In normal job-hunting, it's acceptable to apply for jobs "informationally", to learn about new opportunities before deciding whether the new opportunity is better than your current.

Suppose I'm a published MS-level researcher in industry, but have gotten interested in certain research projects in academia and see PhD student lab openings. I'd like to learn more about the projects to see if the project direction is a good fit for my interests, see if I like the culture of the team, see if I like the location, learn more about the funding situation and expected work-life balance of the lab. All five of these things are unknowns when applying to a normal job, and it's acceptable in industry (I'm in EECS) to interview for several rounds with on-site visits to find answers on both sides before deciding if it's a good fit. If for any reason the applicant declines, it's perfectly acceptable to interview with the same team a few years down the road as projects, willingness to relocate, family situation all change dramatically over the course of one's lifetime.

As a practicing researcher in the field, I can of course do due diligence and read the relevant papers/ codebases, etc., but interviewing with the faculty and meeting the future team by being accepted to the associated graduate program are necessary to fully evaluate whether the new position is more desirable than the current one.

Would this attitude be seen negatively, both by the potential future advising faculty or the larger admitting institution? Would schools be more reluctant to admit me if I re-apply? For context, I'm in the US and would be applying to top-N schools.

If this approach is not appropriate for grad-school, how would I go about managing how project/location/team/cultural fit, from my perspective, could change over my lifetime as, e.g., the kids grow up and move out, the field changes and develops. It seems a bit absurd that, because an opportunity or team was not a good fit at some point in my lifetime, it would be closed to me for the rest of a 30 year career, so if this is the case I have trouble understanding the underlying reasoning.

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    Good luck, but you have a lot of misconceptions about how things work. If you waste people's time they won't be happy with you. It isn't like dealing with HR for an industry job. And "top N" schools for a small N in the US pretty much guarantees failure.
    – Buffy
    Commented Oct 31, 2021 at 23:48
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    I'm pretty sure you'll look at the funding on offer (even from the most generous programs), think about what that would do to your lifestyle, also realize that having a PhD won't improve your salary that much, and after not much consideration, decide no PhD could possibly be a good idea for you. Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 0:09
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    Continuing to apply for, and turn down, jobs in my group will result in you not being selected for an interview real quick. Not worth wasting peoples time.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 0:30
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    @Buffy: "if you waste people's time, they won't be happy with you" also applies to HR outside academia. Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 9:41
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    Is there a reason to do this as a PhD if the PhD itself is not the major end goal for you? PhD students are not the only ones working in academic labs. It can vary quite a bit by field, but there may very well be research scientist/programmer positions available that may be more in line with your apparent goals.
    – ttbek
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 11:36

3 Answers 3


In my view, it's completely different to apply intending to find a position but not find the right fit than it is to apply "explorationally" to gather information without intending to follow through during the current admissions cycle. And I don't think that's unique to grad school/academia, it's rude to waste any interviewer's time.

In industry, it's more common to be contacted for an interview or to go into an interview where both parties know you aren't on the immediate job market. That's different from abusing someone else's time for practice or whatever else. Yes, you'll find professional articles written that say otherwise. Sure, you might see other people doing it. Rude people do rude things all the time, selfish people coach others to be selfish; that doesn't make them less rude or selfish.

Applying isn't a commitment to take a position, and it would be wrong for someone to take your honest rejection of their offer too personally. However, they have every right next time around to be skeptical of your interest. Offers for grad school positions usually come on a fairly competitive calendar; if someone doesn't accept your offer, their second choice might have already committed elsewhere.

It seems you aren't quite sure if you want to go the academic route. I'd recommend reaching out to labs to communicate without applying. Let them know, honestly, what your position is. You probably have resources to travel, so visit some potential cities as a tourist and see how you like the vibe on your own. If you're doing research work now that's of academic interest, you may be able to arrange to visit and give a talk like an academic would, which typically comes with opportunities to meet with faculty and current students (and maybe even a honorarium for speaking, or at least a free meal).

And know that you aren't that special for having started an industry career first - most people have. A PhD in the US is usually a 5+ year commitment, and it's coming with a likely big pay cut for you. Rather than having negotiating power due to your salary and experience, you are probably in a negotiating hole because you are a higher risk to drop out after experiencing a cost of living crunch than a fresh student who has always lived in shared student housing. You'll be needing to explain why exactly you're a good fit for academia, and you'll have to convince programs that you're committed to them.

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    Thanks Bryan, really appreciate your making this distinction and offerring me advice. I agree that I should really introspect about what my level of confidence/interest is, and only then will I know how to act appropriately to this level of interest. And I certainly agree that applying for practice or with a "faint" chance of accepting wastes people's time, both in industry and academia. Giving talks/ finding professional ways to engage with these labs sounds like an excellent way to feel out future career options before making a decision to apply. Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 2:18
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    +1, in particular for the reaching out informally part. Most people in academia hate dealing with applications and interviewing people, but love talking about future research opportunities.
    – mlk
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 10:16

For better or worse, there are some major differences between applying to PhD programs and applying for industry jobs, that mean that treating an application for a PhD spot like an application for a job probably won't work.

For one thing, in the US normally you are applying to a graduate program, rather than a specific lab. While it helps a lot to have a clear idea of what groups you want to work for, being admitted to a graduate program is not a guarantee that you will be able to work with a specific group.

For another thing, you are applying for an educational program, not a job. The goal is not just for you to produce, but to learn. This has a lot of implications, but relevant to your question, if you apply, receive an offer, and reject the offer to stay in your current job, there can be a perception that you are not serious about pursuing further education, which can color how your application will be viewed (should you apply again).

