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I have been offered a PhD in a European country which I have accepted and I started attending (my first month). However, just few days after starting here, I got another offer (from a different country) with a subject that interests me more (honestly, it's my dream research topic since UG school).

Internally, deep inside me, I want to leave and pursue my dreams and the things I am more passionate about. However, I feel very bad and selfish to do this. The supervisor at the first institution struggled to get me the funding and to get me rolled in without hustle and this kills me morally.

I accepted the first offer because the second one was still too far and I wasn't given enough time from the first institution to wait for an offer from the second one (the subject is also the closest among all others to my interests).

My engagement with the first institution is still on the trial period, in which case I can cancel and leave without any problem.

I don't really know what to do now. I have good relationships with my current supervisor, and he has faith in me. I also have great relationships with the research team. I just don't have enough courage to tell them such a shocking decision.

I want to get some advice, from a career point of view (should I pursue my dream research topic or not?), is it morally acceptable to do such a thing in my case? And what are the possible implications on my current supervisor and the first institution (impact on funding, impact on his reputation, etc.)? What are the possible problems I could face from a legal and administrative point of view?

In case I am advised to leave, what is the best and the least hurting way to tell the first institution and the supervisor? Should I do it face to face or only by email? How will I return back their material without showing my face?

And the last question, what could be the possible reaction of my supervisor?

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    You should be selfish. But also be sure you consider the quality of supervision as well as the research topic. – Anonymous Physicist Oct 5 '20 at 4:09
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    I am not experienced in the world of academia, but I agree that you should follow your heart. But you should also do your utmost to do the right thing, and that entails sitting down face-to-face with your current supervisor (and anyone else relevant) and explaining to them why you are doing this. They will be disappointed and unhappy but, unless they are a robot, they will understand and honestly wish you the best. – Ian Kemp Oct 5 '20 at 11:12
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    @IanKemp I agree with the sitting down face to face and doing the right thing, but I disagree with the robot. The robot will be rational and understand. It's the humans that may react erratically. :-) – Captain Emacs Oct 5 '20 at 11:43
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    The only thing I would add is that likely "they" (the department) gave you a short time to decide precisely to create this situation. By ensuring that you had to take a decision about them before you had all the responses from other schools, you're encouraged to do the "safe thing." For better or worse your advisor probably did not do this, but your institution did, with the intent of (possibly) getting students who might have otherwise gone to "better" schools. Whether that impacts your "moral" considerations is really up to you. – Richard Rast Oct 5 '20 at 18:08
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    I would tentatively suggest discussing the situation with Dream Supervisor before making any moves. They are going to find out eventually, and I think it's better addressed sooner than later. Once trust is lost, it's hard to get back. Plus, depending on circumstances, there may be alternative solutions, e.g. a jointly-supervised PhD. – avid Oct 6 '20 at 8:38

11 Answers 11

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To be honest, you will not be spared the moral decision. There will be a number of angry and/or unhappy people if you leave, there is no way around that.

The core question is: do you know the other supervisor? Will you be happy with them? Is the added value of the other topic/institution so much more than your current that this difficult and costly decision is worth it?

Because, yes, you will burn bridges. You have now to evaluate whether it is worth it. Do not look just at the institution, but also at the topic and supervisor. They are your key factors.

Should you find out it's not the right thing for you after all, that first institution is closed to you. I do not expect them to want to take you back; it would be unbelievably magnanimous (and lucky, namely that they would have a position and would re-offer it to you) from them to do it - and risky, too.

That being said, keep in mind that, they may be unhappy, but it is your life and your future at stake here.

In the end, nobody can make this decision for you. May your decision be the right one for you.

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    Thanks, I think all what you've said is fair. There is a complete story behind the second PhD and I've known the supervisor for some time. By enthusiastically reading research papers in our common area of interest (while I was doing masters), I randomly read one of his and contacted him just to comment on few things but ended up keeping contact (which proves why I am more into that second PhD). The research topic is tailored and the institution is internationally recognized. – Noah Oct 5 '20 at 1:54
  • @Noah Ok, so that point's cleared. Now you have to evaluate whether the added value is sufficient to compensate for the downsides. Of course, you could be lucky and, like Jerlich says, the current team will not hold it against you. Here, it is more likely that an experienced supervisor will may take it more lightly than a younger one, but also an older one can find his inner vindicativeness. It should figure in your considerations. As I say, this is your life, so it should not automatically mean that you should not take the opportunity - just be aware of the cost and whether it's worth it. – Captain Emacs Oct 5 '20 at 9:03
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    This is a great answer; you should allow yourself to be a bit selfish. Ask the reverse question: If your current supervisor was offered their dream faculty position at another university, would they turn it down because their PhD student wanted them to stay. Very unlikely. You may burn bridges, but your own career and happiness are perfectly valid moral counterweights to the offense or inconvenience you may cause your current boss. – D Greenwood Oct 5 '20 at 16:43
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    To add a personal anecdote to D Greenwood's reverse question, the precise thing happened to me, my supervisor left to a new institution for a dream job shortly after we both started. There was obviously a lot things that needed fixing at the time, but we managed. 5 years down the track it's still a thing I'll bring up occasionally, because, lets be honest, it's an unusual thing to happen, but it's all water under the bridge now, and I've never felt any ill will towards him because he handled it very professionally. – Phill Oct 6 '20 at 7:13
  • @Phill That happened to a friend of mine. They were able to follow the prof to his far away new uni. Before the PhD could be completed, the prof went to a $$$ job in industry. On the other hand, 57.2% of students drop out for various reasons. – Keith McClary Oct 7 '20 at 3:07
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Go to the Dream University

