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After applying to 10+ schools, I heard back from my top-choice program, interviewed with them, and was just informed that I was accepted. Given this program has always been (and still very much is) my top choice, I am considering withdrawing from my other interviews.

My question is - Is this common, and how do faculties view prospective students applying and expressing mad interest in working with them in the application but dropping out of the interview process? I'm mostly just worried about potentially having a bad reputation or that I might have awkward interactions with them in the future, perhaps at conferences or if I choose to apply to work with them as a post-doc.

I've asked friends in different fields for their opinion, and they recommend still attending all my other interviews. But these individuals are in the medical field (e.g., med school, dental school), so I'm not sure how relevant their advice is.

Am I just overthinking all of this? Potential faculty advisors probably won't even remember my name, right?

P.S. If it makes any difference, this is in a social sciences discipline in the US. And the particular research field I'm entering is actually quite small.

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7 Answers 7

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One caveat is the line "was just informed". Do you currently have a physical copy of a contract in your hand, signed by someone from that university?

Until you do, you don't have it.

So until you do, it's always a good idea to keep other options open. If it's going to cost significant money to get to an interview then maybe think twice, of course. But you can cancel interviews any time up to the actual day and no-one will care. (From their PoV a cancelled interview is unexpected free time to do actual work. :)

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    Upvoted, it is so important to have a proper letter of acceptance in hand.
    – Deepak
    Jan 28, 2023 at 18:02
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    You can cancel up to the day before and no-one would care all that much, but try to avoid cancelling on the same day if possible, and it's also just a decent thing to do to let people know as soon as you're sure you wouldn't accept any offer from them any more. While an interviewer tends not to prepare all that much compared to an interviewee, they likely still prepare a bit, and it is nice to be able to plan around things in advance.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 29, 2023 at 1:29
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    If airplane tickets are involved, or hotel stays, please cancel within reasonable times for that purpose. Jan 30, 2023 at 15:28
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If you know that you don't want to go to a specific school because you have a better offer already, then withdraw from the interview: You're wasting your time with it, and more importantly you're wasting the time of everyone as well. People have better things to do that do interviews for which one side already knows that it won't go anywhere.

As for how people perceive withdrawing from an interview: Everyone understands that students apply to multiple schools. If you withdraw, everyone will say "Good for you for finding a better place and thanks for letting us know!"

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I feel it's a bit rude to interview for positions you do not have any interest in taking. I know some people have a different view of this, though, particularly in industry, but I feel like it wastes the time of the people who interview you and possibly their money, if they are paying travel expenses for interviewees.

I think there are a few different ways to proceed:

First, while you may have had this program in mind as your top choice, you actually don't know what the other programs are like. Interviews are two-way: it's not just them finding out about you, but also you finding out about them. Also, the PhD experience is largely about who your mentor is, not just the program you're going to. If you think you could potentially come across information in a subsequent interview that would change your mind, I think it's okay to still interview, even if you think it's most likely you'll still go with your original first choice.

If, however, you're absolutely set on your decision and won't change, then I think you should cancel.

A middle option might be to tell the programs that you've made a decision to attend another program and ask how they'd like you to proceed. Maybe it's possible to still have conversations with faculty members you're interested in working with and those conversations will benefit you in the future when you seek future jobs, collaborators, etc. I think this is more likely to work out if the interviews are virtual, but either way there's nothing wrong with it if both sides are aware of the situation.

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    A middle option might be to tell the programs that you've made a decision to attend another program and ask how they'd like you to proceed. - This sounds strange to me. I can't imagine why the program would go ahead and interview you or set up meetings in this case.
    – Kimball
    Jan 28, 2023 at 17:31
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    @Kimball When I was a graduate student we were responsible for leading prospective students around campus and I remember a couple who had openly stated they had already made a decision. I think it comes down to those meetings are already set up, and these are interesting students with shared interests with faculty members - people like to talk about the stuff they like to study. I agree, if things still need to be set up it's probably easiest for everyone to skip it.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 28, 2023 at 17:33
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    @Kimball Most likely they won’t, but by informing them, you make it their decision whether they still want to have a talk with you, and you avoid any negative impressions (which may come in handy later on). Jan 28, 2023 at 19:52
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    +1 for "Also, the PhD experience is largely about who your mentor is, not just the program you're going to." Jan 31, 2023 at 5:55
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If you have no intention of considering the other schools, then don't go. You seem pretty set on the top choice being the top choice. Potential downsides:

  • It takes a lot of time, effort, and money to run an interview. Show people around, introduce them to the dept., hold the actual interview, pay tickets / hotels / food. Having been an interviewer, if someone had no intention of joining, and had already accepted a different offer, I'd prefer they politely canceled. People recruiting understand that often applicants are considering multiple choices.
  • It may come across during the interviews, and then burn a future bridge. Seeming interested in applying, and then lackluster at the prospect of joining can be detected. You mention the field is quite small, that means its easier to remember someone.

