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I have been applying to some universities for semesters starting in Jan 2024, and I expected that I can receive the decision letter in 2 or 3 months later.

However, 2 months ago, a professor actively emailed me (he knew me because another professor forwarded my Ph.D. inquiry to him) and he wanted me to come in the Fall semester for a project. His offer was really good and I wanted to keep his offer as a backup option, so I said that I'm interested in his offer and promised to send my applications in the future. However, I made the big mistake of not telling him that I was also waiting for other universities.

A week ago, he emailed me again to say that he had finalized the grant for me and was ready to recruit me immediately for the Fall semester (despite that I hadn't submitted the application to him) and wanted an answer from me. I had to admit that I couldn't accept his offer now because I also waited for other universities.

Now I feel extremely guilty and embarrassed because he probably had to do a lot of things to acquire his funding and now I just made him waste a lot of time and effort.

I just wondered if any professors get into this situation, how can they solve it?

4 Answers 4

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Speaking as a research administrator in the US, he should not write any proposal to support a single very special person who is not considered senior/key personnel. Students are considered replaceable and interchangeable, and if he gets the funding, but has no personnel, he may be able to recruit from another lab, get a postdoc instead, etc. If not, a no-cost extension may be an option as well. He may expend his own effort to complete the work.

This was not how I'd advise you to build relationships with academics (finding funding and personnel stresses people out like crazy), and you left him with a potential issue he will have to resolve, but it's hardly the worst problem to have. He'll be fine.

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Basically they work to find someone else and failing that try to keep the money available for a future hire if possible. I can't say whether that works in any given case, though. Sometimes the money returns to the source. There are lots of possibilities.

But there is no reason to feel guilty. At this point your responsibility is to yourself.

I don't know if you explained that you await other offers, but that would be natural. If you ask, it is possible that he can keep you in mind while searching elsewhere.

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Your assumption that

he probably had to do a lot of things to acquire his funding

is not quite correct. It is a lot of work putting a grant application together, but most of that work is spent describing how wonderful and feasible the project is and how wonderful and unique the investigators (postdocs, lecturers, professors) are, not how wonderful the students will be.*

In a grant application, PhD students are present mostly as an expenditure item, and grant proposals rarely assume that a specific student or a student with a very particular set of skills will be present (because, after all, these are not usually skills they have acquired over a very long career). A professor who has "lost their student" can usually recruit another student, hire a research assistant, overwork inspire their postdoc, or collaborate with someone who does have a new student.

Please don't feel too bad (although you can, and should, write an apologetic email). This is not a huge setback for anyone. Things will work out.


*(After all, he didn't ask you for any information to go on the grant ... did he? Because that would be really strange.)

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  • Thank you for your answer. In his email, he actually said that he prepared the details of the scholarship for me and was ready to recruit me immediately. In the previous meeting, we discussed how his ideas could proceed to some meaningful outcomes. So I thought he could have made a research proposal and received a grant for it. Or maybe I am wrong.
    – NoName
    Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 5:09
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    Some faculty do in fact write a grant around a student or postdoc's interests. That is not that uncommon. He may have done this "for you", however, until you are an admitted student and formally in the lab, this type of work is at his own risk. Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 5:30
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    @NoName a researcher can write a grant with someone in mind as a PhD student (I'll be doing that soon too). That doesn't make the student essential to the project (even though I'm sure you'd love to work with each other); the researcher simply fills the spot with someone else. They're very unlikely to have written a grant that they can't do "on their own" with their existing postdocs and PhD students, or that they can't find a new student for. Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 9:13
  • Are you suggesting that that'll be the end of it; the professor will not look for the OP, they will not pursue them?
    – Sneftel
    Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 15:57
  • If the OP has something else they've decided to do, probably. After all, life happens, PhD students and postdocs do quit their jobs mid-grant, and researchers simply have to fill the role again. OP's situation is the same thing except it's before the grant has started. Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 21:40
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You're likely overestimating your particular importance to the project. Ph.D. students are disposable, and are the first to be let go when grants run out. You'll likely lose this particular academic's support and collaboration, at least for the foreseeable future, but you have to look for the position that aligns the best for you. He'll be alright. Look after yourself.

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