Some of my backgrounds: Currently a master's student in a good but not top school. Now in a research group that could have been more productive. I am applying for PhD programs in this round of application (applying in 2020 and entering in 2021).

I talked with my current advisor and told him that I need a LoRec from him for my PhD application. I told him that I still haven't fixed my list of schools, which is true because I am still balancing my choices. He hinted me between his lines that he is interested in transferring me to his PhD student. He also suggested (in a very refined way) that he has enough fund to support me through the whole PhD program so I don't probably have to fulfill TA at all. His words were specifically made super easy and obvious for an ESL student to interpret: I can choose to continue to stay at his lab, or go somewhere else. This puts me at a dilemma:

The bad thing about it is that I do want to reach higher. I want to try and see if I can get into any of the top programs, because the ranking of my current program is a little bit low, and also my current advisor has a group that's not producing a lot of papers in past few years. The group members are all nice people, but I am worried that staying in the current group will not be the best investment I can make out of my next 6~ years.

The good thing about it is that accepting this "oral offer" at least gets me secured. I do have a very competitive GRE, GPA, and (I guess) quite strong letters, but this still doesn't ensure me or guarantee me about anything- I may be rejected by all the programs that I want to go, and the possibility of this is not low. If I just tell my professor that, yes, I want to stay, then of course I don't have to go through all these risks.

I can't really lie to my current advisor as if I am devoting to his lab while sneakily applying to others - On the one hand, I am really bad at telling lies. For real. I can barely lie on how much money I am earning even. On the other hand, one of my LoRec is from him, so once I give him the list of schools that he should send his letter to, particularly all of which are obviously better than my current school, then he'll know what's happening of course.

Is there any way to talk with my professor so that not only can I secure my potential position at this lab, but I can also apply to other schools with his letters, without making any negative impact either on him or on my application? I have no friend to talk with about this issue [they think I should find a job and start to earn a life]. I feel like I am being a greedy naughty bad student, but I don't have any idea how I should choose or what I should do. Any suggestion?

  • Just because someone invites you to continue at their school does not mean they will not support you in applying elsewhere, especially if the other places are higher rated. This is a common confusion for students and gets asked a couple times a year on this site. If they did not refuse to write you a letter then you should say you appreciate the offer and then go ahead and apply widely as you had planned.
    – Dawn
    Nov 2 '20 at 18:49
  • Hi Dawn thank you for your comment! If I apply as widely as I had planned, should I still include the current lab in my list of schools? In other word, if I am implicitly turning down and not devoting to the current lab, would my chance of being admitted back to this lab still be elevated? If I am turning down my professor's oral offer while including my current school in the application, would professor misunderstand this?
    – Jackie
    Nov 2 '20 at 19:50
  • 1
    You are not turning down, you are waiting to see what the full choice set entails.
    – Dawn
    Nov 2 '20 at 20:10

I would suggest that you be as open and honest with your current supervisor as you can. No surprises, no evasion. Tell him your list of schools. Tell him you want to aim as high as you possibly can. From your current A+ school, possibly to an A++ school.

I have known some students in your position. A student who excels under a professor makes the prof look very good. If that student goes on to one of the very tip-top schools after working with the prof, the prof's reputation grows. Maybe he is sad to see you go, but he should also be glad to see somebody he taught go on to Big Things.

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