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I recently declined a really good PhD offer in the US for another offer from an American university and I'm terribly regretting it now.

I made my decision on the 15th of April and it's past deadline now. I really want to go to the other school and since the 15th of April was the last working day, I'm hoping that they haven't offered my position to any other aspirant yet. I know this is ethically wrong but I feel miserable about my decision and want to contact the university and ask them if they can still accommodate me.

As far as the other university is concerned I have only accepted their offer through an email and haven't formally been given the final offer letter yet. Should I go ahead with this?

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    You don't lose anything by asking. The worst that could happen is that the university will deny your request. – Aditya Apr 17 '16 at 15:18
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    Why do you regret your original choice? – Aaron Hall Apr 17 '16 at 18:31
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    I once broke things off with my girlfriend, only to regret it the next day and beg her to take me back. Which she did, but within a couple months it became apparent that we both would have been better off if we'd stayed broken up the first time. Just some food for thought. – user37208 Apr 17 '16 at 19:33
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    What makes you say this is "ethically wrong"? Maybe your ethics are different from mine, but I don't see how it could be unethical to ask. They are free to accept or refuse, and you're certainly not coercing them. At worst you would annoy them slightly, but that's not an ethical breach. – Nate Eldredge Apr 18 '16 at 3:06
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    @NateEldredge I believe they are referring to withdrawing their acceptance of the other school's offer. Which is still not unethical if done within a few days, just kind of annoying. – Namey Apr 18 '16 at 5:33
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You had a reason to decline. Has the reason evaporated? Why are you changing your mind? You should need to have a good response for that, both for yourself as well as to the place you apply to. As a superviser, I had students changing mind back and fro, which I understand - it's a big decision, and not all information may be available. However, keep in mind that your originally offered position, as stated elsewhere, may have been already given to someone else.

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Dude I am an old guy and here is my advice:

  • Never be shy to ask for things you don't know.
  • Accept the fact that you are an imperfect being. You made mistakes, and will make mistakes.
  • Be open to hear others views, and take moment to digest their words to fully understand their perspective.

Therefore it is totally normal to email the university back with full honesty and tell them that you changed your mind.

BUT before you do that, think twice, thrice or even more. You have already done a mistake for being too quick. Don't be too quick again. At least learn.

To me it seems that maybe you are unstable and change your mind too quickly. Let me blame you a bit: before deciding too quickly, why didn't you just email them back and simply ask "I would appreciate some time to think. Could you please let me know the deadline for my response? Thanks."?

Lesson #1 when you are at a point in time where you need to make a choice, usually the best decision to evaluate and perform is the following:

  • Evaluate if it's possible to postpone the decision (you might need to ask questions to ensure whether it's possible to postpone the decision).
  • If it's possible to postpone, then postpone it so that you have more time to think and make a better decision.

Of course, some times it is not possible to postpone a decision because time matters. That's why you need to first evaluate the possibility (or even more accurately: the cost associated with postponing it; if the cost is low, and the value from a more reliable decision is high, then dude postpone it!).

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    I would add that additional time to think is only worth if you expect to get additional information in this time slot. It is an extremely helpful skill to make decisions based on the available information (and estimating which additional information could influence the decision and how probably it is to get this information). – Dirk Apr 18 '16 at 7:41
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    @Dirk true, and that's a special case of my last paragraph where I relate"cost of postponing" to "value gained from more reliable decisions". – caveman Apr 18 '16 at 8:07
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    I love this advice. – user3564421 Apr 18 '16 at 8:12
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    Wow I always thought cavemen were very wise and boy was I right! – Hanky Panky Apr 18 '16 at 9:52
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    Just as my favorite chess lecturer would say: "Think, don't rush. When you find a good move, look for a better one." – Pedro A Apr 18 '16 at 12:17
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I don't have much experience of US PhD programs, but in the UK it would be quite likely that the place you declined would have been offered to the next candidate almost immediately after you declined it. Again from a UK perspective, it would also give a somewhat unfavorable impression that you declined and then changed your mind. A potential worry for the University making the offer would be that you might change your mind again at a later point.

You don't mention your reasons for declining the offer the first time, I would reflect on these before doing anything further or in haste.

Having said all that, if after reflection you still feel that it was a mistake to decline the offer, I would suggest informally contacting the University where you declined the offer and asking if there is any possibility for you to change your mind. If you don't ask, you'll never know.

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    I don't know about the U.K., but many Ph.D. programs in the U.S. don't have a waitlist to pull more candidates from at the last minute, so they would either have been taken or just left empty. – Mehrdad Apr 17 '16 at 17:30
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    I'd be surprised if most PhD programs didn't have a waitlist. Even colleges that admit thousands have waitlists to deal with year-to-year fluctuations in acceptance rates. Consider that Poisson statistics alone could easily obliterate an entire cohort in a department whose average PhD class size is 5 people. – user4512 Apr 17 '16 at 20:44
  • To play devil's advocate, some PhD programs might not have a waitlist because they mentally eliminate candidates and don't always need to meet a quota. So they might decide just to wait until next year if they don't get who they want. I'd still say this is rare, and there would be a waitlist around. – Namey Apr 18 '16 at 5:36
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    @ChrisWhite: Note that I said "many", not "most". Many have a waitlist, and many don't, and I don't know what the ratio is to say which one is the majority. It can depend on the field, the rank, and the department itself. You won't necessarily find information about this officially stated in every school publicly. – Mehrdad Apr 18 '16 at 8:22
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    My (U.S.) university actually has (or had) a policy that even if you deny their offer, go to another place, and after a year decide that that place sucks, they will still consider taking you. – Peter Kravchuk Apr 18 '16 at 21:42
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I declined a PhD offer from one university and accepted an offer from another. It was a very difficult decision and I later regretted it (and still do). It made my whole experience of the PhD quite miserable because I regretted my decision. You are making a commitment to spend several years of your life in one place. It is not an easy decision. I would just ask. I think people will understand.

