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Recently, a previous student of mine consulted me the possibility of applying to other PhD programs while deferring a PhD offer. He was an undergrad at my institution; he got a PhD offer last year but decided to work an extra year before starting his PhD. We had a good relationship while he was working in my lab, so I hope to help him out by seeking some information on this.

SE (i.e., this platform) seems to have very mixed opinions on this. From the answers I've read, some say it's fine while others bring up ethical reasons against this behavior. However, almost all answers (some even from the same people who are against reapplying during deferral) support a current PhD student applying for another PhD program (at least nobody said this is unethical). This, to me, is very puzzling because in the 2nd case the student has already costed not only a seat but also actual funding from the program.

If reapplying is allowed for current PhD students, why are people against it for current deferees? To the best of my knowledge (including in my own program), students who choose to defer are rarely required to sign a binding contract. From my perspective, they are basically PhD students who are on leave.

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  • You seem to be asking for opinions, which make the question off-topic.
    – Buffy
    Aug 13, 2023 at 11:49
  • @Buffy I think it's appropriate to ask when I notice how essentially the same things get handled so differently in academia. I can't find information on this anywhere else. I already encouraged the student to seek information elsewhere as well.
    – JRDavis
    Aug 13, 2023 at 12:03
  • Not everything is ok to ask here. See: academia.stackexchange.com/help. I have an opinion on the question as do others. But none of us can give a definitive answer. This isn't just a chat room.
    – Buffy
    Aug 13, 2023 at 12:14
  • I'm asking this question because I thought (1) there might be legitimate/institutional reasons (beyond opinions) why people are against reapplication of deferees and (2) other schools (i.e., other than mine) might actually require students to sign binding contracts and penalize students for doing so. If the answers to both are no, we need to stop "scaring" students that the previous offer would be retracted, as discussed here: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/44885/…
    – JRDavis
    Aug 14, 2023 at 7:13
  • I would suspect that most departments have some reasonable idea of the percentage of deferrals who do not end up attending, for whatever reason.
    – Jon Custer
    Aug 14, 2023 at 16:47

2 Answers 2

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Ethical dilemmas are so called because they force us to choose among competing values. In the case of your student, there's the value of keeping one's word (a value universally lauded) vs what is customary. For example, where I live there's a stretch of highway where most drivers exceed the speed limit, but I never see a line at the police station of people confessing to their crime. I also don't know of anybody who keeps track of all internet purchases and then sends the required state tax at the end of the year. I am sure that they all consider themselves law-abiding citizens, even though they all break the law (ie perform unethical acts) every day.

So yes, your student should keep their word and attend the university they were admitted to, but also yes, it is customary and normal for students to keep looking and to change their mind regarding attending the place they promised to. This is so common that graduate admissions offices have names for these situations, names like "yield" and "attrition". Yield is the number of admitted students who actually enroll in the program, and attrition is the number of students lost between accepting the admissions offer and actually showing up at the start of the semester (or the following semester). Your student needs to do his/her own value ranking and decided which one is more important. My opinion is that this falls in the "customary" type of ethical breach, and that the student, the one in the vulnerable position against the university, is the one who should be allowed the slack. They should keep looking. I say this even though I'm usually the one arguing against the "customary" type of ethical breach, and thus the only car doing 55mph on that stretch of highway. But there's too much at stake when choosing a graduate program, and the student is the one in the vulnerable position.

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I don't see anything wrong with your asking this question - although it might have been better had the affected party written on his own behalf.

Of course seeking another PhD studentship, while already holding one in deferment, is unethical.

You know the test for ethicality: how would you like if someone did that to you ? In this case, how would the deferment candidate like it if, after working like a demon for a year, he arrived at his promised graduate school only to find that another student had been allocated his studentship ? I would think he'd be madder than hell about it - used as a makeweight by a graduate school only too happy to reject him for smarter, richer or better connected, etc, etc.

You mention that some posts to this forum from students then already engaged in PhD studies were sometimes given the ethical okay to look round for other PhD studentships. (It might help if you cited a few such cases) All I can say to that is that there may have been other circumstances involved that overrode the normal etiquette, e.g. a bad supervisor and apathetic HoD, total collapse in the purpose of the research program when experiments showed it futile, health or personal issues, etc. I can't see how to otherwise justify "PhD hopping".

As for the legalities of the situation, you may well be right in saying there's nothing illegal.

But many non-illegal things are unethical.

A side-question sticking out here is why the PhD candidate chose the program he did yet then sought a deferment and having got it then started looking round for something else ... I hope you have the good sense not to engage this candidate in your own research group.

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  • In my program (and all other programs that I'm aware of), students are explicitly allowed to drop out of PhD programs at any time (average dropout rate at top programs in my field is 20-30%; students get an MS before leaving), but schools can't drop students if they are in good academic standing. So this is not a scenario where questions like "how would you like if someone did that to you" make sense. Students are much more vulnerable than schools in the application process.
    – JRDavis
    Aug 22, 2023 at 6:05
  • @JRDavis (1) The OP's question concerned the ethics - not the reality or legality - of abandoning a previously agreed but deferred PhD studentship in favor of another one. (2) One cannot group all dropouts from a PhD program (for all sorts of reasons) and use the resulting percentage as an argument - or even a de facto reality - in favor of a PhD candidate ethically taking another PhD opportunity elsewhere. (3) Accepted candidates being later rejected prior to commencement is not at such a rate to justify a candidate's precautionary dumping of one PhD offer in favor of another.
    – Trunk
    Aug 22, 2023 at 9:50

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