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Suppose a student applies to a few good graduate programmes, but for some reasons, gains an admit in one great school and rejects in a couple of equally good ones. How necessary is it for the student to be truthful about his rejects? There are a couple of circumstances that arise here:

  1. The student is invited to an interview at a school, where he is asked about his applications and decisions. Is it okay to lie that the results are pending? Or that he has been offered admits at a couple of places? It is likely that the student will face a dilemma if he feels the other decisions may affect this one as well.

  2. Is it vital to be truthful at the graduate school you have joined? Is there any mutual communication between administrative sections of all top colleges, which may leave bluffing in bad taste?

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    What is the advantage in trying to bluff the school you are planning to join? As in what possible incentive do you have to lie to them? – Artem Kaznatcheev Mar 17 '12 at 8:30
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    Why lie? It's perfectly acceptable to say "I'd rather not tell you." – JeffE Mar 17 '12 at 20:41
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As someone involved in graduate admissions decisions, I can say unequivocally that knowing a student has been denied admission at another program does not negatively influence my admissions decisions. I have all of the application materials from the student, and (assuming the applicant is strong) the decision is sufficiently important that I will certainly look at and evaluate all those materials. The decision of another school is not a useful indicator of whether I should admit you.

Indeed, if you tell me you have an offer from another top program, I might even be more cautious about offering you admission. Why? If I make all my initial offers to students who end up going to other schools, then I have to go back and dig through the applications and find the ones that didn't already accept an offer, which by that time will be lower quality applicants. I know of one program where this happened last year and they resolved to make more strong offers to the second tier of (still quite strong) applicants this year.

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    I agree with this. A program which is not at the very top of its field will, if anything, be more likely to admit a candidate that they feel is strong upon learning that they have been rejected by a top program. Our goal is to get students who are just or nearly as good as those that go to top programs, and a student who gets admitted to a top program will probably go there. – Pete L. Clark Sep 28 '12 at 3:57
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    On the other hand, if I am doing admissions at a very top program, then I am not looking around to see what the other programs are doing. Harvard doesn't think twice about someone because they got rejected by Princeton; they have the utmost confidence in their own evaluations. – Pete L. Clark Sep 28 '12 at 4:00
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As a first very generic rule, academia is very small world, and it's not unlikely at all that the members of the committee responsible for the interview know if the results for another school have been given or not. They might not know the results, but they might know that you know.

As a second generic rule, lying is extremely badly perceived in academia, where the probity of a scientist is very important. If I were to interview a student, and if I suspect that the student is bluffing or lying, that would be an immediate no-go.

As a third generic rule, competition is normal and welcome in Academia. When you apply for a school, or even later for a position, it's normal and even expected that you will apply to other places. If no-one asks, you don't necessarily have to put on your CV the list of schools from which you've been accepted/rejected, but if the question is asked, there is no shame in telling the truth.

So, long story short, you don't have much to gain by lying or bluffing, but you have a lot to lose.

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    I'd say it more strongly: You should not put on your CV the list of schools from which you've been accepted/rejected; only the school you actually attend. – JeffE Mar 17 '12 at 20:49
  • This is true at the grad school level; however, internationally (or at least here in Germany) faculty jobs turned down do get to go on a CV! – aeismail Mar 17 '12 at 21:13
  • Not in theoretical computer science. Even in Germany. – JeffE Mar 18 '12 at 15:59
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    Also in my field (mathematics) it would be very strange to list on one's CV (or anywhere) acceptances/rejections from programs or offers/non-offers of jobs. You list the schools attended and the jobs you have had, period. I have read thousands of CV's and never seen anything like this. – Pete L. Clark Sep 28 '12 at 4:02
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Personally, I make it a point not to ask about alternate schools and programs that a candidate might be applying to in addition to my group. In this way, there is no bias on my part. If the candidate freely offers that information, I will of course take it into consideration, but I have not solicited it, and therefore there should be no compulsion on the part of the candidate to admit to things, one way or the other.

