreover, for this latter I met the professor head of lab in person. I think he liked me and he helped me to win the position, because he is such a big name. He created a special situation and in this case I feel that I cannot say yes and then no. So the choice is tricky: or I choose this one or the other one together with the chance to win the third. So hard!
    – Joys
    Jul 2, 2020 at 23:11

AI might say I am kind of in the same situation. What I think from this position is that universities and professors get several PhD people during the years. But for us, we do a PhD once in a life time! Plus you cannot turn your back to your opportunities because someone gets mad. If I am in their position I will understand and will try to find another good candidate.

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