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I am looking for a PhD/job position. I sent an email to a group doing things potentially aligned with my interests. I had an interview with them and I am not enthusiastic about the project. I could see myself joining the group but the topic is quite far from my perfect topic.

They encouraged me to apply early to the doctoral school (they did not say they'd take me if I was admitted, but I think I do have some chances).

Fast forward one month and I haven't applied to the doctoral school, the deadline is still very far away, and I still want to find better options. They just asked me if I had heard back already from the doctoral school.

What could I tell them? My intention is not closing doors, but not stepping into this one too much either.

I could tell them that I still haven't managed to gather my references, which is true (I am in Europe, you don't always need reference letters for getting into a PhD programme), but not completely "honest", since there is a chance I will never apply to the school to take a job offer. Is it a good idea to just say I am still looking around and I will take time until the deadline, in case? They might start preferring other candidates if I ever was a top choice.

Disclaimer: this question is similar to this one, but substantially differs in the nature of the involved "offers".

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Do not enroll in a PhD program or join a group unless you are absolutely sure you want to work there for several years.

If you want to take a job that you do not love, at least pick one that pays better than PhD student.

To directly answer your question: Just tell them you did not submit your application yet.

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  • Thank you for the answers, also for the additional advice. Just to clarify the last part, would you agree with @justauser in conveying what you said in the form "I haven't sent the application yet, I am still gathering the references"? Or would you only keep the I haven't sent the application yet"? I think it makes a difference in the perceived message.
    – Lilla
    Aug 23, 2023 at 13:57
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    Keep it simple. Aug 23, 2023 at 15:27
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I am also in the process of applying to graduate school. I do not think being completely honest by telling them you are unconvinced with the group and are looking around for better options is a good idea at this stage. You could do the following to maximize your chances:

Tell them that you are still consolidating your application and gathering your references (this is technically true). In the meantime, make sure you email other groups you find interesting and decide if they better fit your area.

If you do find a better fit within the application deadline, you can email this group and politely let them know that you will not be applying to their group but thank them for their interest. By letting them know at this stage, you may have also given them with extra time to decide among alternative candidates.

If it is close to the deadline and you still haven't been able to find a better group, it is up to you to decide whether you want to apply to this group or not. You don't sound very enthusiastic about the research area, and that does not bode well, but if you still want to apply to see what happens, I suppose you could. If you get the position but decide to not opt for it, the group will most likely understand, since these sorts of decisions are based on a lot of personal factors, and they will most likely have other candidates lined up, anticipating such a situation.

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