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I applied and got an offer at a graduate school. Before the confirmation deadline I got an offer in industry and I accepted it.

The PhD position had extremely low salary, which would barely support my survival.

How can I communicate my reasons gracefully? The PhD project and collaboration seemed otherwise very very interesting.

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    Does this answer your question? How should I phrase an important question that I need to ask a professor? Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 5:01
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    Did you not know the salary before applying? You have (unintentionally) wasted the time of the people involved in the hiring process. Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 19:51
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    The PhD program had a salary??
    – Andrew
    Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 21:00
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    @RichardHardy I don't think I knew any of the stipends of any of the programs I applied to ... Commented Nov 11, 2023 at 4:50
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    @ngc1300, in the Nordic countries PhD students receive salaries rather than stipends, and that is what am used to. Azor, perhaps you were not worried about your survival. But since Albi was, they ought to have checked that before applying. Commented Nov 11, 2023 at 8:42

3 Answers 3

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Just be honest and say what you mean politely. There’s no need to be graceful, nobody is going to be upset for the reason, as everyone knows doing a PhD is financially very tough.

Communicating the real reason may just help somewhat to improving the poor conditions for PhDs it be future.

Dear so and so

Unfortunately I am declining the offer for a PhD. Whilst the project seems interesting, the salary is not financially viable for me at this current time and I have received a better compensated offer elsewhere.

Best, So and so

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    +1 Salary is a factor, and a legitimate one. If the department gets upset that you left for a living salary, then OP dodged a bullet. Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 3:02
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    I agree with everything in this answer except I'd say the message you wrote is graceful. Being graceful doesn't mean being dishonest.
    – Stef
    Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 11:56
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    I wonder whether one should put into the letter that the better offer is not a PhD student at some other university but rather an industry job. It is well known that industry jobs are much better paid than PhD students and no university will even try to compete there but PhD stipends also vary significantly between universities and this is a point where a university could try to become more competitive.
    – quarague
    Commented Nov 11, 2023 at 7:39
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    As an FYI, sometimes this information does reach administrators, and we do try to raise the rates for the next people. The honesty can matter; you just may never know the impact. Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 5:37
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It's perfectly reasonable and polite to give no specific reason, besides perhaps that you chose a different offer. If anything, I think that's probably more polite than criticizing the salary.

Thank you for the offer, the project was very compelling but I've accepted another offer.

If you want, you could mention that the other offer is in industry, or not; if you do it'll probably be assumed that salary was involved in the decision.

I also don't think there's anything wrong with explicitly calling out the salary if you want to, just that it isn't necessary to do so to be polite.

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    Informing them of the reasons doesn't have to be critical of the low salary. Low phd salaries versus commerce are a well known fact. If you were still afraid of this, you could simply acknowledge the fact in your letter. If I made the offer I'd want to understand the full reasons Commented Nov 11, 2023 at 10:39
  • @it'sahirecarbaby I'll never understand why some people in academia think that salaries so low they're barely above survival level (and sometimes below that) are acceptable in any way. How would that attract smart people ? Are they not trying to attract smart people ? Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 0:15
  • @StephenG-HelpUkraine if it's truly undertanding you seek, it's because studying a PhD offers rewards over and above immediate financial rewards, such as kudos, status, the joy of learning, and the promise of elevated future earning power. Those rewards then get priced into the market. In this instance the student places less value on those things than the difference between the commercial salary and the PhD salary, therefore Albi sells his time elsewhere. Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 10:06
  • @it'sahirecarbaby You cannot eat something that's in the distant future. Go to a bank and try and get a loan based on "kudos, status, the joy of learning" - they should at least have a good laugh. There is no "promise of elevated future earning power". By the time people complete a PhD (if they're able to living in poverty with all that affects) someone who joined a commercial operation could have climbed the greasy pole and have something companies value more than a PhD - years of experience in the real world and a proven track record in the commercial world. Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 10:18
  • @StephenG-HelpUkraine then make your choices accordingly. Some people make a different choice. You wanted to understand how the market pricing of these positions works and I explained that. I make no claims regarding the rights and wrongs of the salaries on offer, nor of what I myself judge to be a good choice of career path. Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 11:49
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In my experience, most professors are already very well aware that PhD and postdoc salaries - aside from a few exceptions - can't compete with industry. This is the sad reality of academia. There's nothing wrong with referring to this: salary is a fundamental decision factor.

If nothing else, your response may give them munition for requesting better funding of PhD programs at the department. "See, Mr. Dean, I had the perfect candidate for this program, and he only refused because of the salary! We have to give them more money, or we lose everyone to industry!

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