That said, it's not in general a good idea to lie openly to academic institutions. As several other respondees have pointed out, it can be easily caught—particularly if you're in a small field. Moreover, there have been a number of high-profile cases in recent years of academics losing their jobs over misrepresentations of their credentials. So anything that even hints at dishonesty can get you into trouble. (Moreover, many schools do have an "ethics" clause in their admissions policies—and intentionally lying, either in the application or during interviews or a visit, can be construed in some cases as sufficient to lead to a retraction of an offer of admission!)

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You should be truthful in all your professional endeavors. Lying is unethical and unprofessional behavior which could be grounds for dismissal or worse. I say this as a blanket statement and stand by it, but obviously ethical standards and practices vary across different careers and walks of life. In academia, the feeling that lying is unethical bordering on repugnant is very strong. One should avoid it at all costs.

The fact that you use the word "bluffing" is slightly distressing and shows that you may not yet have internalized the ethics of academia. Bluffing is something you do in poker. More generally, it is a game theoretic strategy designed to minimize information given to one's opponent. Saying that you've been accepted by a program when you have not been -- or, especially, when you have been rejected there -- is not bluffing, it's lying.

People who feel strongly that lying is unethical also well understand that you are not obligated to give full information just because it is asked for. In some social situations an innocuous lie is more acceptable than a refusal to answer a question, but academia is not one of them. If someone asks you for information about your applications to other programs and you have any concerns that it may not be to your advantage to give out this information, simply say something like, "I'm sorry, but I'm really not comfortable discussing that right now." As above, sometimes it feels impolite not to answer a question, so it is worth practicing a bit so as to be able to do it in a relatively graceful way.

As for the question of whether different academic programs communicate with each other enough to make it a realistic chance that someone lying in this way will be caught out: absolutely yes. Academic circles are small, are populated by the same people for years and years on end, and almost invariably tend to contain at least a few people who are ridiculously -- almost preternaturally -- in the know about all kinds of personnel decisions.

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One goes to graduate school to work in a field or with a certain researcher. That person, accordingly should have specific enough goals before applying that tweaking a scattershot approach shouldn't apply. In the extreme, you are trying to get into only one place and so the focus is more on developing a relationship with the "target" there.

That said, at least I have found my self in similar situations. As to bluffing. I think the best advice, if you feel the admissions officers are plumbing for advice is to say that you haven't found out yet. The advantage to bluffing is that it makes you look better inasmuch as one school will want another school's candidates.

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    I strongly disagree with your first paragraph. In any given subfield, there are dozens of strong departments, and lots of successful PhD students change subfields after they start. It's perfectly okay to not know what you want to do before you've even been deeply exposed to anything. – JeffE Mar 17 '12 at 20:48
  • I agree with JeffE: the first paragraph is quite different from my experience, and those of many of my peers. I had absolutely no idea for whom I'd work as a grad student, beyond knowing that I wanted to do theory and simulation, not experiments. Many students are similar—it's unlikely that they know "the one" whom they want to work for before they even begin applying. – aeismail Mar 17 '12 at 22:44
  • @JeffE, aeismail: Thanks for your comments and it does seem that we disagree. Perhaps we're talking about different aspects of the elephant. Like you two I had no idea where I'd wind up working. I think, if one can, it helps to have a directed approach perhaps building on an undergraduate experience. On the other hand, committing to a lab based on how it looks on paper can set up someone for a rude awakening. – mac389 Mar 18 '12 at 16:26
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    Nobody's saying work based on just what's written on a web site or reputation alone. You should have a sense of what you're doing, and why you're going to work for someone (or go to a particular school). An undergrad experience could tell you that you like research, but not in a particular field. That's perfectly okay (and that's how I realized I wanted to go to grad school!) – aeismail Mar 18 '12 at 16:47

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