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Last year I got into a physics PhD program at university A in the US, and now I'm doing a one-year master's program at university B (which has a much higher ranking) by deferring a year at A. A is asking me to let them know about my final decision by the end of this month so that in case I don't want to come back this year, they still have a chance to recruit another student.

My situation is I actually have submitted applications to my current university B for their PhD program (which has a different focus on physics, and there is no professor at A studies this direction), and the admission result will be available in another 6-8 weeks. I'm honestly not 100% sure which field I really want to pursue at this moment. My question is if I'm telling A I'm coming back, but later at some point I changed my mind, is it unethical if I tell them I want to change my plan and commit to B as their research focus better suits my interest?

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It is unethical, in my opinion.

My question is if I'm telling A I'm coming back, but later at some point I changed my mind, is it unethical if I tell them I want to change my plan and commit to B as their research focus better suits my interest?

You already know that there is a chance that you will accept the offer from B (if you get the offer), and they don't, probably you also like the program at B more, yet you still want to tell them that you will commit to the program A.

You are wasting their time, and it is unethical. You should let them know about your plans, so "they still have a chance to recruit another student", or they can still give you some time to wait for the result.

Also, you had a chance to decline months ago without any ethical issue. Can I decline a PhD offer after deferral, and how to communicate with my professors for reapplying other PhD programs?

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I'm going to say no, it's not unethical. Two arguments:

  1. Being a PhD student is like a job. It is normal and proper that one can quit a job at any time, including between acceptance and starting work. Sometimes a reasonable notice period would be required, but the early commitment university A is asking of you goes way beyond a reasonable notice period.
  2. There is an unequal power relationship here. University A is trying to use its superior power to try to bounce you into making an early commitment with a huge impact on your life, and in the light of that, you certainly shouldn't feel guilty about causing them some minor administrative inconvenience by stringing them along for a while then changing your mind.
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  • I disagree with this answer, because PhD students also have teaching duties. Being a professor is also a job, but it's unethical to leave in the middle of the semester, forcing a scramble to cover the classes you were teaching. I think it's fine for A to want to know if this person is really coming or not. They have a deadline for regular students to say yes or no, and clearly a student who deferred acceptance should be subject to the same deadline, exactly for the reason A said: to give enough time to accept another student, who will also be a TA. Commented Apr 11 at 11:43
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    "A is trying to use its superior power to try to bounce you into making an early commitment with a huge impact on your life" This is a really strange interpretation of "A is asking me to let them know about my final decision by the end of this month so that in case I don't want to come back this year, they still have a chance to recruit another student." Commented Apr 11 at 12:25
  • @DavidWhite At all the institutions I'm familiar with, PhD students are asked to volunteer for TA work a week or two before the start of the semester - it's certainly not an integral part of being a PhD student, and even if it were, doesn't need to be arranged so far in advance. Commented Apr 11 at 13:07
  • Where I got my PhD, in math, TAs were assigned the previous semester, just like professors were. And some grad students had to teach a full course, just like a professor would (but not usually their first semester). At Ohio State, in math, it works the same way. Commented Apr 11 at 13:57
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The question is whether is unethical? yes, it is unethical, you are abusing a system that was created for other matters, besides, you are already in the B, they will likely accept you after master for phd, why to bother yourself.

You seems to be persuing 'ranking' ok, then go for it, but the thing is that ranking is not everything, but for you is everything then go for it.

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