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I just finished the grad school application process, and I'm getting my first letters of acceptance. I got one letter from one of my bottom three schools, one from a "middle of the pack" school, and one from a dream school. And, at the risk of humble bragging, this is a great school with a great reputation and true luminaries in my specific research interest amongst its faculty. I literally screamed when I got the letter. However, it is not funded.

They sent me the letter of acceptance only three weeks after I submitted my application. As I understand it, that's a very quick turn-around time, especially for a prominent research institution. I assume that's a very positive thing.

I'm not sure whether to just accept the offer right away, or wait to see if some of the other dream schools respond. At least one of the other dream schools will have funding for me from the get-go if I'm accepted. I know "non-funded for any amount of time" is a big red-flag, but I feel the pedigree of the school that I got accepted to trumps that. Having good recommendations from any of the professors I would work under would be worth more than gold. I feel like, in this situation, you just bite the bullet and go for it.

But I also feel that if you might have basically the exact same opportunity, except with funding, at another institution or two, it might be worth waiting/holding out a bit to see how things play out.

I feel left with a few questions:

  1. Is it stupid of me to hold out at all, given the high level of the institution I received the letter of acceptance from? I worry my ego might have got too inflated, and it's wrong to hope that another dream school (with or without available funding) will come knocking at my door.

  2. If I do accept the offer, but then receive an offer from another dream institution that could offer me funding, would it be bad form to pull out of my agreement of acceptance? I wouldn't want bad blood.

  3. How long is too long to wait on accepting the offer? Will they fill the open position if I take too long to respond? I don't want to miss out on what could be the opportunity of a lifetime because I sat on my hands.

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    Awesome. BTW, I added the word "unfunded" to your title, as that is a critical detail that the answerers will need to note (i.e., because the April 15 resolution does not apply to unfunded offers). – cag51 Jan 28 at 1:24
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    PhD or masters? – Dawn Jan 28 at 1:51
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    Are they all? What is your goal in pursuing grad school? – Dawn Jan 28 at 4:38
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    Why are you injecting this urgency into a process with clearly defined deadlines far in the future? What am I missing? – user2705196 Jan 28 at 13:12
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    That's not the point of the site -- questions are meant to help others. Removing the post after it has received answers violates the site policies. If you have specific reasons that are not covered there you could flag for moderator attention and explain there. – GoodDeeds Jan 28 at 22:42
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Generally speaking, there’s no need to accept an offer as soon as you receive it. Offers have a standard deadline for you to respond. It is normally somewhere on your offer letter. It’s absolutely fine to make further inquiries with HR or one of your prospective advisors regarding funding opportunities:

  • Can I apply for financial assistance?

  • Are there any scholarships or teaching assistantships I qualify for?

  • Can I be funded by your research grant professor X?

All excellent and valid questions that show your genuine interest in enrolling. Graduate school is expensive, and not everyone has the financial privilege of spending several years with no financial support. Admission committees know this and will try to make it easier for good applicants to get some support if possible.

Accepting an offer and then backing out in favor of another is a big no no. Not only did you waste everyone’s time, you also made some other candidate miss an opportunity. People will rightly be upset.

What you can do is ping the schools you’re waiting on. A simple “Hello, I just received a few offers I’m seriously considering and would like to know whether your department had the chance to review my application. I need to make a final decision by XXXXX so would appreciate an answer before that deadline, many thanks!”

You will likely get an answer pretty fast.

Edit: as Alexander Woo mentions in their answer, taking up an unfunded PhD is a bad idea. You may find yourself in a financial hole that you may not be able to get out of for years to come, having to hold off on other important life decisions (buying a house, starting a family) that may look very far away now, but will become frighteningly, depressingly real before you know it. This comment does not hold for Masters degrees: these are often offered on a full tuition deal, but are also a short term commitment.

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  • Ok, all of this makes sense. The 3 questions for HR and/or advisors that you offered are especially helpful. The deadline is definitely after the April 15 resolution that cag51 mentioned in his comment, so that's good. I think I'll avoid bugging schools with "pings" for now, just because I get this year is especially crazy for committees, given the whole COVID-19 thing. – MintBerry Brunch Jan 28 at 4:29
  • You can hold out for a bit longer, there’s no rush. – Spark Jan 28 at 13:39
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    Maybe helpful to OP to specify that if there is a stated deadline, then the offer will be held for them until that deadline (unless there is some sort of departmental calamity, which is very very unlikely at a top school). – Dawn Jan 28 at 19:12
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    That fast answer is likely to be "We will release acceptances when we're done" ... – Azor Ahai -him- Jan 29 at 1:08
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    Yep, but in the case of good candidates (as OP self-describes) departments may speed things up. – Spark Jan 29 at 2:24
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Unless you are independently wealthy, you should never take an unfunded offer for graduate school in mathematics.

Even before the pandemic, some people with a dozen good papers after two successful postdocs - a well above average publication rate - were failing to find jobs.

When I was last broadly applying for academic jobs 10 years ago, the general advice was to send 80-100 applications to jobs you were competitive for in order to have reasonable certainty of getting at least one offer. Even before the pandemic, there weren't that many jobs in total to apply for, and each job gets more applicants than they did 10 years ago. (This year is brutal; the only people getting research-oriented jobs will be AMS Sectional plenary lecture candidates (there are roughly 40 per year, total - that's less than the number of Berkeley+Stanford PhDs per year) or better.)

There are even fewer jobs in industry for which a math PhD is a better qualification than several years of experience.

For a more teaching-oriented academic job, the funded position at a lower-ranked graduate school is actually better preparation, because you will be teaching for your funding, and because the undergraduate population at a lower-ranked school is generally more similar to the undergraduate population at most universities than the undergraduate population at a highly-ranked school.

