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I'm interested in the cultural norms of my field (pure math, in US academia) though of course all answers are welcome.

I'm applying to graduate school, and noticed that the personal websites of several current students at top PhD programs include a small list of other top graduate schools they got into but did not attend. For instance, at the bottom of the student's website, it says "PhD student at X school; turned down offers from schools A, B, C (with prestigious fellowship Y), D, and E".

I'm curious whether this is standard and proper. I was personally somewhat taken aback upon seeing this, as it felt a bit cheap to use the prestige of a school you don't even attend to make yourself look better. However, I can see how this would look impressive on someone's resume (at least early in the student's career before they have more serious publications/awards to speak of).

One case where perhaps it would make sense for a student to do this is if the student chose a relatively lower-ranked program over some higher-ranked programs, for personal reasons or because of a specific professor.

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    If you got into ten PhD programs, that means you wasted your time nine times. Jan 7 at 1:10
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    IMO, there is not much difference to listing all known titles in one's signature. Jan 7 at 3:21
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    Frankly, "what is proper" to list on your resume depends on how much stuff is already on your resume. If you already have plenty of job experiences, then your diplomas are still relevant, but your GPA isn't. If you don't have much job experience, then every diploma is relevant. If you don't have many diplomas, then anything that looks like a diploma or achievement is relevant. An offer from a prestigious school is an achievement. If you went through a two-part admission test and successfully passed the written part but then failed the oral part, the written success is maybe still relevant.
    – Stef
    Jan 7 at 14:21
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    An academic CV is more about curriculum than it is about vitae. ;-)
    – PatrickT
    Jan 8 at 14:13
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    That's an absurd definition of "waste of time".
    – chepner
    Jan 10 at 0:37

7 Answers 7

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Don't do it. Declining fellowships is one thing, maybe still don't do that either. But telling grad school admissions you rejected, or job offers you rejected, or invitations to the prom you rejected (!?!) is considerably off-putting, and probably does more to make people think they'd be happier not having you around, no matter your other purported virtues.

EDIT: as suggested by @JochenGlueck, yes, it is surely worth making clear that this viewpoint is that of current (2020's) U.S. practice, in math, and probably in most STEM fields...

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    I have in mind now wedding vows where each person lists off all the romantic partners they rejected to get where they are...
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 7 at 1:47
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    It might be worthwhile to point out that whether "telling [...] job offers you rejected [...] is considerably off-putting" is very strongly dependent on local customs. Since OP explicitly mentions US, I agree with you, but in some other places it is completely common to list rejected job offers for, say, positions as a professor in one's CV. Jan 7 at 1:59
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    I would say it might be okay to list a fellowship as an Honor, even if declined. Similar to the NSF's Honorable Mentions) but otherwise 100% agree with your answer Jan 7 at 15:12
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    I completely agree with this answer. I just want to add: I think this is entirely cultural. I see nothing unethical about listing this on one's CV -- it just so happens that it is most likely to create a negative impression rather than a positive one. Jan 7 at 17:15
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    Absolutely right. Who cares where you might have gone? What matters is where you are going. To list such dead stuff is merely narcissistic.
    – Anton
    Jan 7 at 22:22
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A fellowship you have declined can be listed as an award on your academic CV, so long as you mark it as declined.

Listing degree programs you did not enroll in is not traditional. Do not do it. At best, it is a distraction from the information a hiring committee is looking for. The person hiring you wants to know if you have the required degree or not.

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    I feel like it would also be an awkward call for the HR person who has to call the college/university to verify the non-enrollment, if that's even possible. Jan 8 at 1:41
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It is not really "improper" to tell the truth about any aspect of your education/work history, so if you really want to, you can mention that you were given offers at schools that you did not attend. But it raises the question --- what kind of inference do you think an admissions committee will draw from this, and do you think those inferences will be positive or negative?

On the one hand, I can see that your goal here is to show that you are such hot property that you receive many good offers from institutions --- i.e., that these are "markers of esteem". So I get why you want to do this, and there is at least one possible positive inference that could be drawn from this information. However, I suspect that the primary inferences an admissions committee will draw from this will be negative ones: (1) you claim credit for institutions you did not actually attend; (2) your actual achievements are so thin that you refer to offers you did not accept as achievements (where others generally omit them); (3) you lack modesty and a sense of privacy in dealing with work/program offers; and (4) if we offer you a position, there is a good chance you will turn it down and then list our offer as more fodder for your resume. (Note: I'm not saying that these things are true of you, but they are the types of negative inferences that might potentially be drawn.)

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One case where perhaps it would make sense for a student to do this is if the student chose a relatively lower-ranked program over some higher-ranked programs, for personal reasons or because of a specific professor.

I think there is a fallacy in your thinking here, wherein you are conflating the prestige associated with graduating from a high ranked institution with the much lesser (essentially nonexistent, I would argue, in the context we’re discussing) prestige associated with getting admitted to a high ranked institution.

If you got in to a high ranked institution, good for you obviously; but you can’t really “cash out” on the prestige of the institution (at least not in a meaningful, significant way, other than extracting some social capital out of it when you’re on a date, say, and even that is pretty uncertain and could easily backfire) until you’ve actually graduated or at least started attending and getting good grades.

Your hypothetical student who chooses a lower ranked institution/program over a higher ranked one should be aware that in doing so they are necessarily giving up some prestige. Whether that will affect their decision is another matter, but the point is that there isn’t anything they could write in their CV that could “correct” for this effect. Because the prestige comes from actually realizing the potential that the higher ranked institution saw in them when it made the decision to admit them. And the only way to realize the potential is to actually go to that institution.

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I agree with most of Paul's answer.

Don't do it. Declining fellowships is one thing, maybe still don't do that either. But telling grad school admissions you rejected, or job offers you rejected, or invitations to the prom you rejected (!?!) is considerably off-putting, and probably does more to make people think they'd be happier not having you around, no matter your other purported virtues.

BUT, a another reason for not including is that it is a waste of space and looks like a filler (i.e., you have nothing better to write or if you have do have better things to write, this dilutes them).

Although academic CV's are notoriously long (and defined as Latin for “course of (one’s) life" in a dictionary, including trivial things gives the appearance you either have nothing better to say (e.g., you are an early-career persons) or are padding your CV with details that do not matter. Thus, you're taking the course of one's life too literally or in too fine of detail.

However, I have seen people tactfully list declining fellowship and as an honor or award similar to NSF's Honorable Mentions (e.g., offered NSF fellowship X and DOE fellowship Y and selected the DOE fellowship Y because... or NSF GRFP Honorable Mention).

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Short answer is NO as others have stated. However, I would like to point out that during interview some professors may want to know which other universities have you applied to and only when asked would you mention the universities you've declined. One thing to note is that it's better to mention universities that are almost ranked at the same level or above the one that you are applying. Besides, all this depends on how you sell yourself especially during interview. You could use the information when answering general questions about yourself and emphasising that you applied to several schools to make make sure you realise your dream of pursuing research is not entirely a bad idea, but obviously not to be stated on a CV. Good luck!

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Of course it is highly improper. It would give similar vibe as writing in your resume that you were elected the leader of the class in second year of your primary school education, or that you always used to remind your teacher about collecting students' homework in case the teacher forgot. Don't do it.

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