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I’ve got a sort of a dilemma in my hands and I was hoping y’all can help me out:

Although I’ve got a quite below average profile, I applied to multiple universities in the States and in Hong Kong for my Biology PhD studies. At the end of January, I received a PhD offer from a quite well-known University in Hong Kong, and I ended up accepting this offer under pressure since they gave me a two-week deadline to make a decision and because most of the universities I applied to in the States had already rejected me, so I assumed that would be my only PhD offer for this cycle. Well, call it a miracle or not, but just a few days ago I received a PhD offer from UT Austin (one of my dream schools), and I am seriously thinking on retracting my acceptance of the Hong Kong admission offer.

I understand that doing so is not a very ethical thing to do, so would you recommend me to do it? Is doing so going to carry any consequences I should be aware of? Also, my prospective PI in Hong Kong is super nice and I really feel bad to tell him that I am not gonna work with him.

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    Does this answer your question? academia.stackexchange.com/questions/41105/…
    – Allure
    Feb 27, 2023 at 1:12
  • Or this: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/183646/…
    – Allure
    Feb 27, 2023 at 1:13
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    Congratulations on your offers! You're clearly being too hard on yourself, because UT Austin (and probably the Hong Kong university as well) don't make admissions offers to applicants with "quite below average" profiles. Relevant to your actual question—I assume that you would have mentioned if you literally signed a legal contract of some sort (that's pretty unlikely in my estimation). Side note: you can also email your Hong Kong would-be supervisor, explain the situation personally to him, and say that you'd very much like to be in touch in the future (networking is always good). Feb 27, 2023 at 1:46
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    Just the regular reminder: Do not retract your acceptance in HK before you actually have all the paperwork ready and signed with UT Austin. Somewhere between offer letters being sent out by mistake (not probable, since it's been a few days already) or the organization of your dream school being a nightmare, you might end up wanting to take the HK offer after all.
    – Sabine
    Feb 27, 2023 at 9:19
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    And what about the PI at UT Austin ? Have you actually met in person these PIs ? Have you had all-round conversations (i.e. mental compatibility tests) with them ? If not you are merely being part of a comedy of manners over the phone.
    – Trunk
    Feb 27, 2023 at 16:57

3 Answers 3

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I don't believe there are any ethical issues and unlikely to be any legal ones. You will disappoint a few people, perhaps, but they haven't provided you things of value yet, so it isn't a question of theft of services in any sense. They almost certainly have one or more backup candidates they can offer the position to.

Send a polite letter, indicating that your opportunities have changed and you have an offer (even) more in accord with your goals. You aren't the first person to send such a letter.

But your chief responsibility at the moment is to yourself and the maximization of your career opportunities. It shouldn't be a problem beyond a bit of disappointment.

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    Very much this. For what it is worth, I have helped in graduate admissions extensively at one of my institutions -- a very good one internationally and where lots of the applicants are indeed internationally competitive. About a third of candidates offered places turn them down. The better you are, the more likely you are to get into more places elsewhere in the world. Tell them, feel a pang of guilt if you must, and move on with your life. All you're doing is making a small amount of work for an administrator and potentially someone else very happy.
    – Landak
    Feb 27, 2023 at 15:30
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    I'd consider having a place held for you, (while possibly declining other prospective students applications) has/had value for the OP. Feb 28, 2023 at 5:05
  • @LamarLatrell while it does, the school creates this situation by setting such a tight deadline. In my field, there is a sort of arms race of less popular schools setting acceptance deadlines earlier and earlier so they can snatch up candidates before they hear the decision of more desirable schools. In such cases, the school can’t reasonably expect acceptances to be as definitive. Not sure if that applies in the OP’s case though.
    – 11684
    Mar 1, 2023 at 9:45
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I think you need first to realize that some schools insist on early acceptance deadlines precisely so candidates are uncomfortable about changing their minds later on. There is nothing wrong on your part in changing your mind, simply telling them you recently received a more interesting offer.

What would be incorrect would be to accept a second offer knowing you will refuse the first, but not tell the first institution once you have changed your mind. What you want to do is to tell Hong Kong as soon as possible so they can reassign the resources (money, space etc) they had reserved for you to another applicant and move on.

It is unlikely you will be the first person to back out of an early acceptance: the people in Hong Kong must expect this will be a by-product of an early acceptance policy.

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    Since the two universities are from different countries, the "early" deadline in one compared to the other could in general also be because their academic calendars don't fully align.
    – GoodDeeds
    Feb 26, 2023 at 19:37
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    @GoodDeeds sure... still if university 1 expects an early commitment they should also expect that a lot of individual situations will change in time. Feb 26, 2023 at 19:39
  • "some schools insist on early acceptance deadlines precisely so candidates are uncomfortable about changing their minds later on" - citation required. Early acceptance deadlines create precisely the dilemma that candidates will have enough time to jump ship at the most inconvenient moment and are more often than not a requirement imposed upon the departments by HR. Mar 3, 2023 at 11:48
  • @CaptainEmacs The purpose of the April 15th Resolution is precisely to avoid placing students in situation where they have to withdraw from an early acceptance because another offer arrives later. Mar 3, 2023 at 16:33
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I had a very similar situation twenty years ago when applying for PhD places in biology. I went into the process late and the person I most wanted to work with had already allocated funding to another student. But I did manage to win a place working on a project I knew relatively little about at an institution with a good reputation.

Shortly after I'd confirmed my acceptance of that place, I got a letter from my original institution explaining that their chosen student had dropped out at the last minute, and would I like the place after all? I declined because, like you, I felt that was the "ethical" thing to do.

I figured that at such an early stage it didn't much matter how engaged I was with the project, that I could pivot toward my research interests later. But the reality is that a doctorate places high demands on you for 3-4 years of your life in exchange for relatively little money. My relative disinterest in the project showed and, combined with a poor supervisor and the fact it was (I eventually realised) a poorly-planned project, I eventually abandoned my write-up and any hope of an academic career with it.

During my time as a student I met the academic I'd hoped to work with and the student he eventually found for his project at a conference and spent a fascinating evening with them finding out about the amazing project I could have been a part of. I'm not sure academia was really for me, after all, but I wonder sometimes what could have been. I certainly would have avoided essentially wasting three years of my life and regretting it.

In short: your initial PhD project is too important to let a relatively minor quibble over politeness spoil it. Hong Kong will find another student to replace you. If your heart lies with the work in Austin, go to Austin.

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