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I got a PhD offer from a US university (the same university I completed my undergrad degree), and I asked for a deferral earlier this year (as I'm planning to do a one-year master's program at a UK university) and the professor approved my request. However, in the past few months, I found myself changed my research interest to a relevant field, but it's very different from the US PhD program I deferred.

My question is would that be possible/okay for me to let my university know that I want to decline this offer (which is intended to begin in September 2023) and reapply to other PhD programs that fit better with my research interests? If so, should I do that as soon as possible?

I didn't sign any legal document for the deferral (just sent an email to the program director to confirm I want to take the deferral), but I would feel bad for not committing to their program and applying to others.


Additional information: If I didn't get accepted elsewhere I might still be interested in this position, so I'm not sure when would be a good time to let my professors know I want to decline, and if it's unethical to do that too late.

I might also be asking my professors at the current university for a reference letter if I reapply to other programs (since they know me very well and the new application cycle for PhD is starting soon), so I want to figure out how I can better communicate with my professors about my situation without burning a bridge.

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    Just be sure this is what you want to do, and that you will be happy with the decision yourself. Also, what is your estimated probability of being accepted into another program? If you didn't get accepted anywhere else, would you still want to decline this position? Jul 26 at 14:31
  • @JosephDoggie Thanks so much for the comment! This is actually what I'm also worried about. If I didn't get in elsewhere I might still be interested in this position, so I'm not sure when would be a good time to let them know. I might also be asking my professors at the current university for a reference letter if I reapply (cuz they know me very well and the new application cycle is starting soon), so I want to figure out how I can better communicate with them.
    – IGY
    Jul 26 at 15:23
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    I personally would wait till accepted elsewhere to decline, but this may not suit the University/Department as well. In any event, have a plan for what to do if you have no academic landing spot. I was in technology, which is easier to land a job outside academia, but of course, a lot of this is up to you. Jul 26 at 15:59
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    When making the original decision, did you only apply to this program? Did you apply several places? You might have some conversations with folks you trust about your liklihood of being accepted at your "dream" schools which would be preferable.
    – Dawn
    Jul 26 at 16:20
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    Basically, I am trying to figure out - what is the probability of getting a better offer than the one you have now? Can you get a better idea of this figure before making any big decisions?
    – Dawn
    Jul 28 at 14:44

5 Answers 5

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I have a slightly different view on this situation. Technically speaking I ended up in the exact same scenario: I accepted a 1 year MSc in the UK, declined all US PhD offers, including from my undergrad institution, and then ended up reapplying and accepting a (better) offer from my undergrad institution the following year. This caused me no issues whatsoever except the application fees and materials.

By deferring an offer, you have currently conveyed to your undergrad institution that you will definitely accept an offer for Fall 2023. This certainly affects their decisions, if not now then when they start to think about PhD applications.

After quite a bit of thought, I still think you should decline and reapply as soon as you are certain about the decision. It's a bit tricky since you initially deferred, but I think you can deal with this without hugely impacting your next application.

Indeed, when you decline you have the opportunity to blame something that isn't, effectively, "I think I can get a better PhD offer". For instance, my go-to would be to indicate that prevailing economic conditions have caused you to reassess your career options. So while you're still heavily considering a PhD and might reapply, you don't think you can give as firm a guarantee as a deferral in good conscience.

There are other options, but almost all of them are probably worse. The thing you want to avoid, if you genuinely consider your undergrad a reasonable backup that you would accept in some situations, is conveying that you are extremely unlikely to accept another offer. Telling them that your entire research focus has changed in less than 6 months doesn't seem like a great avenue for that.

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  • Thank you so much for the thoughtful answer, I really appreciate it!
    – IGY
    Jul 28 at 23:12
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Yes, you can decline, and should do so as soon as possible. Nobody benefits from you joining a program that you don't want to be part of. It wastes everyone's resources: time, money, space.

Declining ASAP might let another student fill the slot, though it would be a bit late now for the coming September. For a year from now it won't even disrupt anything, so another student will likely get the slot as appropriate.

No one will even be very surprised to see some students do this. Better to decline than to start and drop out later.

If an individual professor was involved, it would be good to apologize and explain, though an apology isn't really necessary, just polite. People change. Other people recognize that.

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  • Thanks so much, that's really helpful :)
    – IGY
    Jul 28 at 23:14
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I've been there. I declined the offer and reapplied. I think it was a good decision—especially after hearing from Buffy, who might know what it's like to be on the receiving end of a broken deferral.

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    Not really worth an answer, but I also found myself in precisely the OP's situation (1 year MSc at a UK uni). It didn't even cross my mind to defer the 2 PhD offers. I applied again the next cycle, and ended up going to my previous US undergrad for PhD with a better deal than what they offered the previous round. Jul 28 at 19:24
  • @Anonymous M Did you defer (or decline) the PhD at your undergrad uni, then reapplied to the same PhD program? I'm thinking about this possibility in my situation, as I think it's unethical to treat my current offer as a backup plan and reapply to others. I don't know if it makes too much of a difference for my current university if I do that, but I think it would be more respectful.
    – IGY
    Jul 28 at 20:28
  • @IGY Yes, I declined the round when I took the UK MSc and reapplied the next round. I think Buffy's answer is a bit too absolute, personally, let me try to cook one up in case it's useful. Jul 28 at 21:12
  • @Anonymous M Great, thank you!!
    – IGY
    Jul 28 at 21:15
  • Thanks for sharing this! When you declined the offer, did you tell them your research interest has changed? Do you remember when did you make the decision to decline and reapply?
    – IGY
    Jul 29 at 13:12
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You're in a tricky position, because you've made a commitment and now want to go back on that commitment.

It's like you have agreed to a date for the dance, but are wanting to check out opportunities for other dates while not losing the one you have if those don't pan out. Your original date can justifiably be upset by this.

By the same token, though, if you'd be unhappy dancing with them (ensuring neither you nor your date will have a good time at the dance), it's also a bit rude not to cancel on them, since they will have wasted more time and not had any opportunity to search for a new option themselves.

I think you need to consider carefully where you stand. The most respectful thing to do if you're certain you want to go a different direction would be to inform the program as soon as possible that you will be doing something else.

I think it's unethical if you were to try to have it both ways and keep them as a backup plan while applying elsewhere. Things are a bit different in this situation than in the typical job world.

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The fact that you have already deferred makes this all the difference here: your supervisor will hopefully be able to recruit another person next year, though they may lose some standing in their department, depending how big a deal it is to get a PhD studentship.

Also, the fact it is a long, presumably course-heavy US PhD rather than a short, specific, European 3-year project type of PhD makes a difference.

I agree it is a lot better to inform ASAP and switch now than to switch later. But I don't lightly suggest switching. PhD student acceptance processes are a big deal, a huge amount of time is spent on them, not only other students denied the place but also project and grant selection by the the supervisor may be affected by who is recruited.

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