I have inquired about a PhD position at a group. After a chat with the supervisor, and some time, I was invited to apply to the doctoral school (they never said they'd take me). Then holidays came and afterwards, a message asking if I had sent yet the documents. My reply was no, that I let them know. Then many other many follow ups from them: they had secured funding, they would start soon to advertise the position, the summary of the advertisment, mentioning a new, earlier deadline for applying...

And now, them asking again if I have sent the documents. At this point I think it would be best to let them know that I will be sending them only when I am sure about committing to the project, and that I have other options to evaluate.

Do you think this is a good idea? In any case, do you have any advice for doing this "the right way"?

My message is: I consider this project, but I haven't made up my mind.

I needed references to formally apply for the programme. One of the professors that could write a letter for me, also offered to me a position (spontaneously). That's why I can't just submit the application.

  • Have you tried just asking if they can waive your application fee? Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 11:12
  • @ScottSeidman No, but the application fee is not an issue. The isse is that I need too many referees, and whoever I ask, one is involved in an offer I have received.
    – Lilla
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 11:21
  • Do you mean references?? Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 13:25
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    Am I understanding correctly that the problem you see is that the people you would ask for references are people you are separately applying to work for?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 16:01
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    @BryanKrause Yes and no. Those references offered me a position spontaneously but I don't want to accept them yet, I am trying to find better and other options. I have not asked them to work with them, they offered that to me.
    – Lilla
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 16:25

4 Answers 4


This is very risky. They may have other options and will pass you by if you show no interest. And your other options might not work out.

I'd suggest that you make the application formal, just to keep your options open. An application doesn't imply a commitment to accept an offer. If nothing else, consider it a backup to your other possibilities which may come to fruit or not. But if you aren't in the game you can't win it. A the worst, it buys you time, which is a good thing.

It would be different, of course, if you had decided against any offer they might make. That seems unlikely here.

  • 1
    Alright, thanks. The thing is, at least one of the referees I could ask for my application, is involved in another offer. So, I cannot make the application formal.
    – Lilla
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 11:06
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    This does not always have to be a problem. If you are honest about wanting to keep your options open, they may write you a letter anyways despite also wanting to hire you themselves.
    – user_phys
    Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 5:18

My understanding is that there are people who 1) Know you well enough to provide a reference, and 2) Think highly enough of you to want to offer you a position.

These are great people to ask for references. Unless they would be so spiteful that you're considering to work for someone else besides them, in which case yes, they are terrible people to ask for references. But also terrible people to work for. So, either you trust them enough that you should feel free to ask them to be references for any position you want, or you don't trust them and should not take their offers nor ask them for references. You should never be in a place where you want to work with them but can't ask for a reference. You do not need to turn down their offer to apply to another: it is very reasonable for you to seek to compare possible offers before making a final decision.

It sounds like you have several possible offers, and don't know what you want. That's okay, but ultimately that's just something you have to figure out. There's no magic way without acting unethically to call dibs on a position and reserve it indefinitely. If you're uncertain and pursuing other options, be open and honest about that. Ask about timelines to learn how long you have to make a decision, and then make a decision within that window. Right now it sounds like you're stringing them along, and they are rightfully getting frustrated with that. If you won't take the position, they will want to pursue other people that will.

So, concrete steps:

Apply to PhD positions you are interested in. Apply fully, don't hold back information or documents to play a game.

Use as references the people who know your work best, have a high opinion of you, and who you trust.

Don't reserve slots for working with people you don't trust.

Once you have offers, decide to accept or not accept them, considering what other offers you have and other applications you have open.

Ideally, choose an offer to accept before rejecting other offers. If you need more time, ask for more time, be honest about the reasons. If a clock runs out before you're willing to decide, you may have to let it go if it doesn't suit you.

  • In this case, I don't even have an offer. Over time, they started to act like they were considering to hire me, though. I am convinced to tell them that I am evaluating other options, and ask for more time. But how would you justify the fact that I haven't sent the application yet? I wish not to upset them further
    – Lilla
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 17:26
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    @carmelo If it's an opportunity that you want an offer from, then I'd recommend spending far less effort justifying why you haven't sent the application, and far more effort sending the application. I wouldn't bother justifying at all, just do it.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 17:31
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    @carmelo I've also now read through your previous question that you linked... is it possible you are misunderstanding that applying for a position means you are committing to take it if accepted? I suppose it's possible things are different where you are, but in my world that is very far from the truth. You can apply to anything that you might possibly take - I wouldn't apply if you are definitely going to turn down an offer - but as long as there is an honest chance, it's okay to apply. You decide to accept or not later.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 17:36
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    @carmelo If you want to keep the door open, the first and most important thing to do is finish submitting your entire application. Sure, it's fine to apologize and say it took you some time to arrange references, but I think it's not a big deal, it's a problem best solved by just completing the application. I don't see why you need to ask for more time to make a decision, you haven't been asked to make any decision yet.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 19:32
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    I don't think I've ever seen an ad for an individual slot in PhD program. Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 23:56

Why not just be honest?? You haven't been guaranteed admission to the program that seems like it really wants to have you. Given that, it would simply be irresponsible for you to put all your eggs in that one basket, and the responsible behavior would be for you to apply to more programs.

I don't really understand all of the satellite issues surrounding your decision, because you're not explaining them particularly well, but it sounds like you would need members of this group to serve as recommenders if you apply for more programs. That's delicate, but it would certainly be unfortunate if you created a situation in which you can only apply to the one program you're not sure if you want to go to because of it.

All in all, I recommend honesty with the group asking you to complete your application package. That way, if everything breaks down, at the very least you haven't burned any bridges because the people you were dealing with feel like they've been lied to.

  • I need a certain number of references for entering the programme. One of the professors I could ask the reference to, is one from which I have another offer pending. I hope it is clearer. Thanks for the answer by the way.
    – Lilla
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 16:47
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    I like this answer. Honesty is always the best policy. And @carmelo, you can also explain to the referee that you are considering other options. It's not an unreasonable thing to say.
    – Cheery
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 20:49

You don't say where all of this takes place. PhD funding works very differently in different countries, which will have a huge impact on all of this.

That said, some general comments:

  1. If you feel like someone already pressures you before you've even started, it may not be a great place for you.

  2. However, if you want to long, the place may not be available anymore. Depends on how the funding works. See above. So there's could be a legitimate reason why they ask you again and again. If you're OK to lose the opportunity (which I think you are), just tell them honestly.

  3. Maybe in contrast to what others said, I would always recommend honesty. Even if you don't end up going there, these people may judge you in the future (you may have a long academic career ahead of you). Not good to look dishonest and unreliable before you even start. Just say what you want honestly.

  4. You seem to have very good supervisors locally. Trust them more than random people on the Internet. They will know your situation much better.

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