Say a candidate has met with a potential PhD supervisor and it was rather evident that he would be willing to take on the candidate. You have emailed a lot and met in person a few times, but nothing has been formalised yet.

Suppose now the candidate decides to take it into a different direction simply because there are better options.

What is the most polite way to withdraw ? Is it polite to send an email and explain, or does this come across as arrogant since a PhD candidate is not really in the position to turn down a Professor ? Would it be better simply not to get in touch again ? Is there some standard etiquette in the US and/or the UK ?

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    In the second sentence you change from talking about "you" to talking about "the candidate". It's confusing. – Dave Clarke Nov 20 '12 at 22:07
  • are you going to another supervisor within the same school? or going to another school?.. Also, are you formally accepted and started your degree? I think such information is important. – seteropere Nov 20 '12 at 22:08
  • @DaveClarke thanks, I've tried to make it a bit more intelligible ! – Beltrame Nov 20 '12 at 22:32

Just send a polite email stating that you found another position or that you simply prefer to take a different direction. Be sure to thank the professor for the time he has put into you. The email does not have to be long, but it should give a reason. You do not need to be overly elaborate, though. And don't forget to be polite.

The thing you do not realise is that the professor wants to find a student who will be committed to his topic for several years to come. If you are not such a student, it is best for the professor to know that before taking you on as a student. In a sense, you are doing the professor a favour by withdrawing.

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    I would add to that, don't burn your bridges. It is a delicate thing to do but I would try to leave the door open as a person to be in your network. – Herman Toothrot Nov 20 '12 at 22:47
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    I strongly second @user4050's suggestion. Academia is a very small place. You will meet this professor again. Make sure he remembers you fondly. – Stephan Kolassa Nov 21 '12 at 14:25

I had to write a few such letters in the past and the best way is to simply and politely let them know that you've decided to go in a different direction. Professors (should) understand that you're looking at a few options during this courting process so in my case, I also mentioned which Professor I ended up working for.

As @user4050 alludes to, I knew that the other professor would be in the same building as I. Thus, it was extremely important to not burn any bridges. I mentioned something along the lines that I hope that our paths would cross again and that we would continue to interact. To this day, if their lab needed anything from mine, I was usually the point person.

This advice is also true when corresponding with Professors of other Universities while looking at potential graduate schools and post-doc advisors. The world is small enough and I have certainly crossed paths with former potential advisors at conferences.

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    And the nice part about it is that if the professor has an open mind or a little time you could probably offer a co-authorship in one of your papers and build an actual working relationship. Of course this might only be done with one of the professors you have declined the offer and it might be rare. You can also say that it has been a difficult decision to make and appreciate the time and effort they put into you. – Herman Toothrot Nov 26 '12 at 23:39

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