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This autumn, I applied for an MPhil at Cambridge as an international student. Here are some key points:

  1. Only 10% of MPhil students in my area of study get full scholarships.
  2. I stated very clearly when I applied that I won't attend if there's no funding for me.
  3. So the department knows they are sort of taking a risk on me.
  4. I plan to apply for a PhD program next year at the same department with the same proposed supervisor.

I was made a conditional offer of admission and I accepted it without knowing my funding situation because all the funding decisions are made later than the offers of admission are sent.

Now that it is June already, it looks like I didn't get any funding. Not a problem, I'll get my master's degree from elsewhere. I have looked through Cambridge's website and they pretty much expect you to accept and then withdraw if you don't get any funding. My department also won't be surprised if I withdraw, because I was very straightforward about it from the get-go.

I am still worried a little bit, because I plan to apply for a PhD program next year and contact the same professor as my potential supervisor. I want to part on as friendly terms as possible. How should I go about this? Should I write to the department? To the professor? What should I say?

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  • Did you personally contact this professor during the application process? otherwise don't worry, you are just a name on some obscure internal site/excel worksheet, in 3 months your name will be forgotten, unless you do something spectacularly bad (and even then ... instead of 3 months maybe 2 years and you will be forgotten)...
    – EarlGrey
    Jun 6, 2023 at 9:54
  • @EarlGrey Actually yes, I wrote to the professor and she took a look at my research proposal. I also met her during my zoom interview. So it's (relatively) personal, that's why I'm thinking about writing her an email saying effectively "tough luck for me, you're still the best, maybe better luck for me next year".
    – Anna
    Jun 6, 2023 at 13:36

2 Answers 2

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In your offer letter (or the like) it should give a point of contact to accept/reject the offer. That is where communication should be directed at the very least. I would consider including the professor in this communication regardless.

Now, let us be clear: Graduate school admissions are not a charity. This goes both ways. We should all get this. You were (rightly) clear that your acceptance was contingent on being funded. No one should be surprised that you are rejecting an acceptance offer.

I myself rejected a poorly funded offer for my MSci and then ended up attending the same university that I had rejected two years prior, this time for my PhD. (My funding was much better for the PhD offer!) No bridges had been burned.

As always, be respectful and be clear. Any reasonable professor/university will be completely fine with you rejecting an unfunded offer and then returning later to have a further conversation about PhD funding. And, at least for me, if I had a potential advisor who was turned out of sort because I did not take an unfunded offer, that is not an advisor I want to select for any further potential work.

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    I'd say only about 10% of the overseas students that accept positions on our Master programmes actually turn up. The vast majority don't even bother to say they are not turning up. Jun 6, 2023 at 11:59
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Professors are human beings (although sometime they try hard to hide this fact), not humongous figure of infinite knowledge and peculiar sensibility.

If you had personal contact with the professor, then write a nice, formal, concise email to them, saying thanks for the potential opportunity and mentioning you are looking forward to have future chances of collaborating (because you are, and a PhD is a learning process for the student and for the professor).

If you had no contact with the professor until now and all the communications were with the "department": such an email will be felt as spam. Think twice about that.

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