  • +1 for having been in the same situation (and it sucks). – anomaly Apr 18 '16 at 14:46
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Do try contacting the department, or if you can't, contact your prospective adviser if you know who that is. I believe I have heard of students in the U.S. who have made such a mistake and then reversed it through contacting the department.
Departments who care will not have chosen their students lightly -- they will have put in a ton of effort on the students that have been accepted and will want them to come.
So if all that stands between you joining them is 1 click, they'll probably help you fix the mistake. Note that I would not contact the university for a Ph.D. admissions matter -- the department plays a heavy role and has a lot of power and a lot more incentive to make this happen for you.

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There are a lot of questions, especially on academia, that only exist because the person asking the question has completely overthought the problem. It seems a lot of people in academia tend to do that, rather than using 'gut feel' or 'common sense'.

Now deep down I think you know that this question is just an excuse to postpone what you know you have to do.

I can answer a lot of questions on this site very simply - be OPEN and HONEST with the university. If you are really regretting not taking their offer and deep down you really want to, but you feel guilty for doing so, THEN TELL THEM THAT. Tell them EXACTLY what you wrote in your question.

How do I say this...? Be open and honest. What if my boss thinks this...? Be open and honest. But what if...? Be open and honest. Don't walk on eggshells around everyone - get to the point.

Being honest and open takes balls because when we are not used to opening up to people and being vulnerable it scares us. You are worried about integrity. Integrity is about being honest, open and vulnerable.

  • I don't understand this reply. Clearly the present situation has arisen as a result of the OP underthinking the situation. – reinierpost Apr 20 '16 at 10:13
  • @reinierpost It's not clear to me at all that this is the case. – Armada Apr 20 '16 at 10:41
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You can certainly ask.

You say yourself the program is very desirable. Surely you are not the only one they admitted, and they have a whole list of backup applicants that have been waiting with bated breath for someone to reject the offer. Now that you have, the school would try to promptly notify the person on the waitlist, and that person would reply very quickly that, yes, they'd love to take up the offer. From what I recall, PhD applications are very competitive at the top schools and the stakes are high for applicants.

If the waitlister did indeed reply and and accept the offer, then your ship has definitely sailed. The university cannot go to the person they just said they'd admit, and say, "whoops, nevermind, we're not admitting you after all, go ask the other school you just rejected to take you back". The outrage and loss of reputation would be far greater than telling you "sorry, should have thought about that before rejecting our offer" (though they'll use much nicer language than me, I'm sure).

The offer of admission, and acceptance of that offer (or rejection for that matter) is often considered legally binding. While it rarely makes sense for anyone to actually go to court over something like this, in practice that adds additional gravity and friction to the decision. That is to say, there is a very narrow time window from the time you reject their offer to the time the next applicant on the list takes your spot, and if you miss that window you are almost certainly out of luck. The best you can do is hope to be waitlisted, but even that is doubtful - both due to time, the fact that universities often dislike applicants who reject them, and also that in rejecting their offer you reduce your own desirability as a candidate (who knows, if you changed your mind once you can change it again).

What if you hit this very narrow window? There's two possibilities:

  • If you tell them you changed your mind after they send the email to the waitlister, but before the waitlister replies, I would say your chances are almost as slim. As I said, the offer cannot be easily withdrawn, unlike your asking to renegotiate, which can very easily be refused with no real consequence.
  • If you tell them before they take any action, ie. before they tell the waitlister, then you might have a chance. It comes down to whether that particular program will hold your indecision against you. Some are understanding, because everyone knows the decision is hard and stressful. Some don't want students with even the slightest hint of not being absolutely committed.

On the one hand, you let them know on the 15th, so even the deadline has passed. In theory, all the decisions should have been finalized by now and it's too late for any do-overs. In practice, there's always a few programs that are late, I've heard of people on waitlists linger on into May and then get an offer after all. In addition, it was technically the weekend, so if you send an email now, they should see it first thing in the morning tomorrow... Assuming they don't decide to keep working over the weekends - again, something which while a huge factor, you cannot possibly know.

So in conclusion, it's a bit of gamble with long odds. Can you ask? Sure you can. Should you ask? Well you don't really lose much, so I'd say go ahead and try. Hell go buy a lottery ticket too while you're at it, you never know. But I'd say, whatever you do, don't go to the school you have accepted instead and tell them you won't be attending until you've got a concrete yes from the one you want.

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    "a few programs that are late" I think this vastly underestimates how far behind programs can run, when professors are the ones making the decisions and then relying on department administrators to implement them. Given that the decision was made before the weekend, there's a good shot no action has been taken to even evaluate the Yes/No decisions from the pool and send out offers to the waitlist. How many department admins do you know who work weekends? – Namey Apr 18 '16 at 5:41

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