Finally, the laws of supply and demand are not on your side. There are more graduating BS and MS students every year looking for PhD slots, then there are PhD slots. Furthermore, while there are people who leave to go to industry and return, the "typical" path is to go to a PhD shortly after finishing a BS or MS degree. So if you apply, receive an offer, and then reject the offer, there is not an incentive to offer you another spot.

Therefore, I think that if you want to avoid potentially burning bridges, you should only apply if you think you want to go to school instead of remaining in industry.

In terms of power dynamics: fundamentally there is a power imbalance when you get a PhD, in a way there probably isn't in a typical industry job, because you are the one seeking a PhD. You will need to commit to one group for at least 3-5 years to make enough progress to get the PhD. It's very hard for you as a student to change groups, and if you do this will only set back your own timeline. Therefore, unlike in industry, the (implicit or explicit) threat that you could leave to go somewhere else, does not carry as much weight for PhD students in academia. Any PI will have certain resources available based on funding, there is a standard package you will get as a student, so you can't really bargain with your current salary. The bargaining chips that carry weight, are things that give you ability to produce high-impact research and win grants. But, if you are applying as a PhD student, you probably don't have already those things; you may have the promise to learn enough to do such things, but a typical PhD student is in the role of an apprentice being groomed.

As practical advice, I think you should use your academic network. Talk to the professors whose groups you work with about what it is like to do a PhD with them. Ask to talk to their PhD students. Maybe you could try to arrange spending a month in their lab, like an internship (of course I don't know how this would work with your company). Maybe the PIs can provide contacts for groups at institutions where you want to get a degree. I think you can learn a lot from talking to these groups before you apply about what to expect.

IMPORTANT CAVEAT This advice about your academic network is assuming that you feel comfortable reaching out to your academic collaborators without jeopardizing your current role. This may not be a safe thing to do, particularly if you are a junior person on your team, since (a) the faculty may tell your boss that you are thinking of leaving your job, and (b) there could be agreements between your collaborators and your employer that they are not supposed to "poach" current employees. I can't judge how likely (a) and (b) are in your case. There are usually agreements like (b) if two companies work together, but I don't know if that is true for academic collaboration. If you don't feel safe directly talking to people you work with about this, then you can find a lot of general advice about what a PhD is like online, including on this site, for example Advice for thinking about whether to pursue a PhD

Philosophically, I think that if you really want to do a PhD, you can't look at it as a normal job. You have to look at it as fulfilling your passion for a subject by pursuing it deeply at the highest level. This often means making sacrifices in terms of pay, work-life balance. That's not to say there aren't ways to manage a healthy work-life balance as a PhD student, but it's not a job where you can expect to work 9-5 and get everything done. To be successful, rather than negotiating power dynamics between you and your PI, you should focus more on finding a group that will intellectually match your interests and on learning how to be a successful researcher. Now... I am not passing a value judgment on whether these attitudes are a good or bad thing. I am just saying that this is the prevailing culture in academia, which you should be aware of before deciding to purse a PhD.

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    Thank you for your input, you really make some great points. I'm very aware of prevailing academic culture :) At the same time, when I see answers like the top one here, I really believe I'm not alone and that I can "be the change" I want to see in academia so long as I can find an aligned PI. I've seen great aspiring 9-5 scientists can get pushed by mismatched PI's, but I also know there's PI's even at top-N schools who believe it's better to accept the diversity of 9-5'ers than to lose their talent from the field. I'm optimistic overall. Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 10:11
  • My comment above, standing mostly separate from the original discussion about the right level of confidence/interest to have before applying. Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 10:14
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    @Dragonsheep I definitely agree that finding a good advisor is a key part of a successful PhD. As you know, it can be very hard to know whether someone really is a good advisor before you join their group. Unfortunately there's not as much transparency around group culture as there is in the corporate world. The best way to find out is to talk to students in the group. But, getting access to the students can be tricky. You could try cold emailing students in a group you are thinking of joining -- I bet you'd get some hits. Probably a good idea to at least tell the PI first if you do this.
    – Andrew
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 14:20
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    Thanks @Andrew, I really appreciate your follow-up. You really seem to have a caring demeanor in your advising (for all that means on stackexchange), so wanted share gratitude that it's not unnoticed. Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 8:13
  • @Dragonsheep I actually went the other way (left academia for industry, fairly recently). I find it strangely cathartic to be able to point out pitfalls I learned from my many misadventures.
    – Andrew
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 19:56

PhD programs will happily continue accepting your application fees. It is your life and your money. If you were not serious about doing PhD study, then the money budgeted to such fees could be better spent on such things as a vacation, dinner at a fancy restaurant, etc.

If you really have nothing better to spend your money on, you could give it to me. I will without complaint relieve you of any surplus money that is holding you back from achieving your dreams.

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    I feel this answer is missing the point a bit. Someone in OP's shoes may be perfectly willing to pay a $50-$100 application fee if it means an opportunity to interview and gather information, and they may be willing to do so many times if their finances support it. However, the people whose time is being wasted are not the people pocketing the $50, and they haven't agreed to meet in exchange for $50, they've agreed to meet in hopes of taking on a promising student. It's still rude whether or not it's how OP wants to spend their money, because the other parties haven't agreed to this.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 22:13
  • @BryanKrause For the first round of applications, how is that different from a serious applicant who applies to 10 programs. Obviously, the applicant is going to enroll in at most 1 program. Is this applicants wasting the admissions committee time. For subsequent rounds, I believe (but could be wrong) that the admissions committee will be clued in that the applicant is not serious and no time will be wasted.
    – emory
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 18:39

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