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I applied for PhD at some top US universities (Electrical & Computer Engineering dept).

I received an email from a professor at one of the places, about a position in his group, to work on a very specific topic. If I am interested, an interview could be set up to discuss things further.

However, I am not interested in this topic at all. From the email, it is clear that funding is available only for this topic.

Question: If I reject this offer, does it hurt my chances of getting admitted by a different faculty member at the same department?

My question is based on the following assumption: Faculty members sit together and pick a few candidates each, from the pool of applicants. The faculty member who contacted me had picked me. Therefore, if I reject his offer, I would not be considered by the other faculty members, because they have already picked other candidates.

Is this how it usually works?

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My question is based on the following assumption: Faculty members sit together and pick a few candidates each, from the pool of applicants. The faculty member who contacted me had picked me.

As Buffy said, in the US, candidates are normally chosen by committee, and there is no one-to-one matching between students and advisors. This is different than the situation in Europe.

Therefore, if I reject his offer, I would not be considered by the other faculty members, because they have already picked other candidates.

Things will vary widely across academia, so it is hard to give general advice (and I'm not familiar with EECE departments, so take my advice for what it's worth). But the committee does generally try to ensure some rough alignment between the students' interests and the department's needs. It could be that the department is only interested in you because you seem like a good match to this project / advisor, and so declining this project would probably result in your not being admitted. Or it could be that they really like you and are offering you this opportunity on top of a forthcoming admissions offer. It is really impossible to say what they might be thinking, but it's certainly possible that rejecting this offer could reduce your odds of admission.

If I am interested, an interview could be set up to discuss things further. However, I am not interested in this topic at all.

Still, I'm not sure any of this matters. You are not interested in the project, and getting an offer of admission based on your willingness to work on this odious project would not be very useful. So, I recommend being straightforward with them: perhaps you are willing to meet with the professor and discuss further, but your initial reaction is that the project doesn't seem like a strong match to your skills or interests. If this means they don't admit you, that's better than getting admitted but not being able to find a suitable advisor once you're there.

By the way, you might want to keep an open mind with respect to the project. Sometimes working on a less interesting project with an awesome advisor is worth it. And sometimes apparently uninteresting projects turn out to be connected to things you are interested in.

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    +1 for the last two paragraphs, especially the final one. You may want to highlight it more strongly as it's very good advice, especially the last sentence. OP should go for the interview. They may be pleasantly surprised.
    – bob
    Jan 28 at 14:03
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It seems unlikely that it would hurt you generally and if the professor had such an attitude that it would, you'd be in trouble there anyway. Someone would need an especially vindictive personality to behave like that.

Most US doctoral admissions is handled by a committee and most students start with no thesis advisor. Funding is also normally through TA positions. So, I think the one opportunity may have been special. The funding available from the professor was most likely via a grant for a specific project. And, you might still be subject to decisions of a committee even if you wanted to accept. Professors aren't normally "officers of the university" with power to act on their own.

It isn't normally like your supposed scenario. An admissions committee will be composed of a few professors from a much larger number. Sometimes it is given as a "reward" to people recently tenured.

For more on how admissions works in the US, see the answer for the US here: How does the admissions process work for Ph.D. programs in Country X?


For completeness, there are a few departments at a few universities in US that use a different system.

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I am currently a professor at a US university. After reading Buffy's and cag51's responses, I want to clarify that this:

Most US doctoral admissions is handled by a committee and most students start with no thesis advisor. Funding is also normally through TA positions. So, I think the one opportunity may have been special. The funding available from the professor was most likely via a grant for a specific project. And, you might still be subject to decisions of a committee even if you wanted to accept. Professors aren't normally "officers of the university" with power to act on their own.

is not universally true. It is certainly true in some places. However, I have worked at 2 R1 universities and in both cases, the committee part of admissions decisions is more of a quality check. At both universities, faculty identify and request to admit a particular set of students to work in their lab and with the understanding that they will be the primary advisors. Students are admitted with this understanding.

Whether this would affect later applications to faculty positions...I would say that it is unlikely, but not impossible. As Buffy suggested, one route to retaliation would be a vindictive person. This is possible, but faculty positions are committee decisions in pretty much all cases Any objection of a candidate would have to be justified and the others on the committee would have to agree. This scenario you're concerned about is thus possible, but super unlikely. In most cases, having wanted to admit a grad student, missing out, and then having them apply later as a strong faculty candidate would probably bias me towards, rather than away from admitting them. I would ethically have to suppress that tendency, however.

Bottom line, your instinct is right. Go to the program/advisor that fits your interests most closely. Grad school can be pretty fun if you're doing something you're really passionate about and pretty awful if you're doing something you hate.

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