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I’ve been in the process of deciding on a PhD program for a while now and last week I thought I had made the right decision, so I went through with it and accepted the offer. For background, the institution I accepted is the same one I did my undergrad with and the advisor I would be working with is someone I’ve done research with and have gotten close to. They had been pushing for me to continue working with them and once I had accepted the offer I told them and they were really happy to hear.

Now I worry that I betrayed the choice my gut was telling me to pick, which was another institution that is smaller but very friendly with a lot of people working on things I might be more interested in. I declined that offer as soon as I accepted the other one, but I’ve since talked with them and was put back on a waiting list.

I just need to know before I go through with anything else: how should I proceed without making things messy? I really think I’d like to change my decision (of course I’m not totally sure if it’s possible yet). But how would I tell my current advisor? Would it be totally wrong and unethical to do this? I feel as though this is a huge decision for my life and I want to make sure I’m in the right program for me. But I also don’t want to lose the connection I have with my current advisor who i really respect and look up to…

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I can't give you advice on how to tell someone you're going back on a decision, that's an interpersonal skill that depends heavily on the personalities and the relationship between the people involved, but to answer the academia question:

Would it be totally wrong and unethical to do this?

Absolutely not. You should not make a decision about the next 5-7 years of your life based on making your advisor feel bad. It sounds like you have a good relationship with them, and most people can understand that sometimes things change.

The earlier, the better of course, so your department can go to their waitlist (if they have one), and your advisor can begin making alternate plans.

How should I proceed without making things messy?

Thank them for their excellent supervision, apologize for making your decision after the "deadline" and express interest in seeing out existing projects and collaborating in the future (if applicable).

This answer is a long winded way of saying "just be polite about it."

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