If you borrow money for graduate school, you could end up in a situation where you are unemployed with no means of paying back your loans. Don't forget education loans cannot be discharged via bankruptcy.

Going to graduate school in math with funding is already a costly decision from the financial point of view, though it's fine if getting to spend a few years doing math is worth it for you (as it was for me). Going to graduate school in math unfunded is potentially ruinous.

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  • I don’t think OP specified PhD or that they wanted an academic career. Although if that were the case this is good advice. – Dawn Jan 28 at 3:58
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    @MintBerry Brunch: this is for a masters --- I think you're way overestimating the effect of rankings of a masters degree program (in the U.S.) on the eventual realization of an academic research career. There are of course many exceptions, but generally speaking if you have the potential to get a strong Ph.D. followed by a such a career, it should be very apparent by now. (Of course, realizing this potential is another thing.) Perhaps you have some poor aspects in your past record (I certainly did), but if so, (continued) – Dave L Renfro Jan 28 at 16:42
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    then there almost certainly needs to be a few things that you've truly excelled at mathematically (took the USAMO, top 100 Putnam score, successful completion of graduate classes at age 18 or 19, very successful REU experience, a publication or two even in an MAA journal, more than one letter of recommendation saying your potential is higher than anyone at your undergraduate college/university the past several years, etc.), but I see nothing in what you've said that suggests this. (continued) – Dave L Renfro Jan 28 at 16:43
  • That said, I think you should focus on "fitness" issues, which we know nothing about in your case, and on the subsequent placements of recent graduates in the programs you're considering. In other words, I suggest you stop being so narrowly focused on rankings and such, and instead focus on things that will allow you to be the best you can be. For example, if you grew up in a large city, then you probably don't want to be in a very rural area. Also, some people perform better as big fish in small ponds, whereas others perform better as little fish "underdogs" in big ponds. Which are you? – Dave L Renfro Jan 28 at 16:43
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    Very good reality-check answer. I would add, consider the toll on your mental well-being that worrying about money and debt could put on you, and the hours and energy you may need to put to a side job to support yourself. These would likely affect your studying ability and, in a way, reduce the overall academic potential of the dream school as an entire proposition. Of course you may feel you can tackle it, I would just advise to not take it lightly. – Bennet Jan 29 at 10:11
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tl;dr: Agreeing to work for free hurts your colleagues. Don't.

Graduate-level research is important work, which benefits society, the academic institute and the PI/advisor/lab/research group. It merits reasonable compensation - similarly to how you would expect payment seeking other work based on your undergraduate degree.

In many places the term "unfunded PhD" is not used. As a PhD candidate, you are a proper employee of your university or research institute. If you don't finish your PhD within an allotted amount of time, your employment will run out, but doing a PhD while being non-employed is like volunteer work. It's not impossible, but it is unreasonable for you to work full-time as a volunteer, for years.

Unfortunately, graduate researchers, whose work involves both practical contribution and an aspect of traineeship, are in a situation that's easy to exploit - and exploited it is. The struggle for proper employment conditions, and even recognition of status as a contributing employee, is ongoing in many countries.

See also: Why do universities fund Ph.D. students in the sciences?

Now, you might say "Ok, but personally I'm willing to forego a salary and various rights and benefits to get into the research institute I like" (and note: It's not primarily a school, despite the term).

But - it's not just about you. You are hurting your fellow graduate researchers by accepting a position as a PhD candidate researcher without pay. So - you should not do it.

Maybe you don't need the income and can live off of savings, or support from your parents or spouse. But - suppose one of them worked as, say, a nurse or a teacher; and now, the government starts a volunteer program to promote education or public health, and places volunteers as nurses or teachers, in hospitals and schools - for zero pay (This is not a made-up example, this happens in some countries.) I'm sure those volunteers will have the best of intentions; and it is not inconceivable for someone to volunteer to tend to the sick or teach children in their community - but still, in a money-based economy, they would be used as a cudgel to beat down those who rely on these job for a living.


A related question: Can I somehow leverage my willingness to work for a lower salary in job applications?

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  • I like this answer overall, but: Demand for PhD students is very high. Supply of money for paying them is lower. If a few PhD student work for free, this does not reduce demand enough to cause universities to pay less to the remaining PhD students. That said, don't work for free. – Anonymous Physicist Jan 30 at 2:25
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    I think it is more important to emphasize: Working for free hurts OP. Not just in terms of lost money, but in terms of lost reputation. It says: they are not worth being compensated. Good grad students can expect to be compensated. – Captain Emacs Jan 30 at 2:40
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    @AnonymousPhysicist: 1. The claim that salary is a balance between externally-determined supply and demand is at best overly reductionist, and at worst an ideological tool of employers. 2. More specifically though, it's true that the actions of OP, or a couple of people here and there, won't alter much of anything. But if instead of a few PhD candidates working for free we would have none working for free, then - that does have an effect, at the very least psychologically. – einpoklum Jan 30 at 8:48
  • Pure math is not a science. Are you also willing to argue that writers/actors/musicians should not work for (almost) free? – Alexander Woo Jan 30 at 8:59
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    @AlexanderWoo: If you are offered a full-time position in a more desirable orchestra or theater for no pay, and other positions for pay, I would make the same suggestion. Otherwise - it depends on the context. I didn't say one should never do any work for no pay. – einpoklum Jan 30 at 10:00
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Accept the offer. If you receive a better offer down the line, politely back out.

This may not be easy for you, but it's not personal, it's business.

What can happen is that you decline the offer, the others say no... and you're left high and dry with nothing.

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