This quote from your question says it all.

Internally, deep inside me, I want to leave and pursue my dreams and the things I am more passionate about. However, I feel very bad and selfish to do this.

In this case your dream is achievable. Follow it. Everyone else will be OK. Your supervisor will probably get another student and even if he doesn't he'll have forgotten all about you in a year or so.

In contrast if you don't go then passing up this opportunity will eat at you. Whenever things are hard at OK University you'll be imagining "What if I went to Dream University?". You will also start to resent your OK University supervisor. You've given up a dream to avoid inconveniencing him. How can anyone be grateful enough for that? You only make this level of sacrifice for your immediate dependant family (wife and kids.)

Accept the offer in writing with Dream University, get conformation in writing, make sure that you are in. Then tell everyone at OK university what's happening. Use email for the administrators, and tell your OK university supervisor face to face. They'll all be disappointed, but they'll be OK. They'll probably understand.

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    It might be nice to add to this answer (which I like the best) a remark reminding the OP of what they themselves said: "My engagement with the first institution is still on the trial period, in which case I can cancel and leave without any problem." – Greg Martin Oct 6 '20 at 7:36
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If you have just started the first PhD, I don't think there will be that much anger towards you. At this point there has not been a substantial financial, advisory or intellectual commitment to you. You are not abandoning a project midway through its completion.

Of course, it depends on the PI of lab you are leaving. Maybe they had another student that they could have taken instead of you and your leaving will cost them a spot. If they are a senior person with a big group, your departure will have minimal impact on them. If they are a junior person building up their group they may have more invested in you and feel more animosity. I personally would not begrudge you. If your current advisor is a good person you can just ask them for their advice.

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  • I agree. He could just ask his current supervisor. If he is going to be mad, he can just leave to "dream institution". Other responses could be: "ok, go we know it is a better place and you deserve it". Or he can say "it is entirely upon you, it is your decision" - in this case the current supervisor will be maybe suspicious in the long time. – user3624251 Oct 6 '20 at 7:11
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From a career perspective, it doesn’t matter if one is your dream and the other is not. What matters is:

  • What is the future of each individual field?
  • How many publications does a PhD student in each group churn out during his/her PhD, what is the quality? There can be orders of magnitude in differences in quality
  • How is the general funding? If you need expensive equipment, can you get it?
  • To how many conferences do students typically go?
  • And if you are not staying in academia (most likely) what are the job prospects in each field?

That is all from a career point of view (which your question asks). From a work perspective, the 'mood' culture of a group is more important. I also think is it a good idea to follow one's dreams (if you did enough due diligence to see if the reality in the field matches approximately what your dream is; example: like I find biophysics extremely interesting, but the daily work would be standing in a lab, which I can only bear for like once a week, it is too dull for me).

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I was in a very similar position as a PhD student (although I hadn't actually started a PhD when I made my choice.) I chose not to go to the dream university. I went for the one with the better quality supervision.

Who knows, I might never even have achieved a PhD if I had gone to my dream university? I will never know because I didn't choose to go there.

This was 17 years ago already. I have always regretted my choice and I will regret it for the rest of my life. I advise you to quit and go to the dream university. Good luck!

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  • Nice to hear people admitting regret and using it to help others. – Philosopher of science Oct 8 '20 at 14:16
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'My engagement with the first institution is still on the trial period, in which case I can cancel and leave without any problem.'

That answers your question. There's a trial period. Use it.

Now, man up. Talk to your supervisor. Just possibly he'll surprise you with 'Oh, THAT'S what you wanted to work on? You can do that here!' OK, probably not :-) But anyway, be honest. A reputation for making hard-headed decisions won't hurt your career. A reputation for unexplained unreliability might.

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Remember, the education is about YOU and the product of the education is your abilities and your knowledge.

