I have accepted a PhD offer from a very good university to do a project very close to my interests. I have told the project supervisor I accept it. In the meanwhile I have managed to secure a PhD offer from another 2 universities much better in world rankings and with better research groups and better faculty. Additionally these 2 universities do research exactly on what I want to devote my PhD research.

My only commitment to the first university is a mail confirming I accept. Nothing else. I understand declining the offer after already having accepted it is quite dishonest but it is a huge decision that will affect my future in a very significant level.

I would like your opinion and I would also like to ask for possible consequences of such an action. As far a postdocs concerned, in the first university there is no chance I ever get a postdoc since they do not actually do research on my area (except for the prospective supervisor and even he not as much).

UPDATE I have decided to do as I was afraid to. I have decided to choose a different university than the first one that I have already accepted the offer. My offer acceptance included:

  • An online "I accept" statement.
  • An e-mail I sent stating "I accept the scholarship and this University is my first option"

I do not have any legal commitments since I have not signed anything. The supervisor of the first university though is really nice to me and continuously was sending me mails. How do I very nicely tell her I will not be joining in the end? Additionally the place I will go in the end will be for research in Mathematics and not Physics. Can I use this as a part of a sensical excuse?


I think that I should let people, especially other beginning grad students know what happened with my case. I have chosen to nicely tell the first university I got accepted that I will not be attending and will not be pursuing a PhD there since I decided I have different research interests (which is true). I had applied there in the first place since I was not sure what I wanted to do and because it was a nice program. Despite that, I got an offer from a World top university to work on 100% my research interests. I explained this to them, the first uni, and they happily let me go and wished me good luck, especially the supervisor who faught a lot secure me funding. I was lucky.

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    No signature on a contract (or the enrollment form, whatever) = no commitment from your side. The people at the first university know this, and they will move on with life. – dgraziotin Mar 6 '15 at 15:31
  • "Accept" on the university webpage counts? – Marion Mar 6 '15 at 16:50
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    I know of a person who accepted an offer, and never showed up, never responded to emails etc. He is now a professor at a top University doing good work. However, despite all this, he will not be invited to the University he snubbed to give a talk any time soon and he in some circles has a very bad name because of his behavior. As long as you let them know now there probably won't be any problems. However, if you wait until after the deadline for acceptance or you simply do not show up, you may be forever hated by some potentially powerful people in your field. – WetlabStudent Mar 7 '15 at 19:23
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    @Marion "Accept" on the university webpage does not count. Of course, it was implicit to me that you will offer them a nice, apologetic, on time email to inform them of you decision, as all other comments/answers mention. – dgraziotin Mar 9 '15 at 9:47
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    No, I had applied to all institutions beforehand. As far as the ethics, I understand it. Additionally, the second institution I want to join instead of the first one is not only much bigger and more significant but I would also be doing 100% the research I want, unlike the first one where I would not do quite what I want. – Marion Mar 28 '15 at 13:20

I am assuming you are going to go to the better place, so asking our opinion is rhetorical.

The consequences depend on the people at the university: if they are reasonable folks, they should understand. But you never know.

You should do your best to make it as painless as possible FOR THEM. My suggestion is that you should decide where you want to go, and accept there. And the AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, send a very very nice and very very apologetic letter to the person you had said yes to, explaining that you have decided to go elsewhere. The key here is "as soon as possible" so they have the opportunity to offer acceptance to someone else -- that will lesson any annoyance they have.

  • Thanks a lot. Yes, obviously I will go to what I consider better place but I want to make sure that I will have no legal or academic consequences. – Marion Mar 6 '15 at 22:58
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    I can't speak to legal consequences (I'm no lawyer; and I don't know exactly what you replied to or what the expectations are at that school). There could be negative consequences, esp if for some reason this person you are changing your mind on gets mad. But, speaking only for myself, I wouldn't hold it against you. If you never told us and just didn't show up, or waited till after the acceptance deadline and then changed your mind, we'd be more annoyed. But some people hold grudges. So, who knows. – Blair MacIntyre Mar 6 '15 at 23:10
  • Hi again. Exactly this is the problem. I have accepted already there and I will change my mind after the deadline. – Marion Mar 7 '15 at 9:59
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    Try to be as nice and apologetic as possible. Do it asap if you know you are going to! – Blair MacIntyre Mar 7 '15 at 13:42
  • Again thanks a lot. I appreciate your advice. – Marion Mar 7 '15 at 14:19

Most US universities with serious graduate programs are signatories to the Council of Graduate Schools Resolution Regarding Graduate Scholars, Fellows, Trainees and Assistants, which pertains to situtations in which graduate acceptance comes with an offer of TA and/or RA support. This resolution explicitly allows students to retract acceptances made prior to April 15th, but not after April 15th:

In those instances in which a student accepts an offer before April 15, and subsequently desires to withdraw that acceptance, the student may submit in writing a resignation of the appointment at any time through April 15. However, an acceptance given or left in force after April 15 commits the student not to accept another offer without first obtaining a written release from the institution to which a commitment has been made.

This is not to say that programs will be happy to hear that you have retracted your acceptance, only that you have every right to do so as long as you do this before April 15th.

  • This does not apply to me since all my institutions are in the UK. Any help with this? – Marion Mar 28 '15 at 21:04
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    @Marion Unfortunately, I do not know about the conventions or regulations in the UK. – Corvus Mar 29 '15 at 3:11

Of course this a tremendous decision, and one that will likely stay with you for the rest of your life. Trust me, while the folks at this institution are likely of a particular kind of 'good' sort, I would bet a boatload of money that each of the committee members that accepted you would likely do what was best for them should they have ever found themselves in your shoes. The worst possible scenario is that if you've paid some sort of deposit, you will likely not see this returned. Also, in the future, should you seek employment at this institution, you might find yourself in a precarious situation should one of these committee members find themselves on a search committee for a position you're interested in (unlikely). Perhaps the most disheartening impact will be felt by way of having to explain to those you might have already told that you'd be attending this particular institution about your change of mind. Rest assured, they will not judge you, and if they are in fact true friends, family, or kin, they'll unconditionally support your decision. Hope this helps..

  • Hello jayburg, yes it helps a lot. I have assumed all the above as well and since I will not be seeking employment at that institution (since it does not do research on what I want to work on) it is highly unlikely to seek employment there after my PhD (for postdoc) or for a higher position. I will have to send a very apologetic letter and hopefully they will not be very mad. – Marion Mar 7 '15 at 10:01
  • By the way, they made me state in my acceptance of the scholarship the following: I do accept the scholarship as my first choice and I do not have any other scholarships from other places". I stated this in an e-mail. Is it possible to have any consequences if in the end I choose a different place? – Marion Mar 11 '15 at 12:49
  • You are worrying too much. No one will remember you in a year's time. – Calchas Mar 12 '15 at 0:49

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