When I went for my very first PhD interview by a potential supervisor, I hadn't applied for other universities. I promised that supervisor that I would definitely work under his supervisor if I was given an opportunity. He told me that he had a bad experience of a student replacing him with another supervisor after 1 yr of phd course. So he repeatedly ensured that I would work with him. But now I have been offered a place there. Before getting the offer, I applied for two better universities and I have been waiting for the results of these two uni and I need to decide whether to accept or reject the offer by the first uni before I have known the results of the other two.

Please advise me what I should do. Is it unethical if I turn down the offer after giving such a promise? I know it is risky to wait for the other results if I will be rejected in other two.

  • 3
    You've put yourself in a difficult position. On one hand, you should pursue the course of research that is best for your career development. On the other hand, if you go elsewhere, you've established the value of your word: very little.
    – Corvus
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 16:54
  • 3
    I would definitely work. That is a strong statement you made. Academia is a small world and as in any workplace, being responsible for your own actions applies there too.
    – Sathyam
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 18:59
  • In addition to my answer below, consider the following story
    – Cliff AB
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 0:17

2 Answers 2


You should have been cautious with your word, especially since your prospective supervisor told you about prior disappointment. Being noncommittal would have been more unpleasant, but more honest and giving you more leeway.

On the other hand, the supervisor might have put you under pressure and you caved (depending when s/he told you the story with the other student).

I do not see a "good" outcome unless you are lucky to get turned down immediately, so that you immediately know to go for your original offer. That not being the case, the other outcomes are bad, even dire (waiting for response, being rejected, the superviser then realising that s/he was only a substitute).

I do not know you, but my hypothesis would be that you were inexperienced; but the damage is done. So, all that I can recommend is that you should consider whether, ignoring for a moment the quality of the university (which is the reason you want to leave), you would like to work with that supervisor and on the topics s/he represents, all other aspects of the positions on offer being equivalent. Reflecting on that may help you make up your mind.

  • 1
    "You should have been cautious with your word": perhaps, but more so, I think the professor should not have tried to exploit desperation and lack of knowledge. If I was reviewing a potential new student/employee/etc. and I was fully informed of this situation (assuming the student breaks their word), I would never judge them negatively for this.
    – Cliff AB
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 17:37
  • @cliffab I did indicate that ("might have put you under pressure"). However, also professors are human and the fact that s/he was disappointed about the previous student leaving her hanging made him/her anxious to keep this one; and perhaps it's an inexperienced prof, either. It is very difficult to make a judgement of ethics (rather than wisdom) in this case without further information. Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 18:29
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    the professor may not have meant to be unkind. But they are still responsible for putting the applicant in an extremely unfair situation.
    – Cliff AB
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 18:34
  • 3
    As a bit of a side note, the fact that the professor is worried about students abruptly stopping working with them and their solution is to ask the students to further restrict their own choices as a solution is a very bad sign. You cannot blame an uninformed, unsure applicant for not recognizing the problems in the moment.
    – Cliff AB
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 18:40
  • @CliffAB has a point with his warning sign. So the OP should scout his original prospective supervisor carefully ("Caveat Doctor"), independently of whether the other options go through. Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 21:50

In my humble opinion, you should go to which ever university you want to attend.

If the professor really meant in his offer that "I'll vouch for entering the program if you don't consider your other opportunities", that is an extremely unfair offer on their part. Quite frankly, I would not feel guilty breaking a promise that was given under such circumstances.

From what you've stated, I think a better interpretation of what the professor said is "If you decide to attend this university, I would very much like to work with you and if that sounds like a good idea to you, I'll stick my neck out for you during the review process". Well, if you ultimately decide not to go to that university, no promise broken.

One thing to understand is that grad students and post-docs often are put in a somewhat marginalized situations, and professors directly benefit from this; you will do a lot work for them and can't really just up and leave like at a normal job if things are not going well. Professors understand that. If they are trying to magnify that effect by asking you to take away some of the few choices you have, well, you really don't want that person as your boss for several years at job you can't leave without huge repercussions.

I've had the good fortune of always working with advisors or PI's that understood the dynamic and were very considerate of me viewing my options, even at costs to them. I cannot imagine anyone of them offering the first interpretation of the professor's offer.

As such, I really think that the professor intended the second interpretation. And if not, well, at least it has revealed that you don't want to work with them.

  • "I'll vouch for entering the program if you don't consider your other opportunities" is exactly what happens in the US at the undergraduate level with early acceptance.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 19:33
  • @StrongBad: fair enough. But part of that is saying "here's a special deal, with a hook". This situation doesn't sound like a special deal to me.
    – Cliff AB
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 20:27

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