The educational institutions getting money, professors and other staff being employed, etc, etc... are all secondary effects.

Do whatever is better for you. You are the only one to decide what is better for you. It is you holding the greatest stake.

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I picked some quotes about decision-making from a huge list. Here are some that I think might apply to you.

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading” ― Siddhārtha Gautama

“People will always have opinions about your decision because they're not courageous enough to take action on their opinion.” ― Steve Maraboli

“Sometimes you make the right decision, sometimes you make the decision right.” ― Phillip C. McGraw

“The decision is your own voice. An opinion is the echo of someone else's voice.” ― Amit Kalantri, Wealth of Words

“If you have to choose between any two, first choose time to think.” ― Mohith Agadi

“When you decide who you want to be you'll know what to do.” ― Richie Norton

“A wise man makes his own decisions. An ignorant man follows public opinion.” ― Grantland Rice

“Those who refused to create the kind of life they want for themselves will end up living their lives for others, and such can only earn them little joy or many sorrow.” ― Bamigboye Olurotimi

“Those who believe in their brainpower and find a way to utilize it fully often end up making valuable contributions to the world.” ― Dr Prem Jagyasi

My answer

Toss a coin. If you like the answer, go for it! If you don't like the answer, continue tossing the coin until you get an answer you like.

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  • It's possible to keep tossing the coin forever without getting the answer you like :) – Stuart Golodetz Oct 7 '20 at 14:22
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    @Stuart Golodetz - I challenge you to prove this by experiment! – chasly - supports Monica Oct 7 '20 at 14:26
  • Even if I was allowed to bias the coin to always fall one way, I don't think taking you up on that would be a good idea ;) – Stuart Golodetz Oct 7 '20 at 15:50
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Reading through comments and answers I think I have a different opinion. First I have to say I commend your moral values and your consideration.

Now, in response to your question, I think leaving the current position is in gray area in terms of morality. After all you wrote a motivation letter and had an interview before getting the position, in which typically people express desire and commitment to the team and project. If situation is horrible in your current position, the answer would be easy but if it is good enough, after getting into the new place you might not be happy(er). I mean, if the supervisor is good, if the team is good and if the university is good enough, I say the outcome mostly rests on your effort. As they say, the grass isn't greener on the other side. It's green where you water it ;)

Now, basically research is driven by enthusiasm and your current supervisor knows that. So, if you discuss with them that your level enthusiasm and endurance is affected simply because you got into this dilemma, they probably find it good for their research team that you leave.

Now my suggestion are in two scenarios:

  1. You decide to stay

You can keep connection with the other (with more prestige) university by:

  • A. Trying to shift the research so that you can find a overlap between you research and theirs (if possible, idk)
  • Getting a research visit position to that university under supervision of the other prof.
  • Making your PhD a double-degree (if the rules of both universities allow, that is totally doable and usually both university will be happy)
  • Making publications together with the other professor
  • Doing post-doc or second PhD after this one in that university
  1. You decide to leave

Lets be honest, your leave will incur and inevitable damage (though small luckily because you are leaving early). Now, I have a few suggestion:

  • Discuss with your current supervisor that you know if you choose to stay you will not be resilient in research and motivate as before simply because the thought of other position will eat away you moral, so this is good choice for them as well

  • Offer small compensation for the money they have spend on you (for example you can say give back saving from your salary so far, the money is not important here, this serves as token of gratitude)

  • Offer (and seriously follow-up after you left) a collaboration with the current team. If your work load is manageable you can still contribute slightly to the work of previous institute (e.g. reviewing the works, brainstorming, etc.)

  • After you've left, contact and ask if there is something in their research that you could involve and even better ask if they accept your research visit there.

I think if you do those at least you do not end up burning the bridge completely and also you have taken part of damage and responsibility of your decisions.

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    I really like the answer. I was also wondering if you could find any common research topics and then try to collaborate with the research group (e.g. interning at the other group for X months doing a publication) and then later on trying to go for a postdoc there (might be carreer-wise even better because the post-doc really decides the further path maybe even more than the PhD). So try to see if any synergy could help you for a collaboration. But if you still feel that is not enough leave---with all the consequences. – JennyH Oct 7 '20 at 13:55
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I would take some time to carefully think about it if you can. A good supervision is also important and it can make you really enjoy what you are doing. It depends also on what kind of person you are. I am the one who needs and wishes to be inspired and the topic is really important, but not the only thing to consider. You will interact with people and you have to enjoy the working style of that department. But if you conclude that the other option is a better choice for yourself, than go for it. That´s your career.

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Unless you are going to seriously hurt someone in the process, go follow your dream. You will be dead for ever in a few decades.

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