If you are open to the possibility of considering the other schools, then go to the rest of the interviews that are offered. Possible benefits:

  • You may like the research options better. At least in my field, schools had different alternatives available, and some research work is more personally interesting or may be a better fit for your future goals. Possibly greater likelihood to result in well-received publications or commercialization potential down the road.
  • You may like the advisors or fellow students better. Faculty are human and can be quite different in personality. Would rather work with a #2 or #3 choice who was motivated to help me and my research succeed, than a #1 choice who didn't really care whether I sank on arrival.
  • You may like the institution or environment better. Even in a PhD, there's a lot to academia external to just the work. The town may be a better place to live. The school may have a better cultural or social life. There may be other externalities of living there that are difficult to grasp without visiting. Maybe just, "these people are more 'fun' to work with."
  • The funding situation may be better, or the requirements surrounding funding may be better. Not All "Fully Funded" are "Full-Rides" A top choice may not offer the best long-term financial situation when you consider living in the area, or other requirements that go with the funding (such as teach onerous hours of classes). Possibly health care or insurance differences.
  • You don't mention family (so this may not be an issue), yet the family living situation may be a better fit (add this mostly as a general answers for people who may have family in the equation).
  • Helps against falling prey to starry eyed views about the top-choice. At least if you go to the others, you'll have some idea of what other schools, advisors, and towns are like. Per the above, you may actually like them.
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If you are absolutely sure that you are admitted, signed paperwork in hand, to the program you exclusively lust after, then go ahead and cancel.

If the ink isn't dry on the document in your hand, or you don't have a document, then you must treat it as just a wish, not a given. Proceed as if you were rejected rather than accepted. Take the interviews, and seriously consider how you would feel/work/grow/publish in each institution.

And, if you have the iron-clad document in your hand, take a moment to consider that you may have over-fixated on your top choice. Go through your list of interviews and look for each institution's advantage. Perhaps they have a lab in a related area, or you know the work of the PI, or you know and respect some individuals there who inspire you in some way.

If, with an open, curious mind you are certain that an institution is just not a great fit for you, then politely cancel the interview, and tell them that you have found your dream spot. They will be happy to have their time back.

But, if your open, empowered mind causes you to see glimmers of possibility, then talk with your contact there. Tell them that you have a great opportunity elsewhere, and ask specifically about the interesting aspects that they offer. You aren't misleading them, and you are using the power you get from having a great alternative to help guide the discussion to areas of relevant discovery. You may uncover an even better situation.

I recommend continuing with the interesting interviews, especially if you are a person who can leap to a comfortable conclusion to avoid the angst of deeply examining alternatives. You have a wonderful opportunity to engage in low-risk exploration. In the best case, you uncover enticing possibilities you would have missed. In the worst case, you have had deeper, relevant conversations with people you will soon encounter professionally.

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Research your top choice.

A top choice on paper can turn out to be a difficult choice in practice. I have a friend who changed from zoology 1st at Oxford to botany PhD at Cambridge, and it turned out that the superviser was not fun, he wanted someone to do some gruelling research for him, which was actually quite repetitive, solitary, field research. The result is that he became depressed from the type of life they had to lead for the PhD and felt exploited for menial research, while he worked to complete it with flying colors. So, I'd say be very familiar with the supervisor and the day-to-day type of research you will be doing. They guy would have benefitted from choosing nearly any other PhD.

What does it involve on a hands-on basis? Why is it a top choice?

By comparison, his friend opted for a less premium PhD which involved flying microlites over savanna and tagging lions, which was a lot more fun and sociable.

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Current PhD student here in the hard sciences. You are definitely overthinking it. No one will bat an eye if you turn down an interview. Schools and professors understand that there are many opportunities for students and won't take it personally if you choose to go with someone else. Saying "no" does not indicate a lack of genuine interest in the program.

That being said, while I don't know if I would go to all 10 interviews, I personally think it's quite valuable to interview multiple places (at least 3 if possible). Knowing what kind of options are out there and what each institute and program is like can provide some important perspective about whatever choice you end up making.

I was actually in a very similar position when I was interviewing. I got an offer from my dream school early in the process when I still had a few interviews left. Both my mentors strongly encouraged me to go on the remaining interviews and I am very glad I did.

I still ended up accepting the offer from my dream school, but those other interviews helped me realize why that program really was the best fit for me in the end. It's also has helped me on the days I've been frustrated with my current program, as a reminder that a lot of the perks and privileges I currently enjoy are not present at many other institutes. Also, to my surprise, those extra interviews are continuing to prove valuable as I look for postdoctoral positions. They exposed me to some important aspects that are lacking in my current program that I now want to make sure are present in my postdoc.

If you do end up going on some of the extra interviews, I have a small piece of advice. At the end of each interview, get out a notebook and write down your general observations, thoughts, and feelings from the experience (essentially stream of consciousness). Even a handful of interviews can blur together after a while, so writing things down can help keep things distinct.

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